8 10 2015

Wicked Winter coverSerendipity again. But it happens to me so often when I pause before a shelf of second-hand books or squat down beside a cardboard box overflowing with third or fourth-hand books they are virtually giving away, that I think synchronicity would be a better word for it.

There I am, thinking I haven’t read a Roger the Chapman story for a long time, and later that day, or sometime the next day, there is a Roger the Chapman book pushing itself foward, offering itself on a platter to my greedy eyes and fingers.

And thus it was that a couple of days ago, I lit upon Kate Sedley’s The Wicked Winter, the sixth in the series, and set in bleak early spring – still winter! – of 1476. (I’m guessing the date as it is not specifically stated anywhere in the text.) Roger, now a widower with a baby daughter and a mother-in-law who looks after the baby – and Roger, too, when he comes home and stays put for a while. But he has itchy feet and soon sets off on his travels again.

For those of you who don’t know the series, Roger is a natural sleuth and has come to the attention of Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III), who has made use of his talents, but Roger prefers life on the open road, a life of peace and quiet, and here in this book when he sets out it seems he is going to get it. There is no summons from Richard bidding him hasten to London or wherever. What does happen is that he falls in with a puritanical friar, Brother Simeon, who is doing the rounds of the villages and manor houses preaching hell and damnation to all who will listen, and together, in a snow storm, they arrive at Cederwell Manor, where they discover the body of Lady Cederwell at the foot of the tower half buried in snow.

An accident? Neither Roger nor Brother Simeon thinks so, but that is the explanation given and accepted by the family.

The weather worsening, the two chance companions are obliged to stay at the manor house, which suits Roger at least because his sleuthing instincts have been aroused.

And are aroused still further when another murder occurs and an attempt is made on his own life.

His first suspect is naturally Sir Hugh Cederwell, who would clearly much prefer to be married to his beautiful neighbour, the widow Ursula Lynom, rather than his morbidly pious late wife. But all is not what it seems and there is more to it than that.

As with all Kate Sedley’s mystery novels, you are kept guessing – and turning pages! – until the last chapter.

But what I want to draw attention to here is some of the detail she brings in that I have come across in no other books set in that period.

For instance, the game of “camping” played by the village children. (You’ll have to read the book to find out about that.) And this: She rolled a little ball of beeswax into a pellet, popped it in her mouth and started to chew, a habit I’ve noticed amongst many people who like to exercise their jaws between meals. After a while they will spit the beeswax out, lodging it wherever is handy; under the edge of a table, on the rung of a stool, or even on the rim of a cooking-pot … Remind you of anything in the modern world?

Or a very apposite quotation from Walter Hilton’s The Scale of Perfection, which Roger happens to pick up and leaf through in Lady Cederwell’s chapel.

My eyes fell  on some words in the Scale of Perfection.’It needeth not to run to Rome or Jerusalem to seek Christ, but to turn thine thoughts into thine own soul where He is hid …’ They were true when they were written, they are true today, and they will be true tomorrow and ever after.

Wonderful light – and not always so light – reading. If you can get hold of a copy. It seems to be out of print and for some reason has not been made available for download as an ebook, which is a great pity.

HERETIC by Bernard Cornwell

4 10 2015

Heretic CoverIn Heretic, the fighting in France continues, for these are the opening rounds of the Hundred Years War. The Prologue (thirty pages long) tells the story of the seige and surrender of Calais in 1347. It was to stay in English hands for the next three centuries.

After the seige is over, Thomas of Hookton heads south into the County of Berat in Gascony with his Scottish friend Robbie Douglas and a band of English archers. He is under orders from the Earl of Northampton. He is to retake the fortress of Castillon d’Arbizon and make that his base while he carries on his quest for the Holy Grail, which he does not really believe in; in reality, Thomas seeks his cousin Guy Vexille, who murdered Thomas’s father, and later his wife. Vexille does believe in the existence of the Grail, and he thinks Thomas can lead him to it. They are in effect hunting each other, going round in circles.

When Thomas arrives in Berat, and takes control of Castillon d’Arbizon, he finds himself responsible for carrying out an execution by burning scheduled for next morning. When he asks why exactly  the heretic was condemned, Father Medous, the priest, answers: ‘Cattle died,’ he said, ‘and she cursed a man’s wife.’

