About L Silverlock

I’m an aspiring author, bookworm and reviewer – this site contains book reviews I’ve written in recent years and also contains information about the novel I am currently writing, the first book of a trilogy provisionally titled ‘Roads to Rome’. If you’re a publisher, author, fellow-reviewer, bookseller, or just like my reviews then please don’t hesitate to contact me, and if you’d like me to review your book I’m happy to read new releases or proofs of upcoming publications.

If you’re interested in Roads to Rome’ please get in touch. I am looking for an agent.


The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, by Lucille Turner

32313477This book was an eye-opener for me, being new to the legend of Dracula and having little knowledge about its historical roots. The novel is set between the 15th century Balkans and the Ottoman empire, with its seemingly unstoppable march northwards into new territories. Hanging over the book is the threat of the sack of Constantinople, from many different points of view. The sultan Murad II is tormented by his failure to achieve the jewel in the Ottoman crown, tormented by the possibility of gaining access to the famous Greek scrolls contained within Constantinople’s library. His son and heir Mehmet too is tantalised by his dream of victory, a victory to prove he is worthy to rule, and is better than his father. On the other side of an uncomfortable diplomatic arrangement, Dracul of Wallachia is concerned for the Greeks, whom he devotedly supports despite pressure from the Roman Catholic church to prioritise compliance with their own doctrines.

This is not only a good story, but a very thought-provoking novel, artfully structured. Lucille Turner spins a compelling tale pivoting on the myth of the vampyr, or strigoi, a being who ‘can admit neither of confession, nor of prayer, nor of sacrament, since all three of these are an abomination to his kind’. As the story progresses we see both Dracul and his son Vlad Dracula fighting against the fear of the strigoi, with Vlad clearly battling some kind of affliction manifesting itself in sleep-walking and seizures, and the father encouraging him to read the holy books to help him through. At first we assume that Dracul is attempting to quash ‘the Devil’s trance’. As we get deeper into the novel, and Vlad becomes stronger, we begin to wonder if a different lesson was at hand, a lesson which can only be completed with possession of the scrolls of Constantinople.
Behind the house of Dracul is the myth of Zalmoxis, a deity who possesses the nature of a wolf, having hunted and caught the sacred creature to gain its powers. The wolf’s nature is both empowering and a curse; and so is the affliction which Vlad Dracula suffers from: his story is a parallel to the devil-like Zalmoxis, and it is his actions and the actions of those enthralled by his unusual charm which will determine the course of history. ‘Once a man is wolf, he is hungry forever.’

This novel will draw you into a world of intrigue, and a story operating on many levels. The reader is given a view of the Ottoman world through the eyes of the sultan’s third wife, concerned only for her young son’s safety in the dangerous yet beautiful environs of the palace. The reader also sees the far bigger picture, courtesy of the soothsayer Athazaz. You’ll find yourself musing on seemingly insignificant individuals and their fates, and also on vast subjects such as whether differing religions can work together for a shared enlightenment, and on the role played by Dracula in shaping the world in the 15th century and the centuries to come.

Dracula may be a figure often consigned to horror stories and melodrama; here by contrast, he is enigmatic and masterful, an historical figure effortlessly characterised by Turner even as she cloaks him in mystery.


The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer will be published by Hengist Press on 19 November. If, like me, you are inspired by the novel and want to find out more about the folklore and ideas behind it, the author has some interesting blog posts here.


The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

The deserved winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2013, this novel is powerfully economical, with Donal Ryan showing skilful storytelling with his unusual choice of structure. The novel tells the story of an Irish community shaken by the recent financial crisis, and is initially focussed on the character Bobby, whose distinctive voice sucks the reader in from the opening sentence of the first chapter. However it is soon apparent that each chapter is narrated by a different person, each a member of the same community, although incredibly diverse; ranging from a bereaved mother to an Eastern European worker, from an ageing prostitute to a primary school teacher. 21 narrators in all, each with their own story to tell, and each telling a collective overarching story. The thread of Bobby’s story rises to the fore throughout the novel, despite the fact that we never hear his own narration again – this is a clever piece of writing.

Yet as we all know, writing should not be praised just for being ‘clever’. Many a clever book can be dull as anything to read. This is certainly not the case here. The Spinning Heart manages to turn readers into fanatics because each of its narrators is convincingly lifelike and has a unique voice. Each piece they contribute to the novel’s jigsaw is to be cherished as a glimpse into a very believable society. Therefore its cleverness is not why this book is to be appreciated, but remains the mechanism behind its success. If the entire book were told from Bobby’s point of view, the story would not make so much of an impression – in fact, it would barely exist. It is the interweaving of each little plot strand that builds the novel, and each new angle which makes the characters whole.

