Review: The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

Review: The Lost Boys of London by Mary LawrenceThe Lost Boys of London (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #5) by Mary Lawrence
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery
Series: Bianca Goddard #5
Pages: 320
Published by Red Puddle Print on April 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Set in the final years of King Henry VIII's reign, an alchemist's daughter uses her skills to aid the living and helps seek justice for the dead...

While her husband fights the Scots on behalf of King Henry VIII, Bianca Goddard earns her coin by concocting medicines that offer relief to London's sick. Some unfortunates, however, are beyond any remedies she can provide—like the young boy discovered hanging from a church dripstone. Examining the body, Bianca finds a rosary twined around the child's neck. A week later, another boy is found dead at a different church. When Bianca's impish acquaintance, Fisk, goes missing, she fears he may become the third victim...

There are many villains who would prey on wayward, penniless boys. But Bianca suspects the killings are not brutal acts of impulse, but something far more calculated. In her room of Medicinals and Physickes, she examines the sole piece of evidence: a sweet-smelling, stained cloth. If Bianca can unravel its secret, reputations and lives will be saved. The expected hour of the next murder is approaching, and a single misstep may mean another boy is lost forever...

My Review:

From that first scene, where the running boy barely manages to step over a steaming turd, you know that this is one of those marvelous works of historical fiction where you’re going to walk the streets at the side of the characters and feel the cobbles beneath your own shoes.

Not to mention breathe the same air and smell the same smells. Maybe it’s better not to go into too many details about the smells, at least not around mealtime.

This series takes place at one of the crossroads of English history, a time when there was ferment both politically and ideologically, a time when the world was changing but the impact of those changes was still in process. And like all times of great change, there were forces dead set on maintaining their power and the status quo, just as they were those who were agitating for the changes to come. And both sides used violence to make their point, with bloody results no matter who won.

Set at the sunset of the reign of Henry VIII, the focus of this entry in the series is split between Bianca in London and her husband John, who was conscripted into the army at the end of the previous book, The Alchemist of Lost Souls. John is in Scotland, just one of the many footsoldiers participating in King Henry’s “Rough Wooing” of the Scots, and learning the lesson that transcends time and place and applies to all wars, that war is hell, and that entirely too many of the men fighting it release their inner devils for the purpose.

Bianca has no idea where John is or how he is, all she knows is that he is gone and that she has been left to make the best living she can as a “white witch” dispensing medicinal herbs and tinctures, and to occupy herself as best she can by aiding the local constable with his inquiries. Meaning that Constable Patch has the authority, Bianca has the brains, and the Constable gets all the credit for her solutions.

Patch has called Bianca in to solve a terrible crime – one made even more terrible by its repetition. Someone is killing young boys and stringing them up from church gargoyles. It’s ugly and gruesome in every possible way. But it doesn’t make sense.

It’s unclear whether someone is targeting the churches, drawing attention to the inconstancy of their beliefs and practices as they are caught in the King’s religious caprices, or whether someone is trying to discredit the church as a whole in order to bring about more reform. In either these scenarios, the boys are part of the show and not its purpose.

Or is someone poking into the gangs of thieving boys in an attempt to uncover their masters? Or is it another possibility all together?

Caught between feuding constables, infighting clergymen and searching for the lost boys, Bianca is uncertain of which way to turn. She only knows that she has to get to the root of these crimes before more are sacrificed.

Escape Rating A-: This is apparently the final book in this series, and if that’s true I’m very sorry to see it end. Bianca Goddard is a fascinating heroine in so many ways. It’s not just her intelligence and her agency, although it is marvelous to read a historical mystery with a female protagonist who is neither noble nor a member of the upper classes. Bianca’s story portrays life among the groundlings, in its all too frequent nastiness, dirtiness and brevity. Her vocation is to do her best to ease the suffering around her.

At the same time, she is human in a way that is easy for 21st century readers to identify with. She’s smart, both too smart and too observant for her own good. She gets obsessive and absorbed in her work, has little patience for either small talk or fools. Her husband doesn’t try to keep her home or protect her from it. Both because he’s easy-going and because they can’t afford for her not to work every bit as hard as he does.

He does worry about her work investigating crime, and somebody should be worried. She sticks her nose and herself into places that are dangerous, and that danger all too often reaches out to grab her.

