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It is 1667, and England has survived a host of disasters - plague, regicide, civil war, the restoration of the king, the Great Fire of London - you name it and London has had to deal with it. Now things are slowly beginning to settle and the protagonists of THE ASHES OF LONDON, James Marwood and Cat Lovett, or whatever name she is going by at the moment, are close to the centre of the attempt to rebuild the city. Marwood is doing his best to remain unremarked, to take care of his failing father, and generally to stay out of trouble. Cat is also trying to lie low, but a combination of events and the lively sense of self-preservation that has developed out of her vulnerability makes this a more difficult task to accomplish.
As was the case in the preceding volume, Marwood's story is told from his point of view, Catherine's in the third person. But their lives converge quite bit sooner than they did in ASHES. Taylor does, however, maintain the striking difference between them. Marwood is far more retiring than Cat, who is, despite what might be expected of a woman of the period, more willing to precipitate action.
In ASHES, we were treated to glimpses of life in high places, with visits to the Palace and snapshots of King Charles II and his court. This time around, Taylor is more interested in the process of restoring normality to London and London life. Charles has invested his considerable authority in assuring that London not only is soon working, but working better than before. He sees the devastation wrought by the Fire as a chance to improve life in the city and has instituted a Fire Court to adjudicate disputes concerning the ownership of property and the uses to which it may be put. The judges sitting on that bench are expected to act with dispatch and settle arguments quickly. Marwood is drawn to the Court when his father, who had wandered in, totters home to report seeing a murdered woman there and then the next day dies in a street accident, run over by a dray. Or was it an accident?
Cat, on the other hand, attends the Court with some frequency, employing her ability to take shorthand as well as her talent as a draughtswoman in the service of her protector Simon Hakesby, architect, whose health is failing. Cat is passing herself off as Jane Hakesby, cousin and maid servant to Simon, and trying her best to remain unrecognized by those who have their eyes on her inheritance.
Although FIRE COURT is a sequel, it is quite a different book to ASHES OF LONDON. A considerable portion of the drama and excitement of the earlier book was generated by the circumstances in which the plot unfolds. London has experienced a roll-call of appalling catastrophes and now it is still burning. FIRE COURT deals more with the aftermath of disaster, with the recovery efforts undertaken to re-establish London pride on the ruins. Contemporary readers may be surprised to learn that the Fire Court, despite its incorruptible reputation, could and did adjudicate claims within a day or two at the most, and that the judges sat without pay.
FIRE COURT is at its heart, however, a mystery. Did the senile Marwood père really see the dead body of a woman or was he simply hallucinating? If he did, who was she and who killed her? Was his own death truly an accident or was he another victim of an unknown murderer? We do not learn the answers to these and other questions till the very end of the book but the way there is filled with excitement, tension, and drama. The chief characters develop in interesting ways as well, with James Marwood being indelibly marked by his experiences, despite his determination to remain unnoticed. Cat emerges as even quicker to act in her own defence than she was earlier and as a result finds herself in ever more serious danger.
Taylor remains to my mind at the top of the list of historical novelists writing in English today. There is a breadth and sweep of incident that is breathtaking and a command of historical detail that is simultaneously sound and unobtrusive. The London he describes here is a vibrant, living entity, still breathing though it is more than 350 years since its ashes cooled. I cannot think of a better book to take on holiday this year, especially at a time that, while to date less subject to dramatic disaster than 17th century London, still has its own disquieting moments.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2018
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