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. 

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.

Thebes of the Hundred Gates

Thebes of the Hundred Gates - Robert Silverberg

 A short novel – 30,000 words or so, hardly more than a novella – by one of the grand masters of the genre.

 

In Thebes of the Hundred Gates, the Time Service in Home Era (like NOW) sends a young "volunteer" (none of the more experienced operatives will touch it) back to ancient Egypt in search of two of their own who overshot the mark and got lost in time a year and a half earlier. Now Service investigators have managed to pinpoint them in Thebes – Thebes at the height of its splendour, under Amenhotep III. That's the pharaoh whose son, Amenhotep IV, is better known as the great heretic Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti. (I have a couple of books about those two I want to review here some time.)

 

Edward Davis materialises in the heat and dirt of a secluded back alley and immediately falls ill. Not because of the filth ...

 

Two donkeys stood just in front of him, chewing on straw, studying him with no great curiosity. A dozen yards or so behind him was some sort of rubble-heap, filling the alley almost completely. His sandal-clad left foot was inches from a row of warm green turds that one of the donkeys must have laid down not very long before. To the right flowed a thin runnel of brownish water so foul that it seemed to him he could make out the movements of giant microorganisms in it, huge amoebas and paramecia, grim predatory rotifers swimming amgrily against the tide.

 

But he had been innoculated against anything Thebes might come up with. No, it was temporal shock – it's like "a parachute jump without the parachute", they had told him, jumping so far uptime, "but if you live through the first five minutes you'll be okay." He had been back 600 years before, but never anything like this.

 

He loses consciousness, and when he wakes up, finds himself in a temple, and in the capable hands of Nefret, Priestess of Isis. However, she seems only to want to be rid of him. As soon as he recovers, she arranges for him to live and work among the embalmers, the mummifiers, in the necropolis on the other side of the Nile.

 

A refuge, yes. But he is little more than a slave there, and he has only thirty days – twenty-eight left now – before his rendez-vous for pick-up at exactly midday back in that alley. How can he hope to track down the missing time travellers from there, on the wrong side of the river?

 

A wonderful glimpse, not only of the world of the future where people travel uptime and back downtime – it is still, obviously, the early days of time travel – but also of the past, of Thebes of the Hundred Gates, teeming with people, all of them, in the childhood of the world, concerned with only one thing: death, and the afterlife; and reincarnation.

 

This little book is perfect.

Cause to Kill

Cause to Kill (An Avery Black Mystery-Book 1) - Blake Pierce

Avery Black used to be a top-notch defence lawyer. The best. Too good. She even managed to get a serial killer acquitted when it was obvious to everyone he was as guilty as Hell.

 

When he killed again, she was distraught. She had convinced not only the jurors but herself that he was innocent - or at least had not been proven guilty.

 

She gave up her career as a lawyer and enlisted as a cop with the Boston Police Department. Where of course she was scorned and sneered at by one and all. However, her ultra-sharp mind and her conscientious approach carry her slowly but surely up through the ranks to Detective. Now she has been transferred to the Homicide Squad, given a handsome new partner - the only one who would agree to work with her, the Chief tells her - and assigned as Lead-Detective to a staged murder that bears all the marks of being the first in a series of such staged murders. Or maybe the killer has already struck elsewhere, in another State.

 

I like Avery, and of course identified with her from the word Go. Which meant I was put through the wringer alongside her as Blake Pierce took great pleasure in applying the Kurt Vonnegut dictum to his leading lady.

Searching for Hope

Searching For Hope - Michael Joseph

Sam Carlisle, a private detective living and working in a fictitious town in East Anglia called Newgate, finds a homeless man dying in an alley beside a bar. The man's last words are "Help ... me ... find ...". The man had obviously been murdered but the police seem less than enthusiatic, so Sam, having no other work on hand at the moment, sets out to investigate the murder, and the meaning of the dying man's last words, on his own.

 

He soon finds himself in deep and dangerous waters.

 

It is not a bad read. I finished it quite happily. But despite the predictable tragedy in his past and the equally predicatable whisky addiction in his present, Sam is less than convincing. As is the East Anglian setting. I know East Anglia well, yet would never have realised the book was set there had the author not repeatedly informed me.

 

Let's be honest. Sam is a cardboard character and this East Anglia is a cardboard setting.

