The Last Seal is a young adult historical fantasy novel set during the Great Fire of London and is part of the Praesidium series by Richard Denning. When it comes to reviewing new books, I certainly can’t claim to be a connoisseur of fantasy fiction, but what really interested me about this book, and the reason I was asked to review it, was the historical element. So my aim is to look at it from a historical perspective and judge how well it makes history exciting and accessible – the main aim of Lovely Old Tree! And in short: The Last Seal does this very well.
The plot follows the fortunes of Ben, a schoolboy at Westminster, who having lost his parents in a fire, feels depressed, lost and intent on escaping the tedium of school life. He does this by playing truant and wandering off into the hustle and bustle of 17th century London and this action, which appears unimportant, catapults him into a terrifying and exciting adventure.
He meets Gabriel, a bookseller with a more thrilling job as member of the Praesidium; Tobias, a doctor with a score to settle; and Freya, an orphan thief with more intelligence than the other three put together. This group of very different people soon find that they are immersed in a battle between the Praesidium and the Liberati and have to risk their lives to save London, and the world, from the release of the evil demon Dantalion. And Ben finds that his role in history is far larger than he ever thought possible.
Now, I have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to novels and it takes a lot to really keep me engaged, but I honestly found it hard to put this book down. The pace of the story is perfect. The characters are introduced at the right rate so that you really get to know them and care about them. The excitement and tension of the plot rises incrementally throughout so that you really cannot wait to turn the page and find out what happens next.
The characters are also very well presented and described – and they are likeable, which I consider to be a very important factor. They are also very different people, thrown together by circumstances and therefore they give us a very interesting rounded picture of the people of 17th century London. They are varied by gender, class, age and background, therefore the interactions and tensions between them (for example between Tobias and Freya) keep the story stimulating.
Additionally the characters have their flaws and secrets that keep them from becoming stereotypes. Ben does not fall into the trap of being the standard poor orphaned hero; neither does Gabriel become the wise benevolent wizard. Through a combination of guilty secrets, childish anger, self-interest, greed and stupid mistakes, all of the characters are convincing and engaging and develop naturally throughout the story.
Now it might sound from the plot that the book is mostly fantasy with little history involved, and I must say that I did worry about this. The first chapter is set in 1380 with the first attempt to release the demon and although it is exciting, it focuses on the battle and the magic spells. However my fears were soon laid to rest when I got into the main plot as the historical detail is really fascinating. Denning weaves the true story of the Great Fire of London into the plot so that, despite the magic, the story is believable, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. The path of the fire, the number of days it lasted, the buildings it destroyed and the things people really said and did all fit into the story of The Last Seal. The fact that the Praesidium and the Liberati are secret societies (so the public would never have known what happened during the fire) means that, as far as I’m concerned, the story of Dantalion, Ben, Freya, Tobias and Gabriel could be true!
One of my favourite things about the book is the description of 17th century London. The Royal Exchange, St Paul’s Cathedral and London Bridge are described in such detail that it really transports you to what it would have been like at the time. I love the way London locations keep being mentioned, helping me to reimagine places I know back in time. Old London Bridge:
Made of stone, with a dozen and more arches, it was impressive enough, but upon it an entire town had been built. Dozens of houses, shops and taverns of timber and stone crammed upon either side and soared three or more stories high. At either end was a fortress-like gatehouse that was locked at dusk and opened each dawn. The southern gate bore a grizzly display of the severed heads of more than a dozen criminals and traitors which, after their execution, were impaled on spikes as a warning to all who saw them.
The most successful thing about the inclusion of this historical description is that is does not read like 17th century London is a foreign country. The description does not treat the vast differences between historical London and present-day London with awe or surprise. The city is described as though by Ben or another contemporary and this really makes the history come alive as the reader feels a connection with London whichever era it is in.
The book is aimed at young adults, so is an easy read, but personally I quite like that factor. Ben and Freya are both young people and I often find superfluous language irritating in stories that are meant to be exciting adventures. With that audience target, you may occasionally find that the passages where characters have to explain their backstory or the backstory of the secret societies can be a little jarring and deliberate. However I would say that this is a common problem in plots where centuries of backstory play a key role.
I did thoroughly enjoy this book but I would say it is not for everyone. The historical elements are certainly strong enough to interest a history fan like me, but you really do have to be prepared to suspend disbelief and accept the magic and fantasy in order to fully immerse yourself in the book. I’m only able to do this because I allow myself to accept the premise that this story could be the truth behind the Great Fire of London.
In this way then, The Last Seal is not like other historical fiction as the fantasy element is very strong, but if you enjoy both then it is a brilliant read. I would definitely recommend this book, particularly for those interested in getting a good overview of 17th century London, in an entertaining way.
About the author:
Richard Denning was born in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and lives in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands, UK, where he works as a General Practitioner (family doctor). He is married and has two children. He has always been fascinated by historical settings as well as horror and fantasy. Other than writing, his main interests are games of all types. He is the designer of a board game based on the Great Fire of London.