In 1781, as Britain’s slave trade booms, a man is brutally tortured and murdered in the port town of Debtford. A hero of the American War of Independence, Captain Henry Corsham, discovers an old friend has gone missing, and starts an investigation. A slaving town harbouring a despicable secret, one which could bring down some of Britain’s most powerful families.
Shepherd-Robinson’s debut novel is masterfully written, with meticulous attention to detail and a compelling mystery that becomes murkier and murkier as we sink deeper into the depravity of Britain in the late 1700s. We’re transported back in time to a meticulously researched and vividly painted Georgian London, the rigid class structure hiding a dark underbelly. Inequality, crime, poverty, and above all the the horrors of the slave trade.
Although historical fiction, the novel is based on all too real events, and the terrors inflicted on Africans by the British for a profit are vividly told. The narrative deftly interweaves the main plot, which races along, with the heartbreaking stories of complex and multi-layered characters, each with their own stories and horrors to tell.
What life was really like for Black people, and the poor in the 1700s is unflinchingly conveyed. The despicable acts committed by slavers aren’t brushed under the carpet, and the glamour of rich Georgian London is juxtaposed with the slums, foul odours and daily miseries endured by vast majority of city dwellers in these times. The port town of Debtford takes on a life of it’s own, the physical manifestation of the dark side of London, the antithesis of the liberal ideals of the city but nonetheless vital to it’s bulging profits and global hegemony.
The core theme of the novel is freedom and captivity. Whether trapped in an unhappy marriage, forced into a life of crime, or stolen and owned as property for others to make a profit, we see all the ways in which the supposedly ‘enlightened’ British society crushed the human spirit, destroying lives and taking everything from all but the most privileged few.
The mystery slowly unravels, rewarding readers for paying attention to all seemingly insignificant details. The first-person narrative reveals glimpses of the experiences of other characters, but never the full picture, so we can never truly understand their true motivations or trust their intentions. The book builds to an explosive finale, making for an addictive read that will keep you turning page after page.
Both as a compelling mystery and a terrific piece of historical fiction, Blood & Sugar is an incredible novel, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a good piece of detective work, and for those looking for a timely exploration of what life was really like at the dawn of Britain’s global empire.