Forgotten history revived. 4/5 stars.
Thank you to Transworld and NetGalley for providing me with an e-copy of this book.
1815: The war is over but for the inmates at Dartmoor Prison, peace – like home – is still a long way away.
On the eve of the year 1815, the American sailors of the Eagle finally arrive at Dartmoor prison; bedraggled, exhausted but burning with hope. They’ve only had one thing to sustain them – a snatched whisper overheard along the way.
The war is over.
Joe Hill thought he’d left the war outside these walls but it’s quickly clear that there’s a different type of fight to be had within. The seven prison blocks surrounding him have been segregated; six white and one black. As his voice rings out across the courtyard, announcing the peace, the redcoat guards bristle and the inmates stir. The powder keg was already fixed to blow and Joe has just lit the fuse.
Elizabeth Shortland, wife of the Governor looks down at the swirling crowd from the window of her own personal prison. The peace means the end is near, that she needn’t be here for ever. But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of leaving.
Inspired by a true story, Mad Blood Stirring tells of a few frantic months in the suffocating atmosphere of a prison awaiting liberation. It is a story of hope and freedom, of loss and suffering. It is a story about how sometimes, in our darkest hour, it can be the most unlikely of things that see us through.
Mad Blood Stirring is an example of what I love most about historical fiction: an entertaining and immersive way to learn more about a past event, place and people. The story picks up on a bit of “forgotten” history, or not forgotten in my case as the War of 1812 and the associated events at Dartmouth prison were all completely new to me!
The novel is incredibly well-researched and brings the past to life with vivid descriptions, conveying the horrors of confinement, particularly when disease and violence spreads throughout the jail. And, as is often the way with books “based on true events”, the most unbelievable details are precisely those which are true: the racial segregation of the prisoners, the smallpox outbreak, King Dick himself, and the prisoners putting on productions of Shakespeare.
All the characters are engaging – the central characters as likeable as the villains are despicable – although while the relationship between Habs and Joe is the heart of the book, the show is stolen by King Dick who looms large over the whole narrative. Obviously, given the context, female characters are thin on the ground, however, I’m pleased to report that the few who do make an appearance are laudably confident and capable.
As a die-hard Shakespeare nut, I loved the use of Romeo and Juliet as a narrative event (the prisoners are putting on a production – don’t roll your eyes, this is one of the documented things that actually happened at Dartmoor!), and the parallels to Shakespeare’s story in the narrative, even down to the five-act structure. That said, you don’t need to have any prior knowledge of the play or attachment to Shakespeare to appreciate the story told in Mad Blood Stirring.
This story unfolds slowly, laying its many threads meticulously to gradually ratchet up the tension before events come to a head in Act 5. In fact, Acts 1-3 are like a fuse being slowly wound out, in Act 4 someone finally lights it and in Act 5 the flame races towards the dynamite. So don’t be put off if you think the pacing at the start is a little slow – it’s all building to a rapid and explosive conclusion.
Overall: well-researched historical fiction with engaging characters. Fans of the genre should seek this one out!
P.S. This is Simon Mayo’s first book for adults. However, he’s also written MG and YA fiction. If you’re interested in that, you can read my review of Blame, his excellent YA dystopian novel.
Claire Huston / Art and Soul