 

Why am I reviewing it, then? I almost never write even mildly negative reviews. (For the simple reason that if I'm not enjoying a book I don't waste any more of my precious reading time on it. I move on to one of the many other books I have sitting in piles around my flat or desperately trying to work their way up to the front page of my Kindle Reader.)

 

So what was it I liked about the book? The minor characters: many of them were original and there were some I could identify with. I always need that, and I couldn't identify with Sam at all.

Relics - The Sucker's Tale

Relics  - Pip Vaughan-Hughes

England, 1235 (then Iceland, Greenland, France, Italy and the Greek islands)

 

The Murder

There was a ghastly whistling sound, and then the deacon's blood burst from his neck in a thick roiling jet that hit me full in the chest. I staggered back, burning liquid in my eyes, in my hair, my mouth, running down inside my habit. There was a full-bodied reek of salt and iron and I gagged, spinning away in my soaking robes, the hot gore seething against my skin as it trickled down my back, under my arms and into the hair between my legs. The dead man in Sir Hugh's arms whistled once more, an empty squeak that ended in a forlorn burble. I could see, as if through a red gauze, Sir Hugh still holding the deacon under the chin so that the weight of the corpse dragged its slashed throat apart into a vast wound in which secret things were revealed, white, yellow, red, like the inlaid patterns in the altar steps. I thought I saw the flap between head and torso stretch like dough in a baker's hands, then I was running down the nave half-blind, blood squelching between my toes at every step. Behind me I could hear Sir Hugh's voice echoing in the cavernous shadows. He was laughing, a great, warm laugh full of ease and pleasure. 'Stop,' he called, happily. 'Come back, Petroc! What a mess you've made! What on earth made you do such a thing?'

 

This novel could have been titled "The Sucker's Tale".

 

When the book opens, a villainous ex-Templar now employed as a bishop's steward (which, here at least, means minder/enforcer) is looking for someone to be the patsy. He finds one in the innocent and naive young student priest, Brother Petroc.

 

Next thing we know, Petroc is on the run accused of committing a horrifying murder. Everywhere he turns he finds people either already involved in the scheme or swiftly drawn into it by his presence.

 

Yet Petroc proves, under pressure, to be less of a sucker tham the one-time Templar Sir Hugh de Kervezy had anticipated.

 

He escapes on board a ship, and Sir Hugh is obliged to pursue him across the cold, dark North Atlantic (the Sea of Darkness) then back and down to the Mediterranean and eventually to the Isles of Greece, where the final confrontation between them occurs.

 

It is not just a page-turner though, it is well set in its period and also often made me stop and think. Like when Petroc's more streetwise friend and fellow-student observes that the bishop "is no priest, he's a lord, and a rich one. Interests, brother. They need to be protected. By people like the steward."

 

Or speaking of Greenland: "A sad place, too near the world's edge for people to settle comfortably. In times past it was safe and green, but this age of the world is turning cold, and they freeze, little by little, year by year. [...] The chill is creeping over the land ..." We are usually informed that the name "Greenland" was Lief Ericsson's way of conning people into going there as settlers. But what if that were not so? That Greenland did use to be green ... Climate change I believe in, of course. I'm just not so sure about global warming ...

 

But back to the book. Yes, it's a great read. The copy I have here in front of me has been on my bookshelf for years, but I notice second-hand copies are going cheap, and it is now also available on Kindle.

The Bone Field

The Bone Field - Simon Kernick

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley

in exchange for an honest review.

 

A police procedural that quickly morphs into something more like a thriller with a tough ex-special forces hero, now a Detective Sergeant with the Metropolitan Police, but very much an outsider because of his history and suspended halfway through the story - though he of course goes on investigating unofficially and illegally.

 

The story is set in London, but starts with a disappearance years earlier in Thailand. Then the body of the young woman who disappeared turns up in England. Can it really be her? And why is the body of a thirteen-year-old girl who disappeared from her home in England at much the same time buried in the same suburban garden?

 

There is sex-slave-trafficking. There is a serial sexual predator and murderer. There is ritual magic and human sacrifice. There is perhaps the nastiest villain ever to sully the screen of my Kindle Reader - not just nasty, but smelly - yes, downright gross, as well as evil. Horrifying - and certainly the one whose hands I would least like to fall into!

