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3.7 out of 5 stars
Ace, King, Knave
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 31 October 2013
One of the things that I like about McCann is that her books are never just repeats of each other. Set in the eighteenth century, this one is situated in a different world from either her superlative As Meat Loves Salt or the slightly less engaging The Wilding.

We're now in an urban setting (London, Bath) where concerns about money, gender, status and power are made central, and where characters are able to shift their social identities, so that people are not always who they present themselves to be.

Into this mix is thrown innocent Sophia, desperately in love with Mr Zedland who she is to marry; and the less-innocent Betsy-Ann. As both women uncover lies and deceptions, they find that they can, with help, take some control of their own lives.

This reminds me a little of Sarah Water's Fingersmith with its sense of people being able to fashion their own identities, and the emphasis on female empowerment in different social settings, though McCann's voice is her own.

So this is an energetic historical novel which uses the concerns of the present - race, gender, the authority of money, the slipperiness of identity - to inform a view of the past. This doesn't, for me, have the emotional rawness and power of As Meat Loves Salt but it is a clever, gripping, intelligent read - recommended.

(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 30 November 2013
Eighteenth century London is vividly recreated in this charismatic story about the fortunes, and multiple misfortunes, of a trio of disparate people. There is the newly-wed Sophie who is married to the charismatic Mr Zedland, who keeps her own secrets well hidden. A former bawdy prostitute, Betsy- Anne Blore who runs her second hand goods shop with an enviable entrepreneurial skill, and also Fortune, who is the Zedland's mismanaged slave.

On the surface, the lives of these three people should never intertwine, but Maria McCann has, with great panache, weaved together a story which will gradually reveal the heaving hotchpotch of the great, and it must be said, the mightily unwashed of 1760s London. From the gin-soaked alleys, which are reminiscent of a Hogarth engraving, through to the genteel drawing rooms of the English upper class, no stone is left unturned, and as these proverbial stones are uncovered, a shocking story of vile corruption, and filth at the highest level, is revealed.

Ultimately, this is a good romp through Hanoverian England. As always the author manipulates the narrative with considerable ease, blending authenticity with dramatic storytelling. Littered throughout is a colourful vocabulary which infuses such a tangible realism, that I felt like I had spent time wandering London, with a set of wastrels, vagabonds, prostitutes and grave-robbers.

If you like colourful and realistic historical fiction then I am sure that this will appeal enough to warrant giving it a try.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 20 February 2014
I loved this book for about three quarters of its length. The characters are strongly drawn, the period is evoked through great use of language and the plot builds nicely. As other reviewers have said, it reminded me of Fingersmith and also The Crimson Petal and the White at various points. However...the ending is really lame and I felt shortchanged after investing a lot in the book thus far. For this reason I wouldn't rate it overall as a great historical novel. I can't believe that a good editor didn't tell McCann that she needed a stronger resolution as part of her contract with the reader. Not sure I'd bother reading any of her other novels for that reason.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
‘Provided they are accompanied at all times by Rixam, and on no account venture further than the shallows, Papa has given permission for Mr Zedland to take Sophia boating on the Statue Lake.’

Maria McCann’s third novel opens with the conventions of a Regency novel. It could almost be the start of a novel by Georgette Heyer, whose novels I love, and find I am in good company as Margaret Drabble does too. In this opening chapter there is the mannered conversation of the couple on the lake, the French phrases that pepper the speech of the upper classes and the references to the accomplishments of a gentleman and of the copying of Roman statues. The description is more literary than Heyer’s, ‘Heat-haze rising off the water melts her grey satin robe into the surrounding air, and Sophia herself is incense dissolving before the sacred image that is Mr Zedland,’ but the scene is set up for romance and some mystery.

I try to minimise spoilers in plot based novels but some may regard the following spoilerish..

