1630: after long years of peace the reign of Charles I brings brutal civil war to England.
The clash between King and Parliament is echoed at Morland Place when Richard brings home a Puritan bride while his brother, Kit, joins Prince Rupert and the Royalist cavalry, leaving their father Edmund desperately trying to steer a middle course between the fighting factions.
As the war grinds on, bitterness and disillusion replace the early fervour, and the schisms between husband and wife, father and son, grow deeper. Edmund struggles grimly through it all in an attempt to keep the Morland fortune intact, but he is thwarted by the estrangement between his sons and then alienated from his beloved wife, Mary.
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I'm beginning to almost crave Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' Morland Dynasty series, and can only wonder how I have taken so long to start reading them! Book four in the series, The Oak Apple, covers twenty years centred around the Civil War, and a new generation of Morlands ('There's too much inbreeding in our family, cousins marrying cousins over and over', one character comments). Mary Esther, daughter of the Bear Cub's son Gabriel, is the female lynchpin this time, but she is more of an earth-mother than the far stronger Eleanor of book one. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' writing is a joy, seamlessly merging historical fact with her own fictional characters, while adding the occasional lyrical gem ('the shadows thickened and crept forward so that the room shrank to the circle of honey light in which she lay, and the unicorn [a symbol of virginity stitched onto an old family tapesty] was hidden in darkness'). I admire how she can explain the complexities of the Civil War to the reader through the biased perspective of the characters, so that history is happening to them and the story never stops. The battle scenes at Marston Moor and Naseby are riveting, and I usually hate such 'masculine' narratives, but the overwhelming sense of camaraderie between the men, and then the futility of fighting and dying for a losing cause, is most powerfully told.There are fewer deaths this time - mainly men dying in battle - but the same bewildering assortment of births and inter-marriages (not to mention a seemingly immortal wolfhound called 'Dog', who somehow survives the twenty year duration of the novel). My tip is to print off a copy of the family tree from Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' website, and keep referring back! My favourite character has to be the sharp-tongued, plain-speaking Ruth, and I can't wait to read about her fantastically named daughter, Annunciata, in a future instalment.