THE THIRD WITCH by Rebecca Reisert

26 07 2014

Third Witch coverThis is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – who are, it turns out, Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower. Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.

‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years ago when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her father killed by Macbeth. Now, “grown up” at fourteen, and, though dressed in rags and living in a hovel, remembering still what her life had once been like (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), she seeks to avenge her father and herself: this book is the tale of that revenge.

This is Gilly, the narrator, talking to Mad Helga:

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’

Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.

‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’

Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’

‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’

Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.

‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’

I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’

Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his  castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘

I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’

For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.

Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’        

When you have read it you will know all three of the witches as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

And not only that. It also achieves the rare combination of being both beautifully written, and frequently un-put-downable.

Rebecca Reisert published The Third Witch in 2003, then in 2004 a novel which let us in on the hitherto secret backstory of another mysterious Shakespeare character, Ophelia (Ophelia’s Revenge: I’ll post my review of that tomorrow); then, apparently, nothing. And I can discover no news or bio of her on the internet. I do hope she is well, and still writing, and that we shall have the pleasure of reading her third novel very soon.





HEIR TO SEVENWATERS by Juliet Marillier

29 06 2014

Heir to Sevenwaters

This is for those who read and enjoyed Juliet Marillier’s Sevenwaters trilogy (Daughter of the Forest, Son of the Shadows and Child of the Prophecy) as the books came out and are now wondering whether to buy and read the two sequels.

The first, Heir to Sevenwaters, carries on seamlessly, transporting the reader back into the great forest, that world of Celtic magic and mystery where we once came to feel so at home. This time, the heroine is Clodagh, daughter of Lord Sean of Sevenwaters and his wife Aisling, and granddaughter of Sorcha – yes, that Sorcha. She is the good daughter, the dutiful daughter, who organises the household for her twin sister’s wedding and keeps everything running smoothly while her middle-aged mother goes through a difficult and exhausting pregnancy from which everyone fears she may never recover. But Lord Sean, who has six daughters, desperately wants a son to be his heir. Will this be the son he has awaited so long?

At the risk of spoiling the story, I must tell you that a son is born, but then during Clodagh’s sister’s wedding celebrations he is snatched away and a changeling composed of sticks and stones and feathers left in his place.

Clodagh, who had been minding the baby when it happened, is blamed.

Lord Sean believes the kidnapping was political, the work of his enemies. Clodagh, who knows that the changeling is not mere sticks and stones and feathers, disagrees. Her baby brother, she insists, has been taken to the Otherworld, the home of the Fair Folk, who now in these latter days are not as friendly as once they were, and she must follow him there and rescue him.

In the end, a great adventure. Yes, in the end. During the first third of the book, little happens. We simply follow the day-to-day events and concerns of the family and the visitors who arrive for the wedding, as seen through the eyes of Clodagh. Medieval domestic soap-opera.

Seer of SevenwatersI am not going to write a separate review for the next book, Seer of Sevenwaters, because here the slow start, the tedious first third of the story, becomes a tedious two-thirds and I only kept reading (and skipping chunks) because I was waiting for something – anything! – to happen. Eventually, it did, and I must say I enjoyed the last few chapters, but that is not enough.

 





AN ANCIENT EVIL by Paul Doherty

26 06 2014

An Ancient Evil coverThis is the first in a series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by my favourite author of medieval mysteries, Paul Doherty, author of – among many other great tales – the immensely successful series known as The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan. But this series is different in that it doesn’t have a single protagonist, a medieval sleuth like Brother Athelstan, going from book to book, but a whole group of characters who take it in turn to tell the tales that make up the series. As in the original Canterbury Tales, where Chaucer’s pilgrims are on their way from the Tabard Inn, Southwark (on the Thames, opposite the walled City of London) to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, and to while away the time, each tells a tale, sometimes edifying, often amusing.

In the Prologue to the present book, the landlord of the Tabard, who is to accompany them on the pilgrimage, suggests that each evening the pilgrims should take turns to tell another tale: “‘So when we move out tomorrow to St Thomas’s watering hole, let us tell a merry tale to instruct or amuse. But, at night,’ his voice fell, ‘let it be different.’ He stared round the now quiet company. ‘Let us tell a tale of mystery that will chill the blood, halt the heart and curl the locks upon our heads.’

An Ancient Evil, the Knight’s Tale (he is first in the Chaucer original, and first here) is a tale of strigoi.