 

It is a gripping must-read.

 

However, it does need some serious editing. Not only is not properly formatted for Kindle, but it is full of jarring Americanisms despite the fact that the setting is entirely British and that there are no American characters whatsoever in the story. The Metropolitan Police (the Met) are referred to repeatedly throughout the story as "the Feds". Homeless down-and-outs are "hobos". A black Londoner thinks of his mother as a "ho" yet at the same time thinks of "Yankee rock music". I could go on, but I won't. American readers might not notice this, I suppose, just as a British reader might not notice similar lapses in a book set in the US and written by a British author. But to a British reader, they end up spoiling an otherwise enthralling story. And for this reason four stars instead of the five it would otherwise deserve. 

The Lily and the Sword

The Lily And The Sword - Sara Bennett

Northumbria in 1070, like the rest of England, was still reeling from the impact of the Norman invasion four years earlier. On the whole, you could say that the English – those of Anglo-Saxon and Danish origin who had lived in England for generations – still to a large extent opposed the Norman incomers. This was mainly William's fault. Instead of assuming the crown and letting the country go on happily as it always had, so that no one was really inconvenienced by the change, he granted all his Norman followers huge estates, dispossessing the English land-owners and building up an atmosphere of bitter resentment and enmity that would last for generations to come.

 

The heroine, Wilfreda, known as Lily, the beautiful heiress to large tracts of Northumbria – her father was a powerful English earl, her maternal grandfather the King of Norway – has already been very unhappily married once to a Norman, Vorgern, but he is now dead and she has reluctantly become the focus of a widespread rebellion led by her childhood friend Hew. William sends his most trusted, and most feared, general, Radulf, "the King's Sword", to put down the rebellion – and Lily falls into his hands.

 

However, she claims to be someone else, a friend of hers whose family have supported the Normans, so instead of sending her straight off to William, he keeps her with him – and falls in love with her.

 

And she with him.

 

And that is what is is, a love-story, (the) Lily and the Sword. Hew, a nasty piece of work, is represented as the villain, Radulf as a good man and a great warrior who is simply doing his job, serving his king.

 

It is an enthralling story, it is well written and it has a convincing background, much of it being set in early medieval York. But I can't help wondering whether a young Englishwoman who embraced the Norman conquerors quite so enthusiastically – albeit in the name of peace – would have been as popular as Lily apparently is with "her people". Imagine a Nazi Britain in 1949 ...

The Devil's Prayer

The Devil's Prayer - Luke Gracias

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

 

In the 13th Century, in order to save his life, a monk did a deal with the Devil, and as a result the Codex Giga, the Devil's Bible, came into being. It was lost for centuries, then rediscovered, but by this time, twelve pages of the original manuscript were missing, the twelve vitally important pages known as the Devil's Prayer.

 

It is said that one day a woman will give birth to the child of the Devil. And if this person ever gets his hands on the pages of the Devil's Prayer, then all Hell will be let loose on the world.

 

When the story opens, we are in the convent of Sancta Therese, a few miles north of Zamora, Spain. There, during the Semana Santa (Easter Week), a secret ritual is enacted, as it has been every year since the 1200s, but this time, at its climax, a nun commits suicide by hanging herself from the bell-tower.

 

Meanwhile, in Australia, in a world as different as it can well get, a young woman called Siobhan Russo is informed by a priest that her mother, Denise, who has been missing from home for six years, has committed suicide in Spain. That she was a nun going by the name of Sister Benedictine. And that she, Siobhan, must travel at once to Spain, to collect in person a message her mother left for her.

 

It turns out that Denise, the mother, had done a deal with the Devil years earlier, in order to get revenge and healing after she had been raped and left paralysed. This rape and its consequences form a vivid short story which stands out as rather different from the rest of the book, and after reading it we identify with Denise quite as much as we do with her now grown-up daughter Siobhan. At that time, the Devil had healed Denise in exchange for the souls of her attackers. But her dealings with the Devil had not stopped there. The Devil later brought the child Siobhan back to life after she had drowned in their swimming-pool.

