SHROUD OF DISHONOUR by Maureen Ash

17 11 2017

A Templar Knight Mystery

 

Lincoln, May, 1202

 

It was not the third but the fifth book in this series which came my way – I am working serendipitously here with second-hand paperbacks – and this one opens with an unusual and mysterious Prologue: two Knights Templar outside a brothel in the suburbs of Acre (in Outremer, the Holy Land), one reluctant to enter, the other determined to go in and do his business – which is not, as it happens, what you might expect.

 

It is a story that would be all too easy to spoil by inadvertently blurting out “spoilers”; suffice it to say that what happens there, then, is intimately connected with the death a few months later in Lincoln of two prostitutes, and an attack on a third who manages to defend herself with a sharp little knife she carries on her belt (wise girl). (Though no doubt in modern Britain she would be charged with assault and being in possession of a deadly weapon.)

 

Why prostitutes? wonders our hero, Sir Bascot de Marins. Because they are easy victims, peculiarly vulnerable and defenceless? Yet the killer seems to be targeting the Templars rather than prostitutes as a group: he makes each murder look as though it had been committed by a member of the Order.

 

Or is the killer in fact a member of the Order?

 

Bascot, who first came to Lincoln (with Gianni, a starving street-kid he had picked on his travels, tagging along) in order to recuperate after eight years as a captive – a slave – in the Middle East, has now rejoined the Order and is due to sail for Portugal, where the Templars are committed to aiding the Portuguese in their fight against the Moors. But of course he is roped in to assist in the investigation and driven by his hatred of cold-blooded murder of the innocent and defenceless he does so with his usual quiet modesty.

 

But will he go to Portugal when all this is sorted out? Will the next Templar Knight Mystery be set there, among the olives and the orange trees? Or will this be the last of these books? You have to read to the very end to find out – and to find out who has been going around killing working girls, and why.

 

I love this series, which is set in my second favourite period (the 12th and early 13th centuries), in this case during the reign of King John, son of Henry II (though the King himself does not appear in this story). 

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THE ALEHOUSE MURDERS by Maureen Ash

17 11 2017

The first of the Templar Knight Mysteries (I have already reviewed the second, here, and another – not the third but the fifth – follows immediately.)

Lincoln, AD 1200

No one had been told why the Templar was in Lincoln. Gerard Camville had said in passing that de Marins had been on crusade in the Holy Land with the now-dead King Richard back in ’91, and had been captured by the Saracens during a skirmish near Acre at the end of that year. After eight long years of captivity he had recently escaped. It was obvious that he had been tortured during his incarceration, for he wore a leather patch over the eye-socket of his missing right eye and walked with a pronounced limp. When, early one morning, he came into the hall to break his fast after attending Mass in the castle chapel, all eyes had turned his way but, although polite, he had said nothing of his past and seemed disinclined to talk about it. […]

As he began to recover his health, he had taken to practising his combative skills in the yard, first with a blunted sword against the wooden stake erected for the purpose, and finally with Ernulf in mock battle using both sword and shield. While he seemed to have regained his former weight, his prowess with a sword was hampered by the lameness of his leg and the blindness of one eye. For all that, he still made a formidable opponent for Ernulf, who needed all the tricks he had learned in his many years as a soldier to keep pace with the Templar

The scene is Lincoln Castle one year early in the reign of bad King John – though no one here seems particularly against him, or to remember his brother Richard the Lionheart with any affection. They do look back on the days of Richard and John’s father, Henry II, and his queen, Eleanor, as “the good old days”, but that is normal, as is one very bright old lady being scornful about Eleanor’s “Courts of Love”.

It is high summer. The Sheriff of Lincoln, Gerard Camville, is out hawking by the river with his wife, Lady Nicolaa de la Haye, and their attendants, when urgent news arrives: four people have been found dead in a local alehouse. It is Nicolaa who goes to sort out the problem. She is the chatelaine of the castle, her father’s heir, and tends to run things her way, with the compliance of her husband, who just wants to be left in peace to enjoy his knightly pursuits.

The man Nicolaa calls upon to investigate the murders, Sir Bascot de Marins, is one of the most interesting sleuths I have come across in years of reading such books. He is a Templar Knight on a kind of extended sick leave after spending eight years as a captive and slave in the Middle East and finally escaping to Cyprus. He is unsure whether he wishes to remain with the Order and his superiors show great (to me surprising) sympathy. D’Arderon, the officer in charge of the Lincoln Preceptory, has introduced him to Lady Nicolaa, and he has been given a room in the castle which he shares with a mute Sicilian street-kid he fed at some point on his travels and who has followed him like a dog ever since.

