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?)





CONFESSIONS OF A PAGAN NUN by Kate Horsley

9 02 2017

Ireland, c500 AD

pagan-nunGiannon’s home was a configuration of branches, stones, and mud. A dome and a shed of these materials leaned against one another like old drunken warriors at a banquet. All around these structures was a variety of grasses, blossoms, and bushes that I had never seen before. Drying herbs, jars on tethers, and staffs of yew and oak hung on the sides of his dwelling so that it reminded me of Giannon himself when he travelled beneath a tangle of druidic accessories. The clearing with its gardens and dwelling was empty of human life, though a ragged gray wolf scampered into the woods from there. Some might say that the wolf was Giannon transformed, but I only had the sense that the wolf was hungry and weak, for the past winter had been fiercely cold.

I entered the dwelling and found the inside also strung with dried plants, jars, and staffs. There were shelves on which a chaos of boxes and jars sat along with feathers and scrolls and dust. The only furnishings were a table, a small bench, and a bed made of straw covered with the skins of bear and fox. More scrolls, codices, and tablets sat upon these furnishings, as though the originals had multiplied in some orgy when their master was away.

I walked carefully through this strange chamber, afraid that all of Giannon’s belongings and the dwelling itself were capable of collapsing into a dusty pile of rubble. And I believed that a druid’s dwelling could likely be set with spells from which I would emerge transformed into a beetle or a bee. I waited for Giannon outside, until the world grew dim and I could see wolves running along the tree line beyond the small clearing in which Giannon’s home nested. Finally I saw Giannon approach …

This book has as its setting the period when the Church moved in and took over Ireland. It is the story of Gwynneve, who trains as a Ban-druí (druidess) under a surly and disillusioned druid watching his order pass into history as the tonsured monks and priests swarm over the land.

But two stories run concurrently, in alternate chapters. Gwynneve’s story of her childhood with her wonderful mother –

My father accused my mother of starving me by filling me up with stories instead of food. Everyone in my túath was hungry, especially during the months of thick frost. But I did not want food as much as I craved her stories, which soothed me. I listened to my mother weave words together and create worlds, as though she were a goddess. Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me. She began every story with the phrase “It was given to me that …”

– and then, when her mother died, her story of her life with Giannon the druid. Meanwhile, in the other chapters, we learn about the life she leads now as a nun among other Christian nuns who are drifting helplessly under the authority of a monk, Brother Adrianus, one of a small band who joined the nuns at the shrine of St Brigit and who has assumed the title and dignity of Abbot.

It is, let me say at once, depressing in parts. How could it not be? But as Gwynneve the nun, in the convent that is becoming daily more like a prison (and longing for her druid lover) writes her story on her treasured parchments, it is also very moving and uplifting.

Take some of Gwynneve’s views and comments (recorded in the secret diary). Faced with unbelievable ignorance and stupidity, she writes: “I admonish myself and all who read this not to be ignorant on any matters of which knowledge is available. Do not be afraid of the truth …

And later: “For we both both were weak in doctrine and strong in questions. But we both loved effort and knowledge, though I saw Giannon become weary in his eyes. I do not understand a man who does not want to know all that he can know.”

On the loneliness of incarnation: “Among all the wisdom and facts I learned from Giannon, I also learned the loneliness of incarnation, in which there is inevitably a separation of souls because of the uniqueness of our faces and our experiences.”

On God and nature: “I cannot see that any religion is true that does not recognize its gods in the green wave of trees on a mountainside or the echo of a bird’s song that makes ripple on a shadowed pool […] This land is full of holiness that I cannot describe.  Brigit knows this. Brigit to me is the wisest of all the saints. She knows the value of ale and the comfort of poetry.”

On Christ and kindness: “That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness.”

It is indeed. And the end is truly shocking. Not depressing, no, on second thoughts. Tragic.





