Kanti's Books

Some new ones, some old ones. "The oldest books are only just out for those who have not read them." (Samuel Butler)

 

I read Historical Fiction, Fantasy of all kinds, especially anything involving time travel or a time-slip, and I lap up well-written contemporary Crime, Mystery and Spy stories.

 

I am very fussy about shoddy editing. This annoys me even more than illiterate wannabe authors thinking they can get away with no editing at all.

 

Which brings me to poetry. I love reading good poetry, poetry that has been worked on and crafted as an artist works on and crafts a painting or an actor works on and crafts a performance. Poetry which is a work of art. 

The Midnight Sea

The Midnight Sea (The Fourth Element Book 1) - Kat Ross

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON 

 

Nazafareen's sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.


This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.

An Unholy Alliance

An Unholy Alliance - Susanna Gregory

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

 

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew's shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
'Matt!' he gasped. 'Come out of there!'
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew's shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
'What is it?' breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. 'It looks like a goat,' he said.
'A goat?' whispered Michael, in disbelief. 'What is a goat doing here?'
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat's head nevertheless, atop a human body.

 

An Unholy Alliance is long, and it is slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

 

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

 

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse's teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

 

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew's sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on "Lady Matilde", a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

 

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] 'How may I help you?' she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. 'I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?'
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
'We have come to give you some information,' said Bartholomew quickly

 

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim's foot.

 

This circle is the sign of a mysterious "guild"of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

 

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people's helplessness and gullibility?

 

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.

The Darkling Plain

The Darkling Plain - Douglas R. Mason

The north-west of England,

13th Century

 

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, 'Here, Master. What do you lack?' and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain's men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. 'When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you'll feel the weight of my hand.'

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[...]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, 'Here's a stroke of luck for you now. Here's a gentleman looking to employ you. He'll give you a fair price and set you on your way …'

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

 

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

 

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

 

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.

Marking Time

Marking Time - April  White

Saira Elian is a 17-year-old Californian girl whose English mother disappears while Saira, a solitary parkour free-runner and tagger (hope I got that right!), is out doing her thing in “the tunnels” somewhere under LA. Faced with the Child Protection Services unless she can name a relative who will take responsibility for her, Saira reluctantly tells them about someone in England.

 

That someone was waiting for me when I stepped off the British Airways flight in London: Millicent Elian. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I was three years old […] My mother couldn’t stand her. Not a big surprise given the way she was sizing me up, probably wondering if I was worth the effort. […] “I see you got his height.” Millicent’s tone was not flattering. “Hello, Millicent.” I knew I should be more polite and call her “Grandmother”, considering she just kept me out of foster care, but she hadn’t really earned the title. “And his manners, too, obviously.” “I wouldn’t know.” […] “I have a car waiting.” Of course she did. Millicent’s fancy gray Rolls Royce waited at the curb outside the airport, and her fancy gray driver held the door open for us. “Home, Jeeves,” she said with total authority. “Jeeves? You’re joking.” “I don’t joke.” Millicent’s expression didn’t change. Jeeves caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and very slowly, he winked. It wasn’t much, that wink, but it was something.

 

It turns out that the Elians are a family of time-travellers, and Saira’s mother, who is normally gone for only a couple of days (or that's how it seems!) is now being held against her will in Victorian London. And that, of course, is where half the story, and most of the adventure, takes place.

 

One aspect of the story that fascinated me was the love between Saira and a young man in Victorian times who had already known Saira in the future in her own time and fallen for her there – or should that be “then”? He, of course, doesn’t know about this yet, and she can’t tell him because the secret of how he came to be still a young man all those years later is just – well … I’ll leave it to you to sort all this out when you read the book, and add only, by way of encouragement, that while the ingredients may not be entirely original (there’s Hogwarts here, and Ann Rice, and Jack the Ripper, and Time Travel) the resulting dish is something different from the usual run-of-the-mill YA, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

 

(Here's a different cover - I much prefer it.)

A Conversation with James Munro/Jim Hawkey

Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar Book 2) - Jim Hawkey

Kanti Burns interviews the author of the Mariana de la Mar books

 

Please note that Mariana de la Mar Book 2, Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists, will be FREE on Amazon from the 1st to the 5th of March.

* * *

Perhaps I should mention in advance that Jim and I are not strangers, though our friendship has always been at a distance, via the internet; we originally got to know each other when, for several years,  we both wrote reviews for the late, lamented MedievalMysteries.com.

 

KB: So, shall we start at the beginning? It's a long time now since you wrote the first Mariana book. I remember reviewing it for Medieval Mysteries.

 

JM: A very long time. I suppose I've had Mariana on my mind for about fifteen years. I published the first completed Mariana novel, The Witch of Balintore, with Lulu in 2004.