The Spinning Heart has been praised by the critics: not only did it win the Guardian First Book Award, but it was long-listed for the Man Booker, and won two of the Irish Book Awards. No doubt Donal Ryan will go on to win many more. It is important to note, however, that The Spinning Heart was also the favourite book of the majority of the readers’ panels for the Guardian First Book Award – it’s not popular due to its ‘literary’ nature; it is a very enjoyable and moving read. Donal Ryan deserves a place among the literary greats, but shouldn’t just be praised for writing a book ‘for our time’ or for being a new star among the ‘great Irish novelists’. His work may draw upon themes well-established in Irish literature, his novel may have captured the financial crisis better than any newspaper column – but above all else – he’s written an excellent story, having hit upon the perfect way to tell it.

Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Best known for The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff is an author ??????????whose tales captivate both young and old. Outcast is just one of her books which I’ve returned to time and time again – so ignore the fact that you’d probably find it in the children’s section of bookshops. Like many of her other books, Outcast is set in Roman Britain. It tells the tale of Beric, a boy who spends his childhood in a British tribe, only for his life to be destroyed when he is cast out for bringing bad luck upon his community. His crime? He was born a Red Crest; a Roman.

But Beric’s bad luck must also be sprinkled with some good – for he is a survivor; right from the moment when he lived through the shipwreck which killed his real parents. Sutcliff’s hero is bewildered, innocent, preyed upon. And yet while events turn from bad to worse – this is still a warming story. Is it fate which guides Beric’s path through the world, or is it his own actions? A little bit of both; Beric cannot change what happens to him, but he does know what he is looking for – a place where he belongs, where he will no longer be an ‘outcast’.

This novel is less of an adventure than The Eagle of the Ninth, but covers more emotion and tackles fascinating subjects with lightness of touch; such as identity and slavery. Beric’s relationships with various incidental characters of all walks of life demonstrate Sutcliff’s ability to craft his personality within a few short pages.

Not only are Sutcliff’s subject matters suitable for both teenagers and adults, but her language and vocabulary are too. A younger reader might struggle with the vocabulary, but by no means would I classify this a difficult read. Outcast was originally published in 1955, but Sutcliff deserves her place on 21st century bookshelves, and will still be there in years to come, even if it is a place supported by her most famous works – her back catalogue being largely (and unjustly) omitted.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

??????????This is a rare novel – a piece of crime fiction in which the crime does not feel like a device. So many crime novels present various grisly murders solely so that their detectives can dance, the characters often feeling like puppets. The puppeteer can continue writing until he or she runs out of crimes to think of, when at last their detective can retire, or be killed off themselves.

Child 44 is different, because the crime is almost a secondary thread of the novel, which is set in Soviet-era Russia and revolves around the charismatic survivalist, Leo Demidov. Leo’s confidence in the Soviet state is gradually worn down as he is forced to confront the evidence that a series of tragic accidents are all connected – and the state’s refusal to accept that a crime has been committed. By daring to investigate the crimes, he himself comes under both suspicion and threat, alongside his whole family.

Inspired by a true case, this novel is a fast-paced thriller, packed full of dark secrets and twists which leaves the reader wholly satisfied at the end. Leo is not an entirely likeable character, but his personality quirks are not stock ‘maverick’ features we come to expect of fictional detectives; they are the product of the cruel environment which he had grown up in, and has learnt to survive in – but his chances of survival dwindle increasingly as he inches closer to the secret behind the death of child 44.

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

This highly-anticipated publication sees a new instalment in a much-loved fantasy saga begun in 1995 with Assassin’s Apprentice. The story was apparently concluded with Fool’s Fate in 2003, but, unable to keep from writing about the captivating stalwart characters of FitzChivalry Farseer and ‘the Fool’, Robin Hobb grants us a return trip to the Six Duchies.

If you haven’t read any of the previous series, you’ll need a little introduction here to Robin Hobb’s fantasy world; it is a world of political intrigue above all else, of secrets and a magic so subtle that it creeps up on you: not one of wizards and spells, but one of nature and minds. This brief description might remind you of the ubiquitous Game of Thrones – it is similar, and yet so different. These books have a lighter touch, more sophistication, more heart and soul. If you do plan to read the series, I would encourage you to hurry away and read no further into this review, which, although containing no spoilers for Fool’s Assassin, necessarily reveals some about the earlier books.

