THE DEVIL’S HUNT by Paul Doherty

3 05 2017

A Medieval Mystery featuring Hugh Corbett

England, 1303

Ascham opened his eyes. the library was dark. He tried again to scream but the sound died on his lips. The candle, flickering under its metal cap on the table, shed a small pool of light and Ascham glimpsed the piece of parchment the assassin had tossed onto the table. Ascham realised what had brought about his death: he’d recognised the truth but he’d been stupid ebough to allow his searches to be known. If only he had a pen! His hand grasped the wound bubbling in his chest. He wept and crawled painfully across the floor towards the table. He seized the parchment and, with his dying strength, carefully hauled himself up to etch out the letters – but the pool of light seemed to be dimming. He’d lost the feeling in his legs, which were stiffening, like bars of iron.
‘Enough,’ he whispered. ‘Ah, Jesus …’
Ascham closed his eyes, coughed and died as the blood bubbled on his lips.

When the book opens, Hugh Corbett is at home in Leighton, in Essex, enjoying his peaceful life as Lord of the Manor, even if that does involve the odd hanging (as on the first page of Chapter 1) which he certainly does not enjoy, though everyone else seems to. But this country idyll is rudely shattered when the King, Edward I, arrives at the manor house demanding that Hugh return to his service immediately.

A demand from a king, though phrased as a request, is in reality an order, and in the case of this king, to cross him when he is in this mood would be to invite disaster. So Sir Hugh, along with his henchman Ranulf-atte-Newgate and their friend-servant-squire Maltote, are despatched to Oxford, where Sparrow Hall is in a state of turmoil. Two murders have already been committed there. Left near the second corpse was a parchment announcing “The Bellman fears neither King nor clerk […] The Bellman will ring the truth and all shall hear it.”

Meanwhile, outside the college, in the city, this Bellman has been posting proclamations attacking the King and claiming that Simon de Montfort was in the right of it when he took up arms against the King. And these proclamations purport to be emanating from Sparrow Hall, which the masters there all fervently deny. Well, they would.

Also outside the Hall, another seemingly separate series of murders has been taking place. In each case, an old beggar from the city, by definition helpless and defenceless, has been taken out into the forest and decapitated and his head has been hung from the branches of a tree. Sir Hugh finds reason to believe they were not actually killed in the forest but taken there – from Sparrow Hall, which would link them in some strange way with the Bellman and the murder of the two masters.

Another perfect medieval whodunnit from Paul Doherty. Not a word is wasted, and the excitement never flags for a moment. Nor can one possibly guess (without cheating!) who the Bellman really is.





A GIFT OF SANCTUARY by Candace Robb

3 04 2017

The reason I have chosen this, the sixth book in the series, to review, is that Geoffrey Chaucer plays a role in it, and that, to my mind, always lends authenticity to any novel set in the second half of the fourteenth century, be it by Anya Seton, Paul Docherty, Jim Hawkey or, as here, Candace Robb. However, the whole series is definitely prosaic as opposed not only to poetic but to magical mystery writing; this author has no truck with fantasy.

The hero of the series, Captain Owen Archer, a retired soldier, lives in York with his English wife (he is Welsh by birth) and father-in-law, and his little daughter. His wife is an apothecary, but Owen himself  now acts as a spy/agent for Archbishop Thoresby of York and the Duke of Lancaster, and it is this function that gives rise to the stories in these books. In this one, he is sent to south Wales to investigate reports that Welsh nationalists may give support to a French invasion – or the French army may support a pretender to kingship in an independent Wales – as the next stage in the on-going Hundred Years War. Accompanying him is his father-in-law, taking this opportunity to go on pilgrimage to St David’s, and Geoffrey Chaucer, another agent of the Duke of Lancaster – and of the English King.

The description of St David’s and the set-up there, and of the pilgrims (naturally Chaucer is studying them so that he “might describe them in all their variety”) is excellent, as is Owen’s inner turmoil when he finds himself back in his native Wales and speaking Welsh again for the first time since childhood, but now as an agent for the English Crown.

