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