QUEEN OF THE LIGHTNING by Kathleen Herbert

22 11 2016

queen-of-the-lightningThis is not an easy book to get hold of. I already knew and admired Kathleen Herbert as the author of Looking for the Lost Gods of England and Peace-Weavers and Shield-Maidens – Women in Early English Society. It was only recently that I realised she had written a novel set in early Anglo-Saxon times, that it had won the Georgette Heyer Historical Novel Prize, and then had unaccountably been allowed to go out of print. And is still out of print. Why are such books not made available through as eBooks (Kindle etc) and via Print On Demand? Surely the authors would be happy? What is the publishers’ problem, that so many wonderful books are simply unavailable, despite the fact that the technology to make them permanently available has been in place for years?

Anyway, I managed to get hold of a second-hand copy. (From AbeBooks, who are highly recommended if you are searching for out-of-print books, much more efficient than Amazon.) I have read hundreds of historical novels; many have faded from my memory; many others have not; but if I were asked to name a select few that I will always remember in detail, that made a place and period come alive for me and remain forever part of my experience of life, this would be one of them.

Riemmelth, princess of Cumbria, great-granddaughter of Urien and only heir to the kingdom of Rheged/Strathclyde, is forced into a dynastic marriage with Oswy (Oswiu), brother of King Oswald of Northumbria, first Bretwalda (High King of all Britain) and later Saint.

We follow her adventures in a half-Christian, half-pagan society, as Elfwyn, a princess of Deira who had been expecting to marry Oswy, tries to organise her demise by both natural and supernatural means; as Oswald is killed and her husband, Oswy, becomes king; as she falls into the hands of the brutal Penda, king of Mercia; as her loathing of the hated Anglian invaders and in particular her husband gradually changes to … something else: that meeting of the peoples which created England.

If you are interested in this period, or if you simply enjoy a good historical novel with an unusual setting, this is for you. Do try to get hold of a copy. 





THE DRAGON QUEEN by Alice Borchardt

3 11 2016

This novel, by the late and sorely missed Alice Borchardt, is the fantasy vdragon-queen-coverersion of the legend of Guenevere (here Guinevere, Gwynaver and Guynifar). (“You must understand, my name was not written down. Those who say and sometimes write it use what form they care to. So the spellings sometimes differ greatly. So much that it might seem as though I had many different names; but in reality, I still have only one. And, like all true names, it was a word of power.”) The book is filled to overflowing with the magic and mystery one has come to expect of Alice Borchardt including, of course, shape-shifting: Maeniel (“The Wolf King”) plays an important role in Guenevere’s upbringing, is indeed the father-figure.

In this version of the story, Merlin and Igrane [sic] are lovers. They are also sorcerers, and the villains of the piece: young Arthur is being reared by them, a virtual prisoner and destined to rule in name only as their puppet. This long-term plan of Merlin’s was supposed to include Guenevere; she would also have been brought up by them, then married Arthur (this marriage has been foretold far and wide) and become a puppet queen. However, she was rescued as a baby by Dugald, a druid, and Maeniel, the werewolf. Now, as a pert teenager (everyone calls her “pert”, and she is!) she faces a series of superhuman tasks, the accomplishment of which will prove that she is the hero destined to both occupy the dragon throne of the Painted People and rescue the Fisher King (Arthur) from an Otherworld. (Another world? There seem to be several.)

Guen, then, is of the Painted People, the Picts: no new idea (for a full discussion of this possibility, indeed probability, see Norma Lorre Goodrich’s “Guinevere”), but here in “The Dragon Queen” the Picts are made flesh.

The Painted People are great artists. I cannot think they will be appreciated as the Greeks and Romans are, for they work in ephemeral materials, cloth and wood, not stone. Their silver and gold work is magnificent, and some of that may survive. They all seem to be warriors, even the women […] The bull, boar, snake, wolf, salmon, dragon, and the patterns of each dance, the colours of the wind and sea, were all met in their clothing. The designs picked out on their skins in blue, green, red, gray and gold.”

These are the people to whom Guen comes after a great fight, with the head of her enemy in her hand: “With my cracked ribs searing, I ran up the nearest housepost, using the carvings to climb. I should be ashamed, I thought. The armor set off my bare body the way an enameled setting displays a rare jewel. Even the blood streaming from the gashes Merlin’s champion inflicted were part of the grim beauty of my flesh. I knew the eyes of every man, and not a few of the women, were fixed on me, and that fear alone hadn’t saved my life.”

