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Review: The Order of the White Boar by Alex Marchant

On my trip to the UK, I was delighted to spy an exchange between the author Alex Marchant and Richard III on my Twitter account announcing the launch of Alex’s new book.

The King’s Man is the second in “The Order of the White Boar” series about a page in the service of Richard, Duke of Gloucester in the year when he becomes king.

Checking out the title, I saw that the books are written from a Ricardian perspective – that is, from a historical viewpoint of Richard Plantagenet that’s more sympathetic and draws more on the primary documents about his life than on Shakespeare’s play which, while a brilliant play, is in no way a documentary.

Interest in history’s true Richard has grown since his bones were discovered in 2012, giving us a more accurate representation of his ‘deformities’ (he had scoliosis, developed in childhood, but no hunch, withered arm or club foot as generally depicted in Shakespeare).

With my own recent interest in Richard, I naturally made a point of being Leicester on the day of the launch so that I could pick up both books of the series and meet the author. I also met a peregrine by the name of Pilgrim, so it was in all an excellent day.

Of course the icing the cake of that day is that Alex Marchant’s books are very good!

The Order of the White Boar

Young page-in-training, Matthew Wansford, is the eyes through which we are given this possible history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stripped of the ficitonalised villainy of Shakespeare’s deliciously wicked character.

Matthew can be a bit of a hothead, which is the reason he’s been sent from York Minster to Middleham Castle, the home of the Duke of Gloucester and his little family. Within the first page of the book, Matthew has made himself an enemy in Hugh Soulsby, but also a friend, his fellow page, Roger de Kynton.

As Matthew learns his role and makes friends in the castle, he gets to know the Duke and Duchess, their physically fragile son, Edward, as well as  Alys Langdown, a young lady under the care of Richard and Ann, but who is a ward of Queen Elizabeth.  We see a Richard who is a good steward of his lands, beloved of the north, a great soldier in his brother the King’s service and a devoted father and husband. We also see some of his cares and burdens in a time rife with treachery, political uncertainty and the walking-on-eggshells need to find stability in the fractious York vs Lancaster lines.

But none of this is told heavily or laden with trite or obvious exposition. Marchant’s writing is light and well-paced, with enough period detail for atmosphere without ever belabouring the point.

We meet Matthew, his friends and these people from history as people, and get to know both fictions and real figures with all their strengths and flaws. You almost forget what’s coming.

But this is fiction drawn from history, so everything is tinged with the dark melancholy of knowing how the framing story ends.

For all that the history of the Wars of the Roses forms the backdrop, the story is very much about Matthew’s world, which interescts with greatness and with the times, but also with his own fears, ambitions, faults and gifts. We may know what’s coming for his Duke, but what will Matthew’s fate be? Or that of Roger and Alys, or of the bully Hugh?

Through Matthew’s eyes, the complicated period where King Edward IV gained, lost and regained the throne is uncovered slowly.  Marchant uses her knowlege of the period to write a very plausible history of what happened in the year leading to the death of King Edward. The result is a new perspective, fabulously written, fast-paced, and full of action and character.

Whatever your thoughts on Richard III, The Order of the White Boar is a terrific book, which I loved and promptly went on to devour the sequel, The King’s Man.

The King’s Man

The Order of the White Boar left Middleham Castle in turmoil after the death of King Edward. The King’s Man is another cracking read as it takes Matt, his friends and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, into the darkening future.

As the last book ended, Matthew’s hot temper and Hugh Soulsby’s entitled bullying have landed Matt in strife.

The King’s Man begins with Matthew joining Duke Richard on the road to London, where the Duke, named as Protector by his late brother the King, intends to protect the young boy king-in-waiting from the ambitions of his Lancastrian relatives, the Woodvilles.

Matthew is soon to be separated from his friends and master, but he keeps in touch with events through letters and by paying attention as he becomes apprenticed to a new master in the capital.  Rumours and plots swirl about, and sometimes facts, as Matthew sees the Duke begin as Protector and then, as parliament declares King Edward’s children illegitime, Richard becomes King – then suffering betrayal and loss after betrayal and loss.

Matthew suffers losses as well, and it’s still through his eyes that we experience  the confusion and tumult of this fraught period. Matthew’s flaws still cause him trouble, but his loyalties give him strength and purpose too.

As the inevitable story unfolds of the reign of Richard III, the fate of Matthew and his friends remain the centre around which the whole revolves. Matthew becomes witness to great tragedies, but by the end he’s also witness to the truth of one of the great historical mysteries – what really happened to the Princes in the Tower?

Where The Order of the White Boar skipped along with intrigue and only a tinge of melancholy, The King’s Man has a darker tone. It’s still splendidly written, crafting a believable world full of characters who matter to you.  And because they matter, this story is hard on the heart – not only for the people we know history laid low, but for the fictional characters whose fates are unclear.

My heart broke for Matthew’s breaking heart as these fates unfold. We may know them, but every loss is fresh and terrible to him, and Marchant’s writing keeps them fresh and terrible to us, too.

But she doesn’t leave us only feeling his losses – she gives us Matthew’s loyalty too, his determination to help the people he loves, and new dangers to overcome. New ways to honour the promises he’s made to his King.

This is a book full of action, heart, fire and hope. A cracking read, and I highly recommend it.

Buy these books!