FOR THE LOVE OF PHILAE by Christian Jacq

3 02 2017

Elephantine, Egypt, the 530s AD

love-of-philaeThere are differences of opinion regarding this book. A friend of mine found it slow and often boring and commented that the author had managed to waste a great idea. I had not then read the book; I had, however, been reading Confessions of a Pagan Nun, which I found superb (I must post a review of that here, too) and it occurred to me that the two books had a great deal in common. Both were set in the 6th Century and both depicted the Church Militant stamping out the still-glowing embers of the indigenous religion, in one case the Catholicism of Rome crushing the last practitioners of Celtic druidism, in the other the Orthodoxy of Byzantium persecuting the few remaining adepts of the ancient Isis-cult.

It is true that it is slow. Christian Jacq is a slow writer. In the Ramses series, it takes him five books to tell a story that any other writer would have told in one. But he has his good side.

For a start, he is an expert on ancient Egypt.

So I read For the Love of Philae.

One problem is the translation, which is often wordy and clumsy, and occasionally absurd. “I know how to oar” says the general, leaping into the boat. The priestess “dialogued with the spirit that …” The bishop was “wearing his long red dress”. “You had the impudence of reading” a private document, the Prefect protests. “Half the adepts remained prostrated, sitting on their heels,” we are told, and “The community chanted a slow introverted psalm” and, of the High Priestess, that “a green hue enhanced the curb of her eyebrows”. Sometimes, as in “You will have face a tempest” (stet), the problem may be a typo, but it is all very careless and off-putting. The editor is quite as much to blame here as the translator.

That said, and apart from that, I found the book fascinating. I never once wanted to lay it aside; quite the contrary. I realised immediately that I knew little or nothing about sixth-century Egypt (or, thinking about it, sixth-century Greece); now I do, and I learnt in (as Heinlein once said) “the nicest possible way”. I have an image in my mind of one small part of Egypt in 534-5 AD, and of one small group of people who lived there.

temple-of-philae-elephantine

 

The place is Elephantine, an island in the Nile, far to the south, close to the first cataract:a historic island, once the home of the only Jewish temple outside Jerusalem and the heart of a heretical form of diaspora-Judaism; and also the heart and home of Isis worship, where the mystery of Isis and Osiris (the dying-rising god) was celebrated. (The picture shows the Temple of Philae as it is now.)

The people are the High Priestess, Isis, direct descendant of Cleopatra and the pharaohs (and so beautiful that she is held by all and sundry to be the incarnation of the goddess Isis herself), her lover, the new young High Priest, Sabni, and other adepts of the Isis cult that still – no, not flourishes, but at least survives intact, a pure flame still burning, on this island.

Opposed to them are Theodore, the Christian bishop, childhood friend of Sabni; and Maximin, the prefect of the province, appointed by the Emperor in Constantinople (these were the early years of Justinian and Theodora).

Bishop Theodore protects the Isis temple and cult for Sabni’s sake, pretending that it does not exist. Sabni’s side of the bargain is that they should keep a very low profile.

Then the Prefect falls in love with Isis. And the auguries are that for the second year in succession the Nile will not flood adequately and there will be famine in the province; the bishop’s prayers are failing to move the ancient gods that, the people believe, still control the great river: only Isis, the people believe, can help them now. And the Prefect, Maximin, agrees with them.

A poor translation but a good story, memorable characters that you can’t help loving – or hating – and a really great setting.





CORPSE CANDLE by Paul Docherty

31 01 2017

England, early 14th century

corpse-candle-cover‘It was murder, wasn’t it?’ Ranulf asked sitting down on a stool.

‘Murder, and a cunning one,’ Corbett agreed. ‘But proving it and discovering the assassin will be difficult. We are going to have to poke with a long, sharp stick. In many ways Abbot Stephen was a strange man. Oh, he was holy enough and learned but self-contained and mysterious; a knight-banneret who decided to become a priest. A soldier who decided to hunt demons.’

‘Demons!’ Ranulf exclaimed.

Corbett smiled thinly. ‘Yes, Ranulf, our late Abbot was an officially appointed exorcist. Abbot Stephen would be called to assist with people who claimed to be possessed, and houses that were reputedly haunted.’

‘Sprites and goblins!’ Ranulf scoffed. ‘A legion of devils wander Whitefriars and Southwark, but they are all flesh and blood. The wickedness they perpetrate would shame any self-respecting demon. You don’t believe in that nonsense, do you?’

