This novel proved to be one of those precious finds that offer, besides an intriguing story to follow, a peek into a historical period I know next to nothing about, so that I feel compelled to search online more details and learn something new in the process. The background for The Ashes of London is that of the Restoration, the time in which King Charles II ascended to the throne of England after the execution of his father, Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell’s rule: in September 1666 the city of London was devastated by fire, and it’s during the final days of this disastrous occurrence – and its aftermath – that the book’s events take place.
James Marwood is a civil servant trying to keep a low profile in the hope that his masters forget he’s the son of one of the revolutionaries whose movement brought about the demise of the previous king: saddled with the difficult task of caring for his ailing father, whose time in prison after the conspiracy’s failure left him weakened in both body and mind, Marwood is torn between his filial duties and the need to further his career so that he can tend to what’s left of his family in reasonable comfort. Catherine Lovett is the daughter of one of the conspirators as well, her father being a wanted fugitive: she’s been left in the care of an uncle who is keen on marrying her off to a very unsavory character, while all she dreams about is architectural design, an unheard-of pastime for a woman in those days. The paths of these two characters are destined to cross, in part due to various circumstances and in part because of both their fathers’ affiliations, while the city of London tries to recover from the still-smoldering fires and a series of bizarre murders reveals the dangerous undercurrents running through the political and social fabric of the realm.
I very much appreciated the intriguing mix at the roots of this book, where historical fiction blends with a crime investigation and a good dose of political plotting and conspiracies, but most of all I enjoyed the “time travel” opportunities offered by the story, thanks to the descriptions of the day-to-day life of 17th Century England and the great social turmoil lurking under the surface. What I found particularly fascinating were the details of the city of London, which the author was able to depict with a cinematic, quite evocative quality that brought to life the sounds, sights – and unfortunately smells – of a bustling city which was grievously wounded by the Great Fire. There is an intriguing parallel here between the precarious political situation, in which the new King knows he still has to deal with the remnants of the conspiracy which prompted his father’s downfall, and the daily struggles of the citizenry, whose houses have been destroyed by the fire and have to live in ramshackle hovels or in the ruins of their burned-out homes, with no certainty about the immediate future. This is the background on which the main themes of civil unrest and inequality stand, together with a look at the social mores of the times and their consequences on people, particularly the two main characters.
James Marwood was soon able to inspire my sympathy, not least because his POV is written in the first person, allowing us to be instantly privy to his thoughts and troubles: as he deals with his professional duties, which are carried on through the double difficulty of being effective while keeping a low profile, we understand he’s a decent human being gifted with a good heart, and if sometimes he struggles with the frustration of having to care for a father who tethers between dementia and the dreams of a “new order”, he does so with such a deeply ingrained affection and respect for the old man, that it’s impossible not to feel for him.
Catherine, on the other hand, is more feisty and combative (often, and with reason, very fiercely so), and she’s also very “modern”, character-wise, because of her keen interest for architecture, which leads her to dream of a more unfettered life – practically an impossibility in those times. She is no frivolous dreamer, though, and when circumstances require her to adapt to change, sometimes through harrowing events, she shows a resiliency and an inner strength that are nothing if not admirable. Both Cat and Marwood suffer for the sins of their respective fathers, offering the opportunity for a commentary on a society that visits those sins on the innocent offspring of past conspirators.
Alongside these two main characters move a number of intriguing figures which help depict quite clearly the atmosphere of the times through their greed and depravity, cunning and coarseness, without forgetting the proverbial movers and shakers – some of them real-life persons – who complete this fascinating picture of an era of turmoil and change. Among them I want to mention Mistress Alderley, Cat’s aunt, who under her unprepossessing exterior shows great skills in being the proverbial power behind the throne in more ways than one; or the ruling monarch Charles II, who in a very human moment shows his desire to know more about the father he barely knew before he was killed; and again Edward, Cat’s despicable cousin who represents the entitled attitude of the lesser nobility who believes nothing and no one can stand in their way.
The Ashes of London is a very immersive portrayal of a time and a place I know I will enjoy visiting again through the next books, and it represents one of the best bookish finds of this year so far.