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The Adventures of Baron MunchausenYesterday I watched Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen for the first time. It stars John Neville as the Baron and Eric Idle as Berthold. It’s a fantastic film, completely absorbing and surreal with amazing sets, stunts and action which look so impressive compared to today’s CGI alternatives.

With spectacle comes criticism however as, having done some research on the film, it is clear that Gilliam’s films are notorious for being dangerous and traumatic for the cast and expensive to film – watching this one, you can see why. Sarah Polley, who played 9-year-old Sally, said:

It definitely left me with a few scars … It was just so dangerous. There were so many explosions going off so close to me, which is traumatic for a kid whether it’s dangerous or not. Being in freezing cold water for long periods of time and working endless hours. It was physically grueling and unsafe.

There were disputes surrounding the production and in the end it received limited distribution and only made $8 million in the US box office. Nonetheless, I really recommend it as it is so spectacular and engrossing – and it’s currently on Netflix!

The Baron in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

The Baron in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

It really made me think about the stories that inspired the film and specifically the real Hieronymus Carl Friedrich Baron von Münchhausen. The real Baron was a German nobleman, born in 1720, who became famous for telling stories about his adventures.

Münchhausen moved to Russia where he rose to the rank of Rittmeister (Captain) in the Russian cavalry and fought in the Russo-Turkish War. He was known as a amiable and truthful man, however after he retired he gained a reputation as a teller of extraordinary stories about his time in Russia. He told these tall tales at social gatherings as entertainment and perhaps to poke fun at his contemporaries’ love for rationality. This theme certainly runs through the film as the Baron exclaims he is tired of the world because:

It’s all logic and reason now. Science, progress, laws of hydraulics, laws of social dynamics, laws of this, that, and the other. No place for three-legged cyclops in the South Seas. No place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine. No place for me.

Bearing in mind this relatively simple story of the Baron’s real life, it is amazing that his stories had such far-reaching effects. He began to be fictionalized before he even died, when 17 of his stories made it into the Vademecum fur lustige Leute between 1781 and 1783. In 1785 these were translated into English, as Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia by Rudolf Erich Raspe, and over the next century his stories were expanded and republished multiple times, becoming very popular.

It is likely that folk and fairy tales made it into the narratives that were attributed to him, so we cannot know how much of the material is really his. He was apparently very annoyed that his name was associated with these tall tales as he was given the name Lügenbaron or Baron of Lies.

Illustration of Baron Münchhausen underwater by Gottfried Franz 1896

Illustration of Baron Münchhausen underwater by Gottfried Franz 1896

Still it was way too late to stop public enthusiasm for the fictionalized Baron and the character and stories were replayed again and again on the stage, on radio, television, in films and even in video games. Some of the most famous stories that were in Raspe’s 1785 book and in Gilliam’s film include the Baron’s journey to the moon in a hot air balloon, his meeting with Venus and his escape after being swallowed by a giant fish.

Raspe’s book is available to read on Project Gutenberg and to listen to on Librivox.

Lastly, Münchausen Syndrome was named directly after the fictional Baron. In an article published in 1951, British doctor Richard Asher proposed the name Münchausen Syndrome for cases of patients lying about their illnesses, arguing that:

Like the famous Baron von Munchausen, the persons affected have always travelled widely; and their stories, like those attributed to him, are both dramatic and untruthful. Accordingly, the syndrome is respectfully dedicated to the baron, and named after him

He was criticised for this, since other physicians felt the name trivialised the disorder and downplayed the dangers associated with it and also linked it to a real man who did not suffer from the condition. Clearly though the name has stuck and is now in common usage.

Adele Parks is a very successful novelist, whose books have so far been set in the modern day and have followed the lives of different women. She has made her first step into historical fiction with this new novel, Spare Brides, published by Headline this month.

Parks is certainly not the kind of author I would normally read, and so I was a little apprehensive when I was asked to review her new book. The marketing and descriptions I read made me think it might just be another bodice-ripper. However I was pleasantly surprised by Parks’ ability to deal with a historical setting and the book is an absorbing read.

