London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, and reluctant government informer.
In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated and his thumbs have been tied behind his back.
Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.
The Ashes of London is the first book in the series featuring James Marwood and Catherine Lovett who find themselves caught up in the aftermath of a conspiracy involving the execution of Charles I in 1649. Both James and Catherine’s father were invoked with the regicides who signed the former king’s death warrant and Charles II has never forgiven them.
James Marwood, a junior clerk, is trying to make a decent living while caring for his father who is now suffering from dementia, however his life is complicated due to this father’s disgraced name. Marwood refused Charles II’s offer of clemency after the Restoration and was imprisoned as a result. However, James managed to secure his father’s release by promising he would keep him out of trouble but Marwood’s dementia is causing him to be outspoken and attracting the wrong sort of attention.
Although James seems to have a low ranked position, his boss, Master Williamson, is the publisher of The London Gazette and has considerable connections at court. These same people have an interest in James and he soon finds himself investigating the murder of a man found in the ruins of St. Paul’s. The dead man was working for Henry Alderley, one of the richest men in the city, who is rumoured to have loaned Charles II a considerable sum of money and his death has the potential to cause the king great embarrassment. The stakes get higher when a second body is found and the conspiracy eventually leads all the way back to Cromwell and Charles I.
Our second protagonist, Catherine Lovett, the seventeen-year-old niece of Henry Alderley, whose father is a notorious fugitive wanted for his part in the king’s execution. Cat dreams of becoming an architect but she lives in an era where women are expected to become wives and mothers. Fearing an arranged marriage with a much older man, Cat escapes from the Alderley household and sets out on a mission to find her father.
Cat and James cross paths at frequent intervals throughout the story, however both are in the dark about their respective backgrounds and their part in the overall conspiracy. James is the most likeable between the two, mainly because he is more open than Cat who keeps her cards close to her chest. Cat and Marwood eventually work together towards the end of the novel, however they can hardly be classed as friends and circumstances necessitate them going their separate ways again. Since this is the start of a series, there is plenty of scope for them, and us, to get to know each other better.
The book is set days after the Great Fire swept through London and, in fact, parts of the city are still smouldering which creates a fabulous backdrop to the murder mystery going on. The mystery is a slow reveal but it is tightly plotted and never once loses its appeal which is a relief since this is a long read.