The stories in this series do an excellent job of portraying Bianca’s world, not just her personal circumstances, but the way that the doings of the high and mighty reach down and affect the lives of every person in the kingdom. Bianca is intelligent enough that when things happen, she doesn’t just know what, but she understands the why and the how of it, and so do we, even in circumstances that seem far removed from our own.

I like Bianca and I’m going to miss her. If you enjoy gritty historical mystery and want more, in addition to Bianca’s series (start with The Alchemist’s Daughter) there’s also Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series, Candace Robb’s Owen Archer and Kate Clifford serieses and D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles in very similar veins.

One final note. Bianca has a cat named Hobs. As is usual for cats, it would be more accurate to say that Hobs has her. Due to a bit of magical realism in the previous books in the series, Bianca believes that Hobs is immortal, and the events of this book prove her correct. I want a cat like Hobs. Actually, I want all my cats to be like Hobs. Desperately. If this particular character in the story includes a bit of wish fulfillment on the part of the author, I understand completely.

Review: The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence + Giveaway

Review: The Alchemist of Lost Souls by Mary Lawrence + GiveawayThe Alchemist of Lost Souls (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #4) by Mary Lawrence
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Bianca Goddard #4
Pages: 320
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation on April 30, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A dangerous element discovered by Bianca Goddard's father falls into the wrong hands . . . leading to a chain of murders. Spring 1544 Now that she is with child, Bianca is more determined than ever to distance herself from her unstable father. Desperate to win back the favor of King Henry VIII, disgraced alchemist Albern Goddard plans to reveal a powerful new element he's discovered--one with deadly potential. But when the substance is stolen, he implores his daughter to help.

Soon after, a woman's body is found behind the Dim Dragon Inn, an eerie green vapor rising from her mouth. Bianca has reason to suspect her own mother may be involved in the theft and the murder. When her husband John is conscripted into King Henry's army to subdue Scottish resistance, finding the stone becomes a matter of life and death. Bianca must unravel the interests of alchemists, apothecaries, chandlers, and scoundrels--to find out who among them is willing to kill to possess the element known as lapis mortem, the stone of death . . .

Praise for The Alchemist of Lost Souls "Atmospheric...Fans of Tudor historicals will eagerly await the next installment."--Publishers Weekly

Praise for Death at St. Vedast "Full of period details, Lawrence's latest series outing captures Tudor London in all its colorful splendor. A solid choice for devotees of Elizabethan mysteries."--Library Journal

Praise for Death of an Alchemist "A must read!" --RT Reviews

"Colorful alchemical lore and vividly imagined..." --Publishers Weekly

Praise for The Alchemist's Daughter A Night Owls Reviews Top Pick Suspense Magazine Best Historical Mystery 2015

"A complex plot and likeable cast of characters" --Historical Novel Society

My Review:

This is the fourth book in the Bianca Goddard series, and I picked it up because I read and enjoyed the recreation of Tudor England in the first two books in the series, The Alchemist’s Daughter and Death of an Alchemist. How and why I managed to miss the third book, Death at St. Vedast, I have no idea, but it’s an omission I certainly plan to rectify!

Although this series takes place among people who are living at the bottom of the economic pile, the actions of those at the top still affect the lives of Bianca, her husband John, and her father Albern in ways that never work to their benefit.

Once upon a time Albern Goddard was a respected alchemist in the employ of the king. The respectability of alchemy, while not laughable as it is today, was more than a bit dubious even in the mid 16th century when this story is set.

Albern’s fame and fortunes have considerably dwindled – not that his attitudes towards his wife, his daughter, or the people he lives among have come down even in the slightest. He thinks he’s better and smarter than everyone else looking down his nose at everyone around him, including his family.

And certainly his fellow practitioners of the so-called noble art.

His daughter Bianca, on the other hand, is both a decent brewer of medicinals and a decent judge of human beings. Including her parents. That she lives in an unsavory part of London and practices among those even poorer than herself provides further fuel for her father’s contempt. And that’s in spite of the fact that Bianca has pulled his nuts, literally and figuratively, out of the fire more than once.

Which doesn’t stop either Albern Goddard nor the local sheriff from enlisting her aid. Albern when a precious compound is stolen, and the sheriff when the woman who ended up with it in her possession is murdered.

But the parallel investigations into the theft from her father and the murder that seems to have been its result are not the only problems plaguing Bianca.

