Title: Hearts of Stone
Author: Simon Scarrow
Publisher/Date Published: Headline, 2015
How I Got This Book: Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Rating: 4 out of 5
Simon Scarrow’s writing most likely needs no introduction. His bestselling Eagle series, which focuses on the Roman Empire, is clearly very popular and its 14th instalment, Britannia, will be released later this year so it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. I, however, have read none any of the series, nor any of Simon Scarrow’s books up until now, despite my interest in Roman history. I can’t really justify exactly why, but I think at least from my perspective when I saw the books on the shelves I had assumed they were for a demographic that I just wasn’t really part of – namely, adult men. Now this is an impression that I don’t feel has been reinforced anywhere by either Scarrow or Headline, but it’s just an inexplicable vibe I got from these titles. When I was contacted and asked if I was interested in Hearts of Stone, I thought I would use the opportunity to see just how unfounded or not my prejudices were.
Hearts of Stone is a standalone historical thriller set during World War II. It focuses on a group of three friends, two Greek and one German, gathered together on the small Greek island of Lefkas whose lives are torn apart by the maelstrom of war. We also are introduced to Anna, a secondary school history teacher in present-day England, who prompts remembrance of this story from her grandmother, Eleni, in order to discover the truth of what happened to her and her friends on Lefkas during the war. The majority of the novel is Eleni’s story, told largely from her perspective.
Naturally as a book set during wartime there are moments of conflict – combat scenes, civilian resistance and submarine warfare. These were depicted very clearly and evocatively. I had worried that I would get a bit lost in the bluster of fighting and it would just seem a bit of a mess that you had to unpick at the end who had survived, but Scarrow’s writing is very skilled and I was engaged throughout these parts, even though I don’t have any particular interest in military history or war literature.
Historical novels are always a bit odd for me, in that to a certain extent you know how it’s going to end, so it’s not necessarily so much about the plot that decides whether a book is good or not but the character development of these people and their personal stories. Eleni is a fantastic character, believable and inspirational, and her story is in turn emblematic of all the true stories from men and women who lived through wartime that deserve to be captured and remembered, regardless of whether they impacted the result of the war. You feel for these people, the love, hope and dreams that get put on hold when their homeland is under attack, and because there are both Greek and German characters it is clearly shown the impact that the war had on individuals from both sides.
On a more trivial note, I also liked that the parts of the book set in present-day were largely based in Norwich, and its university gets a little nod. I went to university in Norwich myself, and as a result was drawn back to the specific road and university buildings mentioned in passing. I’ve since found out that Scarrow has ties to Norwich and the university so I guess it’s a case of writing what you know, but it endeared me to the book a lot.
My only real criticism of Hearts of Stone was that it was at times a bit heavy-handed. Not so much the subject matter, which clearly needed to be dealt with in a realistic and sensitive way, but some elements of dialogue did read like they were written by a teacher reminding a pupil that not all sources are reliable, and true history is often only the best told story.
Generally though, my overall impression was very positive, and I would recommend Hearts of Stone to any reader who likes some reality mixed in with their fiction, or wants a book with honest, engrossing characters. I certainly didn’t feel I needed to have read any of Simon Scarrow’s other books to enjoy this one, but I am definitely more tempted now to go pick up one of his other titles – maybe give the Eagle series a try. I’ll have to let you know how I get on!