The main character, Fitz, last appeared in Fool’s Fate, having earned a more than well-deserved break, and having finally settled down with his one true love in the country estate of Withywoods, against all the odds. His part in the fate of the world was played out, and his ‘puppeteer’, the prophet who guided his actions and thus the course of the world, had left for distant shores, promising never to return. How could Robin Hobb unravel such a neat conclusion? Were it not for the confidence that I was in the safe hands of a masterful storyteller, were it not for the excitement of having an unexpected continuation of this saga, I would have been frustrated by this coda to Fitz’s life. But as the reader soon discovers, this is no after-thought, no coda at all. Fitz’s trials and tribulations aren’t done yet, and Hobb left enough loose ties to pick them up and carry on as if the previous conclusion were nothing at all. Yet the false ending of Fool’s Fate is cleverly navigated: Fitz expresses shock at the story not yet being over, having repeatedly asserted that his part in affairs of state is long concluded, and he is not the only person to do so.

This is part of the inherent beauty of Hobb’s saga – especially the parts set in the Six Duchies (the ‘Farseer trilogy’, and the ‘Tawny Man’ trilogy), narrated by FitzChivalry. He struggles to be an impartial narrator, attempts to set facts down accurately, yet imbues every page with his own opinions and emotions. He is writing his story, whether he intends to or not, and his own false sense of security is enough to explain to the reader why not all is as it seems. The Six Duchies, and the wider world, still has a future which lies in the balance. Fitz ignores the danger signs, convinced that all threats are long gone. Should we trust his instincts? Not quite – it is the mark of true literary skill when authors manage to write convincingly from a character’s point of view and yet leave enough room for the reader to see more than the narrator (see my review of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel). Turbulent times are clearly ahead for Fitz – whether he believes it or not, whether he is prepared for it or not.

Overall, Fool’s Assassin is a very welcome addition to Robin Hobb’s opus of work, and while it forms the beginning of the third trilogy/series about FitzChivalry and the Fool, it is in fact the fourteenth novel set in this fantasy world. Naturally, to get the most enjoyment from reading Hobb’s work, I recommend starting at the beginning and continuing in order of publication (that is; ‘Farseer’, ‘Liveship Traders’, ‘Tawny Man’, ‘Rain Wilds Chronicles’, and now this new ‘Fitz and the Fool’ series) to fully understand – at least, as much as Hobb permits us to understand – the world and characters she has so expertly created and nurtured.

The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s contribution to literature is so well-known as to require little introduction, yet it’s difficult to judge which of his works is the more influential. While Sherlock Holmes is certainly enjoying a popular period (when hasn’t it?), the number of adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories could probably be outstripped by the number of novels, films, TV shows and other media which have been inspired by The Lost World – although we must of course give due credit to Jules Verne.

The Lost World is essentially an adventure story, written engagingly, with compelling characters and plenty of cliff-hangers to keep the reader hooked and wondering what misadventure will strike next or what brilliant plan the characters will devise. No doubt this is what ensured its success at the time of publication, and succeed it did; The Lost World launched Professor Challenger as a much-beloved character of Conan Doyle, a character as bizarre and distinctive as Holmes himself. The Professor recruits a small band of explorers (including an adventure-thirsty journalist, sceptical rival academic, and a game hunter) to journey to the ‘lost world’, an isolated plateau deep in South America. What the band finds there is well-known to all of us, but besides the dinosaur inhabitants, the group also encounter a tribe of primitive humans, and a society of ‘ape-men’. This introduces the tricky subject of race. Although the objective of the Professor’s quest was to find proof of the survival of ancient beasts, when engulfed in a war between the apes and the primitives the group has no qualms about destroying the ape-men entirely. This seems to run contrary to the scientists’ creed. Perhaps even more intriguingly, Professor Challenger is described as being very alike to the king of the ape men, almost a twin. It is difficult to divine what Conan Doyle intended to say with this – the human race is not so different from the ‘missing link’, the ape-men? And yet must destroy them, brothers though they may be? It’s entirely possible that Conan Doyle is throwing out ideas, arguments and challenges (look to his aptly named character) to the society he was writing for, and to seek perfection in one theme presented in the novel might be folly.