Corbett pursed his lips. Ranulf stared in disbelief. Chanson, delighted, stood rooted to the spot. He loved nothing better, as he’d often whispered to Ranulf, than sombre tales about witches, warlocks and sorcerers.

‘Surely, Sir Hugh, it’s arrant nonsense!’

‘Yes and no,’ Corbett replied slowly.

Another murder in a monastery – this time within a sealed chamber in the Fenland Abbey of St Martin’s-in-the-Marsh.

The Abbot, a friend of the King’s (he used to be a warrior and once saved the King’s life), has been stabbed in his own chamber with his own dagger, yet there seems to be no way anyone could have obtained access to him.

The monks are about to organise a cover-up, insisting that some outsider, some outlaw, must have broken in and killed the Abbot, but the King (Edward I) is having none of it. He promptly sends Sir Hugh with his henchman Ranulf to make enquiries.

They soon discover that the aristocratic widow who owns all the adjoining lands was on very bad terms with Abbot Stephen, refusing to communicate with him directly and arguing fiercely – through the Prior – about a disputed boundary. But is there more to it than this? It turns out that they knew each other – well – when they were young.

Meanwhile, inside the monastery, two more suspects lurk: Taverner, a “cunning man” (a confidence trickster, living on his wits) who claimed to be possessed and whom the Abbot had been planning to exorcise; and an arch-deacon from London, an “old friend” of the Abbot’s, who had ostensibly come to witness the exorcism.

Then another monk is murdered …

I like Hugh Corbett. And I especially like Ranulf, his side-kick, the “Clerk of the Green Wax” – listen to his prayer as he rides into mortal danger: “Oh Lord, look after Ranulf-atte-Newgate, as Ranulf-atte-Newgate would look after you, if he was God and you were Ranulf-atte-Newgate.

There is, it must be said, some careless editing, which is very unusual in Headline books (and especially in Paul Docherty’s books!).  For example, on p20, Ranulf asks, ‘Did you ever meet Abbot Stephen?’ ‘On a few occasions,’ Corbett replies; on p129, we are informed that “he [Corbett] had never met Abbot Stephen”.

But these are details.

What matters to me, always, is that the story grips. It is not a book to read in bed before you sleep. As with all Paul Docherty’s medieval novels, you won’t. You won’t even yawn. In fact, three hours later you’ll be getting up, book in hand to make a cup of tea.





OTHER GODS by Barbara Reichmuth Geisler

27 01 2017

Shaftesbury, England, 1141

other-gods-coverIt didn’t seem so terribly evil, what she was doing. The bones were, after all, only bones. She remembered how Galiena had explained it to her in that maddening, superior sort of way, as if she didn’t know anything at all. ‘My dear,’ Galiena had said, making it sound as if she was saying “you slut”, ‘he is dead. Died long ago. So this will be no harm to him. He is with God. Isn’t that what you believe?’ And the long, ovate, down-slanted eyes had glinted, reminding her of a snake. ‘And if he is with God, he can have no need for his bones.’ […]

The words echoing hollowly across her memory, she tiptoed to the shrine and, with surprising audacity, reached out and touched the box. There was no resistance. She put her hand to the latch and, with no more than a slight clicking, released it and lifted the lid. This was ridiculously easy. She peered into the gilded depths and saw the bones there, neatly arranged, not as if he had died, not as if he was in a coffin, but fumbled all together to fit. ‘Surely it is not customary to open the reliquary to see if he is in there. No one,’ – that had been Galiena’s final, convincing argument – ‘No one will look for the bones. Why would they? And therefore they will not know that they are missing.’

Another highly observant and rational nun solving mysteries in and around a medieval abbey. Surely we have enough of these series now? But Other Gods is well written, and it is different from most. For a start it is closer to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels, and intended to be so – the same date, with England suffering under the warring Matilda and Stephen, and also the place, Shaftesbury, so similar to Shrewsbury, home of Brother Cadfael – but also closer in attitude and atmosphere: Dame Averilla, the infirmaress and herbalist, faces the same kind of internal problems that Cadfael always faces, for instance a formal and uncharitable sub-prioress, and a distant, aristocratic, abbess who seems totally out of touch.