 

KB: Then you published two more as part of a planned series, the Mariana Books. But what I want to know, as someone who wrote five-star reviews of the original books, is why you later withdrew them all and then, last year, started publishing radically revised versions of them with new titles and under a new pen-name, Jim Hawkey. And even then, back in 2004, why you started with Marian, Mariana, as a woman of – what? 26? – in The Witch of Balintore – and then afterwards worked backwards until finally you reached her childhood (in Mariana la Loca).

 

JM: Right. I often holiday in the north of Scotland, and I wrote The Witch of Balintore after spending a month near Tain and on the Nigg peninsula in Easter Ross – that's where Balintore actually is. I'd already written half of a rather different novel, set in the same area but 800 years earlier, in the 6th century. In that story, the main protagonists were a small indigenous people I called the Elpin – Elps – and suddenly Mariana, who as I say had been on my mind for quite a while, acquired yet another strand to her already very mixed ancestry: Elpin blood, to go with her father's Scottish ancestry (Pictish, Gaelic and Viking), and with her mother's Spanish, Moorish, Jewish descent. And she acquired a name to go with it: MacElpin. From there, the novel took off: Mariana from Spain via Paris and London now in the north of Scotland among her father's people and what were left of the indigenous Elps. It wrote itself, as they say. Then came, Mariana in Paris seven, eight years earlier, with Raoul, who had been in Scotland with her – or rather would be in Scotland with her –

 

KB: It confuses even you!

 

JM: No! That was a slip of the tongue. Then I knew I had to write the story of her life before Paris, the one that was originally published as Wrong Way Round the Church. I started it, but got stuck, distracted by other things, busy at the school, and so on. But listen. Let's leave that and switch to the new series of books. The new Thirteen-Card Spread, the one set in Paris, is called Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

 

KB: Which you wrote under the name Jim Hawkey. Why is that? When an author publishes under two or more different names, it's often because he prefers to keep the different genres he writes in quite separate. Is that what is happening here?

 

JM: It is, yes. Under my own name, I normally publish poetry and articles and posts on esoteric religion and philosophy, gnosis, reincarnation, as anyone who follows me on Twitter for instance, or Wordpress, will know. When I first started writing the Mariana books, I envisaged them fitting in with this –

 

KB: Literary novels written by a poet.

 

JM: Yes, and with esoteric themes, like the witchcraft and astral travel and tarot in what is now Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

 

KB: And the Cathars and the Mary Magdalene Heresy in The Rose of Sharon. Well, I've read the new versions of both, and I think I can see what is coming.

 

JM: The best laid plans of mice and authors gang oft aglay. I've found I'm incapable of imposing my will on the main characters in my novels. Mariana in the first two books as I originally wrote them was a Lady with a capital L forced into playing the whore. It wasn't really working in Thirteen-Card Spread, and spoilt the book. In Wrong Way Round the Church, the prequel to Thirteen-Card Spread, it became obvious that to everyone else she was a whore playing at being a Lady, whatever her background may have been. Everyone, that is, except her late father's old friend, the Scottish knights Sir Farquhar. He insisted on her being her father's daughter, the Scottish Lady, rather than the Spanish whore she had become between being kidnapped at the age of fourteen and arriving in Paris with him soon before her twentieth birthday. I believe strongly in character-led novels, and these two were leading me from – from –

 

KB: From James Munro to Jim Hawkey. From literary fiction to what Graham Green called "entertainments" laced with erotica.

 

JM: Well, not erotica exactly, but given Mariana's special niche ...

 

KB: So you rewrote the books, giving Mariana a free hand and allowing all those around her to react and respond in the way they naturally would.

 

JM: Exactly. I'd been bowdlerising my own work! And the turning point was Avignon in the last part of The Rose of Sharon, where Mariana is forced through no fault of her own to work once again in a bordel. The Mariana who – let's be honest – took to that like a duck to water was not the Lady Marian – or even the Mariana! – I'd depicted in Paris or in Scotland. They had to be completely rewritten. But in order to do that successfully, I had to give myself free rein as well. As James Munro I was – I am – too straight, too much the child of my upbringing, too tight-arsed in a word – too inhibited, too repressed. But when I adopt the Jim Hawkey persona ...

 

KB: You are suddenly free to – I was going to say to be yourself. Which is the real you, I wonder? But can we just get the new books and their titles clear for people who read this. I notice that Mariana in Paris, Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, is Mariana de la Mar 2 now.

 

JM: Yes. What used to be the prequel has now been rewritten and published as The Rose of Sharon, Mariana de la Mar 1.

 

KB: And there is now a new novella-length prequel called Mariana la Loca.

 

JM: Crazy Mariana. Yes. It is simply a few scenes from her rather magical childhood by the Mar Menor in the south of Spain.

 

KB: Okay, so we have the prequel and books 1 and 2 all published. And next?