As soon as he arrives, a dead body is found. Another body, not quite dead, is discovered and given sanctuary by a passing Welsh bard. The Bishop of St David’s wants Owen to investigate. At first he is reluctant – but then realises that perhaps there is a connection between the murder and his mission …

It is well written, and if you liked the Cadfael Chronicles you will probably like these books (though I personally do not find Captain Archer anywhere near as sympathetic a character as Brother Cadfael).





THE MIDNIGHT SEA by Kat Ross

14 03 2017

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON

Nazafareen’s sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.

This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.





AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory

11 03 2017

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (The Tarnished Challice – six years ago!) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.





THE DARKLING PLAIN by Douglas R. Mason

7 03 2017

The north-west of England, 13th Century

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, ‘Here, Master. What do you lack?’ and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain’s men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. ‘When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you’ll feel the weight of my hand.’

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[…]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, ‘Here’s a stroke of luck for you now. Here’s a gentleman looking to employ you. He’ll give you a fair price and set you on your way …’

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.





A Conversation with Writer Jim Hawkey/James Munro

1 03 2017

Kanti Burns interviews the author of the Mariana de la Mar books

Please note that Mariana de la Mar Book 1, Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists, will be FREE on Amazon from the 1st to the 5th of March.

* * *

Perhaps I should mention in advance that Jim and I are not strangers, though our friendship has always been at a distance, via the internet; we originally got to know each other when, for several years,  we both wrote reviews for the late, lamented MedievalMysteries.com.

KB: So, shall we start at the beginning? It’s a long time now since you wrote the first Mariana book. I remember reviewing it for Medieval Mysteries.

JM: A very long time. I suppose I’ve had Mariana on my mind for about fifteen years. I published the first completed Mariana novel, The Witch of Balintore, with Lulu in 2004.

KB: Then you published two more as part of a planned series, the Mariana Books. But what I want to know, as someone who wrote five-star reviews of the original books, is why you later withdrew them all and then, last year, started publishing radically revised versions of them with new titles and under a new pen-name, Jim Hawkey. And even then, back in 2004, why you started with Marian, Mariana, as a woman of – what? 26? – in The Witch of Balintore – and then afterwards worked backwards until finally you reached her childhood (in Mariana la Loca).

JM: Right. I often holiday in the north of Scotland, and I wrote The Witch of Balintore after spending a month near Tain and on the Nigg peninsula in Easter Ross – that’s where Balintore actually is. I’d already written half of a rather different novel, set in the same area but 800 years earlier, in the 6th century. In that story, the main protagonists were a small indigenous people I called the Elpin – Elps – and suddenly Mariana, who as I say had been on my mind for quite a while, acquired yet another strand to her already very mixed ancestry: Elpin blood, to go with her father’s Scottish ancestry (Pictish, Gaelic and Viking), and with her mother’s Spanish, Moorish, Jewish descent. And she acquired a name to go with it: MacElpin. From there, the novel took off: Mariana from Spain via Paris and London now in the north of Scotland among her father’s people and what were left of the indigenous Elps. It wrote itself, as they say. Then came, Mariana in Paris seven, eight years earlier, with Raoul, who had been in Scotland with her – or rather would be in Scotland with her –

KB: It confuses even you!

JM: No! That was a slip of the tongue. Then I knew I had to write the story of her life before Paris, the one that was originally published as Wrong Way Round the Church. I started it, but got stuck, distracted by other things, busy at the school, and so on. But listen. Let’s leave that and switch to the new series of books. The new Thirteen-Card Spread, the one set in Paris, is called Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

KB: Which you wrote under the name Jim Hawkey. Why is that? When an author publishes under two or more different names, it’s often because he prefers to keep the different genres he writes in quite separate. Is that what is happening here?

JM: It is, yes. Under my own name, I normally publish poetry and articles and posts on esoteric religion and philosophy, gnosis, reincarnation, as anyone who follows me on Twitter for instance, or WordPress, will know. When I first started writing the Mariana books, I envisaged them fitting in with this –

KB: Literary novels written by a poet.

