THE GLEEMAIDEN by Sylvian Hamilton

23 07 2018

The Third of the Sir Richard Straccan books

England, 1211

Père Raimond … She missed him as she would a limb. For nine years he had been her teacher and her father both, and she could barely remember the time before that. Her life had begun on the day he bought her.
Raimond de Sorules paid one Paris lire for the starveling urchin. He’d heard her singing in the market place, seen her scrabbling in the kennel for the rotten fruit thrown at her by those who thought it funny, and he followed her home. The mother was only too willing to be rid of her.
He scrubbed her in the horse trough at his inn. When he’d got the dirt off, most of it, washed her matted hair and de-loused her, he stood the small trembling body on a barrel and walked around it with a critrical eye, frowning at the raw weals on her knobby back and the bruises and bug-bites on her shins, ribs and arms.
The stable man sold him a pot of smelly salve. It stung, and tears rolled down her face, although she made no sound. He put one of his own shirts on her, far too big, but it would do for the time being. A length of twine served to girdle it so she wouldn’t trip on the hem, and the inn-keeper’s wife, sorry for the big-eyed waif, plaited her hair in one long, thick braid and tied it with a twist of wool.
That night she ate her fill for the first time in all her seven years.
He made a nest of pillows for her in his bed. Seeing the stark terror in her eyes, he set the great hard bolster firmly between them, but she didn’t sleep. Nor did he, and all that night, in the darkness, he could feel her desperate stare.

Sylvian Hamilton is a wonder with opening lines. This new book begins:

Countess Judith kept her husband’s head in a box. At night it perched on a pillow by her side, at meals it sat on the board by her plate …

Of course the head goes missing and later comes quite by chance into the possession of Sir Richard Straccan, hero of The Bone-Pedlar and The Pendragon Banner, dealer in sacred relics during the period known as the Interdict, when the whole of England was placed under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.

Inside the splendid, cross-shaped church [Waltham Abbey] the miraculous Black Rood hung over the west door, veiled now, of course, because of the Interdict. None in all England might gaze on the crucified Christ while its king persisted in his wicked flouting of the Pope.

Not that the head of Lord Joceran, Countess Judith’s husband, was a sacred relic – far from it.

In The Gleemaiden, Straccan sets out to escort an enormous bell from London (where no bells may ring because of the interdict) to the Abbey at Coldinghame, in Scotland (where they are in need of a bell and no interdict exists), but finds himself also excorting the beautiful Roslyn de Sorules, the gleemaiden of the title and her charge, a seven-year-old boy named David; Roslyn and David are refugees from the iniquitous Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France and are even now, in England, being pursued by three knights of the horrifying White Brotherhood, a company of fanatical heretic-hunters used by the Church to track down and eliminate “extreme cases”.

In the background are Gilla, Braccan’s daughter, and Janiva, the healer and wise woman with whom Straccan fell in love during his previous adventure (as readers of the first book will remember), and the spy, Larktwist also makes a welcome reappearance and plays a large role in ths book.

Larktwist sniffed. ‘What about money?’
Mercredi pushed a purse across the table, and Larktwist secreted it somewhere among his tatters, scratching as he felt the migration of a tribe of lice from armpit to groin.
Mercredi frowned. ‘Locksey’s a small place; you can’t pass as a beggar there, and they’ll drive lepers out, so get yourself cleaned up. Look respectable – if you can.’
‘Course I can,’ said Larktwist, affronted. He knew how to mix with nobs, if the need arose. He hitched his rags about himself with dignity and turned to leave. ‘Trust me.’
‘A touch of refinement wouldn’t go amiss.’
‘You want refinement? Easy! I’ll be as refined as a nun.’
As he reached the door, Mercredi said, ‘And Larktwist …’
‘Yes?’
‘Stick to him.’
‘Oh, I will, sir. Like shit to a blanket.’

Another great read, with many memorable scenes, such as the description of one small part of the slaughter that took place during the Albigensian Crusade, and a host of memorable medieval characters.

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THE PENDRAGON BANNER by Sylvian Hamilton

22 07 2018

The second of the Richard Straccan books

England, 1210

‘Father?’
He sat up in bed. ‘Gilla?’
She had brought a candle; it lit her face and bright hair, edging them with gold as she stood at his bedchamber door.
‘What is it? Are you sick?’
‘No. Can I come in?’
‘Come here.’
She set the candle on the aumbrey and scrambled up onto his bed, tucking her bare feet under her. He reached to grasp one small slender foot and found it cold as stone.
‘Where are your shoes?’ he asked, wrapping the coverlid round her.
‘I forgot them. Father, I think I can find Janiva.’
‘What? How?’
‘I can scry for her.’
He drew in a long, long breath and let it slowly out. She could do that; it was an ability she shared with Janiva. Last year, when Gilla was kidnapped, the witch Julitta de Beauris had sensed that power in her and forced her to use it against her will. Later, Janiva had taught her how to manage the gift, if gift it was.
Uneasily Straccan said, ‘I don’t know, sweetheart.’
‘I can do it.’
‘Now?’
‘Yes. It’s easier when everything’s quiet.’
He reached for his bedgown and wrapped himself in it. ‘You need a bowl of water.’
‘No, it works better for me with the candle. I just look at the flame.’
She sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, and he watched her as she watched the flame. ‘Janiva,’ she whispered, ‘Janiva, where are you?’