Because it is 1544 and Henry VIII plans on one final campaign against England’s perennial enemy, the French. He intends it to be a glorious victory. All that Bianca knows is that her husband has been caught up in the conscription for a war that seems more foolhardy than glorious. Whether he will return in time to see the child she carries – even whether he will return at all – is in the hands, or whims, of a capricious fate.

Escape Rating B+: This is a historical series where the reader kicks the offal, smells the smells, and feels more than a hint of the brutality of life on society’s lowest rungs of the ladder. In that, it resembles the Crispin Guest series by Jeri Westerson, the Thieftaker Chronicles by D.B. Jackson and the Kate Clifford series by Candace Robb.

This is not a pretty view of Tudor England, but one that is biting and raw. Bianca’s circumstances force her to make her living in an area known for its poverty, crime and lawlessness. It’s a world where her father has not only the right but the duty to beat her, in spite of her being an adult living away from his household, and where she is grateful that her husband does not do his duty to beat her as well.

And it is also a period where what we would now label superstition is accepted as fact, and where the worlds of magic and spiritualism lie much closer to everyday life. Which explains the common beliefs in alchemy, as well as nearly everything about the title character of this story, the being known as the Rat Man, who has spent centuries plying the waterways of the Thames and looking for the alchemical element he once created in an attempt to grant eternal life. An element that seems to have only granted him eternal damnation.

He is watching Bianca, in the hopes that she can somehow lead him to the final end that he longs for. And that she will not pay for his death with her own.

But the Rat Man is a shadowy figure, existing mostly on the fringes of this story. It is Bianca that we focus on, and it is her search for the truth, even the truths that she does not want to face, that moves us. While her circumstances may be removed in place and time, the intelligence, deductive reasoning and sheer stubbornness that she uses to achieve her aims are traits that 21st century readers can certainly empathize with – and follow.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

The author is giving away signed paperback copies of The Alchemist of Lost Souls to two lucky participants in this tour!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + Giveaway

Review: Death of an Alchemist by Mary Lawrence + GiveawayDeath of an Alchemist (Bianca Goddard Mysteries, #2) by Mary Lawrence
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Bianca Goddard #2
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on January 26th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the mid sixteenth century, Henry VIII sits on the throne, and Bianca Goddard tends to the sick and suffering in London's slums, where disease can take a life as quickly as murder. . .
For years, alchemist Ferris Stannum has devoted himself to developing the Elixir of Life, the reputed serum of immortality. Having tested his remedy successfully on an animal, Stannum intends to send his alchemy journal to a colleague in Cairo for confirmation. Instead he is strangled in his bed and his journal is stolen.
As the daughter of an alchemist herself, Bianca is well acquainted with the mystical healing arts. As her husband, John, falls ill with the sweating sickness, she dares to hope Stannum's journal could contain the secret to his recovery. But first she must solve the alchemist's murder. As she ventures into a world of treachery and deceit, Stannum's death proves to be only the first in a series of murders--and Bianca's quest becomes a matter of life and death, not only for her husband, but for herself. . .

My Review:

Actually, the title should have been “Deaths of Several Alchemists”, but that doesn’t have nearly the same ring to it, does it?

And the story really does center around one particular alchemist’s death, even though the ripples from that death take down one more alchemist, and nearly kill chemiste Bianca Goddard as well. Not to mention a very unlikeable landlady, an alchemist’s daughter (not Bianca, obviously), a ne’er do well husband and a poor unfortunate bird.

Unknotting all the threads of this case while keeping herself alive and out of jail are all in a day’s work for Bianca. What makes the case potentially life-altering is the object that causes all the trouble – a formula for the elixir of life. Too many people want it. And too many people need it. But is it a good idea for anyone to have it?

Bianca’s husband John lies in a coma in their “rent”. Bianca believes that if she can manage to interpret the arcane formula and successfully brew the potion, neither of which is at all certain, she can save John’s life from the deadly “sweating sickness”. A disease that died out long before modern medical science could figure out what it was in the first place.

But she’s not the only one in dire need. So as Bianca races through London trying to secure ingredients and equipment, someone is chasing her and the precious formula. Is her mysterious stalker in search of fame and fortune, or is their need just as dire as Bianca’s?