 

But I am telling you too much of the story. Read it for yourself. It is brilliantly researched and replete with fascinating details. And don't be put off by all this about "the Devil". This is a very real, very evil, Devil, a Devil it is almost impossible to say No to - and as the author says in the book, "God and the Devil - one does not exist without the other." It is a story I shall never forget, and full of characters I shall never forget.

 

I visited the website www.devilsprayer.com and found some marvellous photos of the scenes where the more bizarre sections of the story are set. Here is one of them:

The Robsart Mystery

To Shield the Queen - Fiona Buckley

England, 1560

 

(To Shield the Queen is apparently the title of this novel in the US. It was originally published in the UK as The Robsart Mystery.)

 

The Queen, Elizabeth I, is in love. And the man she is in love with is the unpopular – and already married! – Robert Dudley. If somehow he were to get an anullment and Elizabeth married him and he assumed the role of pseudo-king, there could be civil war. Especially as Mary Stuart, ex-Queen of France by marriage and Queen of Scotland by right, is considered by many people to be the rightful Queen of England. She is the legitimate granddaughter of Henry VII of England, whereas Elizabeth, in the eyes of many, is illegitimate, a bastard, the daughter of Ann Boleyn, whose marriage to Henry VIII was never legal as he had not been granted an anullment of his previous marriage by the Pope.

 

But of course, the real point was that Mary was a Catholic, whereas Elizabeth was a Protestant. The civil war would be a religious war.

 

And then, in September 1560, Robert Dudley's wife Amy Robsart is found lying with a broken neck at the foot of the staircase in their house. Was it murder – as many suspect? Murder instigated by Dudley – or even by the Queen herself?

 

 

Enter a young sleuth, Ursula Blanchard, brought up Cinderella-style by her sadistic aunt and uncle, then widowed young after a runaway marriage, and now trying to support her daughter and herself in a very harsh world. Her mother had been one of Ann Boleyn's ladies-in-waiting, and had got herself pregnant and borne the illegitimate Ursula, then died. But now Ursula is offered a post at the court of Elizabeth, who shows a not unnatural sympathy with any who knew and loved her mother, as Ursula's mother had. They are in fact almost exactly the same age.

 

I won't tell you the story, but of course it is Ursula who unravels the mystery, and at the same time uncovers a widespread Catholic plot against the Queen – in which it turns out her new, sexy, half-French lover, Matthew de la Roche, is involved. Now where do her loyalties lie?

Christmas Bloody Christmas

Christmas Bloody Christmas - Richard Gibney, Jennifer Byars, PJ Webb, Claudette Melanson, Lynn Lamb

Happy Christmas, everyone! Am celebrating the holiday by reading Christmas Bloody Christmas - the first story, Lora Lee, which is all I've read so far, is excellent. Can't find a proper cover for the collection, but each story has its own. Here's the first:

 

Back to the Dune Universe

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

The Dune Universe is one I can slip back into any time and immediately feel at home. I have read the original six books by Frank Herbert three times, and most of the sequels (by his son Brian and Brian's co-author Kevn J. Anderson) twice. Between them, the stories cover thousands of years, but that makes no difference. I fit in anywhere.

 

And now, at last, having re-read Sisterhood of Dune, which introduces this particular trilogy, I have started on Mentats of Dune, and have on my desk, waiting (I love having a really special book sitting there waiting!) its sequel, Navigators of Dune.

 

A proper review of these two novels will follow all in good time.

Framed

Framed: A Psychological Thriller (Boston's Crimes of Passion Book 2) - Colleen Connally

"I was provided with a complimentary copy of this book so I could give an honest review."

 

This is apparently the second book in a series, but it stands alone just fine. I didn't realise it was part of a series until I had finished it. The story opens with a prologue in which a 71-year-old woman with a ne'er-do-well son whose wife has left him and who has come home to live with her is murdered. By the son, we wonder? We already know he had gambling debts and that his mother refused to give him any more of her money. But we soon realise there is much more to it than that.

 

At first glance, what we have here is a fairly straight-forward murder mystery with the usual divorced and world-weary cop, Detective John Brophy, and an equally divorced but female PI (an ex-cop) who thinks he needs a woman in his life; and then there is Josh Kincaid, an investigative journalist (our hero) who is working on this murder and simultaneously on the claim that a certain Harrison Taylor had been framed years earlier for a murder which turns out to be connected to the murder we started with; and finally there is Riley Ashcroft, an orphaned heiress done out of her inheritance, who is making the waves on behalf of her childhood friend, the convicted murderer Harrison Taylor.

