DESECRATION by J. F. Penn

14 11 2014

Desecration

No time for a full review, but Desecration has been described as a book that takes the reader on a journey to hell and back. It does, and the hell here is real-life horror, not fantasy horror.

It is the most original police procedural I have ever read (with the possible exception of Mark Billington’s Helpless) and DS Jamie Brooke, whose only real family is a 14-year-old daughter approaching the end in a hospice for the terminally ill, is the police officer / detective I most closely identified with (with the possible exception of Lynda La Plante’s Lorraine Page). Greater praise I cannot bestow.

I shall definitely be reading the sequel, Delirium, and in the meantime am starting on Pentecost, the first book in J. F. Penn’s other series, the ARKANE thrillers, which has been sitting in my Kindle for a while. I didn’t know who the author was. Now I do, and she is a great discovery.





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?








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