As you watch this man, wounded in body and soul, deal with these murders, with those around him, high and low, and with his own personal problems, I am sure that you, like me, will be thinking about getting hold of the second (and third!) books in the series while you are still only half-way through this one.

Unpretentious and excellent.





WHITER THAN THE LILY by Alys Clare

24 10 2017

Kent, England, 1193

A while back, I picked this book up in India and carried it with me through Burma without ever having the time or the seclusion to start reading. Or being in the right – medieval – mood. Then I unpacked my bag in Bangkok and read the first few pages before I fell asleep – it was mid-morning, but I was tired – then carried on reading it in the evening sitting outside a bar on RCA when I should have been watching the world go by (I had come so far to see it!) until finally I had to put the book down when I was joined by my date: a man who, it turned out, seriously believed that books and women do not belong together, that education is wasted on us, and that literacy should be the preserve of men. I argued a little then gave up: it was easier to leave him happy in his own sense of superiority. After all, we were only together for one thing. For real companionship he would turn to his equals – other men. Very medieval.

Which brings me back to the book.

Whiter that the Lily comes somewhere in the middle of the Abbess Helewise/Josse d’Aquin series of medieval mysteries (it was one I had somehow missed) and is set in the year 1193, when King Richard the Lionhearted, was being held prisoner at Trifels Castle in what is now southern Germany. A huge ransom in gold has been demanded which Richard’s mother, the ageing Eleanor of Aquitaine, is busy extorting from Richard’s impoverished subjects in England. Apart from some sympathy shown by Abbess Helewise for her poorer tenants, though, we see little of the hardship, only enthusiasm for raising the money and freeing the (French-born and French-speaking) King from his humiliating captivity. Probably because the main characters are all Norman aristocracy.

Sir Josse d’Aquin is introduced to an elderly nobleman who promptly informs him that his very young and very beautiful wife, Galiena, is barren, and that she is desperate for a child. ‘She is a herbalist herself, my Galiena [he tells Josse]. She has tried everything she can think of. Even what I believe are quite desperate remedies.‘ The anguished expression making him look even older, he went on, ‘I see her at night, you see. Oh, she thinks that she does not disturb me, that I sleep blissfully on when she creeps out of my bed. But I awake, sir, always I awake. I perceive her sudden absence, even if I am deeply asleep. And I go to the window, from which I can look down on the garden, and I watch as she enacts her rites. Only often she conceals herself, you understand, she slips away to where I can no longer see her. It is easily done.’ He sighed. Staring out over the garden, dropping to a whisper, he said, ‘Naked under the moonlight she is, her lovely body so pale and white. So beautiful. So beautiful.’

Josse is embarrassed by these revelations, and sceptical about Galiena’s supposed barrenness (the man is old enough to be Galiena’s grandfather!) but keeps his thoughts to himself and, when pressed to do so, agrees that a visit to the infirmerer at Hawkenlye Abbey can do no harm and might well help.

Then the murder is committed – two murders, in fact – and Josse finds himself up against a strange pagan community left over from Saxon times and living deep in the marshes. What is the connection between the blonde, blue-eyed Galiena and these people whom she so resembles physically? Josse remembers the pagan dance Galiena used to perform in the garden at home before she ever went to Hawkenlye …

This is the account of his first “meeting” with the Saxon shaman of this community, the inheritor of an ancient tradition still living in Norman (Roman Catholic) times. It is night and having been caught in a great storm, Josse is sleeping out in a coppice on the cliff above the marshes:

It was still totally dark. Never before had he experienced the sensation of literally not being able to see his hand in front of his eyes. He was just experimenting, wriggling the fingers of his right hand to see if he could make out the movement, when it happened.

There was no warning, not one single sound to put him on guard. There was just the one flash of bright light and , right there in front of him, a face staring intently into his, so close that he could look into the silver-grey eyes and feel the cool breath on his cheek.

Then darkness closed in again.

Sweat breaking out on his cold flesh and his heart in his throat, Josse fought for control. His body remembered its training even while his horror-struck mind was in shock and he was on his feet, sword in hand, lunging forward out of the shelter, before he knew it. Then his voice came back and he shouted in a great roar, ‘Who’s there? Show yourself!’

