Mad Blood Stirring by Simon Mayo reviewed

Mad Blood Stirring Book Cover Mad Blood Stirring
Simon Mayo
Doubleday UK
April 15, 2018

1815: The war is over but for the inmates at Dartmoor Prison, peace - like home - is still a long way away. On the eve of the year 1815, the American sailors of the Eagle finally arrive at Dartmoor prison; bedraggled, exhausted but burning with hope. They've only had one thing to sustain them - a snatched whisper overheard along the way. The war is over. Joe Hill thought he'd left the war outside these walls but it's quickly clear that there's a different type of fight to be had within. The seven prison blocks surrounding him have been segregated; six white and one black. As his voice rings out across the courtyard, announcing the peace, the redcoat guards bristle and the inmates stir. The powder keg was already fixed to blow and Joe has just lit the fuse. Elizabeth Shortland, wife of the Governor looks down at the swirling crowd from the window of her own personal prison. The peace means the end is near, that she needn't be here for ever. But suddenly, she cannot bear the thought of leaving. Inspired by a true story, Mad Blood Stirring tells of a few frantic months in the suffocating atmosphere of a prison awaiting liberation. It is a story of hope and freedom, of loss and suffering. It is a story about how sometimes, in our darkest hour, it can be the most unlikely of things that see us through.

Being a Devon resident and a Dartmoor walker I’ve seen Dartmoor prison in all seasons and weathers and this book by Simon Mayo appealed. In Mad Blood Stirring a new group of American prisoners are marched up to the prison on New Year’s Eve 1814. They are 12 crew from the Eagle who have heard that the war is over. The around 7000 existing prisoners are very interested in this news and want to know when they are going home. This is Act 1.

As with all such things the reality is less simple than the ideal and prisoners will not be released until everything is ratified by everyone. There is a power keg and a match around.. However it is quickly clear that that was the case before the men of the Eagle arrived. There are seven blocks in the prison each holding around a 1000 men. Six of the blocks are white only and the seventh is for coloured folk. Throw in the fact that the British seem happy to rub in the fact that they are in charge and it is clear anything could happen.

It did take me a while to get my head around the various story lines in Mad Blood Stirring. The first part of the book felt quite hard going at times and I had to keep reminding myself who was who from the “cast of characters” at the start. One of the main threads is that block 4 – the coloured block – has a theatre company. The leader of the block, King Dick, wants to put on one last show before they are released. It is to be Romeo and Juliet and one of the one member’s of the Eagle’s crew – a white man – becomes involved in it.

As time went by the more I read the more I wanted to read. There are good characters and good dialogue in this book. Of note King Dick is excellent, a genuinely “larger than life” character. The prison itself and Dartmoor are used effectively. Other characters are good too however the main ones are Joe (Juliet) and Habs (Romeo). The developing relationship becomes more and more interesting. This is at a time when any interactions between men are considered an abomination. The book winds up to what will obviously be a very dramatic end with considerable pace.

There are many things to like about Mad Blood Stirring. The book is well researched and weaves together an interesting tale around that. The inventiveness here deserves much credit. In passing there is a good bibliography at the end. The writing makes the dark and bleak setting very vivid. It is worth noting that issues of colour are dealt in an appropriate way for the era but in a way which would be offensive in current times. The issue of male relationships both inside and out of prison is part of this story too. My reservation here is that the Romeo and Juliet drama became rather too dramatic for me I think. A good historical novel that will appeal to many I am sure.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review