 

That might seem like a spoiler but actually I am trying to help. The first few chapters are marred by too many changes of scene and character and viewpoint. So much so that I would probably have given up on it, except that when I agreed to review this book I promised to read the whole thing. And it is certainly true that once you get it all sorted out in your mind the story flows well.

 

It could, however, do with some serious editing. There are misspelt words – I am becoming inured to that with the great dumbing down going on all around us – but there are vocabulary errors that leave one wondering whether English is the author's second language. (For example: "With his obvious exhalation, Ellis had decided ..." Exhilaration, perhaps?) Why is it that writers whose English is not one hundred percent believe that their books do not need the attention of a competent editor? A professional must be a master of the medium he/she works in.

Queen of the Lightning

Queen of the Lightning - Kathleen Herbert

This is not an easy book to get hold of. I already knew and admired Kathleen Herbert as the author of Looking for the Lost Gods of England and Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens – Women in Early English Society. It was only recently that I realised she had written a novel set in early Anglo-Saxon times, that it had won the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize, and then had unaccountably been allowed to go out of print. And is still out of print. Why are such books not made available through as eBooks (Kindle etc) and via Print On Demand? Surely the authors would be happy? What is the publishers' problem, that so many wonderful books are simply unavailable, despite the fact that the technology to make them permanently available has been in place for years?

 

Anyway, I managed to get hold of a second-hand copy. (From AbeBooks, who are highly recommended if you are searching for out-of-print books, much more efficient than Amazon.) I have read hundreds of historical novels; many have faded from my memory; many others have not; but if I were asked to name a select few that I will always remember in detail, that made a place and period come alive for me and remain forever part of my experience of life, this would be one of them.

 

Riemmelth, princess of Cumbria, great-granddaughter of Urien and only heir to the kingdom of Rheged/Strathclyde, is forced into a dynastic marriage with Oswy (Oswiu), brother of King Oswald of Northumbria, first Bretwalda (High King of all Britain) and later Saint.

 

We follow her adventures in a half-Christian, half-pagan society, as Elfwyn, a princess of Deira who had been expecting to marry Oswy, tries to organise her demise by both natural and supernatural means; as Oswald is killed and her husband, Oswy, becomes king; as she falls into the hands of the brutal Penda, king of Mercia; as her loathing of the hated Anglian invaders and in particular her husband gradually changes to ... something else: that meeting of the peoples which created England.

 

If you are interested in this period, or if you simply enjoy a good historical novel with an unusual setting, this is for you. Do try to get hold of a copy. 

Two Galeran de Lesneven Stories

The Darkest Red - Viviane Moore, Adriana  Hunter The White Path - Viviane Moore, Adriana  Hunter

A new author and a new sleuth – at least to me and to this site. However, a couple of her books have recently come my way and I certainly enjoyed them. 

 

Viviane Moore in fact writes in French, which may be why I missed her the first time round. 

 

The first book, the third in the series and the one I actually enjoyed most, is The Darkest Red, set in Normandy, near the mouth of the Seine, in the spring of 1145. A whale has swum up the river, and this, to the monks of the local monastery and of course the villagers, means a welcome feast – particularly welcome because the spring equinox is the worst time of the year: the weather is still icy, the food has all but run out, and the terrible storms that usually accompany the equinox are on their way.

 

Leading the hunt on the river when the book opens is a young Dane called Rurik, a harpoonist who happens to be staying in the neighbourhood. Rurik is important because when the village beauty is brutally murdered suspicion naturally falls on him, the outsider.

 

But by that time, Galeran de Lesneven is there, having been sent by the Bishop along with a Dominican Friar, Odo, to investigate allegations of wrong-doing at the monastery, where an abbot who seems quite unfitted for the role is letting things get totally out of hand and an ambitious prior is stirring things up in the hope of being named abbot himself.

 

What is really going on at the abbey, and did the Dane really murder the girl?

 

I like Galeran, and definitely recommend him – and this author – to anyone who shares my insatiable appetite for well-plotted medieval mysteries with an array of odd and typically medieval characters.