Nerve endings tingling as he subconsciously awaited the blow, he twisted from side to side, his sword making great deadly sweeps in a wide arc in front of him. ‘Shiow yourself!’he cried again. ‘I am armed and I will attack if you approach again without warning!’

But I cannot see him, he thought. How can I attack what I can’t see?

He waited, listening.

There was nothing.

Presently the rain began to fall again.

As always with this series, Whiter than the Lily is excellently written, and this time with a stunning dénoument. Also this time, we see the Abbess Helewise at her best, and Josse, though as courageous as ever, definitely a little slow on the uptake.





THE TOWER’S ALCHEMIST by Alesha Escobar

17 10 2017

I received a free copy of this book from the Author Marketing Club in return for an honest review.

“British intelligence wants her spying skills. A vampiric warlock wants to steal her powers. The Master Wizards who trained her want her dead…”

The Tower’s Alchemist, the first book of The Gray Tower Trilogy,  has an authentic WWII setting among spies and resistance fighters in Denmark, France, Spain and, of course, London.

The protagonist, Isabella (aka Emelie and Noelle) is an alchemist, one of the magicians working with the Allies against Hitler’s Black Wolves (a kind of supernatural Gestapo). I identified with her immediately, from the very first paragraph, and stayed with her all the way through – no changes of viewpoint, thank heaven (or rather, thank Alesha Escobar). There is, however, an array of well-drawn characters surrounding her, many of whom elicit our sympathy – indeed, our love – as they struggle on against a seemingly invincible foe.

A great read if you are a WWII buff (I am), especially if you also suspect that there is a lot more going on behind the scenes in this world than 99.9% of us are ever aware of.





VIKING 2: SWORN BROTHER and VIKING 3: KING’s MAN by Tim Severin

12 10 2017

London, Norway and Lapland, then Miklagard (Constantinople), Norway again, Denmark, Normandy and back to England, AD 1020-66

“The heroes of the north live on” and when the second book opens (it goes straight on from Viking: Odinn’s Child, and does not attempt to stand alone) Thorgils, now nineteen, is in London, being introduced to the pleasures of love by Aelfgifu, Knut’s beautiful Saxon queen. But this delightful situation cannot and does not last. All too soon, Thorgils finds himself back at the bottom of the heap and has to begin once more fighting his way to the top.

He spends time working (as the queen’s eyes) at a mint in London, but is forced to flee when he clashes with both the archbishop (over the queen) and the owner of the mint (over the forging of illegal currency).

Back in Norway, he meets up with Grettir Asmundarson, Grettir the Strong, who befriends him and who later becomes Thorgils’ “Sworn Brother”. The adventures continue as Grettir is hunted by his enemies and, when he is finally overcome (by witchcraft!), Thorgils makes his way north and lives with a shaman and his family among the Sabme, a nomadic people who herd reindeer in what seems to be modern Lapland or Finland. One of the family is Allba:

Allba was the remedy for an ailment that I scarcely knew I suffered. My shabby treatment at the hands of Gunnhildr, my disenchantment with Aelfgifu, and my youthful heartbreaks had left me disillusioned with the opposite sex. I viewed women with caution, fearing either disappointment or some unforseen calamity. Allba cured all that.”

When he travels on, Allba is expecting his daughter.

In the third and final book in the trilogy, King’s Man, Thorgils is right at the centre of the new world of the White Christ, Constantinople. But the title is misleading, for it is not the Byzantine Emperor (or later Empress) he serves whose man he is; on the contrary, the king in question is a Norwegian adventurer named Harald, another mercenary in Constantinople who happens to have a claim to the throne of Norway and whom Thorgils follows when he heads north with his men.

I have to say that finally  I am not entirely convinced about this trilogy, of which the best was the second. The old Icelandic pagan in the quiet English monastery, posing as a monk while he secretly writes his life story, works well and probably no one could handle such a story better than Tim Severin, who has immersed himself in the lives led by the peoples of the north in medieval times (and sometimes literally in the ice-cold waters of the north Atlantic). On the Vikings, the ships, the forests, the Great Temple at Uppsala and so on, Severin is excellent. I could read that stuff for ever. He has some wonderful ideas such as Thorgils’ meeting with MacBeth and Lady M:

When the chamberlain fetched me that evening and brought me to the king’s private apartments, I was shown into a small room furnished only with a table and several plain wooden chairs. The light came from a single candle on the table, positioned well away from the woman in a long dark cloak seated at the far end of the room. She sat in the shadows, her hands in her lap, and she was twisting her fingers together nervously. The only other person in the room was Mac Bethad, and he was looking troubled.