Then a valuable book disappears – and so does one of the nuns, Dame Agnes, who is believed by many of the nuns to be possessed and whom Dame Joan, the sub-prioress, insists should be exorcised, although Dame Averilla believes her to be simply ill. But when this ill, or possessed, nun disappears into the Forest, who is to find her, who is to bring he back? Under Dame Joan’s influence, the Abbess forbids Averilla to go in search of her. And Averilla of course is under a vow of obedience.

In fact Dame Agnes is found by Galiena, the local wise woman (witch, many believe) and her followers.

This Galiena, born into an aristocratic family but now come down in the world, is a fascinating character. When she was ten, her elder brother returned from the Crusades and introduced her to the art of healing as practised by the foreign healers in the Holy Land. Spurred on by this, she learnt all she could from the local wise woman. Then at the age of thirteen, and already stunningly beautiful, she was married off to a fat pig of a man older than her father, who soon took to beating her unmercifully. A few years later, “he died in dreadful agony”, poisoned by her, and she was free to go her own way and practise her arts as a wise woman herself.

Unfortunately, and perhaps because she had already used those arts to bring about more than one death, the path she chooses to follow is the path of evil.

Now only Dame Averilla can stop Galiena and save Dame Agnes, but that is being made as dificult as possible for her by her superiors in the nunnery. Why?

A first novel in what seems to have set out to be a series that would appeal to Ellis Peters fans, Other Gods is set in exactly that same time-frame and we imagine Brother Cadfael busy in in the infirmary at his monastery in Shrewsbury; we even begin to wonder whether he and Dame Averilla ever met!

There is a Book 2 (Graven Images) and a prequel (In Vain) but they were published ten years or more ago – my copy of Other Gods is a second-hand paperback I picked up by chance – and though I should like to read more I don’t think I will: the Kindle editions cost far more than I’m usually prepared to pay even for a new paperback. Another unlucky author with a couldn’t-care-less publisher.





THE PLYMOUTH CLOAK by Kate Sedley

18 01 2017

A Roger the Chapman Mystery; England, 1473

Roger reminisces about Richard III (in the time of Henry Tudor!)

The Bishop’s Palace at Exeter stands in the lee of the Cathedral, a red sandstone building, in sharp contrast to the pale Beer stone of the church. As I entered behind Timothy Plummer, there was no sign of Bishop John Bothe, but there was a hum of activity involving both his and the Duke’s officials, whose general deportment and disdainful expressions – particularly when they deigned to glance at me – indicated the measure of their self-importance. This was totally at variance with the Duke’s own courteous manners and pleasant welcoming smile […]

I had forgotten how small and delicate-looking he was, the dark curtain of hair swinging almost to his shoulders. His mouth was thin and mobile, and a deep cleft ran between the upper lip and the wide nostrils of the straight Plantagenet nose. There were shadows round the eyes, as though he slept badly, and the chin was just a little too long and full for the true handsomeness of his big, blond, elder brothers. Yet in his lifetime, I have often heard of him spoken of as the most attractive of the three, and I know women found him very good-looking. (To say as much today is akin to treason, but I shall tell the truth and hang the consequences.)

plymouth-cloakAnother – early – Roger the Chapman mystery (making a total of four now reviewed on this site: the others are The Wicked Winter, The Burgundian’s Tale, and The Prodigal Son).

It is September, 1473, and as Roger Chapman plies his trade along the south coast of England he finds the towns and villages “rife with rumours of an impending invasion. It seemed that the exiled Lancastrians were stirring, beginning to take heart once more after their defeat at Tewkesbury two years previously.One might have thought, with King Henry and his son both dead, that the focus of their disaffection had vanished; but they had transferred their loyalty to young Henry Tudor …

The problem is Duke Francis of Brittany. If he gives Henry his support, then England could be faced with a major invasion. King Edward has written a letter to Duke Francis and entrusted it to his brother Richard, later Richard III and murdered by that same usurper, Henry Tudor.

