I first heard Manda Scott talk about her book Into the Fire at a dinner in Windsor some three years ago. The premise that she described that night was two parts thrilling to one part bonkers – it had to do with Joan of Arc – and I admit to wondering how anyone could spin a story out of the elements she was describing.
Three years down the line, and I have just finished the book Manda was describing. It’s still two parts thrilling to one part bonkers. But in a very, very good way. Into the Fire is also a blood-drenched, vivid, imaginative and exciting novel, the best word for which is probably ‘lusty’.
‘Lusty’ is a laughably word to describe to a dual-timeline narrative that tells the story of Joan of Arc through the eyes of an English spy, interweaved with a contemporary police procedural set in Orléans about a brilliant female detective investigating a series of fires. But ‘lusty’ is what it is, not least because this is a book just dripping in lust. I have an unprovable belief that women are better at writing than sexual desire than men are, because women are better at writing about the sensations of the body, and the scenes in which one character fancies another in this book are heart-pumpingly phwoaarr.
The other thing I loved about the book is how it framed the historical world inside the modern one. The dual-timeline narrative means we are constantly being tugged from the 15th to the 21st centuries. One key aspect of this is loyalty, the perception of loyalty, and the way those things have shifted. In the confused mess of loyalties that was France in the Hundred Years War, alliances could shift and change as frequently as the clouds above the Loire, but in the modern world our loyalties are more fixed. The evil of the modern world is the acquisition of power at any costs, against the constraints of loyalty; in the world of the 15th century, a character has to be tugged out of the everyday shifts in loyalties by a new kind of allegiance to something strong and powerful and almost otherworldly, in the form of the Maid of Orléans. The Maid is a symbol, of a new and powerful kind, and the other link between the worlds of the past and present is our continuing need for symbols, and the way this need opens us up to manipulation.
But I’m overthinking this. Into the Fire is above all else massively entertaining. Its intellectual framework is solid, but Manda Scott wears her research lightly. This isn’t a book that lectures or strokes its chin. It has a unique and daring conceit at its heart, one that Manda has talked about publicly on more than one occasion but not one that I will mention here. But she lands it – oh my word, she lands it.