Review: Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
Right - I seriously considered putting this as my 'Most pleasant surprise of the month' read, as I wasn't expecting to enjoy this quite as much as I actually did. I went into it thinking that it would be a silly, pulpy historical thriller without great literary merit, and while it certainly was that, it was a surprisingly enjoyable read.
Here's a brief summary of the plot: Captain Harry Corsham gets a visit from an old friend's sister, who tells him that her brother has gone missing. This friend was a radical abolitionist (oh yes - this story takes place in 1791, sixteen years before the abolition of the slave trade under British law), and was slinking around in Deptford, a notorious slaving port slum town, trying to find proof of a scandal big enough to bring down the institution of slavery from the inside. Or something. Yes, it's pulpy and melodramatic, but if you just lean into it, it's also a good read.
The mystery is suitably twisty and complex, and while the main narrator can sometimes be painfully dumb - of course these people are lying to you, Harry; by the fifth time you should be less surprised to find out that the sketchy Scottish doctor has lied to you again - it was interesting watching him work out the layers and the nuances and try and fit all the puzzle pieces together, and I had a lot of fun trying to piece them together before he did (I kind of guessed where the main mystery was heading, but I didn't get all of the sub-plots right, which was gratifying).
The writing was quite good for a debut novel, as well. Laura Shepherd-Robinson did hammer us over the head with her moral point occasionally, but since the legal questions of the slave trade ended up being the finnicky hinge point of the mystery itself, I don't think it was an unnecessary amount of hammering - and it certainly wasn't enough to put me off the rest of the book, or to take me out of the plot. The villains did occasionally slip into the caricatural, but we are willing to forgive that in the name of what I'm certain will be improvement. The period details were rich and well-researched, leading to a compelling, immersive read that was a bit Dunnet-like in the way the setting was a part of the story rather than the backdrop to it. And while the writing was pulpy, it was the exact right amount of pulpy - I felt like I was reading a more intellectual version of a penny dreadful, which is very much my aesthetic; and I was intrigued enough by Shepherd-Robinson and her writing and her ability to craft a complex, yet neat mystery to have immediately purchased the second book in this series.
All told, this was an enjoyable pulpy mystery that I was able to properly immerse myself in (I did have to blink myself back to the present day a bit when I finished it), and was one of those perfect midpoint novels between an easy read and one that still had some compelling literary qualities to it. I'm looking forward to reading the second book in this series, and depending on how that goes, will probably keep reading more of Laura Shepherd-Robinson's novels. I recommend it if you want an immersive read that isn't too taxing while not feeling like a guilty pleasure.