The novel is set in Britain in the aftermath of the First World War, as a group of different women come to terms with the losses they have suffered. The story revolves around Lydia, a beautiful but vain woman who struggles with her marriage, specifically her inability to conceive a child and her husband’s lack of participation in active combat in the war.

Her story is set against three other women: Sarah, whose husband was killed in the war, Beatrice, a single woman who is left with little money or marriage prospects, Cecily, whose husband lost both legs and an arm at Passchendaele, and Ava, a socialite who indulges in the luxuries and vices of the era of the “bright young things”.

Lydia meets a young man, fresh from war, and embarks on an affair that changes the way she thinks about the war and her own happiness. The shock of the affair also alters her friends’ lives as they too reassess the roles they have been left with after the war.

The novel is, above all, a romance. It tells the story of lovers working out how to deal with their relationship when it so profoundly affects those around them. It could therefore be set in any era. However what the post-war setting adds to the narrative is a profound sense of guilt, pity and concern felt by the characters about one another to different degrees. How can one justify uprooting a relationship when so many have had theirs destroyed by war? How does one come to terms with a society in which the roles of men and women are so radically altered? I felt that the creation of this atmosphere was the most successful aspect of Parks’ book.

Nonetheless the love story dominates the narrative so intensely that I felt there were opportunities missed for the exploration of more interesting historical areas. Of course, if you want a romance , this one is certainly very engaging, but it would not be something I would go out of my way to read. There are plenty of elements that mark the narrative out as a standard romance: descriptions of silk garments felt against naked skin, sexual descriptions which I personally find unnecessary and of course the inevitable love-at-first-sight scene. Again I want to make clear that if romance is what you want, this has it all, but personally I consider these kinds of tropes superfluous.

While the historical detail appears to me to be legitimate, there are points where it feels a little clunky: ‘like every fashionable woman she wanted to wear her hair cropped at the ear, as she favoured close-fitting cloche hats’. Some of the characters seem at times a little archetypal: the damaged womanizing war hero and the gorgeous promiscuous flapper. However this problem is corrected over the course of the narrative as the characters gain depth and the stereotypes are questioned.

If you have an interest in the First World War and its social effects at home, and you don’t mind a bit of romance, this novel is worth a read. It does conjure up successfully the atmosphere of the era and deals with some of the key problems faced by women after the war. And if you want a love story set against a thought-provoking and nostalgic historical backdrop, this book is definitely for you.

Spare Brides will be published by Headline on 13th February 2014 and can be found on Amazon.

On 11 December 1941, the USA declared war on Germany and Italy on the same day that Hitler declared war on the USA. The first American servicemen arrived in Britain on 26 January 1942 and to prepare them for the culture shock of wartime Britain, the United States War Department published and distributed a handbook called Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942.

Today this book gives some fascinating insights into the cultural position of both Britain and the US, and from a British perspective it is interesting to see how some of our quirks were viewed by the Americans and vice versa. What I find most interesting is how nice the book is about Britain and the British and how insightful the comments are regarding British life. Some of the comments are really heart-warming!

American show-offs

American servicemen earned nearly 5 times what British Tommies earned. In 1942 when the Americans arrived, a British Private would be paid 14s a week, while his American counterpart would earn the equivalent of £3. 8s and 9d. This of course caused some bitterness among some British soldiers, leading to the (hopefully light-hearted) accusation: ‘Oversexed, overpaid and over here’.

However when combined with the American tendancy to be a little more brash than the British, these inequalities were dangerous. The US War Office clearly recognised this and warned soldiers not to show off and be respectful. It’s fascinating how they explain why the British are reserved – due to our crowded island – and that this conceals a toughness that caused the English language to thrive around the world.

The British are often more reserved in conduct than we. On a small crowded island where forty-five million people live, each man learns to guard his privacy carefully-and is equally careful not to invade another man’s privacy.

