a terrific, fresh take on the harsh, fascinating world of Australia's convict era

by Meg and Tom Keneally – Vintage Books, 2017

Whenever I take a trip to Sydney I try to visit a few historical sites—and the romance and horrors of it all mean that I then find myself hunting for solid early Australian historical fiction. Which is how I came to be reading The Monsarrat Series.

Monsarrat is a white-collar convict—he’s bright, literate and has had an earlier arrogance beaten out of him during his convict years.

When book 1, The Soldier’s Curse, begins, he’s part way through his second term. His first ticket of leave has been cancelled and he's in Port Macquarie—a backwater in the new colony. He’s acting as a clerk to the commandant and finds himself on friendly terms with the commandant’s housekeeper, Mrs Mulrooney, a ticket of leave Irish woman who is perceptive, big hearted and unusually shrewd.

Monsarrat and Mrs Mulrooney combine their wit, intelligence and keen sense of justice, to save Mrs Mulrooney from the gallows when she's accused of murder.

The Unmourned, book 2, has a new setting, Parramatta, and a new murder mystery to solve.

They’re terrific tales. There's enough history to satisfy the itch I had from visiting both Parramatta and Port Macquarie recently, and plenty of intrigue to keep the pages turning. I really enjoyed seeing Mrs Mulrooney transform over the course of the two books. It's a transformation signalled in part by her transition from ‘Mrs Mulrooney’ to ‘Hannah’ and aided by her new position, her new and growing literacy and her increasing confidence. Intrigue and history may be what kept me up at night reading, but following that transformation left me smiling.

Unfortunately book 3 won’t be available till next year. But there’s good news—Meg and Tom Kenneally have committed to 12 books for the series! Hooray! You can listen to them talking about the books here.

And it seems that there’s going to be a TV series too—so I’m clearly not the only one who loved the first two books and found myself immersed in the harsh, fascinating world of Australia’s convict era. 

The books are linked to Book Depository but Amazon might be cheaper for North American readers.

P.S. I'm notorious for reading the last few pages of a book as soon as I have established the characters—I want to see if the story is worth investing my time J— but I resisted that impulse in both of these books. The pleasure of the unfolding story, mystery and characters was too lovely to spoil!