Prince of Foxes (1947): Samuel Shellabarger

★★★★½

Shortly after I finished the excellent Blood & Beauty, this historical novel about Renaissance Italy popped up in my automatic recommendations. The author and title were both unfamiliar and, when I realised that it was again about the Borgias, I was tempted to pass: I had no plans to read another novel on the subject so soon. However, as the reviews were glowing, I persuaded myself to give it a chance; and I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of it.

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The Phoenix Guards (1991): Steven Brust

★★★★

The Khaavren Romances: Book I

Young Khaavren is a gentleman, a Tiassa, who has neither land nor titles but who dreams of making a glorious name for himself in the service of the Empire. Heading to the city in order to join the Emperor’s elite force of Phoenix Guards, he falls into company with three similarly ambitious young people: a proud, belligerent Dzur named Tazendra; a discreet, contemplative Lyorn called Aerich; and an elegant, chivalrous Yendi called Pel. When these four are sworn into the Red Boot Battalion of the Phoenix Guard, they become firm friends, sworn to protect the good of the Empire and, more importantly, one another.

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The Sea Hawk (1915): Rafael Sabatini

★★★

First things first: I hope you all had a marvellous Christmas and a very happy New Year. I’ve spent a thoroughly self-indulgent few weeks with my family and am now looking forward to getting my teeth into 2014. End of year review posts and New Year’s resolutions are popping up all over the place and it’s been great to see which books captured everyone’s imagination (or failed to), and the various challenges people have in store for the coming months. Here at The Idle Woman there aren’t any planned challenges, which is to say that life will tick along much as usual: a mixture of the characteristic and the utterly random. And so: to the books!

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The Prisoner of Zenda (1894): Anthony Hope

★★★½

It’s high time for another swashbuckler, as a busy period looms at work. This time the book in question is a much-loved classic which I should really have read years ago. First published in 1894 (my copy was given to ‘Gladys W. Silva from Dorothy & Jack, Xmas 1895’), this wonderful romp hasn’t aged nearly as much as you might expect. It’s a deliciously fast-paced tale of disguise, secret identities, wicked plots, noble heroes and dastardly villains. Like Scaramouche, this was something that I finally decided to try when I saw that Helen had been reading it (I have to thank Helen for a lot of swashbuckling goodness). That was a full year ago, which gives you some idea of how easily I’m distracted where books are concerned. However, good things come to those who wait…

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Frenchman’s Creek (1941): Daphne du Maurier

★★★★

I haven’t read that many of Daphne du Maurier’s books, and in fact hadn’t read any at all until I borrowed Rebecca and Jamaica Inn from the library a couple of years ago. Both captivated me (although The House on the Strand, which I borrowed next, left me rather cold) and I decided to track down Frenchman’s Creek to complement them. I could have predicted that I would love it. Featuring pirates, cavaliers, disguise, adventure and a good dose of old-fashioned romance, it was a self-indulgent joy to read and has entered the Idle Woman Swashbuckling Hall of Fame.

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Captain Fracasse (1863): Théophile Gautier

★★½

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the random swashbuckler of the week! I had never heard of this book, which was recommended automatically to me by LibraryThing, but since the Kindle version was free, I couldn’t resist. It turns out that Captain Fracasse was Gautier’s third full-length novel, published in 1863, nine years before his death. It’s a romantic romp through a picturesque vision of 17th-century France, following a troupe of commedia dell’ arte actors travelling from Gascony to Paris, with a poverty-stricken young nobleman in their midst.

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The Privilege of the Sword (2006): Ellen Kushner

★★★★

I have a list of what I call ‘comfort books’: novels which, in times of stress or sadness, I can curl up with and be reminded that the world is a wonderful place (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one; These Old Shades is another). The Privilege of the Sword, a sequel to Swordspoint, has just joined this very select company. A quote on the back cover of my edition calls it ‘A magical mixture of Dumas and Georgette Heyer‘, which is precisely the right way to describe this gloriously bubbly swashbuckling adventure. Stuffed with duels, romance and intrigue, it also has the kind of feisty, independent heroine I would have adored as a sixteen-year-old. And I adore her even more now: in the intervening twelve years I’ve read enough books to know what a rare kind of heroine she is.

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Purity of Blood (1997): Arturo Pérez-Reverte

★★★½

The Adventures of Captain Alatriste: Book II

In the second book in Pérez-Reverte’s swashbuckling series, we rejoin the eponymous captain and his page Íñigo shortly after the adventure of the two Englishmen recounted in Captain Alatriste. Life has returned to its normal rhythm and the captain is contemplating a return to active service in Flanders; but an encounter with their old friend, the poet don Francisco de Quevedo, raises the prospect of work to be done in Madrid.

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Captain Alatriste (1996): Arturo Pérez-Reverte

★★★★

For the elite, Spain in the 1620s is a world of stately protocol, fine poetry and all the trappings of a great empire: the sun may be setting on Spanish dominance in the New World, but there’s still enough light to enjoy it while it lasts. Outside the insulated world of the court, however, things are very different. For the man on the street, it’s a world of living hand-to-mouth, gossip on street corners and scurrilous sonnets, where every insult is met with steel and where the appearance of gentility (bearing arms, getting good seats at the theatre) is more important than the reality. Into this roistering world of old soldiers, literary priests and jobbing poets comes young, wide-eyed Íñigo, whose mother has sent him to live with his late father’s comrade-in-arms, Captain Alatriste.

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