So if Britons sit in trains or busses without striking up conversation with you, it doesn’t mean they are being haughty and unfriendly. Probably they are paying more attention to you than you think. But they don’t speak to you because they don’t want to appear intrusive or rude.

Don’t Be a Show Off. The British dislike bragging and showing off. American wages and American soldier’s pay are the highest in the world. When pay day comes it would be sound practice to learn to spend your money according to British standards. They consider you highly paid. They won’t think any better of you for throwing money around; they are more likely to feel that you haven’t learned the common-sense virtues of thrift. The British “Tommy” is apt to be specially touchy about the difference between his wages and yours. Keep this in mind. Use common sense and don’t rub him the wrong way.

The British Are Tough. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the worldbecause these people were panty-waists.

You are higher paid than the British “Tommy.” Don’t rub it in. Play fair with him. He can be a pal in need.

Britain as a war zone

What hits home right away when reading the book is the difference in war experience between Britain and the US. The book constantly reminds the American soldiers that the British have been at war already for three years and the island itself is a war zone. It shows how easy it must have been for the Americans to look down on British poverty and shabbiness compared to American wealth and how important a book like this must have been to explain the hardships the British had already suffered.

It’s quite poignant to read the summaries of how much the British suffered from an outside perspective. When we hear about the home-front in Britain, it is often easy to overstate the Blitz spirit and the positives of our ‘finest hour’ and forget how bad it really was. Coming from America to Britain, the pain must have been very clear.

Remember There’s a War On. Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. The British people are anxious to have you know that you are not seeing their country at its best. There’s been a war on since 1939- Tile houses haven’t been painted because factories are not making paint-they’re making planes.

Keep Out of Arguments. You can rub a Britisher the wrong way by telling him “we came over and won the last one.” Each nation did its share. But Britain remembers that nearly a million of.her best manhood died in the last war. America lost 60,000 in action.

Neither do the British need to be told that their armies lost the first couple of rounds in the present war. We’ve lost a couple, ourselves, so do not start off by being critical of them and saying what the Yanks are going to do. Use your head before you sound off, and remember how long the British alone held Hitler off without any help from anyone.

At Home in America you were in a country at war. Now, however, you are in a war zone. You will find that all Britain is a war zone and has been since September, 1939- All this has meant great changes in the British way of life.

But more important than this is the effect of the war itself. The British have been bombed, night after night and month after month. Thousands of them have lost their houses, their possessions, their families. Gasoline, clothes, and railroad travel are hard to come by and incomes are cut by taxes to an extent we Americans have not even approached.

You came to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning. So it is doubly important for you to remember that the British soldiers and civilians are living under a tremendous strain. It is always impolite to criticize your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.

Democracy

The book highlights an attitude which probably still endures. Great Britain was viewed by some as an outdated system of titles and monarchy and the book takes the time to try to explain that the British respect their king while still living in ‘one of the great democracies’. You can see how the American’s perception of their own system as the greatest could easily come into conflict with British respect for tradition and it is interesting that the book goes as far as to suggest that the British system might even be better!

Although you read in the papers about “lords” and “sirs,” England is still one of the great democracies and the cradle of many American liberties. Personal rule by the King has been dead in England for nearly a thousand years. Today the King reigns, but does not govern. The British people have great affection for their monarch but have stripped him of practically all political power.

The important thing to remember is that within this apparently old-fashioned framework the British enjoy a practical, working twentieth century democracy which is in some ways even more flexible and sensitive to the will of the people than our own.

Women

Historians often debate how far the position of women improved during the Second World War and the comments on this subject make very interesting reading. The fact that the book considers it worth pointing out indicates that the position of women in the USA had not reached a point where a female could give orders to a male. To be honest, I didn’t even realise that women officers would have that much power and respect.