Thomas looked mildly surprised. ‘Cattle die in England,’ he said, ‘and I have cursed a man’s wife. Does that make me a heretic?’

‘She can tell the future!’ Medous protested.


‘What future did she see?’ Thomas asked.

‘Death.’ It was Lorret who answered. ‘She said the town would fill with corpses and we would lie in the streets unburied.’

In the end, he refuses to let them burn her. Why? Because the condemned woman, Genevieve, is young and beautiful? Thomas is not sure. After all, he is nothing if not orthodox in his beliefs. And the next thing he knows, he too is being excommunicated – for sheltering a heretic. But Genevieve is unimpressed: ‘Excommunication means nothing.’

‘It means everything,’ Thomas said sullenly. ‘It means no heaven and no God, no salvation and no hope, everything.’

After some more typically Bernard Cornwell action, a pestilence arrives in France from Italy. It is the Black Death, though people do not of course know that at the time: they just see Genevieve’s prophecy coming true all around them as the town becomes filled with the dead and the dying.

An excellent culmination to this exciting series; and the ending is totally satisfying on all counts.

PS I don’t usually do long quotes, but here is a passage I know I will always remember and would like to share:

‘Genevieve!’ he shouted. ‘Genevieve!’

Then he saw her.

Or rather, in the instant glare of a splintering streak of lightning, he saw a vision. He saw a woman, tall and silver and naked, standing with her arms raised to the sky’s white fire. The lightning went, yet the image of the woman stayed in Thomas’s head, glowing, and then the lightning struck again, slamming into the eastern hills, and Genevieve had her head back, her hair was unbound, and the water streamed from it like drops of liquid silver.

She was dancing naked beneath the lightning.

She did not like to be naked with him. She hated the scars that Father Roubert had seared into her arms and legs and down her back, yet now she danced naked, a slow dance, her face tilted back to the downpour, and Thomas watched in each successive lightning flash and he thought she was indeed a draga. She was the wild silver creature of the dark, the shining woman who was dangerous and beautiful and strange. Thomas crouched, gazing, thinking that his soul was in greater peril still for Father Medous had said the dragas were the devil’s creatures, yet he loved her too; and then the thunder filled the air to shake the hills and he squatted lower, his eyes fast closed. He was doomed, he thought, doomed, and that knowledge filled him with utter hopelessness.

‘Thomas.’ Genevieve was stooping in front of him now, her hands cradling his face. ‘Thomas.’

‘You’re a draga,’ he said, his eyes still closed.

‘I wish I was,’ she said. ‘I wish flowers would grow where I walked. But I’m not. I just danced under the lightning and the thunder spoke to me.’

He shuddered. ‘What did it say?’

She put her arms round him, comforting him. ‘That all will be well.’

He said nothing.

‘All will be well,’ Genevieve said again, ‘because the thunder does not lie if you dance to it. It is a promise, my love, it is a promise. That all will be well.’

VAGABOND by Bernard Cornwell

29 09 2015

Vagabond coverOnce again full of such medieval outsiders as an English archer who is the bastard son of a half-mad priest with an aristocratic French background that includes rumours of Cathar ancestors and of knowledge of the Holy Grail; the beautiful widow of a French nobleman, now an outcast because of her low birth and the rumour that her mother was Jewish; and a mad Dominican Inquisitor, obsessed with the Grail, Vagabond, the second book in the ongoing story of Thomas of Hookton starts in the north of England, where Thomas, his French woman, Eleanor, who is now pregnant, and his friend the priest Father Hobbe, have travelled to Durham in search of information about Thomas’s mysterious father. Here, Thomas becomes involved in a battle with invading Scots led by Sir William Douglas, and after the battle it is Douglas’s nephew Robbie who accompanies Thomas back to Hookton and then on to Guernsey and so to Brittany.

What have they in common? They are both hunting Guy Vexille, Thomas’s cousin and arch-enemy, the murderer of Thomas’s father. Guy Vexille also murdered Robbie’s brother. But Vexille himself is now accompanied by a Dominican Inquisitor, Bernard de Taillebourg, who, in turn, is hunting Thomas. This is Vexille speaking of de Taillebourg when Thomas is their prisoner: ‘He likes burning people […] He does like it. I have watched him. He shudders as the flesh bubbles.’