 

JM: The Undeparted Dead (Mariana de la Mar 3) will be out on April 1st. That's set in Southwark, for hundreds of years the red-light district across the Thames from London, and in Essex, where Mariana finds herself being used as live bait by powerful people attempting to trap the walking dead –

 

KB: Zombies? Don't tell me!

 

JM: Revenants, back up out of the grave. It seems there were many such in the years following the Black Death, especially in Essex. But also a wraith and a harpy and –

 

KB: I want an advance copy!

 

JM: You'll be the very first. Then there is Mariana in Revolt, which will be Mariana de la Mar 4. You remember what happened in 1381?

 

KB: The Peasants' Revolt. But I had no idea Mariana was caught up in it?

 

JM: Oh, yes. And on both sides. As the Lady that old Sir Farquhar, who has now assumed complete authority over her, still expects her to be, and as one of the girls at the Green Unicorn in Southwark and the Shag in Colchester, Essex, where many of the rebels and their leaders come from.

 

KB: So let me try to  list them, in order:

Mariana la Loca

The Rose of Sharon

Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists

These are the ones currently available.

 

JM: In Kindle, yes. Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists is also available in paperback. Then there's The Undeparted Dead coming out on 1st April, as I said, and Mariana in Revolt, provisional publication date 1st September. This  last one contains a sub-plot called An Errand for Lady Alice, which I'd originally intended to stand alone –

 

KB: Lady Alice? Not the much-maligned Alice Perrers?

 

JM: Yes, old Edward III's mistress.

 

KB: Plots and sub-plots. Right. Anyway, that brings me nicely to something I always like asking authors about: your thoughts on the interface between fact and fiction and fantasy in historical novels, especially those set in the medieval period. Alice Perrers is fact, a historical character, while Mariana is fiction, a figment of your imagination.

 

JM: Right. And then we have mermaids and lamiae, which are fantasy. Let's try to clarify this. Bruce wins at Bannockburn: historical fact. Bruce hiding in a cave by the sea watching a spider swing back and forth: legend that could be historical fact. A woman with Bruce in the cave: historical fiction.

 

KB: How do you know?

 

JM: I just made it up. A mermaid with Bruce in the cave: fantasy. So far, fairly clear. But between the last two, for instance, if it's the woman, not the mermaid, but she's a witch? She is communicating with the spider, influencing it, making it keep swinging: historical fiction, or fantasy?

 

KB: Yes, witchcraft – and shape-shifting. All the things that Mariana can do, and her Scottish grandmother, and Niniane in Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, and the old witch that Niniane and Mariana take on. And then, of course, the revenants and wraiths and harpies you just mentioned.

 

JM: The question is, to what extent should our criteria for what could have been true depend on their idea of what could be true rather than our idea now?

 

KB: How many impossible things was it possible for them to believe before breakfast.

 

JM: When you are writing historical fiction, it's all a matter of point of view. From the protagonist's point of view, anything is acceptable and believable that would have been acceptable and believable then, at that time, while anything which would not have been acceptable and believable is inadmissable. When it is First Person narrative, this becomes even more so. A hint by the author to the effect that of course he doesn't believe all this rubbish, and the whole thing is ruined. His hero becomes a time-traveller, not a native born and bred in the period.

 

KB: I like that, yes. Homer mixes history, legend, fiction and fantasy and his characters are all absolutely at home in that setting, and we have the impression he believes in it all as well. Whereas Euripides' Agamemnon and Iphigeneia are clearly time-travellers.

 

JM: That's a very good example.

 

KB: Thank you. And now we're going to have to stop.

 

JM: Yes, but before we do, may I just say that I agree with what you wrote in your review of Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists that although it is Book 2 of the series it may actually be the best one to start with.

 

KB: Because it stands alone, yes, whereas The Rose of Sharon, Mariana de la Mar 1, reads very much like a prelude to it. Probably because you wrote it after Book 2!

 

JM: True. Anyway, that's why I chose Book 2, Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists, for my free give-away this week, to introduce the series to new readers.

 

KB: Okay, I'll draw attention to that.

Phoenix Blood (Old School - Book 1)

Phoenix Blood (Old School Book 1) - Jenny Schwartz

This is a story set in a world of magic. Not quite the various worlds of vampires and/or werewolves we have all grown accustomed to - or the world of Hogwarts, although it does feature an English boarding school (the Old School of the series title) where magical talents are fostered.

 

Sadie Howard's talent is Finding. She can find anything, whether it be a physical object like the pendant she is carrying when the story opens, or something more intangible like the safety she is seeking as she races into a bikers' bar on the opening page pursued by two "Stag Mercenaries" intent on killing her and seizing the pendant, and finds safety with a man sitting quietly in the corner with his pet bird of paradise.