A British woman officer or non-commissioned officer can and often does give orders to a man private. The men obey smartly and know it is no shame. For British women have proven themselves in this war. They have stuck to their posts near burning ammunition dumps, delivered messages afoot after their motorcycles have been blasted from under them. They have pulled aviators from burning planes. They have died at the gun posts and as they fell another girl has stepped directly into the position and “carried on.” There is not a single record in this war of any British woman in uniformed service quitting her post or failing in her duty under fire.

Now you understand why British soldiers respect the women in uniform. They have won the right to the utmost respect. When you see a girl in khaki or air-force blue with a bit of ribbon on her tunic-remember she didn’t get it for knitting more socks than anyone else in Ipswich.

These comments indicate that the war itself changed certain social relations in Britain far beyond those in America. As far as I know the book doesn’t mention it, but another interesting conflict that emerged when the Americans arrived in Britain was caused by American attitudes towards black people clashing with the comparative tolerance of the British.

Although of course racism was endemic in Britain in this period, the even more pronounced prejudices of the Americans encouraged some British people to stick up for their black neighbours. Colonel Pleas B. Rogers of the London Base Command, US Forces, admitted that in London the ‘negro British nationals are rightly incensed. They undoubtedly have been cursed, made to get off the sidewalk, leave eating places and are separated from their white wives in public by American soldiers.’ I recommend this article ‘When Jim Crow Met John Bull’ if you want to read more about this topic.

The book contains many more interesting observations – to read more go to this website.

Robert May was born in Wing in Buckinghamshire around 1588. He worked with his father who served as cook for the Dormer family of Ascott Park and was eventually sent to France to learn the secrets of cookery. He served in the household of Achille de Harlay, first president of the parlement of Paris.

He returned to England and worked as apprentice to Arthur Hollinsworth of Newgate Market in London, cook to the Grocer’s Company and the Star Chamber. In the 1620s he returned to Wing to work for the Dormers. He worked for various employers throughout his career, mostly noble and Catholic.

accomplisht cook

His book The Accomplisht Cook was published in 1660 and was the first substantial English recipe book to be published after the Restoration. It was so popular it went to five editions by 1685. It combines courtly Elizabethan tradition and more modern French influences. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

May’s work was a longer and more complete collection of recipes than had appeared before in English, and made use of illustration in a way that had not yet been seen. Cookery was still a closely guarded trade mystery, which May desired to make accessible to all, though admitting that not every reader could afford his most extravagant dishes.

Below are some examples of recipes from The Accomplisht Cook.

Sauce for all manner of Fowls.

Mustard is good with brawn, beef, chine of bacon, and mutton; verjuyce good to boil chickens and capons; swan with chaldrons; ribs of beef with garlick, mustard, pepper, verjuyce, ginger; sauce of lamb, pig and fawn, mustard, and sugar; to pheasant, partridge, and coney, sauce gamelin; to hearn-shaw, egript, plover, and crane, brew and curlew, salt, and sugar, and water of Camot; bustard, shovilland, and bittern, sauce gamelin; woodcock, lapwing, lark, quail, martinet, venison and snite with white salt; sparrows and thrushes with salt and cinamon. Thus with all meats sauce shall have the opperation.

To pickle Cucumbers.

Pickle them with salt, vinegar, whole pepper, dill-seed, some of the stalks cut, charnel, fair water, and some sicamore leaves, and barrel them up close in a barrel.

To Boil a Pike in white Broth.

Cut your pike in three pieces, then boil it in water, salt, and sweet herbs, put in the fish when the liquor boils; then take the yolks of six eggs, beat them with a little sack, sugar, melted butter, and some of the pike broth; then put it on some embers to keep warm, stir it sometimes lest it curdle; then take up your pike, put the head and rail together in a clean dish, cleave the other piece in two, and take out the back bone, put the one piece on one side, and the other piece on the other side, but blanch all, pour the broth on it, and garnish the fish with sippets, strow on fine ginger or sugar, wipe the edge of the dish round, and serve it.

