A TASTE OF BLOOD WINE by Freda Warrington

5 04 2014

I knew Freda Warrington from The Court of the Midnight King, a story of Richard III set in a somewhat alternative 15th Century England (along with a soupçon of time-slip – just my cup of tea), but for some reason I had never come across this wonderful series of vampire novels.

Blood Wine covers

I borrowed A Taste of Blood Wine from a friend – he was reluctant to lend it but I had spotted it on his bookshelf, read the first couple of pages and was now firmly clutching it to my chest. What could he do? Well yes, I know. Gentlemen are now largely a thing of the past, but I won the fight and hurried home still clutching it, and read deep into the night.

Read! You can sleep when you’re dead!

The story opens with a horrifyingly vivid description of First World War trench warfare during the nightly lull in the fighting. And in the middle of the carnage, a vampire walks unhurriedly through no man’s land, “an impossible apparition to anyone left alive. [...] The dying: he sensed them all around him.”

And there, his “maker”, Kristian, finds him.

We learn that the vampire, Karl, has been hiding from Kristian for the last four years.

‘Why immerse yourself in this horror?’
‘Why not?’ said Karl.
‘Because it’s nothing to do with us, this human mess!’ Kristian struck the ground. ‘We are above it!’
‘Are we?’ Karl feared Kristian, but would never let the fear win. ‘Why shy away from evil, when our kind personifies evil?’ [...]
‘Do not speak of evil, Karl.’ Kristian’s dark eyes gleamed. ‘The only Devil is mankind. This is the very folly for which we should punish them.’

This is the backdrop. Karl, who sympathises with humanity and sees himself as something evil, and Kristian, who regards humankind as evil and himself and his kind as the instrument of God.

Back to “reality”: In London in the early 1920s, the Neville sisters are part of the scene at the Season’s parties and dances. Two of them enjoy it all. The third, Charlotte, does not. She wants only to return to Cambridge, where she works alongside her professor father in his laboratory.

Her father, meanwhile, has taken on a new research assistant: the vampire Karl, once a cellist in Mozart’s Salzburg, but now intent on investigating the mystery of life (and death), hoping he might learn in a laboratory how the interminable might be terminated – his own, or Kristian’s; and also hoping to discover something of the true nature of the other dimension known to vampires as the Crystal Ring that exists alongside the dimension in which mere humans live and die.

And so begins one of the great romances of modern literature: the shy, studious wallflower and the charismatic, unnaturally handsome vampire. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but yes, of course, in the sequel, A Dance in Blood Velvet (which I rushed out and bought) Charlotte is a vampire – self-assured now, and living the life of a vampire millionaire with Karl. Home is a secluded chateau in one of the most beautiful parts of Switzerland, and by travelling via the Crystal Ring they can be anywhere in minutes, dining in, say, Venice, before attending the opera in, say, Vienna.

Things can only go wrong, and, of course, they do.

The second book is slower than the first, but still gripping and full of the unexpected – including a ballet dancer, Violette, who is just too perfect to be entirely human, and a couple of rather unsavoury human mages (I won’t call them witches, I’m sorry, for me witches will always be women) who have power even over vampires.

Now I am looking forward to reading the the third book, The Dark Blood of Poppies, which apparently focuses once more on the magical dancer, Violette.

PS What I wrote up there – “Read! You can sleep when you’re dead!”

read-sleep

But can we? Books like this one – and there are so many stories around at the moment of those who have indeed shuffled off this mortal coil – always make me think of Shakespeare’s “To die, to sleep … to sleep?





OPHELIA’S REVENGE by Rebecca Reisert

15 02 2014

OpheliasRevenge cover

The scene is set in a castle seething with the ghosts of those murdered within its walls. One of the ghosts is intent on vengeance, but it is not Hamlet’s father!

A girl is taken from the only life she has known (that of a peasant) and expected to live as a great lady in the castle of the king alongside a prince who cannot play the macho role expected of him.

This is a follow-on from The Third Witch. Not a sequel, but another novel written in the same vein. Take a Shakespeare play and rewrite it from the viewpoint of a teenage girl.