 

(Do you think one can judge a person's age by the length of her sentences?)

 

A man called Marcus Aurelius, who nine years earlier "couldn't fight a feather duster" but now effortlessly disposes of the two killers; who nine years ago had dropped her publicly and brutally, and broken her heart; who nine years ago had not believed in magic but proves now to be a powerful magician in his own right.

 

(I did it again.)

 

That, then, is the situation. But who wants the pendant so badly that he is sending Stag Mercenaries after Sadie? Will Sadie and Marcus ever complete the long road journey across the States to California, where she must deliver the pendant? Can their love have survived the nine years of heartbreak and loneliness they both (yes, both) went through? And what, really, is the entity now passing as a bird of paradise and Marcus's companion?

 

A great story that on two successive nights kept me riveted to my Kindle till the early hours of the morning.

The Pendant

The Pendant (The Angela Fleetwood Paranormal Mystery Series Book 1) - Lawton Paul

Germany, 1944; Chickasaw, Florida, present day

 

The book opens with a chapter entitled Marlina. The chapters are not numbered, only named, and this functions as a prologue, set seventy years before the main action of the story.

 

Marlina is a nurse in a German military hospital which is now behind enemy lines. She saves a little boy's life when the only remaining doctor declares him dead. But she has some help in the form of a miraculous metal cone (of extra-terrestrial origin, or so the author implies). She does not know this, but she does take the cone with her when, dressed up as a nun by a helpful priest, she abandons her post and sets out on foot with the boy, heading into the unknown.

 

Forward 70 years. Angela Fleetwood is a cancer survivor whose husband, Walt, originally brought her to Chickasaw to die. Instead, she recovered, and he died. She believes he was murdered, and this is confirmed in her mind when a neighbour of theirs drowns in her bath and the Sheriff declares that, too, an accident, though Angela is quite sure it was no such thing. Especially as the neighbour, known to be an old woman, proved to have the body of a fit young woman. Her hair, too, was the hair of a young woman; it had been died grey.  

 

Angela must be one of the most original amateur sleuths to hit the bookshelves (or rather Kindle). I loved her. And I loved her bizarre collection of neighbours and supporters.

 

I shan't forget this story or these characters, and that for me is one of the basic criteria for Five Stars

Phoenix Blood

Phoenix Blood (Old School Book 1) - Jenny Schwartz

Am reading this (Jenny - are you there?) It's really good, grabbed me from the first page.

Christmas in (Medieval) Paris

Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar Book 2) - Jim Hawkey

I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author

in return for an honest review.

 

Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is Book 2 of the Mariana de la Mar series of novels set in the 1370s in Spain and France. It is preceded by two other books, The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) and a prequel, Mariana la Loca, but it is the only one of the three that is a real Medieval Mystery, and is in my view the best one to start with. It is not only very much a stand-alone but the first two are both in a sense prequels to it. Mariana la Loca, the official prequel, tells of Mariana's childhood in the south of Spain, up to the point where, at the age of fourteen, and following the death of her father, she is abducted and sold into slavery. The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) takes us from that point to her arrival in Paris.

 

Now she is in Paris and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a student at the university there. But her life is still beset with difficulties.

 

For a start, the university admits only boys and men to lectures, so she has to dress as a boy. On top of that, her self-appointed guardian, Ferchard (Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale), an old friend of her father's (who was a Scot living in exile in Spain) insists that she must now grow up and be the lady (Lady Marian MacElpin) she was born to be, and turn her back on the years spent as a prostitute in Spain and Avignon. But this, she finds, is not so easily done.

 

However, her experience of life and knowledge of the world is much greater than that of her peer-group of students and hangers-on, so it is to her they turn when one of their number is accused of murdering his uncle, a miserly alchemist reputed to have a horde of gold nuggets tucked away somewhere.

 

And no sooner has she agreed to do what she can to help discover who was really responsible for the death of the old man than she learns that another murder was committed that same night (Christmas night!), a murder closely connected with the first one.

 

As the title implies, the book is full of medieval witches and prostitutes – Mariana is more than a little of both herself –  but others Mariana meets and gets to know during the course of her investigations include the Holy Roman Emperor, an alchemist himself and in Paris for Christmas, his daughter Anna, soon to be the wife of Richard II and Queen of England, the one-armed Albanian King of the Paris underworld, the celebrated proto-feminist Christine de Pisan, then a girl of thirteen, and the legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel.    

 

There are many so-called medieval mysteries about and feeling at home in the medieval period I have read most of them, but I want to say simply that there is more medieval magic and mystery in this one book than in any ten of the others. And more horror. Some scenes are more than gripping, they are mesmerising. Medieval Paris is unforgettably depicted and quite apart from that it is astonishing how this very male writer gets into the heart and soul of the all-female Mariana. (But then why not, when you think that Cadfael and Falco are both written by women?)