Richard has brought the letter to Exeter, where he is to meet the Royal Messenger of Edward’s choice, a certain Philip Underdown. There, hearing that Roger is in town, he asks him to accompany Underdown to Plymouth and watch his back and see him safely aboard the ship that will call for him in two days’ time. The Lancastrians are after Underdown in order to prevent the letter reaching Duke Francis. The Woodvilles are after him because they believe he knows something detrimental to the beautiful but unpopular Queen Elizabeth (Woodville). And he has deadly enemies of his own.

Reluctantly, Roger agrees – he has little choice – and they set out for Plymouth, where they hear that the ship has been delayed, so they take shelter in a manor house out in the country, not far from Plymouth. There, Underwood soon gets into trouble chasing the women, a young bride with a jealous husband, and a widowed housekeeper who takes a maternal interest in Roger but is still certainly very attractive.

After two attempts on his life, Underwood hands the letter over to Roger, saying it will be safer with him. But will he be safer with it?

Then Underwood is in fact murdered, and with Roger’s own cudgel – the “Plymouth cloak” of the title. Roger is left with the King’s vital letter to deliver, but is not allowed to leave as he is, naturally, one of the suspects.

An excellent story, and another vivid look at the period of the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. I like this series more and more with every volume I read. 





RELICS by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

16 01 2017

England, 1235 (then Iceland, Greenland, France, Italy and the Greek islands)

relics-cover

The Murder

There was a ghastly whistling sound, and then the deacon’s blood burst from his neck in a thick roiling jet that hit me full in the chest. I staggered back, burning liquid in my eyes, in my hair, my mouth, running down inside my habit. There was a full-bodied reek of salt and iron and I gagged, spinning away in my soaking robes, the hot gore seething against my skin as it trickled down my back, under my arms and into the hair between my legs. The dead man in Sir Hugh’s arms whistled once more, an empty squeak that ended in a forlorn burble. I could see, as if through a red gauze, Sir Hugh still holding the deacon under the chin so that the weight of the corpse dragged its slashed throat apart into a vast wound in which secret things were revealed, white, yellow, red, like the inlaid patterns in the altar steps. I thought I saw the flap between head and torso stretch like dough in a baker’s hands, then I was running down the nave half-blind, blood squelching between my toes at every step. Behind me I could hear Sir Hugh’s voice echoing in the cavernous shadows. He was laughing, a great, warm laugh full of ease and pleasure. ‘Stop,’ he called, happily. ‘Come back, Petroc! What a mess you’ve made! What on earth made you do such a thing?’

This novel could have been titled “The Sucker’s Tale”.

When the book opens, a villainous ex-Templar now employed as a bishop’s steward (which, here at least, means minder/enforcer) is looking for someone to be the patsy. He finds one in the innocent and naive young student priest, Brother Petroc.

Next thing we know, Petroc is on the run accused of committing a horrifying murder. Everywhere he turns he finds people either already involved in the scheme or swiftly drawn into it by his presence.

Yet Petroc proves, under pressure, to be less of a sucker tham the one-time Templar Sir Hugh de Kervezy had anticipated.

He escapes on board a ship, and Sir Hugh is obliged to pursue him across the cold, dark North Atlantic (the Sea of Darkness) then back and down to the Mediterranean and eventually to the Isles of Greece, where the final confrontation between them occurs.

It is not just a page-turner though, it is well set in its period and also often made me stop and think. Like when Petroc’s more streetwise friend and fellow-student observes that the bishop “is no priest, he’s a lord, and a rich one. Interests, brother. They need to be protected. By people like the steward.

Or speaking of Greenland: “A sad place, too near the world’s edge for people to settle comfortably. In times past it was safe and green, but this age of the world is turning cold, and they freeze, little by little, year by year. […] The chill is creeping over the land …” We are usually informed that the name “Greenland” was Lief Ericsson’s way of conning people into going there as settlers. But what if that were not so? That Greenland did use to be green … Climate change I believe in, of course. I’m just not so sure about global warming …

But back to the book. Yes, it’s a great read. The copy I have here in front of me has been on my bookshelf for years, but I notice second-hand copies are going cheap, and it is now also available on Kindle.