"A House Divided" by Margaret Skea is an outstanding historical novel. It is set in Scotland and France in 1597, and brings the period to life in a quite remarkable way. Scotland has a turbulent and often violent history, with a succession of major wars and lesser conflicts across many centuries, all of which left their mark on the ordinary people of the day. In many ways, you could think of the 1590s as one of the quieter periods of Scottish history, with the country enjoying relative stability under the rule of King James VI. The conflicts during the childhood and reign of his mother, Mary Queen of the Scots, took place a generation earlier; while the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, sparked by his son Charles I, were a generation later.
As Margaret Skea shows, however, while the country as a whole may have been enjoying relative peace and prosperity, there remained the potential for smaller scale conflicts as the ambitions of nobles and landowners clashed. One such conflict arose from the competing ambitions of the Cunninghame and Montgomerie families in the area of Cunninghame, which included much of North Ayrshire and extended north towards the River Clyde. "A House Divided" is set against the background of this conflict and centres around the fictional Munro family. They are supporters of the Montgomerie faction and so hated by William Cunninghame, one of the many truly unpleasant characters that litter Scottish history, that Munro has had to flee to France to fight in the French Wars of Religion, while his wife Kate and their children live in fear under assumed names in Scotland.
The story switches back and forth between the fortunes of the family in Scotland and of Munro in France before they, inevitably, converge. To the mix of Scottish domestic life and French military campaigns, the author adds the hysteria of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597, and the result is a gripping story that draws in the reader and keeps you turning the page all the way to a climactic ending.
A historical novelist needs to tell a good story, like any novelist. But they also need to transport the reader to another time in a way that is convincing: if a reader trips over just one thing that feels wrong or is anachronistic it can completely undermine the experience. "A House Divided" is clearly the result of a huge amount of historical research, and feels exactly right. The characters live in a world that is indeed utterly convincing, allowing the reader to sit back and enjoy an excellent story.