 

Burning Bright

Burning Bright - Tracy Chevalier

If, like me, you have always been fascinated and thrilled by the poems and pictures of William Blake, you will be delighted with this book, for it is set in his London and he plays quite a major role in it. His London, yes.

 

(This and several other poems crop up quite naturally in the course of the story.)

I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every man
In every infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

 

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

 

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

 

And what is more, he is credibly depicted – an outspoken radical (he was a friend of Tom Paine’s) at a time when a breath of socialism or support for the revolution in France could cost one one’s life; eccentric to the point of “madness” – in constant communication with his dead brother, and living in fact on two levels, in two worlds, simultaneously; and very, very kind in a society where kindness seems to have been in extremely short supply.

 

A poor family emigrate from a Devonshire village to London, and the story is of the two village children, Jem and his beautiful but totally naive and innocent sister, Maisie (a source of inspiration to Blake!) and her adorable streetwise counterpart, Maggie, the local London girl who befriends Jem and tries to protect Maisie.

 

It is perfectly written, as one would expect of the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and succeeds on every level. I will never be able to read William Blake again without thinking of him facing a mob who are demanding that he sign an oath of allegiance to the king, and refusing outright; and Jem and Maisie’s father, the local from the Devonshire village, following suit, not because he knows or cares anything about politics but because he objects to being forced to do something by a violent mob.

And the depiction of the two girls, Maisie and Maggie, as they grow up, become women, is completely unforgettable.

 

A must for all Blake-lovers as well, of course, as all lovers of top quality Historical Fiction.

 

Confessions of a Pagan Nun

Confessions of a Pagan Nun - Kate Horsley

Ireland, c500 AD

 

Giannon's home was a configuration of branches, stones, and mud. A dome and a shed of these materials leaned against one another like old drunken warriors at a banquet. All around these structures was a variety of grasses, blossoms, and bushes that I had never seen before. Drying herbs, jars on tethers, and staffs of yew and oak hung on the sides of his dwelling so that it reminded me of Giannon himself when he travelled beneath a tangle of druidic accessories. The clearing with its gardens and dwelling was empty of human life, though a ragged gray wolf scampered into the woods from there. Some might say that the wolf was Giannon transformed, but I only had the sense that the wolf was hungry and weak, for the past winter had been fiercely cold.

 

I entered the dwelling and found the inside also strung with dried plants, jars, and staffs. There were shelves on which a chaos of boxes and jars sat along with feathers and scrolls and dust. The only furnishings were a table, a small bench, and a bed made of straw covered with the skins of bear and fox. More scrolls, codices, and tablets sat upon these furnishings, as though the originals had multiplied in some orgy when their master was away.

 

I walked carefully through this strange chamber, afraid that all of Giannon's belongings and the dwelling itself were capable of collapsing into a dusty pile of rubble. And I believed that a druid's dwelling could likely be set with spells from which I would emerge transformed into a beetle or a bee. I waited for Giannon outside, until the world grew dim and I could see wolves running along the tree line beyond the small clearing in which Giannon's home nested. Finally I saw Giannon approach …

 

This book has as its setting the period when the Church moved in and took over Ireland. It is the story of Gwynneve, who trains as a Ban-druí (druidess) under a surly and disillusioned druid watching his order pass into history as the tonsured monks and priests swarm over the land.

 

But two stories run concurrently, in alternate chapters. Gwynneve's story of her childhood with her wonderful mother -

 

My father accused my mother of starving me by filling me up with stories instead of food. Everyone in my túath was hungry, especially during the months of thick frost. But I did not want food as much as I craved her stories, which soothed me. I listened to my mother weave words together and create worlds, as though she were a goddess. Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me. She began every story with the phrase "It was given to me that …"

 

- and then, when her mother died, her story of her life with Giannon the druid. Meanwhile, in the other chapters, we learn about the life she leads now as a nun among other Christian nuns who are drifting helplessly under the authority of a monk, Brother Adrianus, one of a small band who joined the nuns at the shrine of St Brigit and who has assumed the title and dignity of Abbot.

 

It is, let me say at once, depressing in parts. How could it not be? But as Gwynneve the nun, in the convent that is becoming daily more like a prison (and longing for her druid lover) writes her story on her treasured parchments, it is also very moving and uplifting.

 

Take some of Gwynneve's views and comments (recorded in the secret diary). Faced with unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, she writes: "I admonish myself and all who read this not to be ignorant on any matters of which knowledge is available. Do not be afraid of the truth …"

 

And later: "For we both both were weak in doctrine and strong in questions. But we both loved effort and knowledge, though I saw Giannon become weary in his eyes. I do not understand a man who does not want to know all that he can know."

