A ‘Splendid’ Novel
In the mid 1980’s I was living near Banbury, Oxfordshire and by chance came across a copy of ‘A Splendid Defiance’ written by Stella Riley. I remember reading it and then taking a walk through the town in an effort to track the routes she described. It wasn’t difficult. Nothing had changed in the layout, from the street names to the Reindeer inn and even the Globe room. All was immaculately captured in what I consider one of the best Civil War novels I’ve ever read.
This book is a sheer delight from the start to finish with an outstanding finale and because of it Stella Riley has become one of my favourite writers.
So, following the publication of her previous works on e-reader, I am absolutely delighted that she has now republished this book.
Set in 1644, the book describes the siege when some 300 Royalists held out against 3500 plus Parliamentarians for close on 4 months before Charles 1 was able to send a relief force.
The book starts with the hero Justin Ambrose who has been sent to Banbury as punishment because of an indiscreet remark about George Digby whose advice King Charles mistakenly followed throughout the war. Bored and irritable, Justin’s character is utterly believable as he demonstrates his frustration at not being in the front line of battle whilst still maintaining his position as a professional soldier and also his steadfast belief in the Royalist campaign.
In the town lives Jonas Radford along with his wife, mother, brother and sister, Abby. Jonas is a well to do merchant as well as a firebrand Puritan who rules over the household with a rod of iron.
The lifting of the 1644 siege allows the town to become more stable and gives Justin the opportunity to meet Abby. It also allows him to come across Jonas – to whom he takes an instant dislike. This serves well for later as the relationship between him and Abby develops.
However, against this is the real Civil War and Ms Riley does not lose sight of the true events and the real people. We hear about Marston Moor plus other conflicts in these turbulent times. We meet and speak with Price Rupert of the Rhine, his brother Prince Maurice and John Lilburne plus many lesser-known figures including Sir William Compton, barely 20 years old but commanding the Garrison.
The way in which the real events are intertwined with the relationship between Justin and Abby is glorious. I thought the story lines, supported by Justin’s own family issues, were really well conceived; the scene with Justin and Hannah Rhodes was gripping and the love scenes between himself and Abby gave me a frisson - quite delectable.
So when the second siege begins, the inevitable surrender of the Garrison occurs and true love prevails, we are set for a finale that is probably one of the best and most emotional moments I have ever read.
Without giving too much away, I suggest that you have a tissue to hand.
I particularly liked Ms Riley’s final paragraph in her historical notes:
‘Banbury Castle was one of many such strongholds, held against tremendous odds and at enormous cost by ordinary men whose names are scarcely remembered now. This book is a small tribute to some of them.’
Well done Ms Riley. Another outstanding piece thankfully republished on e-reader. Please keep them coming.
Wonderful … that’s the only way I can start this review of Stella Riley’s latest novel, The Black Madonna, the first of a series covering the whole of the English Civil War.
I read it when first published in the late 1980’s but, thanks to e-publishing, Stella Riley has decided to not only upload her works onto the Internet but more importantly revise and amend them - with excellent results.
I make no apologies for saying this but, to me, Stella Riley is one of the best and most underrated novelists currently writing, not only English Civil War books, but also Georgian novels.
From the moment I started reading the prologue set in Vittorio Falcieri’s villa, Genoa I fell in love once again with the book’s leading man, Luciano Del Santi - a master-goldsmith and money-lender. Handsome, elegant, delightful, clever, articulate, cunning … ladies, he has it all and more.
Thereafter, Stella starts her tale of revenge and pursuit – made possible by the Black Madonna, a small statue of carved obsidian which, as Luciano states, ‘has no intrinsic value’ but is of vast sentimental worth to both him and his wealthy Genoese uncle.
The book begins in 1639 and the setting is England on the brink of Civil War. The country is in turmoil and rumour and counter-rumour abound. Families are at odds with each other; father to sons; mothers to daughters; brothers to sisters.
In the Commons sits Richard Maxwell, observing the proceedings and recognising that the disputes between the King and John Pym are now reaching apocalyptic proportions and war is inevitable.
We travel from 1639 through to 1642 and see, again through Richard Maxwell’s eyes, that wonderful moment of sheer historical theatre when the King enters the House of Commons on 5 January to arrest the five members of parliament Pym, Hampden, Haselrig, Strode and Holles and, reaching William Lenthall, says ‘Mr Speaker … I must for a time make bold with your chair.’ Magical and timeless.