Now she must lead them against the Saxons: “We all knew what they were after – women, ivory, walrus, sealskins, wool. Pictish wool is the best in the world. But above all, slaves. The eastern countries had an insatiable appetite for them, and a beautiful girl would bring a dozen pounds of gold on the block in Constantinople, especially if she were blond. As the woman in Igrane’s hall had suggested, the slave trade was booming.”

Meanwhile, Arthur (having met Guen and witnessed a clash between her and Igrane where Igrane came off worst) has also rebelled and in consequence been consigned by Merlin to another Otherworld, where he finds that the test is simply to stay alive: in order to do so, he takes the shape of first a salmon (shades of T.H. White!), but as a salmon faces death every instant. Then a snake, which he finds more “wholly other” than the salmon. And finally a young female eagle, a creature “capable of both love and loyalty”.

My only problem with this wonderful book is the continuous switching of viewpoint. In the opening chapters it is truly confusing and quite off-putting. Then it settles down, and the reader becomes used to the First Person Guen as opposed to the Third Person of alternating chapters, which is more and more usually Arthur. But by this time there is no confusion, we know all the characters, we know what is happening; now the problem is that we are (or at least I was) far more interested in what was happening to Guen, and each cliffhanger meant a chapter with boring Arthur till I could find out what happened to her next. However, when Arthur becomes a salmon, things improve, and even I forgot poor Guen for a moment.

A thing that needs saying always about Historical Fantasy is that the fantasy should be real fantasy, in the sense that it is what people believed, that it is in accordance with the mindset of the people of the time. To them the notion of space-travel would have been fantasy.

In this book, the fantasy is always real; scrupulously so.





THE WAXMAN MURDERS by Paul Doherty

4 05 2016

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Canterbury and East Anglia, 1272, 1300, 1303

Waxman MurdersIn 1272, King Henry III had died. His son Edward was on Crusade in Outremer (the Holy Land) at the time, and, in the absence of a king, law and order broke down. Rifflers pillaged isolated homes and farms. Among those attacked was the Blackstock’s manor house outside Canterbury.

The Blackstocks had two sons. The older boy, Hubert, was at school in Canterbury, but the younger son, Adam, watched his own mother being raped and murdered, then saw his father killed and his home burnt down.

By the year 1300, Adam had become a North Sea pirate with his own ship, the Waxman, and Hugh, who had pursued his studies and become a monk, had abandoned the cloister and disappeared from sight – though all men feared him as much as they did his brother.

A map purporting to show where a great treasure was buried in Suffolk had fallen into Adam’s hands. He was sailing to the Orwell estuary to deliver it to his brother when he was intercepted by two ships and killed in the ensuing battle. The map disappeared.

Now, three years later, a series of murders have been committed in Canterbury.

Sir Hugh Corbett, sent by king Edward (whose main interest is the map and the treasure) to investigate, finds that the beautiful lady Adelicia has been accused of one of the murders – the victim was her detested and miserly husband – but  he has reason to believe that they are all in fact connected, and may be the work of Hugh, Adam Blackstead’s mysterious elder brother.

Then Hugh himself receives a threatening note – from someone who seems to be able to kill with impunity, anywhere, any time.

As I have said before, and will no doubt say again, Paul Doherty is the maestro when it comes to Medieval Mysteries, and this is another one not to be missed.





THE TOLLS OF DEATH by Michael Jecks

4 05 2016

Cornwall, England, 1323

Tolls of DeathThis is one of the earliest – and best – of Michael Jecks’ Templar Knights series. One not to be missed if, like me, you are a lapper-up of Medieval Mysteries.

The Prologue to this story opens:

There were two happy men that day in Cardinham in the summer of 1323, and one who was fearful.

Serlo the miller had every right to be concerned. Although he feared ruin, he was about to be murdered, for reasons he could not begin to comprehend, and at the hands of one whom he would never have suspected.

I like that: He was about to be murdered. You find yourself waiting for it, you are drawn in at once and don’t have a long, long wait for anything to happen as in so many Michael Jecks books.