The term freelance today means self-employed, i.e. not committed to one single employer. This meaning developed in the late nineteenth century, but the word itself was first used by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) in his historical novel Ivanhoe, published in 1820 and set in twelth-century England. Freelance, or free-lance was used to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior”, meaning a lance not sworn to the service of a particular Lord.

Ivanhoe is a story of a Saxon family living under an overwhelmingly Norman establishment. Robin Hood, known as ‘Locksley’, appears in the novel and much of our modern conception of the character of Robin Hood derives from Scott’s depiction of him. The book is credited with contributing to the Victorian effort to romanticise the Medieval period. Alice Chandle in her article ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ writes that:

Mixing both the truths and fantasies about the middle ages that had grown up during the eighteenth century, Scott created an imaginary medieval world that most of his readers took for real. So vivid, in fact, was this world that a whole century dreamed and philosophized about it.

Many film and television adaptations of Ivanhoe have been made, most notably the 1952 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine which won three Oscars. Apparently there is another film being made currently, due for release in 2013!

By Richard Denning

I am delighted to be a guest on Lovely Old Tree. I am a Young adult sci-fi, historical fiction and historical fantasy writer. This post is part of a blog tour celebrating the release of my historical fantasy novel, The Last Seal. The Last Seal is set during the Great Fire of London in 1666. So it was suggested that I write a post about what a visitor to the capital would see if they went on a tour in that summer of 1666.

London was originally a Roman settlement at a convenient crossing point over the Thames. Indeed London Bridge in its various incarnations has been built on the same spot by Romans, Saxons, Vikings and as far forward as the modern age. The Roman walls were later the sites of medieval city walls that defined the city’s boundaries for centuries. Places like Westminster and Holborn were separate towns and villages. Gradually, however, the population grew and spilled out of the city, merging with these satellite villages until by 1666 it had reached Westminster around the bend of the Thames.

If you had been used to country villages and small market towns then visiting London would have opened your eyes. In today’s terms the city was not large. It population was in the order of 350,000 to 400,000 or so which is only the same as say modern day Coventry but that still made it the largest by a long way in England at that time and the third largest in the world after Paris and Constantinople. Most of these people lived outside the old city of London in the suburbs but around 80,000 resided within the old Roman and mediaeval city walls.

Within those walls there existed something of the order of 14,000 houses, 100 parish churches, 50 Company or Guild Halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Bridewell Palace, Newgate and other City prisons, the General Letter Office, and seven city gates and the great bridge itself of course.

Entering the city via that bridge would have left an impression both wonderful and gruesome such as recorded in 1598 by a German visitor to London:

On the south is a bridge of stone eight hundred feet in length, of wonderful work; it is supported upon twenty piers of square stone, sixty feet high and thirty broad, joined by arches of about twenty feet diameter. The whole is covered on each side with houses so disposed as to have the appearance of a continued street, not at all of a bridge.

Upon this is built a tower, on whose top the heads of such as have been executed for high treason are placed on iron spikes: we counted above thirty…

Fortunately during the reign of Charles II this practice died out. Nevertheless the sight of 200 and more shops perched on the bridge would have been something to see. It is estimated that as many as 4000 would have lived on the bridge alone.

Once in the streets of London however some visitors were less than impressed, with John Evelyn – a contemporary of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys complaining that London was a “wooden, Northern, inartificial congestion of houses’

This description is not that far wrong. For the City was an overcrowded warren of narrow, winding, cobbled alleys lined with towering tenements maybe 7 stories tall, huge warehouses and hundreds of places of work – foundries, butchers shops and chandlers. In some cases the buildings leant so far forward as to meet the houses opposite them. Most houses were wood and thatch and very few were made from stone. Moving around the city would have been difficult enough with the dense population doing battle with the crush of carts and hackney carriages in an age with no traffic control.