You can’t get much worse than this priest, you think, as you read about de Taillebourg. But wait till you meet Cardinal Louis Bessières, de Taillebourg’s master. Here he is walking by the Seine on a sunny winter morning:

A legless man with wooden blocks on his stumps swung on short crutches across the road and held out a dirty hand towards the Cardinal whose servants rushed at the man with their staves. ‘No, no!’ the Cardinal called and felt in his purse for some coins. ‘God’s blessing on you, my son,’ he said. Cardinal Bessières liked giving alms, he liked the melting gratitude on the faces of the poor, and he especially liked their look of relief when he called off his servants a heartbeat before they used their staves. Sometimes the Cardinal paused just a fraction too long and he liked that too. But today was a warm, sunlit day stolen from a grey winter and so he was in a kindly mood.

And as always in Cornwell’s books, along with the great characters, such vivid descriptions of seiges and battles that you feel you were there. Another great read.

HARLEQUIN by Bernard Cornwell

27 09 2015

Harlequin coverThis is the first in the Grail Quest series of novels and I have to admit that I enjoyed it very much. I say admit because I also have to admit to a bias against Bernard Cornwell. He is just too popular, and the fourteenth century was never his period. I give in: he is a master of the genre, and can, it seems, turn his hand to any period.

Not only is his research meticulous but he has an instinct that makes him seem as at home in the period as any specialist. Like Paul Doherty, who is a fourteenth-century specialist, and has produced several novels set in ancient Egypt.

This book begins when Thomas’ village, Hookton, on the south coast of England, is wiped out by a band of French marauders. A common enough occurrence in those days leading up to the the “official” opening of the Hundred Years’ War. But why such a small village, where they had believed themselves safe? Thomas knows. It was to steal the relic, the lance of St George, that belonged to the village priest. This priest, Thomas’ father, is killed by the raiders, as is his housekeeper, Thomas’ mother. Thomas himself, whose father had sent him to Oxford to study to be a priest, but whose great love has always been archery and the great yew bows the English archers used, kills four of the attackers and survives.

Now? “Oxford could go to hell for all he cared, for Thomas had found his joy.” And his purpose in life. He would be an archer. He goes to France with the English army, intent on revenge and on fulfilling the vow he made to his father, to retrieve the lance: not made any simpler by his father’s dying words, that the Frenchman who had killed him and stolen the lance, the mysterious Harlequin, was in fact the priest’s nephew, and thus Thomas’ cousin.

The book ends with by far the best description of the Battle of Crécy I have ever read. Thomas, one of the celebrated English archers who made that battle pivotal in the history of warfare, survives it. Which takes us to  Vagabond, the next in this excellent series.

TARGET CHURCHILL by Warren Adler and James C. Humes

20 05 2015

Target Churchill coverThe story opens with a vivid description of Beria’s NKVD men replacing the SS in the wake of Zhukov’s race across eastern Europe and into Germany: the one quite as bad as, perhaps even worse than, the other. General Dimitrov, a Georgian like Beria (and Stalin) has spotted someone he thinks might be useful among the SS men they are executing en masse (no POWs here!) – an SS Obersturmbannfuhrer and marksman named Franz Mueller, who is also a US citizen. Dimitrov tests his commitment by setting him to shoot two dozen of his erstwhile SS comrades and, that done, recruits him and sends him off to Washington to live quietly and await orders – just another one of Beria’s countless moles spread out around the world.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled Churchill (having lost the UK election to Atlee, who is, in Churchill’s view, soft on “Good old Uncle Jo” Stalin) has received an invitation to receive an honorary doctorate and make a speech at a minor American university in President Truman’s home state. Believing as he does that Stalin and his cohorts represent quite as great a threat to peace and freedom as Hitler ever did – though very few people agree with him – Churchill decides to sieze the opportunity of a widely publicised event (Truman will be there on the platform with him) to warn the world about Stalin and communism as he once warned them about Hitler and nazism.