JM: Yes, and with esoteric themes, like the witchcraft and astral travel and tarot in what is now Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

KB: And the Cathars and the Mary Magdalene Heresy in The Rose of Sharon. Well, I’ve read the new versions of both, and I think I can see what is coming.

JM: The best laid plans of mice and authors gang oft aglay. I’ve found I’m incapable of imposing my will on the main characters in my novels. Mariana in the first two books as I originally wrote them was a Lady with a capital L forced into playing the whore. It wasn’t really working in Thirteen-Card Spread, and spoilt the book. In Wrong Way Round the Church, the prequel to Thirteen-Card Spread, it became obvious that to everyone else she was a whore playing at being a Lady, whatever her background may have been. Everyone, that is, except her late father’s old friend, the Scottish knight Sir Farquhar. He insisted on her being her father’s daughter, the Scottish Lady, rather than the Spanish whore she had become between being kidnapped at the age of fourteen and arriving in Paris with him soon before her twentieth birthday. I believe strongly in character-led novels, and these two were leading me from – from –

KB: From James Munro to Jim Hawkey. From literary fiction to what Graham Green called “entertainments” laced with erotica.

JM: Well, not erotica exactly, but given Mariana’s special niche

KB: So you rewrote the books, giving Mariana a free hand and allowing all those around her to react and respond in the way they naturally would.

JM: Exactly. I’d been bowdlerising my own work! And the turning point was Avignon in the last part of The Rose of Sharon, where Mariana is forced through no fault of her own to work once again in a bordel. The Mariana who – let’s be honest – took to that like a duck to water was not the Lady Marian – or even the Mariana! – I’d depicted in Paris or in Scotland. They had to be completely rewritten. But in order to do that successfully, I had to give myself free rein as well. As James Munro I was – I am – too straight, too much the child of my upbringing, too tight-arsed in a word – too inhibited, too repressed. But when I adopt the Jim Hawkey persona …

KB: You are suddenly free to – I was going to say to be yourself. Which is the real you, I wonder? But can we just get the new books and their titles clear for people who read this. I notice that Mariana in Paris, Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, is Mariana de la Mar 1 now.

JM: Yes. And the prequel has been rewritten and published as The Rose of Sharon.

KB: Okay, so we have the prequel and book 1 published. And next?

JM: The Undeparted Dead (Mariana de la Mar 2) will be out on April 1st. That’s set in Southwark, for hundreds of years the red-light district across the Thames from London, and in Essex, where Mariana finds herself being used as live bait by powerful people attempting to trap the walking dead –

KB: Zombies? Don’t tell me!

JM: Revenants, back up out of the grave. It seems there were many such in the years following the Black Death, especially in Essex. But also a wraith and a harpy and –

KB: I want an advance copy!

JM: You’ll be the very first. Then there is Mariana in Revolt, which will be Mariana de la Mar 3. You remember what happened in 1381?

KB: The Peasants’ Revolt. But I had no idea Mariana was caught up in it?

JM: Oh, yes. And on both sides. As the Lady that old Sir Farquhar, who has now assumed complete authority over her, still expects her to be, and as one of the girls at the Green Unicorn in Southwark and the Shag in Colchester, Essex, where many of the rebels and their leaders come from. Mariana in Revolt contains a sub-plot called An Errand for Lady Alice, which I’d originally intended to stand alone –

KB: Lady Alice? Not the much-maligned Alice Perrers?

JM: Yes, old Edward III’s mistress.

KB: Plots and sub-plots. Right. Anyway, that brings me nicely to something I always like asking authors about: your thoughts on the interface between fact and fiction and fantasy in historical novels, especially those set in the medieval period. Alice Perrers is fact, a historical character, while Mariana is fiction, a figment of your imagination.

JM: Right. And then we have mermaids and lamiae, which are fantasy. Let’s try to clarify this. Bruce wins at Bannockburn: historical fact. Bruce hiding in a cave by the sea watching a spider swing back and forth: legend that could be historical fact. A woman with Bruce in the cave: historical fiction.