There are three narrative threads following three protagonists in the novel whose stories interweave; Sophia who is Mr Zedland’s fiancé at the start of the novel, Betsy-Ann who is a ‘fly’ coster-monger and Titus, a former slave and Mr Zedland’s gift to Sophia. It is in their opening chapters and in the subsequent unfolding of Sophia’s that Maria McCann’s novel lifts the cover on the world of the Regency novel that tends to provide the contrast to the romps of the upper classes that Heyer’s novels revolve around. What creates a frisson of excitement there - the danger that a lady’s reputation and more could be ruined - is the very core of this novel. At one point Sophia exclaims that a woman cannot be sold in England and yet Sophia becomes a chattel of her husband, her property is his, her place in society precarious once she has left the protection of her father and she starts to discover what sort of man she has married. Titus was literally kidnapped and sold as a slave and Betsey-Ann’s story reveals how she has been subject to being viewed as a commodity all her life; as a fence, a former prostitute and kept woman. Her final ambition is to have a shop, where she can have financial independence and an easier life. All three narratives resolve around The Corinthian, a ne'er do well who carries the title of one of Miss Heyer's novels but is an altogether darker character.

Gaming, cant, grave robbers, the strange code of honour that gentlemen keep - all are unpicked by McCann, but as part of the narrative, not as part of any polemic. Her characters are believable and rounded – those living on their wits are the products of the accident of their birth and their upbringing. When Betsey-Ann looks around her is a street scene her natural sympathy is with the con artists and pickpockets rather than their prey.

A very good novel - strong on story and character and though rich with period detail it carries very lightly the considerable research Maria McCann has obviously undertaken. It has a gentle start but it had me in its grip at about one third in, from when I had to see how things would unfold and was reluctant to put it down.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 February 2014
I loved this one. I've read two others by Maria McCann and enjoyed both, particularly As Meat Loves Salt. This is an eighteenth century tale of theft and conniving with plenty of thieves' cant in the dialogue to keep the reader awake. There is a glossary. Cracking plot and the right number of characters. A joy.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 January 2014
Set in 18th century 'Romeville' (period slang for London), this is a far-fetched and rather predictable tale about two young women from opposite ends of the social spectrum. Betsy-Ann is a country girl turned card-sharp whose fate becomes entwined with that of the unfortunate Sophia through Zedland, the man they both love.

The dialogue sounds authentic but the over-use of contemporary slang sends the reader to the glossary at the back of the book time and again while trying to avoid a glimpse of the ending. Surely the glossary would have made more sense at the front?

Although this book is reminiscent in some ways of The Crimson Petal and the White, it has none of the latter's subtlety, ambiguity and menace. Sophia's situation elicits the reader's empathy but Betsy-Ann completely fails to come alive and the despicable Zedland is reduced to a wholly unconvincing caricature.

Others have referred to this as a 'romp' but the word implies an element of fun that simply isn't there; the writing, whilst accomplished, is virtually devoid of humour. There are also considerable longueurs and at least a hundred pages could usefully have been lopped. I'm afraid that Ms McCann will have to deal me out in future.
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on 14 November 2014
Sophia is a naive heiress whose new husband isn't all he seems. Betsy-Anne is a prostitute and kept-woman pining for her former lover, son of her madam. Fortunate is an african slave, trying to come to terms with life in London. The lives of these three characters are intertwined together in a tale of resurrection, gambling, prostitution and vice set in the 18th century. The link between all three is a fortune hunter whose background in vice has led to a disregard for others and a need for the high life. Work as a card shark, then a grave robber, finally he abandons his wife as fate catches up with him.

The use of the bon mot of the times is a real clever characteristic of this book, although I am glad I didn't get the e-reader version as at first I was constantly turning to the glossary. However this is a really enjoyable tale, expertly researched and with an excellent plot. I much preferred it to McCann's earlier works as it feels more alive and 'of its time'. The descriptions of life in all strata of society is detailed and hypocrisy and snobbery are never far away.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 March 2014
This was the first book that I read on my kindle. I had never heard of this author before despite a love of reading a variety of books. I was not disappointed. At first I wasn't sure how the main characters would fit in the story but all was revealed in a very clever way. It ended too soon otherwise would have been 5 stars but perhaps there will another book to follow. I have bought another book by thus author.
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on 25 February 2015
Another fascinating, gritty novel by Maria McCann. I was caught up in the narrative from the beginning and was swept along to the rather surprising end. Some reviewers have commented that the ending was weak. I disagree. Better for the reader to imagine how life would continue for the main characters once the link that had joined them was severed. Excellent - I can't wait for the next novel.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 19 November 2013
One of those books you really want to read in one go. A powerful original story - you simply cannot guess at the ending - full of the fresh unexpected detail that creates a completely convincing world, and real people who say and think and feel real things. A fascinating trip to the past, and a must-read.
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