The two happy men that day in the summer of 1323 are of course Siman Puttock and Sir Baldwin Furnshill. They are happy because they have arrived back in England after their pilgrimage to Compostela in the north of Spain (read The Templar’s Penance) and now have only to make their way from Cornwall into Devon and be home, at last.

But while they are in Cardinham a woman named Athelina is found hanged and her two sons dead with her in their cottage. Suicide. An act of desperation. In despair, she killed her children then took her own life.

Baldwin, predictably, does not agree. And the who-cares attitude of the brainless young coroner only increases his determination to bring the killer of the poor woman and the two boys to book.

There are the usual array of memorable characters Jecks creates each time he writes a book just for that one book. For instance, here you have the miller, Serlo – the one who is to be murdered – and his protective elder bother, the bailiff, Alexander, who will be desperate to avenge him. You have Richard atte Brooke, who returns to the village after fifteen years’ absence, having left when his family all died in a fire. It seems that he hates Serlo, blames him, indirectly, for the death of his family. Will he be Serlo’s murderer? But how does he fit into the three deaths we already have? It turns out that he is in love with, has always been in love with, poor Athelina.

And then there is Anne, the exquisitely beautiful Lady Anne, a starving orphan who became a prostitute and finally won the heart of Nicholas, the castellan, commander of the local garrison. He knows nothing of what she did as a child in order to survive, only that he adores her and that she is now pregnant; but is the baby his?

All this, and much more, takes place against the historical background of Mortimer’s escape from the Tower. At this juncture no one knows whether he is still in England or has managed to get away to Ireland or France, but many sympathise with him and hate the grasping Despensers and despise the rather pathetic King Edward II whom the Despensers seem to lead by the nose. Will he flee to the south west and turn up in Cornwall? And what will they do if he does? One of the great things about this series is the way it arouses your interest in the history of the period. You close the novel and rush to the history book.

Read it, even if you have already read later ones in the series. The knowledge of what comes later won’t spoil it, and reading it will fill in gaps in the on-going background story.





THE ASSASSIN IN THE GREENWOOD & THE SONG OF A DARK ANGEL by Paul Doherty

3 04 2016

Two medieval mysteries featuring Hugh Corbett

England, 1302

In his cold, cramped cell in the monastery outside Worcester, Florence the chronicler lifted his milky, dim eyes and stared out at the darkness beyond his cell window. How should he describe these times? Should he recount all that he had heard? Was it true for instance that Satan himself, the prince of darkness, had reisen from the depths of hell with his horde of black-garbed legions to tempt and terrorise the human soul with visions from the pit? He had been told that an evil sea of demons, rumbling and boiling over the face of the earth, amused themselves disguised as snakes, fierce animals, monsters with crooked limbs, mangy beasts and crawling things. At midnight, so Florence had heard, the heavens rumbled with thunder and lightning flashed above a restless sea of heads, hands outstretched, eyes glassy with despair.

[…]

In the dark streets and alleyways of Paris, which ran together in a spider’s web on the far side of the Grand Pont, more practical men laid their schemes and drew up plans to discover Philip’s true intentions. Sir Hugh Corbett, Edward I of England’s most senior clerk in the chancery, master of the King’s secrets and Keeper of the Secret Seal, had flooded the French city with his agents: merchants osensibly looking for new markets; monks and friars supposedly visiting their mothr-houses;scholars hoping to dispute in the schools; pilgrims apparently on their way to worship the severed head of St Denis; even courtesans who hired chambers and entertained clients, the clerks and officials of Philip’s secret chancery.

Assassin in the GreenwoodTwo more of Paul Doherty’s Sir Hugh Corbett novels have recently come my way. Both are excellent – of course – this is Paul Doherty – but I especially enjoyed The Assassin in the Greenwood. I imagine this was because it features such familiar characters as Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlett, Maid Marian and, of course, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the evil Sir Guy of Gisborne. But – this being Paul Doherty – it is not as simple as Hugh Corbett meets Robin of Locksley and we all have fun in the greenwood. Far from it.

The book opens with the other plot. Philip the Fair of France is planning to invade Flanders, an important ally of England’s (the wool trade!) while Edward of England is engaged in his ongoing war with the ‘rebellious’ Scots. As England and France are officially at peace, Edward cannot interfere directly. What he can do, though, is learn exactly when and where the French army will cross the border, and inform the Flemings. Ranulf, Hugh’s right-hand man, is in Paris with a team of spies trying to find out just that.