However, while parliament is having its dramas, back at Thorne Ash, the home of the Maxwell’s, Richard’s wife Dorothy and his daughter Kate are having their own battle with the local Royalist garrison based in Banbury. And it’s here where we first meet Kate Maxwell, described as … ‘a spirited red-head’, who is more than equal to the various challenges that come her way and vows to hold Thorne Ash against both Cavalier and Roundhead.
Set against this background we meet Luciano del Santi - along with his excellent body guard Selim and his comical factotum, Giacomo. Once introduced into the Maxwell household, the romance between Luciano and Kate begins slowly and though it is rocky at first, the outcome is never in doubt. Now the quest to find the Black Madonna and seek revenge for the person who had his father accused of treason and summarily executed is in full swing.
Covering a span of 5 years with the various twist and turns that keep you guessing as to the identity of the villain, I found the story line compelling and interesting. This is particularly important because while the quest is developing, so is the War, which Stella Riley weaves into the quest seamlessly. We have romance and death. We observe battles and skirmishes; assassination attempts; arson and political intrigue. It’s all there in a sumptuously crafted piece of true theatre.
However, the most important thing throughout this excellent book is the typical Stella Riley style. She writes of people who you can truly believe. We hear them speak; share their secrets; observe their fears; understand their feelings and watch them fall in love. She deals adroitly and articulately with the complex issues of how and why the Civil War began and how it came to one of the most horrific scenes of the whole War, the siege and destruction of Basing House in 1645. This was when Parliament had little sympathy for those they perceived to be Catholic and killed about a quarter of the 400 members of the garrison, including ten priests.
She quotes the words of those that lived and intertwines them with her own deliciously created characters. But more than that she writes with passion and true feeling of how ordinary people must have felt during one of the greatest changes this nation has ever faced - and which has shaped Englad today.
I make no apologies for saying that The Black Madonna is one of the best historical works of fiction I have read. I can only congratulate the author on her work and, if you read this review, I wholeheartedly recommend it to you and your friends. It is simply wonderful. Thank you Stella Riley and I look forward to the next instalment in the series, Garland of Straw.
A 5-Star Gem
Having just read Ms Stella Riley’s ‘Garland of Straw’, which is part 2 of her ‘Roundheads & Cavaliers’ series, I can only say that this book deserves 5 Stars because it is an absolute Gem.
I make no apologies for saying that I am a huge fan of this writer and once again she has not let me down.
Thoroughly well researched and set against a back drop of political and social uncertainty in the post English Civil War, the period covers 1647 to 1649. Throughout Ms Riley intertwines the real history of the day with her own fictional characters so adroitly, creating a truly outstanding piece of work.
From Chapter 1 and the reading of Sir Robert Brandon’s will, I was captivated.
We immediately meet the male and female leads, Gabriel Brandon & Venetia Clifford, and discover that Gabriel is Sir Roberts’s illegitimate son who has been left the estate of Brandon Lacey provided he marries Venetia. This being a bizarre situation that neither wants as they had never met each other until the reading of the will! The scene is thus set for a tempestuous relationship as Venetia, spirited, strong willed and beautiful clashes with Gabriel, a deliciously sexy, well-crafted man and true gentlemen.
Again, as in her other books, Ms Riley produces wonderful characters who you actually like and are genuinely interested in. Her plotting is very good and credible. But her real strength is her use of dialogue because as you read you hear them speak; feel their moods; understand their worries and desires. The novel is so well written that you feel you are there in person with them.
Also, I like the way Ms Riley allows Gabriel & Venetia’s relationship to develop slowly and delicately until the inevitable moment of intimacy, which again is handled perfectly.
As to the history, it’s covered comprehensively and in a style I love. We’re shown how hard the Parliament tried to reach agreement with King Charles only for him to change his mind constantly in the hope of taking back his throne; we witness the battle of Preston and hear second hand of the siege of Colchester and the murder of Lucas and Lisle. We observe the Putney Debates first-hand and finally attend the trial of King Charles and see his ultimate demise.
I could wax lyrically of how well written and entertaining this book is for not only is it a really good, well plotted piece of work, it’s also illuminating on the machinations of a period of 17th Century English history that I for one have never read about other than in pure history books.
I started this review by saying that this book deserves 5 Stars because it is an absolute Gem and I conclude by reiterating my comment. Well done Ms Riley. I believe the 3rd instalment of this series is ‘The Kings Falcon’. I for one will be so looking forward to its publication.