London was the largest consumer of goods in the nation as well as the largest producer and was above all a thriving trade hub. There were several markets around the city and dozens of areas of commerce but the focal point for merchants was the great Royal Exchange at Cornhill where traders from around the world would trade goods from as far away as the far east – James I having established trading links with Japan. The population in general would be more interested in the heaving markets along Cheapside with its meat and other goods or the fish markets at Billingsgate or maybe trinkets and sweets from Westminster Hall. The noise from the population and all the traders calling out their wares must have been a din.

Many of the goods on sale were made in hundreds of locations around the city. Right there in the same streets that people lived and walked, animals would be slaughtered and their blood drain down to the river. Their hides would be cured in cauldrons of urine collected from all over the city with the fumes belching out to mix with the smoke from foundries and the stench from vats where carcasses were being rendered into glue and candle wax. The stench must have been incredible.

The people of London would have several concerns other than day to day existence. The nation was at war with the French and Dutch and there was a lot of anxiety about foreign spies. At the same time there was worry about plots by both Catholics wishing to make England “papist” and republicans looking to overthrow the King. Superstition was rife. It had not escaped notice that the year -1666 – contained the number 666 which had biblical significance. Indeed that and such omens as eclipses and comets had more than a few people convinced that they were living in the last years and God’s judgement was at hand.

A visitor to the city would have been aware that it was still suffering from the effects of the great plague of 1665 to 66 which had killed 1 in 4 Londoners. At its height in the summer of 1665 1000 people a day were dying and even in September 1666 the plague had not died out. Indeed it is believed that it took a disaster of epic proportions to finally destroy the thousands of rats that carried the fleas which were the host of the contagion. It took the Great Fire of London.

London was a city which was extremely vulnerable to fire. This was due to the cramped buildings made of wood, warehouses full of combustibles which increased the fire risk and huge stocks of gunpowder, much of which was left over from the English Civil War. It really was only a matter of time before a fire started – and then a disaster would occur.

So there we have it – London in 1666: a heaving congested warren of wooden houses. A thriving metropolis. Loud, smelly and busy and just a little bit paranoid and waiting for the great fire that would rip out its heart. It is this city in which my novel is set – a novel of gunpowder and sorcery in 1666!

To read the first part of The Last Seal visit my website.
Check out the book on Facebook and on Twitter.

The Last Seal is a young adult historical fantasy novel set during the Great Fire of London and is part of the Praesidium series by Richard Denning. When it comes to reviewing new books, I certainly can’t claim to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction, but what really interested me about this book, and the reason I was asked to review it, was the historical element. So my aim is to look at it from a historical perspective and judge how well it makes history exciting and accessible – the main aim of Lovely Old Tree! And in short: The Last Seal does this very well.

The plot follows the fortunes of Ben, a schoolboy at Westminster, who having lost his parents in a fire, feels depressed, lost and intent on escaping the tedium of school life. He does this by playing truant and wandering off into the hustle and bustle of 17th century London and this action, which appears unimportant, catapults him into a terrifying and exciting adventure.

He meets Gabriel, a bookseller with a more thrilling job as member of the Praesidium; Tobias, a doctor with a score to settle; and Freya, an orphan thief with more intelligence than the other three put together. This group of very different people soon find that they are immersed in a battle between the Praesidium and the Liberati and have to risk their lives to save London, and the world, from the release of the evil demon Dantalion. And Ben finds that his role in history is far larger than he ever thought possible.

Now, I have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to novels and it takes a lot to really keep me engaged, but I honestly found it hard to put this book down. The pace of the story is perfect. The characters are introduced at the right rate so that you really get to know them and care about them. The excitement and tension of the plot rises incrementally throughout so that you really cannot wait to turn the page and find out what happens next.

The characters are also very well presented and described – and they are likeable, which I consider to be a very important factor. They are also very different people, thrown together by circumstances and therefore they give us a very interesting rounded picture of the people of 17th century London. They are varied by gender, class, age and background, therefore the interactions and tensions between them (for example between Tobias and Freya) keep the story stimulating.