Meanwhile, in Nottingham, Robin Hood, who had made his peace with the King and retired to his estate, suddenly takes to the woods again, where he, Little John and Maid Marian begin robbing and killing with a ruthlessness and ferocity they had never shown before, including seizing the King’s own taxes en route to London and killing all the soldiers who were guarding it. Then the Sheriff of Nottingham himself is poisoned during the night in his locked room.

Sir Hugh is sent to Nottingham and Ranulf joins him there with a document supposedly containing the information Edward is waiting for. But it is in code and they cannot break the code.

Then Hugh receives a message from London telling him that Philip has despatched an assassin to murder him. The assassin, who might be anybody, is already in Nottingham.

As always, the minor characters are a joy. Take Henry de Lacey, Earl of Lincoln, the King’s cousin. How would you picture him after reading about him in the history books? Ah, but after reading this book he will be there vividly in your mind for ever – and all from one brief appearance.

Song of a Dark AngelThe events recounted in The Song of a Dark Angel take place as winter sets in later in that same year, 1302. On a beach near Hunstanton in Norfolk, where the wind sweeps in off the North Sea all winter long (the Dark Angel of the title is the local name of this north-east wind), a headless corpse is discovered. The missing head has been impaled on a pole, and hanging on the gallows nearby is the body of the wife of the local baker.

But why has the King sent Sir Hugh and Ranulf to investigate what seem on the face of it two quite ordinary, if violent, deaths, one of which may have been a suicide?

Can it have anything to do with the fact that the King’s grandfather, Bad King John, lost all his treasure in the Wash when the treacherous tides swept in faster than anticipated? And that certain items from that lost treasure have recently surfaced in a London pawnbroker’s, and that the present King is strapped for cash?

Another great tale by the inimitable Paul Doherty, full of unexpected twists and turns and the usual unforgettable medieval characters.





THE BISHOP MUST DIE by Michael Jecks

24 03 2016

England, 1326

Bishop Must DieLady Isabella Fitzwilliam wept quietly as she prayed for her poor dead son Roger. She hoped that he was safe, but she could guess all too easily how harsh his life would have become.

Dust and ashes, that was her own life: everything she had loved and sought to defend was turned to dust and ashes. Her hopes and dreams, the children, the husbands – all would have been better had she never lived. To be born, to live with hope, to wed a good man only to see him die; to wed again, but to have him taken from her in turn, that was too cruel. How could God, the All-seeing, the All-powerful, punish her so cruelly?

The Father, her confessor, had told her that He would be eternally kind to her when she died; that her suffering in this world was to be an example to others, and that they would benefit marvellously from her bearing in this time of woe. She was a source of strength for all those who know her. A pious woman in adversity was a wonder to all, he said.

He was lucky to be alive.

I love that “He was lucky to be alive”!

The bishop in question is Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, Lord Treasurer of England. The downfall of King Edward II continues, and in the background are our two heroes, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill and his ex-friend, the ex-bailiff Simon Puttock. For yes, in the on-going soap-opera of the Knights Templar Mysteries, not only has Simon lost his job on the moors but also his best friend.

In this book, Stapledon takes pride of place, as he has been threatening to do since The Templar, the Queen and her Lover. For the good Bishop, in an attempt to placate the implacable, has been sucking up to (I am tempted to use a much more vulgar expression here!) the brutal and rapacious Sir Hugh le Despenser and the besotted monarch who allows him to run the country for his own personal profit. Not that Stapledon can pass on all the blame to Despenser. He is pretty rapacious himself in his endless quest for more and more money for the great cathedral he is building. And unlike Despenser, he has the gall to claim when he is responsible for widows and orphans being lkeft homeless that it is all done in God’s service.

Naturally, he has made and is still making an abundance of bitter enemies. In this book we follow the stories of not one but three men, each the victim of gross injustice at his hands and each plotting their separate revenge.

As always with these books, there are so many strands to the story that it is very difficult to get into, with Jecks hopping mercilessly from one subplot to the other, one minor character to the other. But I made an interesting discovery. I had finally given up on the book, having fallen asleep over it so many times, bored and confused. But then one evening, in an idle moment, I chanced to pick it up again and start reading from the beginning and – hey presto! – I read straight through it with the greatest of ease and the greatest of pleasure.