He composes one of his most famous speeches – it is the speech in which he introduces the phrase “the Iron Curtain” to posterity – but it is all to be kept under wraps until it is delivered. He does not want the Russians upset and Truman embarrassed in advance (Truman and Stalin are still oficially allies). However, the First Secretary at the British Embassy in Washington (the man who runs the show) is a certain Donald Maclean (click on the name if it doesn’t ring a bell) and Maclean arranges matters so that his master in Moscow (Beria) receives a copy of the speech long enough in advance for the mole (now Frank Miller) to be activated: Target – Churchill.

I have probably given away more of the plot than I should, but it doesn’t matter, you can get all this and more from the blurb and the many reviews around. What matters is the detail, especially the bringing to life of Churchill as he was in 1946, immediately after the end of the war. Revered throughout the world (where he wasn’t reviled) yet rejected in his own country and out of power, but certainly not impotent, for the pen is mightier than the sword and a great wordsmith (“the greatest wordsmith of the century”) could still compose speeches that would alter history. Which was why, in the view of the Russians, he had to be silenced.

HIghly recommended for all lovers of WWII fiction


12 05 2015

The review now, as promised in my last post.

MarianaLL coverIn 1374, in the still very Moorish south of Spain, a girl is sold into slavery. After various adventures including a shipwreck, two years in a bordel in Cuenca and an encounter with a lamia, she is freed by her new master, a rich Moor whose life she has saved – but on condition that she takes with her the mysterious young slave-girl Malika and returns her to her home which (from what Malika tells them) seems to have been somewhere in the north of Spain or the south of France.

First, though, they make their way back across Andalucia to the village near Cartagena where Mariana grew up, and there she meets an elderly Scottish knight, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, come in search of her late father, who was himself a Scot in exile. He takes her under his wing and they head north together, first in search of Malika’s family, then, she hopes and dreams, to Paris.

To start with a minor gripe, in the early part of the book we follow Mariana, and simultaneously, in alternating chapters, we accompany Sir Farquhar as he makes his way down through Spain in search of his old friend Sir Andrew MacElpin, Mariana’s father. This switching back and forth of viewpoint is something I always find off-putting; however, once they meet there is no more of that and the story flows on ‘unputdownably’.

My own favourite parts of the book are, first, Mariana’s recollections of her childhood by the Mar Menor, a ‘little sea’ in the south-east of Spain, where her Moorish grandmother, Sebah, taught her to dance and she studied all kinds of arcane subjects with her ‘uncle’ Rabbi Yacoub, while the rest of the time she spent swimming in the sea, all alone. Secondly, the period they spent in Avignon, when they had left Spain behind, and Mariana found herself for the first time on the run from the powers that be, which in Avignon, then the seat of the Popes, meant the Church, and the Church meant the Inquisition.

There are scenes of sex and violence, but no more so than in most books set in that period. Life was like that. (When wasn’t it?!) But there are also scenes such as those where we meet secret Cathars in the north of Spain and Blanche, the anything-but-orthodox ex-Queen of France, in Avignon, that bring home to us some of the most mysterious and tantalising aspects of the late Middle Ages.

Mariana La Loca is one of those stories you read fast the first time, then later, at home now in this very different world, you read it again and this time you savour it to the full.

Mariana la Loca

10 05 2015

Sex slavery is nothing new. It is probably one of the oldest forms of merchandising on the planet. In the south of Spain in the spring of 1372 one young girl of mixed descent (her father was a Scot in exile) was left an  orphan and sold into slavery. She was fourteen and known as Mariana la Loca, but her real name was Marian MacElpin.

Mariana la Loca is a rewrite of the first Mariana medieval mystery, which I had reviewed very positively while the author and I were colleagues on the late, lamented When he asked me to read this completely new and retitled edition I was delighted to do so – though naturally concerned. I had liked it as it was! But I needn’t have worried. It is the same story but it reads faster and some of the excessive detail on the subject of Cathars and the Magdalene Heresy has been heavily pruned. It struck me, too, that the emphasis now is more on Mariana (Maryam) herself rather than on “the medieval mystery” – the mysterious child she is charged with restoring to her home and family. Better, because it is Mariana we are interested in and shall be following in the sequels

(I’ll be posting a full review on this site in a the next couple of days.)


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