THE DEVIL’S PRAYER by Luke Gracias

28 12 2016

devils-paryer-cover

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review.

In the 13th Century, in order to save his life, a monk did a deal with the Devil, and as a result the Codex Giga, the Devil’s Bible, came into being. It was lost for centuries, then rediscovered, but by this time, twelve pages of the original manuscript were missing, the twelve vitally important pages known as the Devil’s Prayer.

It is said that one day a woman will give birth to the child of the Devil. And if this person ever gets his hands on the pages of the Devil’s Prayer, then all Hell will be let loose on the world.

When the story opens, we are in the convent of Sancta Therese, a few miles north of Zamora, Spain. There, during the Semana Santa (Easter Week), a secret ritual is enacted, as it has been every year since the 1200s, but this time, at its climax, a nun commits suicide by hanging herself from the bell-tower.

Meanwhile, in Australia, in a world as different as it can well get, a young woman called Siobhan Russo is informed by a priest that her mother, Denise, who has been missing from home for six years, has committed suicide in Spain. That she was a nun going by the name of Sister Benedictine. And that she, Siobhan, must travel at once to Spain, to collect in person a message her mother left for her.

It turns out that Denise, the mother, had done a deal with the Devil years earlier, in order to get revenge and healing after she had been raped and left paralysed. This rape and its consequences form a vivid short story which stands out as rather different from the rest of the book, and after reading it we identify with Denise quite as much as we do with her now grown-up daughter Siobhan. At that time, the Devil had healed Denise in exchange for the souls of her attackers. But her dealings with the Devil had not stopped there. The Devil later brought the child Siobhan back to life after she had drowned in their swimming-pool.

But I am telling you too much of the story. Read it for yourself. It is brilliantly researched and replete with fascinating details. And don’t be put off by all this about “the Devil”. This is a very real, very evil, Devil, a Devil it is almost impossible to say No to – and as the author says in the book, “God and the Devil – one does not exist without the other.” It is a story I shall never forget, and full of characters I shall never forget.

I visited the website http://www.devilsprayer.com and found some marvellous photos of the scenes where the more bizarre sections of the story are set. Here is one of them:

bonechapel





CHRISTMAS BLOODY CHRISTMAS

24 12 2016

HAPPY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!

Let me start by saying that Christmas Bloody Christmas is the title of a book and is definitely not my opinion of the holiday!!

That said, I admit that I am celebrating the holiday by reading this very book, and have so far finished only the first story, which is excellent (if you like spooky horror). I have not been able to find a cover for the whole collection, but this is the cover for that first story:

lora-lee-cover

 

 





THE JAGUAR PRINCESS by Clare Bell

10 12 2016

Pre-Columban Mexico

Let me start with an extract to give you something of the feel of the book:

jaguar-princess-coverIn the Aztec year Three Reed, in the age of the Earthquake Sun, a six-year-old girl named Mixcatl sat in a barge threading its way through the waterways of Tenochtitlan. She glowered at the passing reflections and tugged angrily at the slave yoke about her neck. Leather thongs hobbled her ankles and wrists. Her hands had been tied in front, where she could chew on the length between her wrists when the overseer wasn’t looking. She was making little progressd in freeing herself; the leather was tough.

Scowling and wincing with pain, she felt the sides of her neck above the wooden yoke, where the flesh was raw and full of splinters. A crude and clumsy thing, the collar was made of two Y-forked pieces, lashed together to form a a tight diamond-shaped opening for her neck and two handles that stuck out over her shoulders.

Mixcatl knew well what those handles were used for. She had been dragged from the jobbing lot where slaves were collected for transport to market. The collar handles made it easier for the slave traders to seize slaves and shove them into the market boat.

Reaching up awkwardly with her bound hands …

This story is different from my usual medieval reads because it is set in medieval Mexico not Europe, and from my usual fantasy fixes because the girl changes into a jaguar not a wolf. I don’t know if there were wolves in Mexico but jaguars seem to have been quite common there and very much feared. I noticed the interesting detail, too, that because jaguars are bigger than people and weigh more than them, as people the shape-changers are very heavy (dense is the right word, I think) and can’t for instance swim: they sink straight to the bottom. I would hate that. (The only shape changing I would fancy is into a mermaid!)