Additionally the characters have their flaws and secrets that keep them from becoming stereotypes. Ben does not fall into the trap of being the standard poor orphaned hero; neither does Gabriel become the wise benevolent wizard. Through a combination of guilty secrets, childish anger, self-interest, greed and stupid mistakes, all of the characters are convincing and engaging and develop naturally throughout the story.

Now it might sound from the plot that the book is mostly fantasy with little history involved, and I must say that I did worry about this. The first chapter is set in 1380 with the first attempt to release the demon and although it is exciting, it focuses on the battle and the magic spells. However my fears were soon laid to rest when I got into the main plot as the historical detail is really fascinating. Denning weaves the true story of the Great Fire of London into the plot so that, despite the magic, the story is believable, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. The path of the fire, the number of days it lasted, the buildings it destroyed and the things people really said and did all fit into the story of The Last Seal. The fact that the Praesidium and the Liberati are secret societies (so the public would never have known what happened during the fire) means that, as far as I’m concerned, the story of Dantalion, Ben, Freya, Tobias and Gabriel could be true!

One of my favourite things about the book is the description of 17th century London. The Royal Exchange, St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge are described in such detail that it really transports you to what it would have been like at the time. I love the way London locations keep being mentioned, helping me to reimagine places I know back in time. Old London Bridge:

Made of stone, with a dozen and more arches, it was impressive enough, but upon it an entire town had been built. Dozens of houses, shops and taverns of timber and stone crammed upon either side and soared three or more stories high. At either end was a fortress-like gatehouse that was locked at dusk and opened each dawn. The southern gate bore a grizzly display of the severed heads of more than a dozen criminals and traitors which, after their execution, were impaled on spikes as a warning to all who saw them.

The most successful thing about the inclusion of this historical description is that is does not read like 17th century London is a foreign country. The description does not treat the vast differences between historical London and present-day London with awe or surprise. The city is described as though by Ben or another contemporary and this really makes the history come alive as the reader feels a connection with London whichever era it is in.

The book is aimed at young adults, so is an easy read, but personally I quite like that factor. Ben and Freya are both young people and I often find superfluous language irritating in stories that are meant to be exciting adventures. With that audience target, you may occasionally find that the passages where characters have to explain their backstory or the backstory of the secret societies can be a little jarring and deliberate. However I would say that this is a common problem in plots where centuries of backstory play a key role.

I did thoroughly enjoy this book but I would say it is not for everyone. The historical elements are certainly strong enough to interest a history fan like me, but you really do have to be prepared to suspend disbelief and accept the magic and fantasy in order to fully immerse yourself in the book. I’m only able to do this because I allow myself to accept the premise that this story could be the truth behind the Great Fire of London.

In this way then, The Last Seal is not like other historical fiction as the fantasy element is very strong, but if you enjoy both then it is a brilliant read. I would definitely recommend this book, particularly for those interested in getting a good overview of 17th century London, in an entertaining way.

The new 2nd edition paperback is now available with a new cover design. You can also read the first three chapters free here.

About the author:

Richard Denning was born in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and lives in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, UK, where he works as a General Practitioner (family doctor). He is married and has two children. He has always been fascinated by historical settings as well as horror and fantasy. Other than writing, his main interests are games of all types. He is the designer of a board game based on the Great Fire of London.

These photos are of Ealing Broadway from Britain in Old Photographs and are compared with my photos taken this year. This first one was taken in 1938 and shows The Feathers pub, a no. 97 bus to Brentford and the Wesleyan Church (now a Polish Catholic Church) in the background on the right. The pub is now called The Town House.

the-town-house-o
the-town-house

The photo below was taken in 1957 and shows the approach to Ealing Broadway station, with the pub on the right and Fosters on the left (now the Carphone Warehouse). All of the buildings are the same, except for the station itself on the right, which was rebuilt as an office block in 1965. In 1957 there must have been enough traffic for lights to be built in the middle of the road, which have now developed into a complex maze of traffic lights as you can see below.

station-approach-1ostation-approach1

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