For the fact is that in order to be able to follow what is happening you need to know who all these people are and – yes, you need to know already what is happening!

Like all Michael Jecks’ novels, then, a long and fascinating tale set firmly in one of the most traumatic periods of English history. And if it doesn’t grip you first time round, I think it will the second time.





ABSOLUTION BY MURDER by Peter Tremayne

4 03 2016

A novel of Ancient Ireland featuring Sister Fidelma

Whitby, England, AD 664

Absolution by M coverAll good novels describe and recount what actually happened in some alternative universe. It is not, by definition, this universe. If it was, it would not be a novel. In a Historical Note at the beginning of Suffer the Little Children (the third in this series), Peter Tremayne writes “Fidelma was born at Cashel, capital of the Kingdom of Muman (Munster) in southwest Ireland, in AD 636. She was the youngest daughter of Failbe Fland, the king, who died the year after her birth … etc.” Not in this universe. And (just one example of many, many): “The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at that time or since.” Not in this universe.

Tremayne has created a wonderful – and I do mean wonderful – alternative universe and a wonderful character – person – in Sister Fidelma. Let’s forget all this nonsense about whether or not it is historically true (of this universe!) and, as Tremayne himself puts it, “enter Fidelma’s world” and enjoy it. For it is one of the best and most appealing alternatives to our own medieval history I have ever come across. A world in which I would love to have lived. A woman I would love to have known.

All that said, let’s get down to what actually happens in Absolution by Murder, the very first “Celtic Mystery” featuring Fidelma of Cashel.

The setting of this book (and indeed of the second book in the series, Shroud for the Archbishop) is not in Ireland at all. This one is set in Northumbria, an Anglian Kingdom in the north of what is now England, during the course of the Synod of Whitby, the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) Church Council that took place in AD 664 under the auspices of King Oswy and his cousin Hilda, Abbess of the great monastery which hosted the representatives who came from far and wide to attend the debates that would decide the future of the Church in Britain.

The Angles and Saxons had arrived in Britain as pagans, worshipping the ancient gods of the north, and were still in the process of being converted to Christianity. It was largely a matter of converting the kings and queens; the rest of the population of the various little kingdoms followed suit and did what they were told (or at least pretended to). Now the problem was that missionaries were coming into the various English kingdoms from the Celtic Church of Ireland and Scotland (though not from Wales, the people there still felt too much hostility towards the invaders), and from the Roman Church across the Channel in France and in Italy. And those two sets of missionaries representing two separate branches of Christianity held quite different beliefs on a number of points, some trivial, others more important.

One was the date of Easter, which the Celtic Church calculated by the same method as the Eastern Orthodox Church: half the population ended the fast for Lent and celebrated the Feast of Easter one, two, or even sometimes four weeks before the other half. Another was the celibacy of the clergy: Celtic priests were permitted to marry, and Celtic monks and nuns to co-habit. Another was the role of the bishop. The Celtic Church was ruled by its great abbots and abbesses, the Roman Church by its bishops. Another was the form of the tonsure. And so on.

At this council, King Oswy of Nirthumbria, effective High King of England, and his councillors, would decide for cthe country as a whole: the Celtic way, or the Roman way.

Needless to say, top people of both persuasions were there, feelings were running high, and as always when there are religious disputes, unscrupulous politicians take advantage of it in their jostling for power. In this case, civil war could easily erupt, and Oswy’s brutal son Ahlfrithis ready to use the Roman cause in a bid to oust his father from power should the Celtic Church win.

Then Abbess Etain, chief speaker for the Celtic Church, is murdered. Naturally, everyone assumes she has been killed by someone in the Roman contingent in order to silence her. King Oswy asks Fidelma, an Irish princess and religious, and a highly qualified lawyer, to investigate, along with the Saxon Brother Eadulf to ensure fair play.

Next, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Deusdedit, leading the Roman delegation, is found dead. It seems he died of the “Yellow Plague”, but will anyone believe this?

If you, like me, have already read later Fidelma books, and know that she and Eadulf subsequently marry, this does not spoil at all the pleasure of watching their interplay here at their first meeting. In fact the knowledge adds a certain piquancy to everything they say and do together.

If you are already a fan of the later Fidelma books but have not read this one, do go back and start again. If not – start here: you will want to read them all.