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Ace, King, Knave
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 September 2014
‘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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on 3 December 2013
After two very different novels set in 16th century England, Maria McCann has something different again with her third; a gripping story of secrets and lies, set some years later, in the 17th century.

It tells of two very different women.

Sophia Buller was the only child of a country gentleman. Her parents were eager to see her married, but they knew that their daughter was plain, they knew that she had an unfortunate ‘little weakness', and so they knew it wouldn’t be easy. But the handsome, charming Edward Zeeland began to pay court to Sophia; and when he proposed she was utterly thrilled. Married life was not what Sophia had hoped it would be. She found herself in a shabby house in an unfashionable district; her husband was away for most of time, leaving her stranded at home with uncommunicative servants; and when he was home Edward wasn’t the husband she had hoped her would be, expected he would be, at all.

Betsy-Ann Blore had a very different life. She had been a prostitute, but she had managed to establish herself as a buyer and seller of …. well lets say second-hand good. Sam, her husband, was a cardsharp, but he had run into trouble, and so he joined up with Betsy-Ann’s brother Harry and his crew of resurrectionists. He hated it; he drank and he sank into depression. She hated it too and, though she could see no way out of their situation, she held on to hope; she practiced the skills of a cardsharp, and she dreamed of Ned Hartry, the handsome, charming scourge of the card-tables, and the greatest love of her life.

The two stories are very different, and the differing styles, the differing use of language – as different as the two women – is very, very effective. Two lives, lived very differently, in the same time, in the same time came to life, and the world about them, rich with detail, was so wonderfully. Everything lived and breathed, it really did.

At first I found it easier to empathise with Sophia, who was so naïve in so many ways, and who was so very unprepared for what was to happen, but the more I read the more I warmed to Betsy-Ann who had such spirit, who did everything she could to improve her situation. It wasn’t easy, and the difficulties, the restrictions, faced by women in the 17th century were clearly illuminated.

There was a moment when Sophia compared her situation to that of Clarissa Harlowe – and she was right, though I should say that this is a very different story,

The plot was very cleverly constructed, and it moved apace – everything I learned about Sophia and about Betsy-Anne I learned on the fly – and that kept the focus on the story and not the period details, wonderful though they were.

The two stories are linked – of course they are – and they come together beautifully in the latter part of the book. And there’s another strand too, the story of Fortunate, a young slave in the Zedland household. There he’s renamed Lucius, and later in the story he is known as Lucky. His different names – and his descriptive names for others around him – highlight the themes of identity, disguise and self-determination that underpin the story. And, though his story is a little underdeveloped her has a significant part to play.

Though the story had weaknesses – the pace dipped in one or two places, Sophia’s ‘little weakness’ was a needless distraction, and the ending was a little too neat – it was compelling, it was vivid, and I was swept along.

And I’d say that ‘Ace, King, Knave’ worked as a historical entertainment, and it worked as a thought-provoking, serious study of the period too.

I wonder what Maria McCann will write next …
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on 2 February 2016
Ace, King, Knave is a historical novel set in 1760s London. The main protagonists are two women: Betsy-Ann and Sophie. The third viewpoint character is a fifteen year old black slave boy, called Titus / Fortunate.

At the start of the novel, Betsy-Ann is a street peddler, selling second hand goods, fencing the odd stolen knick-knack, while squirrelling away her most valuable and treasured possessions in hidden hidey-holes in the flat she shares with Sam Shiner. Sam is not legally her husband, although she has gotten used to using his surname instead of hers. When Sam tells her that he is getting into business with her brother, she is mortified: her brother is a rough, violent sort, and his business is graverobbing. The work leaves its mark on Sam - he starts to rely heavily on alcohol, and the smell of the dead follows him home. As Betsy-Ann's domestic life becomes more troubled, she recalls the road that led her to that little flat in London.

Sophie, meanwhile, is a young woman of nobility and upper class. Her story starts with romance and courtship and the road to marriage. Sophie initially finds it all so very blissful, but marriage soon starts to be oddly isolating. Her husband, Ned Zedlander, is busy all day (how strange for a nobleman to have so much to do!), and keeps her away from society, peers and family, much to her growing frustration.

Ace, King, Knave works hard on its worldbuilding and uses authentic phrases in dialogue. The characters all seem perfectly convincing. As a piece of writing, the book shows great craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is a very accomplished work - the sort of historical novel that other historical novelists read and appreciate.

However, the story is actually quite bleak, filled with grim incidents and some brutality. Not, perhaps, quite as grim as Maria McCann's debut masterpiece As Meat Loves Salt (Harvest Original), but neither is it the playful romp that the description and cover of the book led me to expect. Gamblers and graverobbers, women protagonists searching for the truth: this should have been a swashbuckling adventure romp, but it wasn't.