 

The White Path is set in the following year, and takes our hero down to the Spanish border where a motley group of pilgrims are setting out on the long and dangerous trek to Santiago de Compostela. In this case made infinitely more dangerous by the presence among them of a serial-killer who takes pleasure in cutting his victims' throats and mutilating their bodies. Sickened by the sight of the bodies, Galeran joins the pilgrims on the trail across the Pyrenees.

 

I said I enjoyed the first story more. Perhaps that was because it was neater, more unified in an Aristotelian sense. But The White Path, too, is an excellent read and I shall never think of the pilgrimage to Compostela again without remembering the harrowing journey described so vividly in this book.

 

One gripe. The translation is mostly little more than competent, and often stilted. I doubt it if it ever does justice to the original. And sometimes it does become really awful – so awful that the English editor should never have allowed it to pass. For instance, in The White Path there is this passage:

 

In the name of Our Lady, take this staff and this mantle, the symbols of thy pilgrimage, that thee may be worthy of reaching Saint Jacques's tomb purified, safe and enriched, and that, thy journey done, thee may return to us in perfect health.

 

A French-English translator unable to use the Second Person Singular correctly should be remplacé tout de suite by one of the no-doubt thousands of rather better-educated French-English literary translators in search of work. And as for the editor ... "thee may" for "thou mayest": come on!

 

Perhaps The White Way (see the cover above) is another, better, translation. I don't know. The one I am reviewing here is definitely entitled The White Path.

The Last of the Templars

The Last of the Templars - William  Watson

The story opens in 1291, when Thibaud Gaudin arrives in Sidon after the fall of Acre. He is the Treasurer of the Order of the Temple and has with him a cargo of the fabled Templar gold. Beltran witnesses his arrival in the old, leaking hulk during a storm in the middle of the night; he is instrumental in Thibaud's election as Grand Master (his predecessor died at Acre); and he is deputed to take care of the gold. 

 

When asked to be (as he puts it, disdainfully) "one of those Templars who handle affairs, who manage estates or money, who can traffic in your world", Beltran responds "I am not one of those. I am a monk and a soldier." And he adds: "I am a native, a colonist, what they call a 'poulain', and being born in the Holy Land does not make one a citizen of the world."

 

But he has been made responsible for the Templar gold, and this book is the story of his guardianship of that gold - and of the Templar Rule - during the period of turmoil that followed their expulsion from the Holy Land, when the Order was libelled and dissolved by Philip the Fair of France and Pope Clement V, the Templars themselves arrested, tortured and executed, and finally, Jacques de Molay, their last Grand Master, burned at the stake outside Notre Dame in Paris in 1314.

 

There are other stories too, some of them marvellous portraits of historical characters. For instance, Henry, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem, to whom Thibaud had taught politics when he was twelve years old and who now, at twenty-one, has to receive Thibaud as a supplicant, Grand Master of an order which, vanquished from the Holy Land, seems to have lost its raîson d'être. And Pope Clement, who tries to warn Hugues Perraud, Visitor of the Order in France (which means top man, under the Grand Master) of the coming onslaught and to justify in advance his own future treachery. And Philip the Fair with his factotum Nogaret. This is part of the dialogue where Nogaret receives his orders regarding the Templars:

Nogaret had not felt so well since they had set out upon the affair at Anagni. 'What you want, Sire, is to see the Order extirpated; not cast down nor weakened nor lessened, but utterly destroyed.'

The king came out of his dream. 'You have taken my meaning, my good Guillaume. No doubt some device will occur to you?'

Then afterwards, when Philip, believing himself rich, discusses the situation with his Venetian advisers, and finds his hopes dashed:

'Much of the bank's business is with crowned heads, Sire, and independent cities, and states of this or that size, Sire, and has come here because of the bank's impartial, international standing, and that has now been cancelled, Sire, so it is probable that the crowned heads and sovereign states and even the trading cities will mostly withdraw their deposits where they are in credit, Sire, and where they owe, Sire, will be hard to satisfy as to your Majesty's credentials to receive monies owed to the Temple, Sire, so no, Sire, I would not advise your Majesty to go into banking.'

 

The whole character of Philip is so convincing, so memorable, that so far as I am concerned it is the definitive portrait; certainly I shall never be able to see Philip in any other light.