And why are so many people dying of mysterious, or sometimes not so mysterious, causes in the wake of Bianca’s pursuit? Bianca puzzles over the medical conundrums she discovers even as she desperately searches for everything she needs to brew the potion. All the while worried that by the time she is ready to brew the elixir, the person she needs it for, the man she loves, will be beyond healing.

Bianca races against time, and against the dictates of her own conscience. If the elixir truly gives life everlasting, is it right to go against the natural order of things? There is one figure haunting London who has lived with the answer for far too long, and hopes that the elixir, and Bianca, hold the keys to his salvation.

Escape Rating A-: If churches are sometimes referred to as “smells and bells”, then the view of the English Renaissance in the Bianca Goddard series is all the smells, with no bells at all. The series takes place during the English Reformation, and the church bells are silent. But the author makes it clear to the reader that everything stinks, and those who can afford it wear masks or carry pomanders to keep the stink away from their own personal noses.

Bianca and her husband live in the middle of it all, near the Thames in Southwark. John complains all too frequently that he wants to move someplace that stinks a little less, and Bianca responds with the sensible statement that not only is this what they can afford, but that the surrounding stinks mask the stinks created by her brewing of medicinals. Which also stink.

alchemists daughter by mary lawrenceThis is, as I said in my review of the first book in this series, The Alchemist’s Daughter, life among the groundlings, where life is often nasty, frequently brutish, and generally all too short. This was a time when medicine all too frequently consisted of bloodletting and leeches, and no one knew what caused diseases or what cured them. Bianca’s brewing of medicinal potions and poultices works by observation – she sees what alleviates symptoms, and repeats the process, but the why was beyond her or anyone in the 16th century.

Bianca also applies alchemistry methods to her brewing. Her father is an alchemist, and a spiteful basty-assed nastard into the bargain. But the processes for reduction and sublimation work for medical herbs as well as whatever the next idea is to turn lead into gold.

So when Bianca needs a master to teach her better brewing methods, she is steered to Ferris Stannum, an elderly alchemist with an excellent reputation. She arrives just as he announces that he has managed to create an elixir of life, and has proven its efficacy by administering it to his formerly sick cat, who is now capering around the place in healthy feline glee.

His announcement is followed by a trail of death, as everyone who was in the vicinity of Stannum dies in mysterious circumstances, except for Bianca and the person who chases her all over London. Because someone drops the old alchemist’s formulary into Bianca’s house, and her pursuer will do anything to get it back. Including murder.

This is an absorbing historical mystery from what we would think of as an uncommon point of view. Bianca is an average person with above-average intelligence, getting by the best she can. In this series, we see life as she sees it, not as the nobles loftily prance over it all. Getting inside Bianca’s head is fascinating and often frightening. There is so much that we know that she can’t, and we feel for her every step of the way.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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Mary is giving away a 2-book set of the Bianca Goddard mysteries as part of this tour!

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Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary Lawrence

Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Mary LawrenceThe Alchemist's Daughter (Bianca Goddard Mysteries #1) by Mary Lawrence
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Series: Bianca Goddard #1
Pages: 304
Published by Kensington on April 28th 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

“A realistic evocation of 16th century London’s underside. The various strands of the plot are so skillfully plaited together.” —Fiona Buckley
In the year 1543 of King Henry VIII’s turbulent reign, the daughter of a notorious alchemist finds herself suspected of cold-blooded murder…
Bianca Goddard employs her knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants to concoct remedies for the disease-riddled poor in London’s squalid Southwark slum. But when her friend Jolyn comes to her complaining of severe stomach pains, Bianca’s prescription seems to kill her on the spot. Recovering from her shock, Bianca suspects Jolyn may have been poisoned before coming to her—but the local constable is not so easily convinced.
To clear her name and keep her neck free of the gallows, Bianca must apply her knowledge of the healing arts to deduce exactly how her friend was murdered and by whom—before she herself falls victim to a similar fate…
“Unique characters, a twisty plot and a bold, bright heroine add up to a great debut for Mary Lawrence’s The Alchemist’s Daughter. Mystery and Tudor fans alike will raise a glass to this new series.” —Karen Harper, author of
The Poyson Garden

My Review:

Think of The Alchemist’s Daughter as an antidote for all those Renaissance Faires where they make the English Renaissance look festive and clean, tidy and with no bad smells. With Bianca Goddard, we get a perspective on life among the ‘groundlings’, probably short, frequently nasty, and always unfair.