 

On the loneliness of incarnation: "Among all the wisdom and facts I learned from Giannon, I also learned the loneliness of incarnation, in which there is inevitably a separation of souls because of the uniqueness of our faces and our experiences."

 

On God and nature: "I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird's song that makes ripple on a shadowed pool […] This land is full of holiness that I cannot describe.  Brigit knows this. Brigit to me is the wisest of all the saints. She knows the value of ale and the comfort of poetry."

 

On Christ and kindness: "That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness."

 

It is indeed. And the end is truly shocking. Not depressing, no, on second thoughts. Tragic.

Played to Death

Played to Death - B.V. Lawson

The first in a new series featuring "consultant criminologist" Scott Drayco, once a child-prodigy whose hopes of a great career as a concert pianist were dashed when his right arm was crushed by a car door during a car-jacking incident.

 

Now he is ex-FBI and working on his own. A grateful client has left him the old Opera House in a run-down west-coast resort named Cape Unity. A white elephant, he assumes, but as he makes plans to pay a visit and see about selling the place, he receives a request to act on behalf of a certain Oakley Keys, who lives right there in Cape Unity. They arrange to meet at the Opera House to discuss Oakley Keys' problem.

 

When Drayco arrives, he finds Keys lying on the stage, dead. Murdered and mutilated.

 

There is a good mix of characters, all the various types you would expect to find in such a setting plus some you wouldn't, and it is so well-plotted that I for one did not know whodunit till the very end. All right, it's a bit slow and chatty at times, but there are patches of very fine writing, and I would definitely recommend it to all who enjoy a small-town murder mystery with a visiting private eye who has to cope with the all-too-predictable small-town xenophobia.

Mentats of Dune

Navigators of Dune by Herbert, Brian, Anderson, Kevin J.(May 17, 2016) Hardcover - Kevin J. Herbert Brian & Anderson

The Dune series of SF novels, the original six by Frank Herbert and the many added to the on-going oeuvre by his son Frank and Kevin J Anderson, are spread over many millennia and multiple galaxies (thanks to intergalactic travel, made possible by the mutated space-folding “Navigators”), but always in the background, if not the foreground, is the desert planet of Arrakis. Dune.

 

When this particular story opens (the second in the Great Schools of Dune trilogy, set thousands of years before Frank Herbert’s original Dune) (see my review of the first in the trilogy, Sisterhood of Dune, here) it is more than a century since the Butlerian Jihad came to an end with the final unexpected victory of people over the “thinking machines” which had enslaved them for generations. Now though, predictably, people have a horror of technology and the Butlerians wage a kind of Luddite jihad throughout the Corrino Empire destroying machines and slaughtering anyone and everyone suspected of being a “machine sympathiser”, people who fear the onset of a Dark Age from which mankind may never recover.

 

I say “this particular story”, but in fact there are several different stories here, all carried over from Sisterhood of Dune, and all being told at once – something I admit I find irritating and would make the book impossible to read for anyone not already at home in the Dune universe, and especially for anyone who has not read Sisterhood of Dune.

 

Perhaps the most interesting of these stories is that of the origin of the Mentats, which is central to this segment of the on-going saga though their origin does not occur on Dune despite the title of the book. Gilbertus Albans was reared and educated and given life-extension treatment by the robot Erasmus, and now applies the training he was given by this most advanced and individual of thinking machines to his student mentats at the Mentat School on Lampadas. The Butlerians are very suspicious of him, but tolerate him because they see mentats as the human answer to computers. If they knew his age and background, they would kill him immediately. And if they even suspected that he had at his school the memory core of Erasmus – Erasmus himself, still fully functional …!

 

As I said before, an absolute must-read for all Dune fans. Enjoy.

 

I am now about to enjoy the third book in this trilogy, Navigators of Dune.

 

For the Love of Philae

For the Love of Philae - Christian Jacq, Marcia de Brito

There are differences of opinion regarding this book. A friend of mine found it slow and often boring and commented that the author had managed to waste a great idea. I had not then read the book; I had, however, been reading Confessions of a Pagan Nun, which I found superb (I must post a review of that here, too) and it occurred to me that the two books had a great deal in common. Both were set in the 6th Century and both depicted the Church Militant stamping out the still-glowing embers of the indigenous religion, in one case the Catholicism of Rome crushing the last practitioners of Celtic druidism, in the other the Orthodoxy of Byzantium persecuting the few remaining adepts of the ancient Isis-cult.

 

It is true that it is slow. Christian Jacq is a slow writer. In the Ramses series, it takes him five books to tell a story that any other writer would have told in one. But he has his good side.

 

For a start, he is an expert on ancient Egypt.

 

So I read For the Love of Philae.

