Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo


One of the books I picked up on my visit to the Hay Festival last month, was Mad Blood Stirring, the first adult fiction novel written by Simon Mayo. As a fan of historical fiction, it was a book that caught my eye, and after hearing Simon talk about the book at the festival, I was even more excited about reading it.

One of the reasons that I enjoy historical fiction is learning more about events or periods in time that I may not be familiar with. And this was certainly the case with Mad Blood Stirring, which is a little known story which Mayo was keen to tell. It is set in the aftermath of the war of 1812, in 1815, where the war is over but a new battle looms. Here we see the arrival of thousands of American sailors as they set foot on dry land, only instead of the freedom they crave they arrive at Dartmoor Prison. Dartmoor Prison is an imposing place which is home to thousands of prisoners and is the new home of men who thought they had left the war on the outside of the prison walls. Amongst them is Joe Hill, who witnesses the tension between the sailors, and comes to the realisation that the fight is not over. One of the startling things about this story is the segregation of the prison blocks, with six blocks occupied by white sailors, and one, block four, occupied by black sailors. This adds to the tension of the story, and the difficult relationships between the men, men who worked alongside each other at sea but are now apart. There was also a fascinating character in the form of ‘King Dick’ who runs block four and is an intimidating presence in the prison. What is surprising about King Dick, is that despite his strength and the pain he inflicts on anyone who crosses him, he also has a passion for Shakespeare…

With all the troubling events that unfold in the prison, including the fights and the smallpox outbreak which threaten hundreds of lives, there is one surprising thing that helps the sailors through the darkness – a performance of Romeo and Juliet. As the sailors prepare for the performance of this play we see how life in the prison unfolds, and how relationships develop between them, including that of Joe and Habs, a relationship which I was particularly interested in. And the significance of Romeo and Juliet is woven throughout this novel, with the title Mad Blood Stirring being taken from the play. It is also told in the format of five acts, and there are echoes of the story throughout in the portrayal of its characters. I thought this format worked really well and I very quickly became immersed in the story. I enjoyed seeing the plot unfold as the tension build up to a significant event in the prison which made for an action packed read. I enjoyed learning about this unknown period in history. This book is clearly very well researched and Mayo has written a fascinating historical story which is both gripping and insightful. The characters were interesting and I liked to see how they interact with one and other and what relationships were built along the way. It is worth noting that this book features some racial language, which is necessary in this case to present how the characters would have spoken, giving them an authentic voice. I also liked the inclusion of some female characters into the story. With a prison home to thousands of sailors, there is not a lot of room for female characters but in Elizabeth Shortland, the wife of the governor, we meet a confident woman who is contemplating her future.

I really enjoyed reading Mad Blood Stirring. Inspired by the true events that took place in Dartmoor in 1815, it is a compelling story of loss and suffering, and of hope, which I would recommend for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

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