Bianca herself is an absolutely fascinating character, but the world she lives in is not a place any of us would want to visit, not even for an afternoon. The past, as they say, is another country, and they do things differently there.

Also it stinks.

Bianca has an interesting backstory. Her father is an alchemist. In other words, he was one of the the many would-be chemists who believed that there was a ‘philosopher’s stone’ that would turn lead and other base metals into gold. Trying to turn lead into gold, while fruitless, is also harmless. But Bianca’s obsessed father was also a Catholic during the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign, and nearly got executed after being caught up in a plan to overthrow the King. Someone accused him of attempting to poison Old King Hal, and he would have swung for it – if his daughter hadn’t proved his innocence – at least of that crime. (I hope the author gives us the full tale at some point in this series because it sounds amazing.)

But the notoriety brought both Bianca and her father to the attention of some of the powers that be, especially the conniving little ones who have just enough power to make life miserable for common people, which Bianca and her family certainly are.

Bianca is also unusual in that she has chosen to live apart from her family. Her father’s involvement in treasonous plots was the last straw for the independent minded Bianca. She wants to practice chemistry, not alchemy, and use the skills she learned at her father’s knee to find cures for the diseases that make people’s lives so short and miserable. Bianca lives alone in the tiny shack, or ‘rent’ that she, well, rents to practice her art.

Which makes her an all too easy target when her best friend comes to her in distress, and dies right there in Bianca’s arms. It was all too common for whoever was present at a death to be accused (and convicted) of it, and when her friend’s blood is found to be purple instead of red, accusations of poisoning fly at Bianca quicker than you can say “plague”.

The story in this book is Bianca dodging the inept law while trying to determine who really killed her friend. Because unless Bianca can find the real killer, she is the one who will be tortured and executed for the crime that she certainly did not commit.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things I found fascinating about this story is that is bookends the story of Lucie Wilton in Candace Robb’s Owen Archer series. Lucie is a master apothecary in York in the late 1300’s, and is also accused of murder. But so many things about the two women in these stories is a kind of mirror image. Lucie’s story takes place in the years before the Wars of the Roses, and Bianca’s take place in the aftermath two centuries later. Lucie is an acknowledged master of her craft, she owns her own shop and takes her own apprentices. Bianca is barely surviving, and is just as often called “witch” as “healer”. Also, Lucie marries Owen, where in Bianca’s first story, she steadfastly refuses to marry her long-time suitor, John. And Bianca’s reasons are lived out in Lucie. Bianca needs the freedom to devote herself to her obsession with her craft, where Lucie, who gets pregnant and has children and devastating miscarriages, is forced to divide her time between her life as a married woman running a household and her livelihood. Lucie never has the time, or frankly the inclination, for the kind of death-defying experiments that Bianca loses herself in on a regular basis.

In other words, if you find The Alchemist’s Daughter right up your rank and smelly alley, give The Apothecary Rose a try. Also Jeri Westerson’s Crispin Guest series, starting with Veil of Lies. It has the same gritty feel, and is set not long before the Archer series.

But back to Bianca’s life. We see the law that is after her as venal, incompetent and much more interested in finding a quick and easy solution than in actually finding the true criminal. And as the lawman Patch observes, while there is plenty of crime in the wealthy districts, the residents there have enough money to make sure that their crimes go unreported, if not absolutely unmarked or blamed on some poor sod in the poorer quarters.

Bianca has very little in the way of forensic evidence, no official assistance, and very little time to find the guilty party. She also has an entire barrel of red herrings to sort through in order to get close to the real killer and the real motive. All she knows at the very beginning is the very little that her friend Jolyn told her, and it isn’t much. Jolyn found a ring while muckracking – literally combing through garbage and debris on the Thames riverbank in the hope of finding something worth selling for enough money to keep body and soul together another day.

Jolyn believed that the ring she found brought her luck. An older woman offers her a room in her boarding house and a job after seeing Jolyn with the ring. Once there, Jolyn attracts a rich suitor. The ring is clearly a catalyst for something. Jolyn thought it was good luck, but the more that Bianca desperately digs into the history of the ring, the more she believes it was the catalyst for her murder.

We follow Bianca’s desperate quest as it goes at breakneck speed. It’s impossible not to shiver at the dangers she faces. And the legions of rats, not all of them on four legs.