Blood & Sugar is Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s debut novel, and it was one that immediately piqued my interest when I first heard about it last year. I took advantage of the long Easter weekend to read it, and it was an excellent choice of novel to get lost in.
June 1781. An unidentified body hangs upon a hook at Deptford Dock – horribly tortured and branded with a slaver’s mark.
Some days later, Captain Harry Corsham – a war hero embarking upon a promising parliamentary career – is visited by the sister of an old friend. Her brother, passionate abolitionist Tad Archer, had been about to expose a secret that he believed could cause irreparable damage to the British slaving industry. He’d said people were trying to kill him, and now he is missing…
To discover what happened to Tad, Harry is forced to pick up the threads of his friend’s investigation, delving into the heart of the conspiracy Tad had unearthed. His investigation will threaten his political prospects, his family’s happiness, and force a reckoning with his past, risking the revelation of secrets that have the power to destroy him.
And that is only if he can survive the mortal dangers awaiting him in Deptford…
Set in the late 18th century, Blood & Sugar is a fantastic work of historical fiction, and it’s clear from the beginning that it has been incredibly well researched. That research doesn’t bog the reader down in detail, but the evocation of the time and place is so convincing as to leave the reader in no doubt of the authenticity of the details that are incorporated. Needless to say, the treatment of those people enslaved was horrific, and Laura Shepherd-Robinson doesn’t shy away from the horrific conditions that were endured or the atrocities committed against them, yet does so sensitively and without the novel becoming sensationalist. This is a dark period of Britain’s history, and it’s easy to sympathise with those who sought to have slavery abolished throughout the novel. It was a rare sentiment, and given that many of those in power benefitted hugely from the slave trade, it’s clear that to have vocalised abolitionist sentiments would make a person stand out, quite possibly to their detriment.
Such is the viewpoint of Captain Harry Corsham and his estranged friend, Tad Archer. Harry has returned to London following an injury sustained in the war and is pursuing a political career – as such, he keeps his views to himself. The same cannot be said for Tad Archer, who was an extremely active abolitionist prior to his disappearance. When Tad’s sister asks Harry to investigate Tad’s whereabouts, he can’t refuse, and begins to make enquiries in Deptford. Thus the reader embarks upon a brilliantly plotted mystery novel that is both clever and utterly engaging. There is a large cast of characters in the novel (as highlighted in the dramatis personae at the beginning of the novel), and it’s difficult to tell who is helping, hindering, or simply indifferent to Corsham’s investigation. What is clear is that everyone is looking out for themselves, and there are many people with something to lose and / or gain in Harry’s investigation. Blood & Sugar is an excellent plotted mystery novel, and one that takes many unexpected twists throughout – I had no idea “whodunnit” until the big reveal.
Corsham is an interesting character, and one who it is easy to sympathise with. The novel is told from his own point of view, and I felt that his character was brought to life brilliantly by the insight into his state of mind. The horrors he witnessed during the war, his concerns over the state of his marriage, and the simple joy of being with his young son produce a well-rounded character who is eminently likeable. He has many reasons to turn away from the mystery surrounding Tad’s disappearance, particularly as he begins to ask more questions and starts receiving threats from certain parties, and few reasons to pursue the investigation, but it’s clear that he is a good man in a difficult time, and his determination to get to the bottom of things is admirable. It’s a complex case, and one that has far deeper roots that he, or I, expected and I loved the gradual reveal of clues and red herrings as the novel progressed.
Blood & Sugar is both an excellent work of historical fiction as well as intricately plotted mystery that is beautifully written, and I can’t wait to see what the author turns her pen to next. Highly recommended.