 

One problem is the translation, which is often wordy and clumsy, and occasionally absurd. "I know how to oar" says the general, leaping into the boat. The priestess "dialogued with the spirit that …" The bishop was "wearing his long red dress". "You had the impudence of reading" a private document, the Prefect protests. "Half the adepts remained prostrated, sitting on their heels," we are told, and "The community chanted a slow introverted psalm" and, of the High Priestess, that "a green hue enhanced the curb of her eyebrows". Sometimes, as in "You will have face a tempest" (stet), the problem may be a typo, but it is all very careless and off-putting. The editor is quite as much to blame here as the translator.

 

That said, and apart from that, I found the book fascinating. I never once wanted to lay it aside; quite the contrary. I realised immediately that I knew little or nothing about sixth-century Egypt (or, thinking about it, sixth-century Greece); now I do, and I learnt in (as Heinlein once said) "the nicest possible way". I have an image in my mind of one small part of Egypt in 534-5 AD, and of one small group of people who lived there.

 

 

The place is Elephantine, an island in the Nile, far to the south, close to the first cataract:a historic island, once the home of the only Jewish temple outside Jerusalem and the heart of a heretical form of diaspora-Judaism; and also the heart and home of Isis worship, where the mystery of Isis and Osiris (the dying-rising god) was celebrated. (The picture shows the Temple of Philae as it is now.)

 

The people are the High Priestess, Isis, direct descendant of Cleopatra and the pharaohs (and so beautiful that she is held by all and sundry to be the incarnation of the goddess Isis herself), her lover, the new young High Priest, Sabni, and other adepts of the Isis cult that still – no, not flourishes, but at least survives intact, a pure flame still burning, on this island.

 

Opposed to them are Theodore, the Christian bishop, childhood friend of Sabni; and Maximin, the prefect of the province, appointed by the Emperor in Constantinople (these were the early years of Justinian and Theodora).

 

Bishop Theodore protects the Isis temple and cult for Sabni's sake, pretending that it does not exist. Sabni's side of the bargain is that they should keep a very low profile.

Then the Prefect falls in love with Isis. And the auguries are that for the second year in succession the Nile will not flood adequately and there will be famine in the province; the bishop's prayers are failing to move the ancient gods that, the people believe, still control the great river: only Isis, the people believe, can help them now. And the Prefect, Maximin, agrees with them.

 

A poor translation but a good story, memorable characters that you can't help loving – or hating – and a really great setting.

Corpse Candle

Corpse Candle - Paul Doherty

England, early 14th century

 

'It was murder, wasn't it?' Ranulf asked sitting down on a stool.

'Murder, and a cunning one,' Corbett agreed. 'But proving it and discovering the assassin will be difficult. We are going to have to poke with a long, sharp stick. In many ways Abbot Stephen was a strange man. Oh, he was holy enough and learned but self-contained and mysterious; a knight-banneret who decided to become a priest. A soldier who decided to hunt demons.'

'Demons!' Ranulf exclaimed.

Corbett smiled thinly. 'Yes, Ranulf, our late Abbot was an officially appointed exorcist. Abbot Stephen would be called to assist with people who claimed to be possessed, and houses that were reputedly haunted.'

'Sprites and goblins!' Ranulf scoffed. 'A legion of devils wander Whitefriars and Southwark, but they are all flesh and blood. The wickedness they perpetrate would shame any self-respecting demon. You don't believe in that nonsense, do you?'

Corbett pursed his lips. Ranulf stared in disbelief. Chanson, delighted, stood rooted to the spot. He loved nothing better, as he'd often whispered to Ranulf, than sombre tales about witches, warlocks and sorcerers.

'Surely, Sir Hugh, it's arrant nonsense!'

'Yes and no,' Corbett replied slowly.

 

Another murder in a monastery – this time within a sealed chamber in the Fenland Abbey of St Martin's-in-the-Marsh.

 

The Abbot, a friend of the King's (he used to be a warrior and once saved the King's life), has been stabbed in his own chamber with his own dagger, yet there seems to be no way anyone could have obtained access to him.

 

The monks are about to organise a cover-up, insisting that some outsider, some outlaw, must have broken in and killed the Abbot, but the King (Edward I) is having none of it. He promptly sends Sir Hugh with his henchman Ranulf to make enquiries.

 

They soon discover that the aristocratic widow who owns all the adjoining lands was on very bad terms with Abbot Stephen, refusing to communicate with him directly and arguing fiercely – through the Prior – about a disputed boundary. But is there more to it than this? It turns out that they knew each other – well – when they were young.

 

Meanwhile, inside the monastery, two more suspects lurk: Taverner, a "cunning man" (a confidence trickster, living on his wits) who claimed to be possessed and whom the Abbot had been planning to exorcise; and an arch-deacon from London, an "old friend" of the Abbot's, who had ostensibly come to witness the exorcism.