It worked well in The Third Witch. At first, I didn’t think it was working so well here. Like Gilly (in The Third Witch), Ophelia is of gentle birth but when the story opens is being brought up in poverty by strangers. Like Gilly, she is full of romantic dreams and crazy schemes. Like Gilly, she is wild, she is totally ruthless, and she will use anyone to gain her ends.

They are both obsessed. Gilly was obsessed with revenge. Ophelia is obsessed with her love for the beautiful, mad prince who spoke to her one day in an idle moment as he passed through the village, and does not even recognise her when, years later, she has been reinstated at the castle as Polonius’ daughter.

Her friend and mentor at the castle, the one who transforms her from village hoyden to young lady, is the queen, Gertrude, a rather pathetic figure who is abused by her brutal first husband, King Hamlet.

Yorick shook his head. ‘She doesn’t say him nay, even when he beats her. What can she do now?’
‘She can run away,’
‘And go where?’
‘Anywhere.’
‘She has no family, no money. What can she live on?’
I was sick of his objections. ‘She can learn a trade and take to weaving.’
Amusement flickered in Yorick’s eyes. ‘I don’t think a queen can give over being a queen and take to a trade.’
‘Better that than to stay here and let one of the king’s loyal soldiers toss her over a parapet to her death in the sea.’
‘In the eyes of the law and the church, she’s the king’s property, like his hounds or his boots. She cannot leave him.’

True, but to Ophelia, unacceptable. And it is this that leads to her first murder. For yes, it is Ophelia who puts the poison in Claudius’ hand and thus rids the court of its murderous king and saves the queen’s life.

But one thing leads to another. One death, one murder …

Although I have no reservations at all about the novel, I have to admit I am not sure about the title. The one motive Ophelia never has is revenge – though others around her are indeed intent on just that.

Well written, though, and if you enjoyed Rebecca Reisert’s first novel based on a Shakespeare girl, you will enjoy this one.

Will the next be Juliet, I wonder? And will Juliet. Like Ophelia, only seem to die?





THE LAST LEGION by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

22 01 2014

Last Legion coverThis book’s basic premise is that the deposed boy emperor, Romulus Augustus, last Emperor of the West, did not die in captivity under Odoacer but was rescued (a real “mission impossible”) by a small group of surviving legionaries loyal to the throne, and then taken north-west to Britain.

Why Britain (and remember this book is by an Italian, not a British, writer)?

Partly because they had nowhere else to take the young emperor, and partly because the boy’s tutor (now standing in loco parentis after the murder of both his parents) is a British druid in exile. He naturally feels that in Britain he will be better able to protect the boy, but he has also come to believe that the boy is the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy:

Veniet adulescens a mari infero cum spatha,
pax et prosperitas cum illo.
Aquila et draco iterum volabunt
Britanniae in terra lata.

(A youth shall come from the southern sea with a sword, bringing peace and prosperity. The eagle and the dragon will fly again over the great land of Britannia.)

The action is gripping, the boy emperor and the druid, Meridius Ambrosinus, are vividly drawn and totally credible, the small band of Roman legionaries, especially their leader, Aurelius (who, because of a head injury remembers nothing of his mysterious youth) are truly heroic, but my favourite character – the one I dentify with, of course – is the archer and “amazon” Livia (played in the film by the Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan!)

This beautiful girl is one of the refugees from the Fall of Ravenna who have been living and building a community in the swamps that will one day be Venice – my favourite part of the book. She is actually the leader on the original mission to rescue the emperor, and, that accomplished, decides to stay with the group and accompany them on the long journey to Britain. They need her, she knows, but more importantly (to her), she has come to believe that Aurelius was the young soldier who saved her life outside Ravenna when she was nine years old. He does not remember, does not believe, but she does …

A wonderful story with a strangely convincing ending in a pre-Arthurian Britain writhing under the gruesome dictator “Wortigern”.

Now I’m going to try to get hold of the film I mentioned above. From what I can garner around the net, it was not a great success, commercial or otherwise, but with Ben Kingsley as the druid, Colin Firth as Aurelius, and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan as Livia it must have something going for it! More on that later.

Aishwarya Rai in Last Legion





THE LAST OF THE TEMPLARS by William Watson

4 01 2014

Last of the Templars coverThe 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. This 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 were arrested, tortured and executed, and finally, Jacques de Molay, their last Grand Master, was 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.





