The Ashes of London Review: an Historical Fiction Worth Reading?

Looking for your next historical fiction book? The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor, might be the choice for you…

This London skyline looks like it's on fire, just like the great fire of London in 1666

As a big lover of history, a murder mystery set in the streets of London just after the great fire in 1666 seemed like the perfect choice for me. I love horrors and thrillers, and am all about historical fiction, so we’d think this would have been my favourite book ever!

The question is, did The Ashes of London, by Andrew Taylor, live up to what I’d hoped? To discover more about Taylor’s historical tale, and to get an idea of my thoughts on the book, read on…

The Ashes of London Characters

As usual, let’s firstly take a closer look at some of our main characters throughout the tale. Some are based on real life figures, and others have been completely fabricated to add to the story. See if you recognise any of the names…

  • James Marwood: the son of a Fifth Monarchist, whose father lost everything, including his mind, after being captured for his involvement in the beheading of Charles I. He is our first narrator.
  • Catherine “Cat” Lovett: the daughter of a rich Republican, who has been taken in by her Aunt and Uncle, a family of upper class investors. She has a passion for all things architecture, much to the surprise and disgust of those around her. Cat is our second narrator.
  • Sir Alderley: Cat’s uncle, who looks after her based solely upon past family ties. His flimsy nature means he’s difficult to trust, but he is highly esteemed due to his immense wealth, which sees him lending money based on investments, even to the king.
  • Olivia Alderley: the wife of Sir Alderley, who becomes part of the wider plot when Cat goes missing.
  • Edward Alderley: the vile son of Sir Alderley.
  • Sir Denzil Croughton: he is a merchant who is betrothed to Cat.
  • Master Hakesby: an architect working closely under Sir Christopher Wren, who helped rebuild London after the fire devastated the city. He is characterised by his shaky hands and sickly demeanour.
  • Mr. Williamson: a shadowy figure, who garners Marwood’s help in governmental matters at hand, and is very close to the king.
  • King Charles II: the king himself makes an appearance a couple of times throughout the novel, and is described as a cunning man, who makes everyone feel like a dear friend.
  • Thomas Lovett: the father of Cat, who is on the run for his involvement in the regicide of Charles I. Some say he even held up the severed head after it was detached.
St Paul's Cathedral did become a victim of the great fire of London in 1666

The Ashes of London Plot

We begin our story with the great fire of London ravishing the city. It’s taken hold of many prominent buildings, and is soon to make its impact on St. Paul’s Cathedral.

As James Marwood watches the cathedral go up in flames, he notices who he thinks is a small boy next to him, watching the flames with him. When the cathedral begins to crumble, the boy runs toward it, and Marwood stops him, saving his life. Little does he know that this “boy” would turn out to be Cat Lovett, who had been on her way to meet her on-the-run father.

After covering Cat in his cloak, she awakes from her smoke and heat-induced haze, bites him, and runs away. She takes his borrowed cloak with her.

The story continues as Marwood’s job at Whitehall sees him involved in the investigation of a number of murders. The bodies all have one thing in common; their thumbs have been tied together behind their backs. Juggling between taking care of his deranged and disgraced father, and working to help solve the case, his life becomes further intertwined with Cat.

On the other end of the story, Cat finds herself running from her home at the Alderley’s when she experiences something no one would want to go through. She changes her name, and seeks refuge at a friend of a friend’s home, acting as a maid named Jane.

Here, she meets the resident Master Hakesby, whose shaky hands prevent him from creating the detailed architectural drawings his job requires of him. So, noticing Jane’s aptitude for it, he seeks her help, and tutors her to advance her architectural skills.

When more bodies start to emerge, Marwood starts to see links between the murders and the cloak Cat ran away with. Meanwhile, Cat’s father emerges out of the woodwork, whilst still on the run.

Is there a link between the re-emerged Thomas Lovett, and these religiously motivated murders? It’s up to Marwood to find it out, whilst Cat tackles a new life which may be more dangerous than she first thought…

London Bridge with a background which looks like the fire of London

What Were My Thoughts on Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London?

As you can see, this is a pretty realistic plot line, based around the regicide of King Charles I, and set during the harrowing time of the great fire of London. Considering my interest in history, and my love for all things thrilling, you would have thought this book was right up my street. Well, my thoughts were not necessarily as great as I would have hoped…

The Description of the Great Fire

One of my favourite parts of the whole story was the way in which Taylor described the fire. Having only briefly learned about the great fire of London at school, and through Horrible Histories, I was truly unaware about the devastation it caused. Not only was a huge part of the city completely destroyed, but so were the homes of thousands of Londoners, who simply had nowhere else to go.

The way in which Taylor described the sludgy mess the ash left, months down the line when the rain finally came, really painted a picture. The change of scenery to the country, for a brief time, really demonstrated how claustrophobic, dark, and terrible it would have been to live in the smokey and dreary city at this time.

What’s more, the descriptions of the poorest and most dangerous parts of the city were so vivid. I can still picture the rubble, where vagrants, beggars, and prostitutes wandered around to seek money from strangers.

Taylor did really well to bring the whole thing to life, and to emphasise the devastation the fire left in its wake. I feel sorry for the people who had to pay for the rebuilding of the once great city, and I’m still shocked that they managed to do it!

Portrayal of the Female Characters

There’s often a problem when men write from a female point of view, and there are quite a few funny threads on Twitter of men really getting it wrong. However, I have to say that Taylor’s depiction of women, and the horrible oppression and objectification they endured, was pretty realistic.

The ways in which the prominent female characters went along with the constant misogyny, only to bite their tongues and roll their eyes later, seems to me to work well. I have this image of the women humouring the men, and then imagining all the ways they would get their revenge sooner or later. At least, I hope that was the way these women lived their lives; wolves in sheep clothing.

So, props to Taylor for describing the female gaze in a way I could believe!

The Overall Plot

In general, I was hoping for more from the plot. Although I read to the end, as I couldn’t bear to leave a book unfinished, there wasn’t really a time when I felt gripped. I was reading this on my Kindle, so it wasn’t until about 80 percent of the way through that I felt excited about what was next. Even then, I wasn’t gasping for more.

Kindle Held Up Against the Sky

Is This an Historical Fiction Worth Reading?

As you can see, The Ashes of London is a story we can believe, and one which is pretty gritty. It really tells the story of London after the fire, painting the picture of the setting as it remained in ruins for months afterwards.

That said, despite the fact that this book should have, in theory, been ideal for me, it wasn’t as brilliant as I’d hoped. I wasn’t really gripped or excited to read more, and I definitely could put it down, which was a shame.

What did you think of Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London? Did you enjoy it, and therefore disagree with me, or were you disappointed too?

Or, if you haven’t read it yet, maybe you fancy giving it a try now? If so, you can get it for free via Amazon’s Kindle library, so let me know, in the comments down below, what you think!

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