Book review: Moon in Leo by Kathleen Herbert

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The perilous tides and lethal quicksands of Morecambe Bay provide the dramatic backcloth to an outstanding new novel set in the closing years of King Charles II’s reign.

Moon in Leo, a vivid, occasionally mystical, sometimes humorous and often savagely realistic historical adventure grounded in detailed research and superb storytelling, is as fast flowing as the bay’s notorious tidal bore and as brooding as the fells that fringe the shoreline.

Author Kathleen Herbert is no stranger to the Furness peninsula of Cumbria – previous books including her Dark Age trilogy used the same fells and seascape – and her gift is to bring to life its people and its past.

But Herbert is also a scholar – in fact, a former Oxford student of the great JRR Tolkien – and her impressive grasp of the Restoration allows her to open up her story to the wider politics, tensions, terrors, land conflicts and religious ideologies that made these years such a fascinating period of history.

As Charles’s turbulent reign draws to an end and the Monmouth Rebellion gathers force, the days of the Stuart dynasty are numbered, the events of the Civil War are still a raw wound, old religious differences are rising to the surface and the pernicious ‘Popish plot’ is taking shape.

Britain is also teetering on the cusp of the Age of Enlightenment, entrenched beliefs and customs jostle uncomfortably with advances in science and technology and at Park Hall on the northern tip of Morecambe Bay in 1678, a naive teenage girl is about to be catapulted into a wave of treason and bigotry more dangerous than the incoming sea.

Rosamund Halistan hails from the kind of claustrophobic community that ‘knows who married whom before the Norman Conquest’.

When her twin brother Stephen returns after a three-year tour of Europe, her sheltered existence changes forever the moment an unseen enemy tries to shoot him as he crosses the sands.

Rosamund is no ordinary girl – bright, brave and determined, she has been raised by her father, a man steeped in alchemy and the occult – and she knows how to conjure spirits.

At a local house party, she meets two very different men - Simon Challis, an aloof fellow follower of the mystical Hermetic Creed, and the earthy Henry Ravensworth, an energetic, sexually attractive monarchist with a bawdy reputation.

One of these men will betray her and lead her into a nightmare that takes her from the dungeons of Lancaster Castle and imprisonment on the Cumberland fells through travels with gypsies and a peep show, terrifying mob violence and on to an extraordinary denouement on the sands of Morecambe Bay.

Herbert’s thrilling story has a gregarious gallery of fleshed-out characters – from archetypal rogues to cynical and dashing heroes – and presents to us the life of 17th century people in all its everyday reality. We join in their songs, see the clothes they wear, share the food they eat and learn about the hopes, fears and frustrations that feed their prejudices.

Moon in Leo is a stunning piece of work, both as a page-turning adventure novel and as an intelligent and informative historical exploration.

Don’t miss it.

(Trifolium Books, paperback, £11.99)