SEVENWATERS 2 & 3 by Juliet Marillier

22 11 2013

SON OF THE SHADOWS

Son of the Shadows coverLike the first book of this trilogy, Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows is long and begins slowly, but gradually becomes “unputdownable”. 

When the story opens, Sorcha, the Daughter of the Forest of the first book, is living in Sevenwaters with her husband Hugh, a Briton known in Ireland as Iubdal, and her three teenage children: Niamh, the eldest, a stunningly beautiful girl, tall with red hair, and the twins Sean and Liadan. Sean is being groomed to take over the estate should anything happen to his uncle, Liam, the present Lord, who has no son of his own. Liadan, the daughter who most resembles Sorcha as she was when she was young, is the narrator:

I would catch Mother sometimes, looking at Niamh and looking at Sean and looking at me, and I knew what was troubling her. Sooner or later, the Fair Folk would decide it was time. Time to meddle in our lives again, time to pick up the half-finished tapestry and weave a few more twisted patterns in it. Which would they choose? Was one of us the child of the prophecy?

It is, of course, Liadan they choose, the Fair Folk, the mysterious Lady in blue and the Lord with flaming hair  but they show no sympathy with her sister in her sufferings and nor do they approve of Liadan’s love, so Liadan rejects their advice and warnings and orders and all their scheming, and turns instead to the Old Ones, the older folk, the voices in the burial mound, once banished by the incoming Fair Folk. After all, one of her ancestors, Eithne, was of the older folk, the Fomhoire, and it is from them that they (some of them, Sorcha and Liadan, at least) get “the Sight, the healing mind“.

Magic pervades this book, as it did the first one. There is druidism and imbolc, sorcery and witchcraft, standing stones and an ancient burial mound, and among many other magical characters, a man who is half swan, one of whose arms is a great white swan’s wing, and who lives alone by a lake in the forest;

And like the first one, it is a great love-story, with a girl touched by magic as the long-suffering heroine who never gives up. If you enjoyed Daughter of the Forest, don’t miss this.

CHILD OF THE PROPHECY

Child of the Prophecy coverLike Son of the Shadows, this third book in the trilogy does not stand alone, and should not be read unless or until you have read the first two. And it is very much the same as them. When it opens, Fainne, the daughter of Niamh of Sevenwaters and Ciarán the sorcerer, is living with her father in a home among the caves in a cliff on the remote south-west coast of Ireland. Niamh died when she was small, and she does not remember her at all. All Fainne knows in the life she shares with her father, an intensely serious and reserved man, as he trains her in the arts of sorcery – and a few days each summer when the travelling folk come and among them her only friend, the boy Darragh, who loves horses and plays the pipes and is a wonderful swimmer.

It is Fainne’s story, and like Sorcha in the first book and Liadan in the second, she has a task to fulfill which is nigh on impossible and can only be accomplished in the greatest secrecy with everyone believing the worst of her. Enough to say that Lady Oonagh, the evil sorceress (who is of course Ciarán’s mother and Fainne’s grandmother), sets out to complete the destruction of Fainne’s mother’s family, using Fainne as her brainwashed and helpless tool.

The descriptions of Ciarán teaching Fainne sorcery when she is still a little girl are amazing. For example, here he is showing her for the first time, how to use the Glamour:

‘Time to begin,’ said Father, regarding me rather severely. ‘This will be serious work, Fainne. It may be necessary to curtail your freedom this summer.’ 

‘I  yes, Father.’

‘Good.’ He gave a nod. ‘Stand here by me. Look into the mirror. Watch my face.’

The surface was bronze, polished to a bright reflective sheen. Our images showed side by side; the same face with subtle alterations. The dark red curls; the fierce eyes, dark as ripe berries; the pale unfreckled skin. My father’s countenance was handsome enough, I thought, if somewhat forbidding in expression. Mine was a child’s, unformed, plain, a little pudding of a face. I scowled at my reflection, and glanced back at my father in the mirror. I sucked in my breath.

My father’s face was changing. The nose grew hooked, the deep red hair frosted with white, the skin wrinkled and blotched like an ancient apple left too long in store. I stared, aghast. He raised a hand. It was an old man’s hand, gnarled and knotted, with nails like the claws of some feral creature. I could not tear my eyes away from the mirrored image.