Sir Richard Straccan, hero of The Bone-Pedlar, continues his adventures as a dealer in sacred relics during the period known as the Interdict, when (King John 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.

This time, the King sets Straccan to find a banner woven by Queen Guinevere and carried into battle by King Arthur, a banner reputed to contain, sewn up inside it, the napkin used to wipe blood from the face of Christ during the agony in the garden of Gethsemane. His antagonist is the brutal Lord William of Breos, who wants the banner (said to guarantee victory in battle) for his own sinister purposes.

Meanwhile, Janiva, the healer and wise woman with whom Straccan fell in love during his previous adventure (as readers of the first book will remember) is accused of committing murder by means of witchcraft:

‘In malice, she also sought to kill you, my lady, and your child …’
From the bosom of his tunic he drew something wrapped in a rag and threw it down on the board. ‘There’s proof.’
Richildis reached and picked it up. The rag fell away. Something dark, dry and shrivelled, something that seemed to have arms and legs and perhaps a head, like a small mummified monkey, rolled onto the board.

And Julitta, the wicked witch, sometime mistress of King John himself and now mistress of William de Breos, is up to all her old tricks again – including child-sacrifice.

This book is as wonderfully readable and as crammed with eccentric characters and vivid medieval detail as the first one was (a wise woman/healer arrested and accused of witchcraft; lepers, including one who was once a bishop; two quite different kinds of hermit; and a man who has lost his memory and is accused of murder – the corpse is brought into the court to testify). My only complaint is that the Prologue, in which we are present at the death of Guinevere hundreds of years earlier, is so well-written that we want (or at least, I wanted) that story to go on. The Prologue read more like an introduction to the life of Guinevere. After that, it was an anti-climax to find myself back in the fourteenth century with Sir Richard: the fourteenth century had suddenly become reality, the sixth the exotic escapist dream.





THE BONE-PEDLAR by Sylvian Hamilton

22 07 2018

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.)

England, 1209

‘[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.’
‘What?’
‘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.





GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by Michael Chabon

8 07 2018

Two “gentlemen of the road”, vagrant warrior/mercenaries with their trusty swords and horses – almost knights errant, almost Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, but equals in most ways, and both essentially con-men. They have to be in order to survive.

One – Amram – is a gigantic African who, it transpires, set out years ago in quest of his daughter, taken by raiders. He never found her, and is no longer really looking. But he cannot go home without her.

The other, Zelikman, is a Jew – a Jew with a sword.The author seems to find this paradoxical, I am not sure why.

Perhaps it is the self-image of the New York Jew – the wise-cracking cowardly comedian at one extreme, the awe-inspiring pacifism of The Last of the Just at the other. But in fact, since Abraham fought Chedorlaomer and his allies more than three millennia ago, and Joshua and David among many other generals and kings conquered the land of Canaan and much of the surrounding area, and centuries later they fought back against the all-conquering Assyrians and Babylonians and were deported from their land to Babylon (where, finally, they sat down and wept), and centuries later again Jewish freedom-fighters like Judas Maccabeus and Simon bar-Kochba caused the Seleucid and Roman Empires so much trouble that the whole might of the empire had to be sent against them not once but repeatedly and finally the city of Jerusalem razed to the ground and the inhabitants of Israel and Judah – again! – deported en masse, and this time dispersed to the four corners of the earth.

This is not a passive people.

Then, for many, many years, they had no homeland, they were no longer a “nation” as such, but a religion, a culture, an ethnic minority (“race”) that kept themselves separate here, there and everywhere.

Our second hero, Zelikman, then, comes of one such community in France. Everywhere he travels he is thought of as and referred to as a Frank;  but back home in France, to the Franks he is a foreigner. He is also a physician, the last in a long line of physicians, and the first, it seems, who has not stayed at home and practised as one.

Then they rescue and, having rescued, take on the burden of helping, a fugitive prince, the rest of whose family have all been murdered in a bloody coup d’état. How could Zelikman say “No” when he learnt that this was the heir to the Jewish Kingdom – yes, Jewish Kingdom! – of the Khazars. All right, Amram is at first reluctant to get involved in “politics”, but for some strange reason he finds himself growing very fond of the efeminate and infuriating young prince.

Something very different, then, from the usual medieval whodunit or romance, and very strongly recommended.





THE FOREST OF SOULS by Carla Banks

30 06 2018

Helen Kovacs and Faith Lange are old school and university friends who, after graduating from Oxford, went their separate ways. Helen, despite her First, married and settled into life as a mother and housewife, while Faith pursued the academic career that has led to her being appointed Senior Research Assistant at the Centre for European Studies at the University of Manchester.

