This is the first of three posts reviewing the three books written by the late Sylvian Hamilton who, with this, her first book, immediately became a great favourite of mine. Unfortunately, these three, the Richard Straccan books, are all we shall ever have.
(I wrote these reviews some years ago but find they are not included on this site, so here they are. All three stories are very highly recommended.)
‘[Until] a week ago I would have said I had no enemies! I’m a quiet man. I live peacefully. I go about my business honestly. I don’t mess with the supernatural.’
‘You trade in it.’
‘Of course you do. Relics. What are they, if not supernatural?’
‘They’re not sorcery!’
‘They’re power,’ she said flatly. ‘Power can be used for good or ill.’
‘Relics are good,’ he said angrily. ‘They heal.’
‘They can harm, too. I’ve heard of relics that struck down thieves, paralysed evil-doers and smote blasphemers dumb, liars blind, oath-breakers dead. Power works both ways. You trade in the uncanny, Sir Richard, and you deal with powerful folk. Among them is one at least who seeks your harm.’
“In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their Bishop,” must be one of the best opening-lines ever. And hard, you would think, to follow.
The story is set in the reign of bad King John, during the period known as the Interdict, when (the King having fallen out with the Pope) the whole of England was placed under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.
It is as though we are there:
We see the poverty of the priests (they can perform no ceremonies, remember, no marriages, nothing – not even funerals: the dead are piling up!), and the desperation of the monks and nuns – unless, that is, they happen to possess an important relic, in which case of course pilgrims come to the abbey to see, pray at, kiss, the sacred object, and pay for the privilege. And the monks will do anything to obtain such a relic.
We meet a spy who dresses as a beggar, maggots, stench and all, mingles with the crowd in a crypt with a spring of holy water, is caught and thrown out – and becomes for a while one of Straccan’s team; a wandering monk with nine “loonies” in tow, taking them on a lifelong pilgrimage from shrine to shrine; abjurers, forced to live between the high and low tide lines, desperately trying to get on board any vessel departing the country. What is an abjurer? She does not explain. She shows us glimpses (often wonderful cameo-scenes) of England at the time, but she does not lecture us.
In fact, Abjuration of the Realm was an oath taken to leave the land for ever. By taking this oath, one could avoid penalties such as mutilation or even death, though abjurers who did not have the means to travel abroad – Britain being an island – died on the wet sand between the tide-lines of starvation and exposure.
There are three very believable sorcerers. Two are evil: a depraved Scottish nobleman not above sacrificing children (he kidnaps Straccan’s daughter), and his accomplice, an ancient desert Arab the nobleman had picked up on his travels. The third is a Templar, also with a background in the Middle East, whose knowledge of the magic arts has got him into trouble with his Order, but who uses it to oppose the two evil sorcerers.
There are two witches, both young, both beautiful, one good the other bad: (Straccan falls in love with the former, in lust – has he really been bespelled? – with the latter). There is a saint in the making, a genuine saint. There is the King, parsimonious John, who turns out to be one of the most relaxed and amusing characters in the book.
And there is our hero himself, Sir Richard Straccan, ex-Crusader who now deals in relics – “authentic” relics, not the cheap fakes sold for coppers at every street corner. These relics, which are extremely valuable, are usually the body parts of saints. Such objects as a kneecap of St Peter, three hairs of St Edmund, and the Holy Foreskin are mentioned, as well as an ear – the ear of St Marcellinus:
‘Can’t find it. Haven’t had an ear before, have we?’ Peter turned over several small boxes, pouches, bundles. ‘No. Oh, is this it?’ He held up what looked like a withered blackened folded scrap of leather. ‘I suppose it might be an ear.’ Both men looked doubtfully at it. ‘Who was Marcellinus, anyway?’
Straccan consulted his list. ‘It says here, an early blessed martyr. Let’s have a look.’ He turned the darkened scrap over in his fingers, sniffed it, shrugged and handed it back. ‘Keep it dry. It’ll start to smell if the damp gets at it.’
One relic that keeps cropping up is the finger of St Thomas, which Straccan has been commissioned to obtain for a wealthy patron. Little does he know that the finger is needed to make up the sum of eleven relics (of the eleven good disciples of Jesus) that the Scottish sorcerer will need to protect himself when he sacrifices Straccan’s daughter in his attempt to call a devil from Hell.
An unforgettable start to a great series.