‘Now look at me,’ he said quietly.

Like the first two books, it starts so slowly you don’t know how you’re going to keep reading it, but then suddenly you don’t know how you will ever be able to stop reading it, how you are going to be able to live in a world other than this one, a world without these people.

Another wonderful novel. 





THE CLERKENWELL TALES by Peter Ackroyd

12 11 2013

Clerkenwell Tales cover

England 1399

1399 is the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o’ Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called “Dominus”, whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don’t change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author’s arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty’s An Ancient Evil areintended to be). For these are The Clerkenwell Tales, not The Canterbury Tales, and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell.

So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be in noted, a tale told by that character). But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard’s downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the century.

The main character, though, is Sister Clarice, a nun who prophesies: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine?

Brank Mongorray opened the window of the nun’s chamber to enjoy the air of May. He was on the first floor, above a lead cistern of water which the birds used for their refreshment. John Duckling was crouched silently against it, so that he might hear any words that were spoken.

‘Did you hear the thrush this morning, Brank?’ It was the nun’s clear voice, known now by so many. ‘They say that if a man is sick of the jaundice and sees a yellow thrush, the man shall be cured and the bird shall die. Is that not too cruel?’

‘A man has an immortal soul. A bird does not.’

‘Who can be sure of that? Dieu est nostre chef, il nous garde et guye.’

Duckling had never heard her speak Anglo-Norman before; for some reason this seemed to him to be evidence of her duplicity. There was more conversation but the monk and nun had moved away from the window; Duckling could make out only occasional words until he heard her cry, ‘When will come the day of the Seven Sleepers?’ Then she called out, ‘Deus! cum Merlin dist sovent veritez en ses propheciez!’ These were marvellous strange words from a young nun: Merlin was no more than a devil worshipped by the little folk who lived in the moors and marshes. He could hear Brank Mongorray talking quietly to her. Could they be in league against the world of holiness?

If you enjoy good writing and a wealth of detail, read it.





THE ORACLES OF TROY by Glyn Iliffe

27 10 2013

Oracles of Troy_ecover_kindleIn my review of the first book in this series, King of Ithaca, I noted that it was very much a biographical novel, the story of Odysseus, rather than the retelling of the seige of Troy which the reader might have expected. After all, Odysseus is as closely linked in our minds with the fall of the ancient city as Helen herself is. But that was just the first book, which is set wholly in the period before the marriage of Helen and Menelaus and the coming of Paris to Sparta. Now, however, when The Oracles of Troy, the fourth book in the series, opens, Odysseus and his comrades have spent ten years camped on the plain between the Aegean Sea and those impregnable walls, and the story of Odysseus and the story of Troy have become one. And that story, the story of Odysseus and Troy is fast reaching its climax, for even the thick-skulled Agamemnon, Nestor, Menelaus and Little Ajax have finally grasped the fact that they are never going to win by brute force. Only the good will of the gods, assisted by native cunning, can get them into Troy.

Odysseus’ name, even in his own lifetime, was synonymous with native cunning.

First, they must retrieve Philoctetes from the island of Lemnos where he was marooned by the Greek army after he had been wounded and the wound refused to heal, continuing to fester and give off a disgusting smell. For one of the oracles says that without Philoctetes, who has the bow and arrows of Heracles, the Greeks cannot win. But will he agree to help the kings and men who treated him so appallingly?

Odysseus is sent to persuade him.

Of course, the story of Philoctetes was told by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and like the rest of the great saga, by Homer himself in The Iliad.

Philoctetes by Jean Germain Drouais

Philoctetes by Jean Germain Drouais

But this whole story had been written even earlier, and in advance, by the gods themselves.

When an historical novel recounts an episode from history, there is no escaping the dramatic irony of the audience knowing exactly what will happen while the characters on stage – on the page – do not, have no clue, but in the story of the Trojan War, we really do seem to be watching the participants swept blindly on through the sea of time.

There is an overwhelming sense of inevitability about the whole thing.

If  Odysseus had not gone to Lemnos, indeed if he had not been with the Greek army outside Troy, the great city would never have fallen. But he did and he was.