The books are available at the King Richard III Centre in Leicester and at the Bosworth Battlefield historical site, as well as the following online bookstores.

Buy The Order of the White Boar

Buy The King’s Man

Follow Alex Marchant

Review: The Midnight Quill Trio by Emily Larkin

We all know I’m a Larkin fan, having previously gibbered excitedly about the books in her Baleful Grandmother series of regency romances with a magical element.

I’ve discovered I can always count on Emily Larkin for partnerships of equals: honourable men with heart and brains, and vulnerabilities of their own; women of humour, intelligence and courage, with determined agency even when they’re restricted by society and economic dependence. If I’ve had a rough week, I’ll always reach for Emily Larkin or Tansy Rayner Roberts.

Larkin’s non-magic regency romances are just as delightful, and I recently devoured the novel and two novellas in the ‘Midnight Quill’ series.

The Countess’s Groom

The series begins with a novella set in 1763, The Countess’s Groom, in which a terribly abused young wife is falls in love with her groom, Will Fenmore, who is trying desperately to save her from her brute of a husband without ruining her. The Countess, Rose, is just as imprisoned in her vile husband’s absence by her maid Boyle.

It’s not all down to Will, however. Rose finds courage and determination, and slowly learns to trust the giant but gentle Will. She learns from him, too, that love, and making love, can be tender and joyful.

Larkin always paces her stories perfectly, with just enough detail, just enough danger, to keep the heart racing, even though you know love will win.

Throughout her trials, Rose keeps a diary of her experiences, from the abuse at the hands of the Count, to her blooming under Will’s loving touches. She keeps quite explicit details, and it’s this diary, hidden away in the walls of her room, which is found and made good use of in the novel-length story of the trio.

The Spinster’s Secret

Set in 1815, The Spinster’s Secret sees Edward Kane returning from war, his face and hand disfigured from his wounds at Waterloo. He comes to the grim Creed Hall to return the worldly goods that belonged to his dear friend Toby, Strickland who died before his eyes in the battle.

Circumstance leads Edward to make a rash promise to Sir Arthur Strickland – Sir Arthur has found that a scurrilous author lives in his town! Disgusted, he wants the perpetrator found, exposed and driven from the too-appropriately named Soddy Morton. He thinks the poor writer, whoever it is, should be left in peace (and after all, the Cherie stories do no harm) but he’s honour-bound now.

Which is awkward, considering who it is.

Sir Arthur’s niece, Matilda Chapple, is Toby’s beloved cousin. She’s considered too tall, too rangy and too plain to be a catch for anyone. Her natural wit, warmth and intelligence oppressed by the puritanical strictures of the household, she has a plan to earn enough money to set up an orphange school and escape. And she’s doing it with the aid of the diary of the former Countess and its explicit content.

In fact, Mattie is anonymously writing the very popular and very sensual ‘memoir’ of Cherie. The fact that Mattie’s a virgin matters not at all, as between the diary and one or two other saucy books, she’s making it all up very nicely. That is, until her publisher asks her to write the story of how the fictional Cherie lost her virginity to her dear, late husband.

Matilda is a clever, resourceful, strong willed and determined young woman, so never doubt she’ll find a way.

Larkin, as always, weaves a wonderful story with characters of depth and charm. Edward and his friend Gareth, who lost an arm at Waterloo, are both dealing with what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress as a result of the horrors of that battlefield.

One thing I always appreciate about Larkin’s books is that her women may be strong or soft, frightened or bold, sporty or delicate, but they are never less than whole people, just as her heroes aren’t all alpha, and have their own fears and doubts as well as strengths and courage.

Both Edward and Mattie have their difficulties to bear, their obstacles to overcome. As the reader, you fear Mattie’s discovery as the writer of these erotic fictions, and want her to succeed in completing her manuscript so that she can fulfil her ambitions of independence. Butyou also want the love that’s growing between her and Edward to find expression without any dishonesty between them.

Larkin brings an ending which is true to both those things, and made me very happy with the balance.

I actually read The Spinster’s Secret before The Countess’s Groom, and neither suffered from being read out of order. (Larkin says in the trilogy forward that many people read them this way.) However, the third book in the series should definitely be the last to read, as it has spoilers in it for The Spinster’s Secret.

The Baronet’s Bride

The last story in the series is the novella, The Baronet’s Bride, dealing with the wedding night of two of the secondary characters from The Spinster’s Secret.

Gareth Locke lost his arm at Waterloo, and he’s still struggling to cope with the loss as well as the ongoing pain. But he’s determined to show no pain, no doubt, no weakness to his new bride, Cecily, whom he met at the dire Creed Hall. Cecily has been married before, which is a relief. That should make things easier.

Cecily, who was married for two weeks before her husband died in an accident, so her experience really isn’t what Gareth thinks it is. Cecy’s general view is that sex is a painful, messy, unpleasant thing that you endure for the sake of the man you love (who seems to enjoy the messy experience) and to have babies.

Those two attitudes are going to meet head-on in the most awkward wedding night ever.

Larkin of course can be trusted to write them out of the awkwardness towards gentler understanding and then a night of caring, loving, joyful passion. The whole night takes nine chapter but, oh, what chapters they are!

The three stories are available separately or bundled as the Midnight Quill Trio. I highly recommend all three if you like smart, funny regency romance full of well-rounded characters and charm.

Buy Midnight Quill Trio