Ace, King, Knave is an excellent work of literary, historically accurate fiction, but less satisfying as a piece of entertainment. It was never a chore to read, but it left me feeling empty and hollow inside, which wasn't what I had expected when I picked it up.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 14 July 2014
This book owes a lot to Harris's list of Covent garden ladies (of ill repute) it's a bawdy, atmospheric trip back in time to the grimy days of 18th century London, when women had two choices, marry for respectability or eke a living ANY way open to you. Between these pages we meet two women, one from each end of the social scale.

Sophia, eager to fall in love has found the man of her dreams and joy of joy, this handsome and rich suitor has proposed, her parents are delighted with this virtually arranged marriage and to her relief haven't put him off by warning him of the shameful little habit she feared would prevent her from ever sharing a marital bed.

Betsy Ann is her social opposite, living amongst thieves and gamblers in the seediest part of Covent Garden she is a country girl brought down by circumstances, she is an ex-prostitute, living with a grave robber, dealing in rotgut gin and practising sleight of hand with cards.

Titus is a young black slave, serving in the household of Edward, Sophias intended. Loyal to his master he resents the new mistress almost as much as she is appalled by his seeming insolence and sloppy, unfortunate speech impediment.
We are also introduced to the Bawdy house run by Kitty Hartry.

These lives come together in a clash of cultures amidst the seething morass of London which contains the seediest of low lifes and those striving to achieve and maintain respectability. Sophia's husband is the lynch pin who holds this disparate bunch together and he proves to be a multi layered character.

This book is provided with an extensive glossary of 18th century terms which are scattered throughout the dialogue like dried up raisins and bitter candy peel in a rich plum pudding. They made it rather difficult reading for me as I just had to keep checking and re-checking to see what they all meant, many of them were coarse and vulgar, they really helped make the narrative seem authentic yet at times I felt the author had used just one or two "dimber cove" too many.

The story unfolds into a lavishly descriptive rollicking bawdy romp through the brothels and gambling dens of Covent Garden. A hugely enjoyable peep through a keyhole so degenerate you'd have to pinch your nose as you lowered yourself to peer through.

It's a vivid and pungent tale told with panache and showcasing the skill of the detailed historical research undertaken.

I must admit to a slight disappointment with the ending, such a boisterous novel seems worthy of somehow a touch more than it finally delivers, but this is just nit picking as the overall story really is gratifying in its own right. A superb celebration of bawdiness and deception.
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on 24 May 2016
McCann is a skilful, talented storyteller and the passion she talks about in her interviews for her favourite periods of history and the wonderful stories she unearths when researching comes through in her well-crafted novels.

This, her third I enjoyed more than her second The Wilding. She creates an incredibly vivid world in 18th century London using fabulously rich language, slang and colloquialism to give energy and life to her characters and places.

In this novel she tells the story of Betsy-Ann who begins the novel in her present situation in an undesirable relationship with Sam Shiner a grave robber. We are then told her life story and current predicament and so are introduced to other important characters; her brother Harry, her former lover Ned, his domineering mother Kitty, his wife Sophia and their servant boy Fortunate.

Visiting sordid establishments, sleazy gambling houses, unsavoury inns and hostels, muddy streets and grubby houses the story connects all these interesting characters in a tale of love and loyalty, treachery and betrayal as lies and greed undo some and honesty and goodness fuel others.
With a strong focus on character development it was only the ending that I felt a little disappointing and a little contrived - I’d have liked some comeuppance or retribution but if you take to the style and language it’s a really intelligent engaging read.

Not as powerful as her debut As Meat Loves Salt but a very good book for lovers of historical fiction.

NB - The helpful glossary at the back gives a fascinating list of words and phrases many no longer commonly used, some of them quite wonderfully/archaically expressive like flesh-hound, lushy, cheese it, dairyworks, sugar stick. With respect to Maria McCann I have started to say to my friends they are looking rather “dimber” today!
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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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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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on 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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on 6 January 2014
Why read this contemporary novel set in the Eighteenth Century? The language is earthy and realistic. Liquid Hogarth. Only once did I draw breath and wonder if a more contemporary idiom had slipped through. Reading the ebook, I didn't realise until the end that the slang words I curiously checked online were included in a glossary. I enjoyed the language so much and would recommend this novel for that alone. It is also successful in raising political issues about opportunity through characters that are both credible within the story and provocative of wider ideas. There are enjoyable descriptions of Bath and London, card sharks, coffee houses, the constant fear of threat while travelling or on the city streets, bodysnatching and a lot of drinking. But this is not a sentimental account nor one that glorifies the past. On the contrary there are plain and moving descriptions of exploitation and a broad humanity in the writing. Read it.
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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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