Cassandra, too, was there, within the walls, the princess and seer who knew how and when Troy would fall. But of course nobody would believe her. They couldn’t.

In the wrong hands, of course, this can get boring. But Glyn Iliffe’s are not the wrong hands. Although we know what what will happen the tension builds and we have to keep reading. In part, he does this by giving one of the leading roles to a fictitious character, Eperitus. As he says himself,

You will not find Eperitus in any of the myths. He, his love affair with Astynome (who appears in The Iliad as Chryseis) and his feud with his father are all inventions of my imagination. I wanted at least one major character whose fate, unlike those of Odysseus and the others, is entirely in my own hands!

We have no idea what is going to happen to him – and we care! As the book draws to a close, we are on the  edge of our seats.

This is fine. I wasn’t so happy though with the one or two changes Iliffe made to the story as written not just by Homer but by the gods themselves. I won’t detail them here, because these changes help build up the suspense and I don’t want to spoil the story. I enjoyed it immensely and I want you to enjoy it too.

Just a note now on the female characters. I always identify with one or more of the women in a story and in this case it was easy for I had already identified with Helen and Clytemnestra and Cassandra individually in other books (and plays and films!) (I’ll mention some of them in another post) and in this book the point of view changes sufficiently often to that of Helen or Cassandra to keep me happy. Cassandra is beautifully drawn for us, but there were one or two aspects of the portrayal of Helen that didn’t ring true, like her lying to Menelaus at the end of the story. Surely the daughter of Zeus – and in this series the gods do play a part and she is the daughter of Zeus – should be above that, and anyway she should be able to rely on her divine beauty and charm to twist him round her little finger.

All in all though, this continues to be a great retelling of one of the greatest stories ever told.





DAUGHTER OF THE FOREST by Juliet Marillier

26 10 2013

Daughter of the Forest cover

This is a long book and the middle is slow, but the pace picks up again and for the last two hundred pages it is “unputdownable”. But if you like a world in which you become so involved that you want to stay there for ever, then the longer the better. (And there are two sequels set in the same world – this is only the first part of a trilogy!)

When the story opens, six brothers and their sister, Sorcha, are growing up in the heart of a great forest in an Ireland in which, it seems, druids still reign in an uneasy truce with the Church. They have no mother, for she died in childbirth when Sorcha, the youngest, was born. And little in the way of a father either, for Lord Colum has no time for them or indeed for anything but his unending battle against the Britons across the sea. The girl, brought up by her brothers, is strange and wild, and – like the forest around her – is touched by magic. As are at least two of her brothers, Conor and, most especially, Finbar, the one she is closest to. But there is also a priest,  Father Brien, who fortunately takes a hand in their upbringing and education. He is an old friend of their father’s and sometimes speaks of Lord Colum as he once was.

‘What did you mean,’ I said, still thinking hard, ‘about our father being the one and giving it up?’ For I could not imagine Father, with his tight, closed expression and his obsession with war, as the conduit of any kind of spiritual message. Surely that was wrong.
‘You need to understand,’ said Father Brien gently, ‘that your father was not always as he is now. [...] I met your mother. I saw their joy in each other and how her death took all the light from him.’
‘He had us,’ said Finbar bitterly. ‘Another man might have thought that reason enough to live, and live well.’
‘I think you are too harsh,’ said Father Brien, but he spoke kindly. ‘You know not, yet, the sort of love that strikes like a lightning bolt, that clutches hold of you by the heart, as irrevocably as death; that becomes the lodestar by which you steer the rest of your life. I would not wish such a love on anyone, man or woman, for it can make your life a paradise, or it can destroy you utterly.’

Both Sorcha and Finbar will one day know such a love, to their cost. For the moment, however, all is in order – until two events occur which change everything.

The first is the capture of a young British warrior. He is tortured by Sorcha’s father and his men and her two eldest brothers, intent on gaining information from him, and afterwards is reported to be dying. Conor and Finbar engineer his escape, while Sorcha, who is growing up to be the herbalist and healer of the clan, is deputed to nurse him – though this is not without misunderstanding and difficulty.