‘You must excuse the darkness,’ he began, after the chamberlain had withdrawn and closed the door behind him. ‘The queen finds too much light to be painful.’

I glanced towards the woman. Her cloak had a hood which she had drawn up over her head, almost concealing her face. Just at that moment the candle flared briefly, and I caught a glimpse of a taut, strained face, dark-rimmed eyes peering out, a pale skin and high cheek bones. Even in that brief instant the cheek nearest to me gave a small, distinct twitch. Simultaneously I felt a tingling shock as though I had accidentally knocked the point of my elbow against a rock, the sort of impact that leaves the arm numb. But the shock was not to my arm, it was to my mind. I knew that I was in the presence of someone with otherworldly powers …

His version of this story had me spellbound, but turned out to be only an interlude, quickly abandoned. I have rarely been so disappointed, suddenly, in the middle of a book.

Also unforgetable is his depiction of primitive people living in the forests of the north (in this book Folkmar and Runa on the borders of Sweden and Norway, in Sworn Brother Allba and her family, and how Thorgils comes upon them and is welcomed by them and stays with them and adapts to their way of life, and finally has to move on, leaving in one case a baby and in the other twin children behind him.

But the first half of the book (more – 200 pages out of 320) is composed of intrigue in Constantinople, which has been done better by many other writers from Henry Treece down, and much even of the last hundred pages is an attempt at presenting the story of the Norman Conquest from an outsider’s viewpoint and of no particular interest.

However, and that said, the whole trilogy is worth reading for the good parts: they are gems, and unforgettable. And what is more, I for one would love to read a sequel – as in Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the fourth book of the trilogy! What happens to Thorgils after he leaves the monastery? Does he in fact head north again when he “disappears”? Does he find his children, the twins by Runa? What happens to them? We are given a mouth-watering hint of their significance (the twins named after Frey and Freya) but nothing more.





VIKING: ODINN’S CHILD by Tim Severin

11 10 2017

The Orkneys, Iceland, Greenland, Vinland, Ireland, AD 999-1019

Do I believe that my mother’s fetch appeared at Nether Ness? If I told that same story here in the scriptorium and changed the details, saying that she had reappeared emitting a strange glow and holding a copy of the Bible, my colleagues would accept my version of events without hesitation. So why would not the farmers of Snaefells be just as convinced that she had reappeared? Farmers can be as credulous as priests. There is hardly a soul in that remote farming community who doubts that Thorgunna came back to haunt the stingy farmer at Nether Ness, and while there might be an earthly explanation for the happenings at Nether Ness, until this explanation is supplied I am prepared to accept the supernatural. During my lifetime of travels I was to see many odd sights that defy conventional explanation. Within a few years of my mother’s death I too encountered a fetch, and on the eve of a great battle I had strange and vivid forebodings which proved to be accurate. Often I’ve witnessed events which somehow I know that I have seen before, and sometimes my dreams at night recall events that are in the past, but sometimes they also bring me into the future. The facility for seidr is improved by apprenticeship to a practitioner, but there must be a natural talent in the first place, which is nearly always a question of descent. Volva and seidrmanna come from the same families down through the generations, and this is why I have spent so much time writing of the strange circumstances of Thorgunna’s departure from this life and the hauntings: my mother gave me neither affection nor care, but she did bequeath to me a strange and disturbing gift – a power of second sight, which occasionally overwhelms me and over which I have no control.

“The heroes of the north live on” it says on the front cover of the paperback edition of this first novel by the travel writer Tim Severin: they do indeed, and we slowly become fully involved in their lives and sympathetic to them and the Old Ways, the ways of the followers of Thor and Odinn and Freya, rather than to the followers of the “White Christ” and the new ways their priests are bringing into the north.

If you do not already know, from reading books like The Brendan Voyage (the story of Tim Severin’s crossing of the north Atlantic in a curragh, to show – Thor Heyerdahl style – that it can be done, that St Brendan could have crossed to North America long before even the Vikings), then you very soon realise that you are in the hands of an expert; that Severin knows the north Atlantic, the Orkneys, Iceland, Greenland, and the seas that separate and connect them, as few others do.

He also displays a vivid imagination and a true capacity for recreating the past, in this case the world of Eric the Red and Lief Ericsson, which is slowly being swamped by the aggressive – often brutal – proselytising of the priests of the White Christ.

