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REVIEW: Unnatural Fire by Fidelis Morgan

Dear Ms. Morgan,

I had started reading the first book in the Countess Ashby de la Zouche mystery series a few weeks ago but had put it down for other books. With an indefinite power outage from Hurricane Irene mucking up my day, I decided to apply myself and finish it. Once I refreshed myself about the basics of the plot, the book flew by.

Unnatural Fire by Fidelis MorganLady Anastasia Ashby de la Zouche is on the far side of 50 in 1699 England. She’s also somewhat unstable financially and, along with her loyal maidservant Alpiew and somewhat loyal retainer Godfrey, she lives in her lifehold house in London. Reduced to selling society gossip to a weekly news sheet, she jumps at the chance offered by a suspicious wife, Elizabeth Wilson, to discover what the woman’s husband has been up to these past few months.

After following the man for less than 48 hours, Lady Asbhy and Alpiew already have a whole host of bizarre behavior to sort out. At the roughly 48 hour mark things turn bloody as they stumble across his corpse and first Lady Ashby then Mrs. Wilson are arrested for the crime. Though she’s quickly cleared and released, Lady Ashby and Alpiew are in a race against the justice system to save a woman they believe innocent of killing her husband as they attempt to find out who killed Wilson and why.

When I mentioned this book in my reading post, a few people commented about how bawdy it is and agreed with my description of “warts and all” 17th century life. No hygiene, caked on makeup, privies, horse dung, spoiled food, muck of every description – it’s all here and waiting to dazzle the reader. There’s also a wealth of period detail that doesn’t condescend too much to those who don’t know it nor, I would think, would overly bore those who are already in the know. Yet there are also anachronisms – deliberate, or not? – that I easily picked out which then makes me wonder about the rest of it. I’m no expert on the era and I don’t think any of these would affect the plot but historical sticklers might get their feathers ruffled.

As the story progresses clues begin to pile up but nothing begins to add up until very late. When all the clues do begin to fall into place things get wild with all sorts of bizarre occurrences and people who are and aren’t what they seem. The end is a crazy ride to the finish and only then can the reader sit back and think “that was weird and what about….?” Loose ends have to be tied up with information that I’m not sure how Lady Ashby could have gotten about what the dead man saw and did that lead to his death. But I will say that the plot depends on things such as alchemy and the succession which would have been important in the day.

When reading a mystery, liking the protagonists is as important to me as the plot and how the mystery is solved. In Lady Ashby and Alpiew, I think you’ve created two multifaceted people. They’ve got strengths and weaknesses but also intelligence and that drive to know the truth and see justice done. Once “Unnatural Fire” gets going, it’s compelling to keep reading and try to figure out the complicated plot. In order to discover “whodunit” and why, the reader has to remember to trace the usual path of money, power and revenge which, honestly, really hasn’t changed much whether in that fascinating age or this. B-

~Jayne

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Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

14 Comments

  1. Bets Davies
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 15:04:33

    Well it is good to hear about all the privies and cake make up. I hate it when historicals make everything much prettier than it was. Victorians appear to have a pernicious tendency for this behavior.

    For me, the most important element in anything I read is to like, or at least be fascinated by, the characters, so that’s a strong recommendation for me.

    Still, I can’t say I’ll go right out and buy this one if there are holes in the sleuthing. Mystery books that don’t build their cases well make me want to throw them against walls.

  2. Amy Kathryn
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 16:26:16

    I picked this up when you talked about it on your earlier post, especially since it was $1.25 at that point. I am glad you ended up enjoying it and look forward to reading it for myself now.

    I really enjoyed The Sugarless Plum that you talked about recently so we seem to have similar tastes.

  3. Jayne
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 16:44:00

    @Bets Davies: The smells just waft off the page. Kidding. What’s really funny is that Lady Asbhy and her French Duchess friend prefer the city and whinge about the short amount of time they have to spend out in the ::horrors:: country.

    I know what you mean about sleuthing holes. And they’ve spoiled more than a few of they mysteries I’ve read over the years.

  4. Jayne
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 16:46:31

    @Amy Kathryn: That was a really nice price for the book. I paid full price when I ordered it online and don’t regret it.

    And I’m glad you enjoyed “The Sugarless Plum!” That was a “warts and all” look at ballet.

  5. Amy Kathryn
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 19:04:45

    Are you going to continue with the series, Jayne? Or if you have, still good? I ask since they are still on sale for $1.25.

  6. Maili
    Aug 31, 2011 @ 20:26:15

    I reread this review a couple of times figuring out why it seemed so familiar. It’s a reissue, isn’t it? I quite like that cover. Makes me think of the beloved British illustrator/cartoonist Ronald Searle.

    Fidelis Morgan was one of my go-to authors years ago. I remember liking this one.

  7. Marguerite Kaye
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 01:57:15

    C J Sansom’s Dark Fire, set in Tudor times, is a similar mystery told much more ‘straightly’. It features Shardlake, his hunchback lawyer sleuth, and it’s another of a series you can read out of order. Like Unnatural Fire, it’s full of period ambiance, and though it’s neither bawdy nor funny, it’s a really great wet-day read.

  8. Jayne
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 02:07:18

    @Amy Kathryn: I probably will continue but it would be awhile before I started the next one.

  9. Jayne
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 02:10:04

    @Maili: Yes, it is a reissue. The original copywright is (I think) from 2000 or 2001. And I like the cover too. Makes me think of them out in the freezing cold of night getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. Plus it illustrates Alpiew’s magnificent bosom – something the men of the book appreciated.

    Did you read the whole series? Does it (the series) stay as good?

  10. Jayne
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 02:12:32

    @Marguerite Kaye: Cool. Thanks for the rec.

  11. Jennifer
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 04:22:42

    I read the first two books in the series when they came out in paperback about 10 years ago, and quite enjoyed them – but then the third book in the series The Ambitious Stepmother, was a DNF – from memory, I think it was because the characters were just too unpleasant. I should give it another go.

  12. Ros
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 04:26:42

    The name is like fingernails on a blackboard to me. Ashby de la Zouch (without the final e) is a real place. The associated family name is ‘la Zouche’, so the town name means Ashby, of the Zouche family. No one is ever going to be called Lady Ashby de la Zouche, with or without the e. She should be Lady la Zouche, or possibly Lady de la Zouche.

    It’s a shame, because the book sounds fun, but I can’t read it with a name that will irritate me on every page.

  13. Maili
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 10:30:56

    @Jayne: Thanks. I think I gave up the idea of following the series after I read somewhere that she was planning to pen at least six more books. This was when my usual limit for any book series was three (still is).

    Anyroad, my book diary says that I found the first two fun but patchy. No notes to explain what got me labelling those two books ‘patchy’. Gah. Knowing myself, I was probably referring to continuity errors. There’s a mention of “Ealing / Mrgt Rutfrd”. Probably Margaret Rutherford of Ealing comedy films. (Not sure why I mentioned this actress.) I liked Fidelis’s contributions to a historical fiction forum more than her books, though.

  14. Felix
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 03:27:23

    @Ros: Ahby-de-la-Zouch is indeed a real town, In the seventeenth century however it was usually spelled with a final “e”. The Countess’s name in the book is from the earldom conferred on her husband, not her family name. Earldoms are generally issued as a territorial designation. i.e. The Earl of Pembroke, or the Earl of Stockton. (The rule is the similar in baronetcies, in order to stop confusion if people have similar surnames, thus we have Ruth Rendell = Baroness Rendell of Babergh). With an Earldom the wife would be called Countess therefore it would have been quite correctly The Countess of Ashby dela Zouche, or Lady Ashby dela Zouche

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