A man’s charred corpse is found in the latest of a string of arson attacks in the French city of Orléans. His is the first death. An extremist group claim responsibility but their whereabouts cannot be found. Police inspector Capitaine Inès Picaut and her team must track them down before more people die. Their only clue? The name of a woman who has been dead for over 500 years: Joan of Arc.
She is one of the great enigmas of history – a young woman who came from nowhere to lead the armies of France to victory against England. And who died the same fiery death as the man whose body has just been discovered.
As more fires rage in Orleans and the death toll mounts, Picaut must look to the past and the secrets which lie buried there to unravel the mysteries of the present. As the clock counts down, she must challenge some fundamental truths to save those closest to her…
Manda Scott’s latest novel, Into The Fire is an interesting version of historical crime fiction: there is historical fiction, there is crime fiction, but they aren’t set in the same time. I found this notion intriguing, especially since the storyline set in the past dealt with Joan of Arc. Of course I knew about Joan of Arc, most European children get taught her story in school, but never much more than your basic facts—miraculous peasant girl turned saviour of the French against the English, who was then burned for her trouble. Yet of the surrounding circumstances – who was fighting who and why – I was largely ignorant. So the chance to learn more about that era and about Joan’s story was one I couldn’t pass up and that is leaving aside the modern-day thriller aspect.
Reading historical fiction, especially when it tells the tale of a historical figure, can be a weird experience. We all know what happened to Joan of Arc. We know there is no happy ending to be had there. And yet I found myself desperately hoping that Joan would escape, that she wouldn’t be caught, that she might even win at trial. That speaks to Scott’s skill in making her characters come alive and making the reader feel what they feel. Because Joan’s story isn’t told through her viewpoint, it’s told by Tod Rustbeard a.k.a. Tomas Rustbeard a.k.a. Father Tomas and it is his desire for her survival that the reader feels. As his various identities might suggest, Tomas is a secret agent and a skilled one. He’s a sympathetic narrator and Scott conveys the emotions accompanying his shifting allegiances quite vividly.
The Joan, or Jehanne as she is called here – whenever she isn’t just the Maid – the reader gets to know through Tomas’ narrative isn’t an ignorant, divinely inspired farm girl. Jehanne is capable and self-assured, a skilled and schooled warrior. She was a fabulous character and one it is impossible not to root for. The connection between Jehanne and Tomas was compelling as was his inclusion in her inner circle of Marguerite de Valois, her fiancé Jean de Belleville, Huguet Robèrge, and Queen Yolande of Aragon. This trusted circle was composed of interesting characters in their own right, especially Marguerite and Yolande and the story Scott weaves with them was completely riveting.
The past timeline is mirrored in the present when Jehanne’s patriotism is hijacked to serve modern-day politics. Like the Marianne, Jeanne d’Arc is a national symbol of France and those in possession of her narrative have a huge symbolic advantage. In order to raise Jehanne’s spectre, someone is setting fires in Orléans and it is Inès Picaut who must find and stop them. I loved Picaut, whose character echoes Jehanne’s capable nature and strong will. She holds her own in a world that is still quite masculine and does so wonderfully. The in-house politicking she has to engage in to get Maître Ducat, the prosecutor, on side was great, but I found the larger political shenanigans that weave through the story even more compelling. The setting of the elections and the media framing both parties employ was eerie, since we’ve seen so much of this in real life – quite recently too – and the sense that the people of Orleans get to choose between a right wing and an extreme right wing candidate, with not even a moderate choice, is something that seems frighteningly plausible in this day and age.
Picaut’s team is fantastic, with all of the entangled relationships that often accompany these sort of high pressure, close-working teams. I liked all of them, but my favourite had to be Patrice. His flashy presence and his frightful drive and competence were a delight. Not to mention the sparks between him and Picaut. The other characters in this timeline were interesting too and especially Cheb Yasine resonated with me in the way that he and his family were rounded up as the usual suspects due to their descent and religion. It’s a theme that feels incredibly topical given currents events.
The two stories work as satisfying stories in their own right, but taken together are so much more. Scott manages to switch between two in such a way that you’ll always be wanting to know more about the timeline you’re leaving, which makes for difficulties in putting the book down. I found myself just reading on until I returned to it, by which time the other timeline had become equally gripping, so I found myself reading on again; it is a hard loop to escape. I’m hard put to name a favourite between the storyline set in the past and the one set in the present. Both are wonderful, though in the end I do think Picaut’s storyline won out, just because there I didn’t know how it would end!
Into the Fire is a fantastic read and certainly one of my favourites so far this year. Manda Scott delivers a fascinating interpretation of the mysteries surrounding Joan of Arc and combines it with a pulse-pounding police procedural. My one regret is, that with the story of Joan of Arc told in this book, we’ll probably not see more of Inès Picaut and her team, as I’d love to spend more time with them. If you are a fan of historical fiction and crime thrillers, then Manda Scott’s Into the Fire is your must-read for the summer.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
If you want to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of this brilliant book, courtesy of the publisher, RT this blog post on twitter, give it the hashtag #IntotheFire and tag the author @hare_wood. Or hit the RT button on the embedded tweet below. I’ll pick a winner at random. The competition will close at midnight July 3rd. This review is part of a blog tour, so please check out the other stops announced on the poster.
— Mieneke van der Salm (@Pallekenl) July 2, 2015