Thorgils, the protagonist and narrator, is the illegitimate son of Lief Ericsson and a mysterious Irish volva (witch) named Thorgunna, who arrives at Birsay in the Orkneys, home at that time of the earls of Orkney, where Lief Ericsson happened to be wintering as a guest. From her, Thorgils inherits the Sight, and from his father, perhaps, his lifelong wanderlust, and also his lifelong adherence to the Old Ways: he never has any intention of converting to Christianity, either now, or later, or even on his deathbed.

So, having been born on the cusp of the new millennium, I was named as a pagan at a time when the tide of the White Christ was beginning its inexorable rise. Like Cnut, the king in England whom I later served as an apprentice court poet, I soon knew that a rising tide is unstoppable, but I resolved that I would try to keep my head above it.

He is still a pagan at the age of seventy when, living as a monk in a Christian monastery, he writes the memoirs of which this book is the first instalment, taking us up to Thorgils’ twentieth year and a narrow escape from death in Ireland.

In this book, Severin creates a world you come to know in all its wealth of detail and to feel at home in, and which you are finally reluctant to leave, and that for me is always the acid test.

And I was so reluctant to leave it that I immediately read the second and third volumes in the trilogy. Reviews coming up tomorrow ans the following day.





THE BOOK OF SHADOWS by C.L.Grace

25 09 2017

Canterbury, summer 1471

Luberon put the cup down. “In our lives, Kathryn,” he said, “everything is simple. I am Simon Luberon, clerk to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have my own little house, my daily routine, my friends.” He glanced archly at Thomasina. “And those whom I always think about. I attend Mass on Sundays, sometimes even during the working week. I pay my tithes and taxes. I do my best to follow the law of God and uphold the rule of the King’s writ.” He paused, breathing in noisily through his fleshy nostrils, his merry eyes now sombre. “That is the world I live in, as do you. But Tenebrae was a magus. His world was thronged by spells, curses, incantations, waxen effigies, blood sacrifices and blasphemous rituals.”

“So, why didn’t the Church arrest him?” Kathryn interrupted, slightly impatient at Luberon’s lugubrious tone.

“Ah, Tenebrae is no village warlock dealing in petty spells,” Luberon replied. “He really did believe in, and practise, the black arts. His customers were wealthy. More important, Tenebrae was a professional blackmailer. He acquired knowledge about the mighty of this land, which should best be left secret …”

This book is the 4th in a series of medieval mysteries featuring Kathryn Swinbroke, and written under a pen-name by Paul Doherty, author of the much better known Brother Athelstan and Hugh Corbett series.

It was this one which happened to come my way and I will review it here, but I see that the hardback (which I have in my hands) is hard to find and  buy and the Kindle edition is “not currently available for purchase” (and nor are any others in the series).

The Book of Shadows is set in Canterbury in 1471, when, as the author puts it in a ‘Historical Note’, “the bloody civil war between the Houses of York and Lancaster had ended with Edward of York’s victory at Tewkesbury. The Lancastrian king, Henry VI, was quietly murdered in the Tower. Edward IV, with his beautiful wife Elizabeth Woodville and their gang of henchmen now controlled the kingdom.”

Doherty is clearly not a Yorkist!

In the Prologue, we meet Tenebrae, “the great magus or warlock”, a practising satanist who in fact makes his money by means of blackmail. And in that kind of post-civil-war situation, when all those who had supported the other side went in fear of their lives, blackmail was obviously a very lucrative trade.

Then Tenebrae is murdered. And Kathryn Swinbroke, a local physician and apothecary, is asked to investigate, along with her close friend Colum Murtagh, a King’s Commissioner. (How close a friend I do not know. It is not made clear in this one book, but I am searching for others in the series to get the background story, the on-going soap opera which makes such series so appealing.)

It turns out that Tenebrae had a large book, the Book of Shadows of our title, a copy of the ancient grimoire of Honorius; and in that book was recorded in his own hand all the secret information he had gathered about many of the greatest in the land. Including Elizabeth Woodville, King Edward’s beautiful and ruthless queen.

Meanwhile, in a sub-plot, an old lady is accused of bringing about a rich burgher’s death by using witchcraft, and is to be burnt. Can Kathryn save her? I have to say that so far as I know – and so far as I can discover – they did not burn witches in England at this time, though they did in Scotland and France. In England, they were hanged, or drowned while being dipped on the cuckin/ducking stool.

For Doherty fans – I am one, as most of you will know by now – essential reading if you can get hold of a copy.