KB: How do you know?

JM: I just made it up. A mermaid with Bruce in the cave: fantasy. So far, fairly clear. But between the last two, for instance, if it’s the woman, not the mermaid, but she’s a witch? She is communicating with the spider, influencing it, making it keep swinging: historical fiction, or fantasy?

KB: Yes, witchcraft – and shape-shifting. All the things that Mariana can do, and her Scottish grandmother, and Niniane in Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, and the old witch that Niniane and Mariana take on. And then, of course, the revenants and wraiths and harpies you just mentioned.

JM: The question is, to what extent should our criteria for what could have been true depend on their idea of what could be true rather than our idea now?

KB: How many impossible things was it possible for them to believe before breakfast.

JM: When you are writing historical fiction, it’s all a matter of point of view. From the protagonist’s point of view, anything is acceptable and believable that would have been acceptable and believable then, at that time, while anything which would not have been acceptable and believable is inadmissable. When it is First Person narrative, this becomes even more so. A hint by the author to the effect that of course he doesn’t believe all this rubbish, and the whole thing is ruined. His hero becomes a time-traveller, not a native born and bred in the period.

KB: I like that, yes. Homer mixes history, legend, fiction and fantasy and his characters are all absolutely at home in that setting, and we have the impression he believes in it all as well. Whereas Euripides’ Agamemnon and Iphigeneia are clearly time-travellers.

JM: That’s a very good example.

KB: Thank you. And now we’re going to have to stop.

JM: And thank you, very much, for your support over the years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





OF WITCHES, WHORES AND ALCHEMISTS by Jim Hawkey

18 02 2017

I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author
in return for an honest review.

hawkey2 Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is Book 2 of the Mariana de la Mar series of novels set in the 1370s in Spain and France. It is preceded by two other books, The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) and a prequel, Mariana la Loca, but it is the only one of the three that is a real Medieval Mystery, and is in my view the best one to start with. It is not only very much a stand-alone but the first two are both in a sense prequels to it. Mariana la Loca, the official prequel, tells of Mariana’s childhood in the south of Spain, up to the point where, at the age of fourteen, and following the death of her father, she is abducted and sold into slavery. The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) takes us from that point to her arrival in Paris.

Now she is in Paris and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a student at the university there. But her life is still beset with difficulties.

For a start, the university admits only boys and men to lectures, so she has to dress as a boy. On top of that, her self-appointed guardian, Ferchard (Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale), an old friend of her father’s (who was a Scot living in exile in Spain) insists that she must now grow up and be the lady (Lady Marian MacElpin) she was born to be, and turn her back on the years spent as a prostitute in Spain and Avignon. But this, she finds, is not so easily done.

However, her experience of life and knowledge of the world is much greater than that of her peer-group of students and hangers-on, so it is to her they turn when one of their number is accused of murdering his uncle, a miserly alchemist reputed to have a horde of gold nuggets tucked away somewhere.

And no sooner has she agreed to do what she can to help discover who was really responsible for the death of the old man than she learns that another murder was committed that same night (Christmas night!), a murder closely connected with the first one.

As the title implies, the book is full of medieval witches and prostitutes – Mariana is more than a little of both herself –  but others Mariana meets and gets to know during the course of her investigations include the Holy Roman Emperor, an alchemist himself and in Paris for Christmas, his daughter Anna, soon to be the wife of Richard II and Queen of England, the one-armed Albanian King of the Paris underworld, the celebrated proto-feminist Christine de Pisan, then a girl of thirteen, and the legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel.

There are many so-called medieval mysteries about and feeling at home in the medieval period I have read most of them, but I want to say simply that there is more medieval magic and mystery in this one book than in any ten of the others. And more horror. Some scenes are more than gripping, they are mesmerising. Medieval Paris is unforgettably depicted and quite apart from that it is astonishing how this very male writer gets into the heart and soul of the all-female Mariana. (But then why not, when you think that Cadfael and Falco are both written by women?)