Briefly, their lives come together again when Helen tires of being a housewife, completes her PhD, and is accepted at Manchester for post-doctoral research. And leaves her husband.

Then Helen is murdered.

From the beginning, Faith  is sure that this was not some random, possibly sex-related, killing, and she gradually becomes obsessed with the notion that the killer was in fact Helen’s jealous and violent husband, Daniel.

Jake Denbigh, however, while agreeing that it was not some random killing, has a different theory. He believes Helen was murdered because someone did not want her to pursue her research into the atrocities committed in and outside the city of Minsk during WW2. Denbigh,  a writer and journalist who has himself been carrying out research in the same field,  is very interested in Faith’s own grandfather, who arrived in the UK as a refugee in 1943 and whose home, though he has always been very secretive about it, was in Minsk.

An exciting read and a mind-numbing reconstruction of the war years in Poland and Belarus. Eastern Poland and Belarus were occupied first by the Russians (when Hitler and Stalin divided Poland between them), then by the Germans after Hitler (greedy for more of Eastern Europe and after having lost the Battle of Britain and the Battle of El Alamein) declared war on Russia. The Nazis were seen by many at that time, in Belarus anyway, as liberators. But not for long, once the atrocities began.

It is those atrocities – the massacre and the mass graves under the trees in the Kurapaty Forest; and the Maly Trostenets death camp – and the further atrocities committed by the Communists when the Nazis were pushed back out of Minsk and the rest of Belarus and the Russians rolled back in, that forms the heart of this unforgettable book. 





Trading Places

31 05 2018

No time for reviews at the moment, but I couldn’t resist this question when I happened upon it.

And the answer is … Now, this evening, Jayne Lyons, in The Medievalist. She time-travels back to the 15th century and meets and falls in love with Richard III. I have just finished re-reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, the best investigation into the murder of the Princes in the Tower ever written and will review it here asap. Suffice it to say that I would give anything (almost) to be in Jayne Lyons’ place right now!





TO THE TOWER BORN by Robin Maxwell

6 05 2018

England, 1483

Bessie’s mother was bristling with indignation, but there was, underneath it, all-encompassing fear. News of Lord Hastings’s horrific execution for plotting the protector’s downfall had unnerved her. Clearly Richard of Gloucester was capable of anything. And now he had come to Westminster Sanctuary demanding an audience.

‘What can I do but see him?’ she said to Bessie as she checked her image in the looking glass. ‘If I do not, he will break the sanctuary of the church, breach the walls, and come in by force.’

But Bessie had heard the other side of her mother’s logic. Afraid of the Duke of Gloucester as she was, she trusted him in one important respect. She believed that Richard would do anything to place his brother’s son on the English throne. And was that not what she herself wanted above all?

Bessie had begged her mother to allow her to be present at the audience, and appraising her eldest daughter quickly and finding the eighteen-year-old as much of an ally as she was likely to find, the queen had agreed.

‘Let him come in,’ announced the queen dowager.

And in he came.

I first read this book several years ago and have just re-read it, and have been wondering all over again how it is that Richard III gets so much attention and so many books written about him considering that he was king for less than two years.

Shakespeare depicted him as an evil hunchback who murdered his way to the throne, another MacBeth, but worse; and this is the image most people have of him. However, more recently many books have appeared, both fiction and non-fiction, defending Richard, and it is obviously true that Richard was the victim of Tudor propaganda to the effect that he usurped the throne, done in order to draw attention away from Henry Tudor’s usurpation.

Still, it must have been obvious to most people at the time that while Henry Tudor had seized by force of arms a throne to which he had no claim whatsoever, Richard may not have been a usurper at all if his nephews, the two young princes, were genuinely illegitimate (and it seems that they were) and the crown was thrust upon him by the Church and what passed for a government. Richard had had no intention of seizing the throne: he it was who proclaimed Edward King as Edward V and arranged for his coronation.

Then the princes disappeared.

And nothing has been heard of them since (unless you believe the claims of poor Perkin Warbeck). The much-vaunted bones discovered in the Tower were just some among many, and even Sir Thomas More, who pointed the way to the site of the boys’ captivity, said the boys had been taken from the Tower before their death.

A mystery indeed.

Robin Maxwell presents a new solution – which I cannot of course give away. Enough to say that her Richard is neither the tragic hero of Daughter of Time, We Speak No Treason, The Midnight King, The Medievalist, etc, nor the villain of Shakespeare and conservative historians. He is weak and vacillating, a tool in the hands of treacherous men like Buckingham and Margaret Beaufort’s husband Lord Stanley. I like this. To me it rings true.

I also like very much the depiction of the friendship between Princess Bessie (Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest child, who at the age of eighteen was possibly the most eligible princess in the world, then suddenly finds herself declared illegitimate, a nobody) and Nell Caxton, independent and highly educated only child of  the man who introduced the printing-press to Britain and printed the first books in English. The story is told through the eyes of those two wonderful girls, Bessie and Nell, and it will be very hard ever to see that episode again through any other eyes.