The Lost World’s cultural permeation is such that it is easy to miss reading it, purely by mistake; there are probably a few books about which you think ‘I must have read that,’ without being sure. If The Lost World is one of them, why not make it your next book choice? It may even leave you wondering if dinosaurs are still alive today…

Mistress of Rome, by Kate Quinn

MistressofRomeIt’s time to explore the don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover mantra a little bit more. I hesitated to review this novel, as I think it is important that a reader should choose to read what they enjoy, and I am sure that there are many people out there who would enjoy this novel and find it sufficiently complex for a holiday read. However, while it may be more complex than several romance novels, it makes no pretence to a great deal of sophistication. The history is admittedly accurate, but remains a prop, suggestive of a dressing-up box. The main character, Thea, has a few points of interest, notably her past as the sole survivor of a massacre/mass suicide pact, but the writing falls short of making her ‘real’. Her foil, her previous mistress and rival in love, Lepida, is no more than a caricature, and is the real low-point of this novel. For the story to have any real meaning there should be more life in their rivalry, more tension, and more potential. Instead, Lepida exists merely to make Thea’s life a misery, and has no greater role than to be a plot device and somebody for Thea to triumph over in the end.

I would like to repeat that this book would be perfectly enjoyable for readers who prefer an easy read; but I wish to use this opportunity now to confront the topic of book covers, genre, and audience. Historical fiction is not the only genre which suffers in terms of book covers, but it is a case in point. Female-orientated books will as a rule have emblazoned upon them a generic picture of a woman, frequently cut off at the neck (ironic in some cases; i.e. The Other Boleyn Girl) – presumably so the reader can imagine the character’s features themselves (or, to be less generous, so that the publication process is made easier and the image doesn’t have to actually match the character description!) Male-orientated books will show an armoured man, often mid-shout, or they will show various weaponry arranged upon a suitable background. Much as I would try to avoid judging a book by its cover, these things do indicate the type of book you are about to read. Quinn’s book not only has a feminine title (albeit one which alone, I would hope would not put off a male readership), but coupled with a cliché cover, which attempts grittiness by including a smattering of blood, it clearly indicates that this is a novel which will not require too much effort.

Is there a way to avoid pigeon-holing historical fiction? Yes – by having more abstract titles, which ideally remain snappy. Yes – by having cover designs which are more conceptual, less standardised. One example could be the current publications of Robert Harris’s books. (I’ve reviewed these already in this blog, but here is a suitable place to praise their publication design.) Their titles are snappy yet gender-neutral. The covers are bold, striking, and gender-neutral, either using a symbol, or silhouette. Another example is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It is a shame that for a book to succeed with both men and women a wholly gender-neutral approach must be made – but it is a truth.

Like all fiction, historical fiction has been heavily affected by the rise of the e-book market. Let’s focus on just one aspect for now – the title (covers have less impact in the world of e-books). While titles have always been important for the browsing of bookshelves, they have more of a role online; this is the age of the search-box, after all. As a result, authors are increasingly have to title their novels with key words. This is why we have series after series entitled ‘the “something” of Rome’, or some such historical period or buzz word. And this is one reason why historical fiction is sometimes accused of all being the same; it is a fate forced upon it not only by the publishers but by its own internet-bound readership.

As for Mistress of Rome, I think one could safely say that it is a ‘female’ novel, not designed to challenge the reader at all (and by this I do not mean that it is aimed at women because it is unchallenging). It’s suitable if your favourite literature is romance and you want a change from modern romances, or those set in the ubiquitous Tudor period, but I might advise you to go against our mantra for the time-being, and judge it by its cover.

The Examined Life, by Stephen Grosz

Released in 2013 in a flurry of publicity, this book flew off the shelves, due to Grosz’s ability to encapsulate human lives in short and interesting chapters. The Examined Life is essentially a distillation of experiences gleaned by Grosz during his years as a psychoanalyst. He has chosen some stories which illustrate certain aspects of life, and writes them in a lucid and engaging way.

And yet this is a tricky book to pin down. There is something which doesn’t feel quite right; Grosz’s solutions to each patient’s problems seem to come as a light-bulb moment, a neat little conclusion to each chapter. This only serves to emphasise one reason why an individual might not want to consult a psychoanalyst; the fear of being put into a box, of being labelled: ‘this is what is wrong with you.’ On the other hand, this may be an unfair accusation. Grosz does not claim to have a ‘cure’ to people’s problems, but offers an interpretation of them. Grosz’s style is open and unpretentious. He presents stories which may be of use to the casual reader in reflecting upon their own lives, or simply to gain an insight into how other people live theirs. The people are often very ordinary (although presumably all with the means to access a private psychoanalyst), and this is part of the appeal. They are a glimpse into the world of others, which we can never know, being always trapped within our own minds. The chapters prove to be fascinating character studies in a very easily digestible format. While The Examined Life rightly didn’t make the final cut for the Guardian First Book Award 2013, it interested me enough to read it in one sitting, so I could recommend it to anybody with an evening to spare and an interest in life – and isn’t that all of us?