As a small child, Mixcatl is sold into slavery – or kidnapped and sold, it isn’t clear.

At the age of six, she arrives in Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec city, and there she is sold to Speaking Quail. He is a tutor at the school for young monks and priests of their appalling religion (thousands of people have their hearts torn out or their skin torn off or are burnt alive as a sacrifice every month) but he is a good man.

The story depicts Mixcatl’s development as an artist and the gradual realisation that she is also a shape-shifter. The king wants to kill her – sacrifice her – but she is protected by the ruler of a neighboring state, a kind of philosopher-king who hates the religion of Tenochtitlan.

I liked the description of the city and the way of life, something I hadn’t even imagined before. And I loved Mixcatl, the jaguar princess of the title, and her mentor, the old art teacher who – but I mustn’t tell you any more. Only that after you read this you will never think of the Aztecs and Tenochtitlan the same way again.

There is a film, Cat People, with Nastassia Kinski, and you see her change into a jaguar. That and some other scenes  from the film are very moving, (and should not be missed – nor should the David Bowie soundtrack, so I’m posting it here in case you have missed it!) but the story in this book is much better than the plot of that film.

 





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.





MARKING TIME by April White

3 02 2016

Marking Time coverSaira Elian is a 17-year-old Californian girl whose English mother disappears while Saira, a solitary parkour free-runner and tagger (hope I got that right!), is out doing her thing in “the tunnels” somewhere under LA. Faced with the Child Protection Services unless she can name a relative who will take responsibility for her, Saira reluctantly tells them about someone in England.

That someone was waiting for me when I stepped off the British Airways fkight in London: Millicent Elian. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since I was three years old […] My mother couldn’t stand her. Not a big surprise given the way she was sizing me up, probably wondering if I was worth the effort. […]

“I see you got his height.” Millicent’s tone was not flattering.

“Hello, Millicent.” I knew I should be more polite and call her “Grandmother”, considering she just kept me out of foster care, but she hadn’t really earned the title.

“And his manners, too, obviously.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

[…]

“I have a car waiting.” Of course she did. Millicent’s fancy gray Rolls Royce waited at the curb outside the airport, and her fancy gray driver held the door open for us.

“Home, Jeeves,” she said with total authority.

“Jeeves? You’re joking.”

“I don’t joke.” Millicent’s expression didn’t change.

Jeeves caught my eye in the rear-view mirror and very slowly, he winked. It wasn’t much, that wink, but it was something.

It turns out that the Elians are a family of time-travellers, and Saira’s mother, who is normally gone for only a couple of days (or so it seems!) is now being held against her will in Victorian London. And that, of course, is where half the story, and most of the adventure, takes place.

One aspect of the story that fascinated me was the love between Saira and a young man in Victorian times who had already known Saira in the future in her own time and fallen for her there – or should that be “then”? He, of course, doesn’t know about this yet, and she can’t tell him because the secret of how he came to be still a young man all those years later is just – well …

I’ll leave it to you to sort all this out when you read the book, and add only, by way of encouragement, that while the ingredients may not be entirely original (there’s Hogwarts here, and Ann Rice, and Jack the Ripper, and Time Travel) the resulting dish is something different from the usual run-of-the-mill YA, and I enjoyed every minute of it.





THE IN-BETWEENER by Ann Christy

6 09 2015

In-BetweenerThis is Zombie Apocalyptic done really well, how the phenomenon came about and how it works set out more clearly and more credibly than in any other zombie story I’ve read. And the main characters, a man of 23, once a teacher, now trying to look after a mixed bag of children who survived, though far from unscathed, and a girl of 17 (I think) who has been on her own for a year following the death of her mother, are both very real and completely unforgettable.

Definitely not one to be missed if you like this sort of thing – and even if you don’t. You may even change your mind about the whole genre!

And an “in-betweener”? Someone who has died then come back to life; not a zombie – yet.





SHAMAN FRIEND ENEMY by M. Terry Green

14 04 2015

Shaman Friend EnemyThe second in the series and not as good as the first, Shaman, Healer, Heretic, but that was brilliant (my review HERE); this is very good in parts and good in others. I enjoyed it though and I’m fascinated by shamanism so I shall definitely be reading the third one.