Strigoi are the evil dead arising from their tombs at night. It is a Romanian word which also exists in the form striga, witch, and seems originally to have meant an evil witch with vampiric tendencies (like a lamia?). In Italian, strega, streghe, means witch. The Romanian and Italian words both derive from the Latin strix, striga, screech-owl. Which brings us to metamorphosis – shape-shifting – and the question: Is the striga (the witch/vampire) primarily a nocturnal bird, or is she basically human?

In An Ancient Evil, the strigoi are the undead, vampires whose origin seems to be Moldavia, the Transylvanian Alps and the ancient Romanian principality of Wallachia. Indeed, they are the “ancient evil”, for the tale begins 250 years earlier when, in the outskirts of Oxford, a strigoi, a “devil incarnate” which”had travelled from Wallachia in the Balkans pretending to be a man dedicated to the service of God“, was buried alive rather than burnt, and a monastery built over him. Now, 250 years later, a spate of horrible murders (whole families with their throats cut and bodies drained of blood) brings Sir Godfrey Evesdon to Oxford as the King’s Commissioner, to investigate and carry out judgement. He is accompanied by a Scottish clerk named Alexander McBain and a blind exorcist, Dame Edith Mohun, herself a survivor of “the dark forests and lonely, haunted valleys of Wallachia and Moldavia”, where she had been a captive, and had been blinded when she tried to protect herself. The two men cannot believe that the strigoi has survived in his coffin all these years. “Have you not listened?” she snaps. ‘The Strigoi never die. If their corpses survive, they merely sleep!’

Interestingly, the Romanies we meet in the book travelling around Britain will not go near Oxford or the Thames Valley.

As the tale unfolds, there are interludes in which the story is discussed by the shocked pilgrims. Is it true, they want to know, or is it simply a tale to frighten children? Is the middle-aged knight telling the tale, whom they know simply as “Sir Knight”, himself the hero, Sir Godfrey, when he was a young man? And is the strigoi who survived still hunting him, intent on revenge, following him – following them – along the road? Perhaps even one of them?

A great start to the series.





THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt

13 06 2014

The Silver Wolf cover

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I alweays identify with immedieately, for instance the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, the Pope’s mistress, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this? “I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.





THE WOLVES OF PARIS by Michael Wallace

13 05 2014

WofP

Good tales of the supernatural set in medieval times are few and far between so I was sceptical when I noticed The Wolves of Paris on offer from Kindle and claiming to be just that. But it was Free, so I downloaded it – nothing to lose. And almost gave up after the first few pages which – well, let me simply beg you: keep reading! The rest of the book is as good a story of sorcery and werewolves, and the all-powerful Inquisition, as I have ever come across.

It occurs to me that most werewolf/vampire stories I have read – or viewed – recently have had me identifying with the vampires or the werewolves – how can you not in, for instance, Vampire Diaries? – or in A Taste of Blood Wine? – but here, in this novel, the werewolves and the sorcery surrounding them are depicted as irredeemably evil. And the Inquisition is quite as bad, in its own way: Henri Montguillon, Dominican Prior, is a figure out of my worst nightmares.

In Paris lives Lucrezia de l’Isle, born Lucrezia di Lucca, now a widow with a terrible secret.

And approaching Paris are two brothers from Florence, the elder a banker and investor, the younger in disgrace after getting on the wrong side of the Inquisition at home in Italy. Both are in love with the beautiful Lucrezia – have been since before her father married her off to the wealthy French aristocrat – and both dream that now, this time …

But Lucrezia’s husband is not dead. He is a werewolf, one who retains his human mind but can never resume his human shape – thanks to her intervention when the spell that first changed him into a werewolf was cast. 

Highly recommended if you feel at home in medieval Paris – and can imagine the Seine frozen solid, enabling packs of starving wolves, and gigantic werewolves, to hunt unhindered within the walls of the city itself.





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?





ARALORN: MASQUES & WOLFSBANE by Patricia Briggs

22 02 2014

Aralorn cover

Two early works by Patricia Briggs (of Mercy Thompson fame), or rather a very early work and a later sequel featuring the same cast of characters in the same alternative fantasy universe.

“Wolf” is a great wolf which Aralorn saves from death in a pit full of spiked stakes in the prologue to the first story, Masques. But Wolf turns out to be a shape-shifter, and the only son of the evil sorcerer who is holding the country in thrall.

It is hard to say much about this book without spoiling it for you, but I loved Aralorn and identified with her immediately. Patricia Briggs describes Masques as bearing all the signs of an early work by an author still learning her craft, as opposed to Wolfsbane, the sequel, written twenty years later. Maybe so,  but I saw little difference. She is still there in that world, still totally at home in it, still completely familiar with each character and scene.

Now I would like a third story, please. Make it a trilogy, Patricia!





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. 





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.








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