 

It is a difficult novel to get into, perhaps, but I have read many books about the Templars and this is one of the very best: five stars, then, and definitely straight onto my Favourites shelf.

The Dragon Queen

The Dragon Queen - Alice Borchardt

This novel, by the late and sorely missed Alice Borchardt, is the fantasy version of the legend of Guenevere (here Guinevere, Gwynaver and Guynifar). ("You must understand, my name was not written down. Those who say and sometimes write it use what form they care to. So the spellings sometimes differ greatly. So much that it might seem as though I had many different names; but in reality, I still have only one. And, like all true names, it was a word of power.") The book is filled to overflowing with the magic and mystery one has come to expect of Alice Borchardt including, of course, shape-shifting: Maeniel ("The Wolf King") plays an important role in Guenevere's upbringing, is indeed the father-figure.

In this version of the story, Merlin and Igrane [sic] are lovers. They are also sorcerers, and the villains of the piece: young Arthur is being reared by them, a virtual prisoner and destined to rule in name only as their puppet. This long-term plan of Merlin's was supposed to include Guenevere; she would also have been brought up by them, then married Arthur (this marriage has been foretold far and wide) and become a puppet queen. However, she was rescued as a baby by Dugald, a druid, and Maeniel, the werewolf. Now, as a pert teenager (everyone calls her "pert", and she is!) she faces a series of superhuman tasks, the accomplishment of which will prove that she is the hero destined to both occupy the dragon throne of the Painted People and rescue the Fisher King (Arthur) from an Otherworld. (Another world? There seem to be several.)

Guen, then, is of the Painted People, the Picts: no new idea (for a full discussion of this possibility, indeed probability, see Norma Lorre Goodrich's "Guinevere"), but here in "The Dragon Queen" the Picts are made flesh.

"The Painted People are great artists. I cannot think they will be appreciated as the Greeks and Romans are, for they work in ephemeral materials, cloth and wood, not stone. Their silver and gold work is magnificent, and some of that may survive. They all seem to be warriors, even the women [...] The bull, boar, snake, wolf, salmon, dragon, and the patterns of each dance, the colours of the wind and sea, were all met in their clothing. The designs picked out on their skins in blue, green, red, gray and gold."

These are the people to whom Guen comes after a great fight, with the head of her enemy in her hand: "With my cracked ribs searing, I ran up the nearest housepost, using the carvings to climb. I should be ashamed, I thought. The armor set off my bare body the way an enameled setting displays a rare jewel. Even the blood streaming from the gashes Merlin's champion inflicted were part of the grim beauty of my flesh. I knew the eyes of every man, and not a few of the women, were fixed on me, and that fear alone hadn't saved my life."

Now she must lead them against the Saxons: "We all knew what they were after - women, ivory, walrus, sealskins, wool. Pictish wool is the best in the world. But above all, slaves. The eastern countries had an insatiable appetite for them, and a beautiful girl would bring a dozen pounds of gold on the block in Constantinople, especially if she were blond. As the woman in Igrane's hall had suggested, the slave trade was booming."

Meanwhile, Arthur (having met Guen and witnessed a clash between her and Igrane where Igrane came off worst) has also rebelled and in consequence been consigned by Merlin to another Otherworld, where he finds that the test is simply to stay alive: in order to do so, he takes the shape of first a salmon (shades of T.H. White!), but as a salmon faces death every instant. Then a snake, which he finds more "wholly other" than the salmon. And finally a young female eagle, a creature "capable of both love and loyalty".

My only problem with this wonderful book is the continuous switching of viewpoint. In the opening chapters it is truly confusing and quite off-putting. Then it settles down, and the reader becomes used to the First Person Guen as opposed to the Third Person of alternating chapters, which is more and more usually Arthur. But by this time there is no confusion, we know all the characters, we know what is happening; now the problem is that we are (or at least I was) far more interested in what was happening to Guen, and each cliffhanger meant a chapter with boring Arthur till I could find out what happened to her next. However, when Arthur becomes a salmon, things improve, and even I forgot poor Guen for a moment.

A thing that needs saying always about Historical Fantasy is that the fantasy should be real fantasy, in the sense that it is what people believed, that it is in accordance with the mindset of the people of the time. To them the notion of space-travel would have been fantasy.

In this book, the fantasy is always real; scrupulously so.

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