‘But he threatened to kill you,’ said Finbar, exasperated with me, ‘he held a knife at your throat. Does that mean nothing?’
‘He’s sick,’ I said. ‘He’s scared. And I’m here to help him. Besides, I was told …’ I broke off.
Finbar’s gaze sharpened. ‘Told what?’
I could not lie. ‘Told this was something I must do. Just the first step on a long and difficult path. I know I have to do it.’
‘Who told you this, Sorcha?’ asked Father Brien, gently. They were both staring at me intently now. I chose my words with care.
‘You remember Conor’s old story, the one about Deidre, Lady of the Forest? I think it was her.’
Father Brien drew in his breath sharply. ‘You have seen Them?’
‘I think so,’ I said, surprised. ‘Whatever reaction I had expected from him, it was not this. ‘She told me this was my path and I must keep to it. I’m sorry, Finbar.’ 

The second event is their father’s decision to remarry. Lady Oonagh is the wicked stepmother to end all wicked stepmothers, a witch quite powerful and evil enough in her own right to take on the seven stepchildren without a qualm and, when they prove difficult, to place the six brothers under a shape-shifting spell that only Sorcha can lift. If she fails, they will be lost forever. 

The rest is the story of Sorcha’s long, lonely struggle to save them, to set everything to rights again, and restore the lost world of her childhood. She travels to Britain, where Ethelwulf has just come to the throne (the only clue the author gives us as to the exact date – Ethelwulf was the father of Alfred the Great and reigned from 839 to 857 or 8) and they are more concerned with the Danes than with the Irish. And though in the end she triumphs over evil, the world of her childhood is no more.

Magic pervades this book, and always on the fringe of the story – to some extent guiding events, pulling the strings – are “the Fair Folk”, fading in and out of sight among the trees. But it is more than a fairy tale – an outstanding one – and more than a great adventure; it is one of the best love stories I have ever read.





THE BEGOTTEN by Lisa T. Bergren

8 10 2013

The Begotten coverIt is a fact that in his letters to the Christians of Corinth, St Paul refers to an earlier letter or letters he had sent them, and the author takes that as her starting point in this outstanding medieval mystery.

The story is set in Siena in the year 1339, but the Prologue takes us back a further five hundred years to the iconoclasts of the Byzantine Church in Constantinople. These people, extreme puritans, were intent on destroying all ‘graven images’, and that meant not only statues and icons but also illuminated manuscripts, the beautifully illustrated copies of Biblical and other texts that, thankfully, were always reverently preserved in other parts of Christendom. In the Prologue, a man is arrested and sent to the stake to be burnt to ashes along with the Bible that he has spent years copying out and illustrating; but in the last moments, some pages are torn out and saved by his apprentice, who carries them west to Italy.

There they disappear from sight, as well they might, for they are part of a non-canonical book, the earlier letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and the illustrations are, or become, a visual prophecy of a movement, a group of people, the Gifted, each one of whom has to a special extent one of the gifts (such as the gift of healing) mentioned by Paul in his other letters.

Now, in 1339, the prophecy is being fulfilled. Lady Daria d’Angelo of Siena discovers that she has the gift of healing, and from then on her whole life changes. But the group who gather around her are opposed by another group whose leader is a nobleman in league with the Devil, a group that has already committed human sacrifice in the catacombs beneath the city of Rome. And in the background, aware of the prophecy and observing events, are Cardinal Boeri and the Bishop of Rome. Yes, the Bishop of Rome, for this story takes place during the period when the papacy was resident in Avignon, France, and these two men dream of bringing it back home to Italy. They believe they can use the Gifted, once they are established and revealed, to defeat the sorcerer and bring glory to Rome.

The Begotten is well written, the characters are authentic and memorable, and the atmosphere is perfect. This I am sure is how Toscana was as that time: we even have the painter Lorenzetti Ambrogio (1290-1348) painting the frescoes in the Hall of the Nine (you can still see them in the Palazzo Pubblico if you happen to be passing that way!) Here he is Daria’s childhood friend, a man she trusts when there is treachery all around her.