 

Then another monk is murdered …

 

I like Hugh Corbett. And I especially like Ranulf, his side-kick, the "Clerk of the Green Wax" – listen to his prayer as he rides into mortal danger: "Oh Lord, look after Ranulf-atte-Newgate, as Ranulf-atte-Newgate would look after you, if he was God and you were Ranulf-atte-Newgate."

 

There is, it must be said, some careless editing, which is very unusual in Headline books (and especially in Paul Docherty's books!).  For example, on p20, Ranulf asks, 'Did you ever meet Abbot Stephen?' 'On a few occasions,' Corbett replies; on p129, we are informed that "he [Corbett] had never met Abbot Stephen".

 

But these are details.

 

What matters to me, always, is that the story grips. It is not a book to read in bed before you sleep. As with all Paul Docherty's medieval novels, you won't. You won't even yawn. In fact, three hours later you'll be getting up, book in hand to make a cup of tea.

Other Gods (The Averillan Chronicles 1)

Other Gods - Barbara Reichmuth Geisler

Shaftesbury, England, 1141

 

It didn't seem so terribly evil, what she was doing. The bones were, after all, only bones. She remembered how Galiena had explained it to her in that maddening, superior sort of way, as if she didn't know anything at all. 'My dear,' Galiena had said, making it sound as if she was saying "you slut", 'he is dead. Died long ago. So this will be no harm to him. He is with God. Isn't that what you believe?' And the long, ovate, down-slanted eyes had glinted, reminding her of a snake. 'And if he is with God, he can have no need for his bones.' […]

 

The words echoing hollowly across her memory, she tiptoed to the shrine and, with surprising audacity, reached out and touched the box. There was no resistance. She put her hand to the latch and, with no more than a slight clicking, released it and lifted the lid. This was ridiculously easy. She peered into the gilded depths and saw the bones there, neatly arranged, not as if he had died, not as if he was in a coffin, but fumbled all together to fit. 'Surely it is not customary to open the reliquary to see if he is in there. No one,' – that had been Galiena's final, convincing argument – 'No one will look for the bones. Why would they? And therefore they will not know that they are missing.'

 

Another highly observant and rational nun solving mysteries in and around a medieval abbey. Surely we have enough of these series now? But Other Gods is well written, and it is different from most. For a start it is closer to Ellis Peters' Cadfael novels, and intended to be so – the same date, with England suffering under the warring Matilda and Stephen, and also the place, Shaftesbury, so similar to Shrewsbury, home of Brother Cadfael – but also closer in attitude and atmosphere: Dame Averilla, the infirmaress and herbalist, faces the same kind of internal problems that Cadfael always faces, for instance a formal and uncharitable sub-prioress, and a distant, aristocratic, abbess who seems totally out of touch.

 

Then a valuable book disappears – and so does one of the nuns, Dame Agnes, who is believed by many of the nuns to be possessed and whom Dame Joan, the sub-prioress, insists should be exorcised, although Dame Averilla believes her to be simply ill. But when this ill, or possessed, nun disappears into the Forest, who is to find her, who is to bring he back? Under Dame Joan's influence, the Abbess forbids Averilla to go in search of her. And Averilla of course is under a vow of obedience.

 

In fact Dame Agnes is found by Galiena, the local wise woman (witch, many believe) and her followers.

 

This Galiena, born into an aristocratic family but now come down in the world, is a fascinating character. When she was ten, her elder brother returned from the Crusades and introduced her to the art of healing as practised by the foreign healers in the Holy Land. Spurred on by this, she learnt all she could from the local wise woman. Then at the age of thirteen, and already stunningly beautiful, she was married off to a fat pig of a man older than her father, who soon took to beating her unmercifully. A few years later, "he died in dreadful agony", poisoned by her, and she was free to go her own way and practise her arts as a wise woman herself.

 

Unfortunately, and perhaps because she had already used those arts to bring about more than one death, the path she chooses to follow is the path of evil.

 

Now only Dame Averilla can stop Galiena and save Dame Agnes, but that is being made as dificult as possible for her by her superiors in the nunnery. Why?

 

A first novel in what seems to have set out to be a series that would appeal to Ellis Peters fans, Other Gods is set in exactly that same time-frame and we imagine Brother Cadfael busy in in the infirmary at his monastery in Shrewsbury; we even begin to wonder whether he and Dame Averilla ever met!

 

There is a Book 2 (Graven Images) and a prequel (In Vain) but they were published ten years or more ago - my copy of Other Gods is a second-hand paperback I picked up by chance - and though I should like to read more I don't think I will: even the Kindle editions cost far more than I'm usually prepared to pay for a new paperback. Another unlucky author with a couldn't-care-less publisher.

Currently reading

The Midnight Society (The Midnight Chronicles #1) by Rhonda Sermon
Blood of the Prophet (The Fourth Element) (Volume 2) by Kat Ross