Kiss Me First, by Lottie Moggach

Kiss Me First has an intriguing concept which is well-executed, demonstrating that Lottie Moggach deserves as much recognition as her mother (the Deborah Moggach with various best-sellers behind her name). The premise of the novel is that Leila, a young internet addict with a keen interest in philosophy, is presented with an unusual request: help a stranger maintain a virtual life to enable her to commit suicide without causing any grief to her family and friends. Given the arguments which Leila has previously expressed on a philosophy internet forum for ‘elite thinkers’, she feels philosophically obliged to assist the stranger, Tess, and assume her online identity. She embraces the practical and logistical challenge, but somewhat naively ignores the emotional hazards, which come to a head when an old friend of Tess’s gets back in contact, severely threatening both Leila and Tess’s identities.

Kiss Me First has probably gained so much critical acclaim because of its concept – the construction of identity in an increasingly ‘virtual’ world. As reality attempts to catch up with its virtual counterpart, and the law makes tentative steps into the world of virtual goods, and virtual lives (it is now a criminal offence to steal a virtual item or to ‘murder’ somebody’s virtual avatar), identity – what it consists of, ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ – is a popular debate.

I could go into more depth on this subject, but to do so would almost be doing Kiss Me First a disservice. This book is well written, with a surprisingly believable character placed in a compelling situation. It should succeed to capture its audience on these merits alone. The protagonist, 23-year-old Leila, managed to fascinate all members of the reading group for the Guardian First Book Award, not just those of a comparable age. This might seem a small achievement, but I would argue that it is significant. Young authors often fall into a trap of writing about young characters who have no point of interest for an older readership. Leila’s personality on the other hand was so ‘different’ that she proved an object of fascination for all of us. Her intelligence and engagement with philosophical debate is matched with an inability to understand complex emotional and social situations. Her exploration of Tess’s life prior to assuming her identity is a neat way of looking at her clinical approach to emotion – the questions dissect Tess in a frighteningly cold way, although Leila is of course just trying to do the job at hand. Part of the pleasure of reading this book is trying to figure Leila out. Should we sympathise, or condemn her actions?

Overall, Kiss Me First is a sophisticated piece which could become a modern classic. It is perhaps let down by its title (and cover, although we all know the mantra about book covers), but is surely one of the best novels set in the here-and-now which I have read.

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Shortlisted for the 2013 Guardian First Book Award, this title was very popular amongst the various reading groups which participated in adjudicating the award. The novel tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, who was the last woman to be executed in Iceland, in 1829. Inspired by historical fact, and supported with snippets from real documents throughout the novel, Burial Rites is a highly accomplished début.

The most striking aspect of this novel is Kent’s poetic use of language and her competence at evoking a very powerful landscape. Her love of Iceland is very apparent, and she tells Agnes’s story, and indeed the story of the entire community, both skilfully and thoughtfully. Agnes’s tale is a sad one of love and death, and from the outset the reader is under no illusion as to the outcome of the novel – as we know that historically, she was condemned and executed. However this does not negate a fascinating story arc and personal journey of Agnes, along with that of the young priest she requests to prepare her for death, and the family who are obliged to house her until her execution date.

The story was constructed from Kent’s research into the historical events surrounding Magnúsdóttir’s execution, and while in places she tries to exonerate Agnes from the crime, she does not make the mistake of being overly sympathetic. The reader is not forcefully encouraged to like Agnes from the beginning, instead we are asked to embrace the community to such an extent that although we know Agnes must die – the pressing question is whether she can be understood and forgiven.

Kent has been touted as a new writer to keep an eye on – it will be interesting to see whether she will provide the literary world with an equally successful second novel, or if so much depended on her previous fascination with this single case in Iceland, that subsequent works will not manage to be so lovingly crafted. Burial Rites has recently been shortlisted for the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously known as the Orange Prize), where it will undoubtedly stand a good chance, although pitted against Donna Tartt’s new novel The Goldfinch.