I am very much looking forward to reading the two sequels, The Betrayed and The Blessed. So don’t be put off by what I am about to say next: If you are going to use any part of the “thou – thee – thy – thine” group of words, the old second person singular, then at least within one sentence, one utterance, you must not mix them up with “you”. But what happens here? I quote:

“You may count on me as thy protector “

“Vincenzo, you have kept thy promise “

“If you do not bid thy bride farewell, you will …”

“Fare thee well, Tatiana. I have loved you “

“I thank you for thy kind words, Brogi “

“I thank thee for thy sworn fealty. You may rise “

The errors are not even consistent: compare the last two lines quoted, “I thank thee for thy” and “I thank you for thy”; and consider the refusal to use “thou” along with “thy” in the first three examples, and compare it with this, where “thou” is used but not “thy”:

“… thou will find your thirst quenched … thou will find your bones warmed …  “

And then there is the problem of the verb form to be used with “thou” as in the above “thou will” and in, for example:

“Do what thou wish with my bones “

Please! Thou wilt find new life  Do what thou wishest with my bones 

Fine writing spoilt by careless editing.

And while we are on the subject of careless editing, there are some vocabulary slips, too. One that irritated me enough for me to note it down was “You may abide with us for as long as you deign necessary.” Come on!  – as long as you deem necessary. And this is from people who no doubt would not deign to read a self-published “unedited” novel.





Half-a-Dozen from among the Kindle Frees

21 08 2013

Half a Dozen recommended ebooks selected from among the many I have downloaded FREE from Amazon Kindle.

I often download free books from Amazon these days. (I am sent a list every day of books which are on offer.) However, I read very few of them right through to the end. What I think of as the illiterate ones I delete from my Kindle Reader after the first few lines. (I say illiterate rather than unedited because I know many of these books have come straight from the hands of the author to the Kindle download lists, but anyone claiming to be an author should be literate, should be able to edit his or her own work.) If I get past those first few lines, the story has to grab me. Then it has to hold me. Many of these writers start well, then become careless or boring. However, there are always a few gems. Here are some I really enjoyed and that you can safely download.

Kindle11. BY UNKNOWN MEANS

Doug Giacobbe

High adventure around Nassau, fast moving with great characterisation. James Bond country, but here only the bad guy is British.

The good guys are US Customs officers and officers of the US Navy. The bad guys, drug-smugglers. And the hero himself, fired from the Customs Service for being over-zealous in the pursuit of his duty, and not being one to give up, continues that pursuit in his own boat until he gets both the bad guy and the beautiful undercover agent who is posing as the bad guy’s amazon bodyguard. Great stuff.

Kindle22. OMEGA DOG

James Rush

Another fast-moving adventure set in the States. A hitman is targeting a group of apparently unrelated people, among them Beth, a conscientious young doctor. And the only person she trusts to protect her is ex-marine, ex-cop, Joseph Venn, the very man the police believe to be the hired assassin.

But Venn is working secretly for someone in the highest echelons of the American government …

Kindle4Kindle33. TIME OF DEATH

and

4. THE PEEPER

both by Ellis Vidler

Time of Death features the McGuire Women, a family of psychics. Alex, the youngest of them, is being targeted by a killer, either because of something she saw, or because of something she didn’t see except with her mind’s eye, for Alex is an artist and sometimes she finds herself producing automatic drawing (like automatic writing) depicting scenes of pain and death.

The other book, The Peeper, you simply must read. The Peeping Tom turns out to be – no, I’m not going to tell you. Let’s just say that in this book Ellis Vidler turns all our prejudices on their head.

Kindle55. THE FERAL SPY

Joyce Weaver

Very British, this one. A dotty old lady is arrested for shop-lifting. It transpires that she and her companion are living in dire poverty – and I mean starvation and exposure – in the derelict ruin of what was once the stately home belonging to her family. But how did they come to be in this state? And who – and what – were they, once, before most of these patronising young people were born?

Kindle66. THE MIST ON BRONTË MOOR

Aviva Orr

A time-slip story which turns into a truly fascinating glimpse of life at Haworth on the Yorkshire Moors when the Brontës were teenagers. You really feel you are there with Heather Jane Bell, the unhappy 21st-century girl who suddenly finds herself in a weird other world.  And the two she gets on best with are Emily, who befriends her, and Patrick Branwell, with whom she falls in love.

She had never heard of the Brontës, so it is not a form of wish-fulfilment.

(Look at that name, and don’t tell me time-travellers can’t affect the time they visit! But she doesn’t manage to save poor Patrick from himself …)








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 190 other followers