Blood & Sugar

Written by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
Review by Jasmina Svenne

June 1781. Captain Harry Corsham is a veteran of the American War. He looks set to pursue a promising political career, and he dotes on his small son. The only fly in the ointment is his increasingly distant relationship with his wife, Caro. Then the sister of an estranged university friend comes to ask him to find her missing brother. Harry discovers that Thaddeus (Tad) Archer, always a passionate abolitionist, believed he was on the brink of ending the slave trade – until someone tortured and killed him and left him strung up by the Deptford Dock. But by investigating Tad’s death, Harry puts at risk everything he holds dear and is forced to confront unresolved issues from his own past.

This is an intricately plotted debut novel – so intricate that at times I felt I was slightly losing track of who did what to whom when, where and why, though I suspect a second reading would help. The characters are by and large multifaceted, though few of them come across as particularly likeable – perhaps an inevitable by-product of their involvement in the slave trade.

A few tiny details niggle me. For instance, where did an 18th-century publican get a 20th-century name like Marilyn? Half a guinea is 10s 6d, not a sovereign (20s). I’m not sure what the author thinks dropsy is, but it’s not a condition that can be easily “feigned”. And would a military man like Harry, aware of the problems of re-loading, go repeatedly into dangerous situations carrying only one pistol, when they were so often sold in pairs? On the whole, however, the novel brings powerfully to life the atmosphere of 18th-century London and Deptford and the mental attitudes that allowed the slave trade to flourish. Dark but thought-provoking.