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.





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!





LIVE BAIT by Jim Hawkey

2 04 2018

Again, it was the vomit-making stench that alerted me.

I peered in through the gate. A vegetable garden and a yard, and beyond, the back door of a two-storey house. It was lying on the ground in the yard.

It may be shamming, but I was faster.

I went in, crept closer, poised to fly at the slightest movement. Nothing. Just black blood – blood was the wrong word – black ichor seeping from its chest.

It knew I was there, though.

Knew I was just a girl, a whore and harmless. Prey, not a predator.

Then it spoke. ‘Tell the other I’ve got his scent.’ An unvoiced rasp, but quite comprehensible. It moved and I jumped back, but it was only shifting slightly, onto its side. Perhaps it could speak easier, breathe easier, like that. ‘I’ll tear him apart.’

Did they breathe? I needed to know much, much more about the Undead.

‘You are dying. Again.’

‘I heal. By tomorrow I will be healed.’

I had no doubt that what it claimed was true.

‘Are you Harold Turner, Jocelyn’s husband?’ I asked, trying to occupy his mind while I searched the yard, tried the door. It was open.

It laughed. I think.

‘No?’ I said from the door. The way it was lying now, it could not see what I was doing.

‘I’m Alfwin. Alfwin Host-thief.’

Host-thief? ‘You stole the Host from a church?’ Even I was shocked. ‘When? While you were still alive?’

‘For that they killed me. That and other things. But I have overcome their death.’

‘Their death?’ I went in and left him talking to himself. The kitchen was as Jocelyn must have left it. I picked up a cleaver and walked back out.

‘ … they had my body. I didn’t need it. I knew this one awaited me.’

‘Why do you seek out priests?’

‘They’ve always been my enemy.’

Well, we had something in common.

‘I stole the Host for the witches.’

‘The witches were your friends?’

There might be something else we shared.

‘They told me how to – ‘

I brought the cleaver down on the side of its neck with all my strength.

It sprang to its feet.

I fled. A hundred yards up the alley, I realised it was not following me. I walked slowly back. Stopped at the gate and peeped in. It was still on its feet, but its head was hanging sideways, resting on its shoulder. Then as I watched, the head slid forward dangling over its chest. It fell to its knees, then flat on its face with a thud that shook the ground.

Only it wasn’t flat on its face exactly, it was flat on its head.

I waited a few moments. There was no sign of life – or undeath – at all.

A pitch-fork caught my eye. I went and picked it up, hefted it. Yes, that would do nicely.

I went back to the thing and thrust both prongs deep into its buttock.

No reaction. And when I pulled it out, just more black ichor following the prongs slowly up out of each hole.

I dug the prongs into its side and turned it over.

It was dead. Or at least, this body was.

I threw down the pitch-fork, retrieved the cleaver from where I had dropped it when I fled, and proceeded to hack away at what was left of its neck until the head came free.

But what to do with it? One thing I knew, I must not leave it near the rest of the body.

Time to go. Time I was back at the Shag!

But the head …?

The Abbey. I would throw it over the gate and run! Leave it there for that gate-keeper or the prior to find. On hallowed ground!

I didn’t get a chance to write a review of Live Bait after I read it the first time, so, as it is a long book with a large cast of characters and a lot happening, I re-read it before putting pen to paper (literally – I always prefer to write everything out longhand first.) I remembered thinking the first time that this was the best description of life in a medieval brothel I had ever come across. In fact it is a realistic and vivid description of life in a brothel at any time, ancient or in modern, in any less than civilised setting– and I do know the brothels of Delhi and Bangkok, the former well, the latter less so.

There are two brothels involved in this story, the Green Unicorn in Southwark, and the Shag which once stood outside the old Roman wall of Colchester in Essex. (By the way, a shag is a kind of cormorant! – there is a painting of one of these birds on the sign outside apparently.) I suspect that the one in Southwark will play a greater part in the next story as the present story unfolds during the years 1379 and 1380, and 1381 is the year of the great Peasants’ Revolt when the peasants marched out of Kent and Essex and stormed London. Most of this book is set in Essex, but it is not the looming rebellion that concerns us here, it is the all-too-visible revenants, night-walkers and wraiths which Mariana faces in Colchester and out on the Essex Marshes, not to metion the invisible cloud of Undeparted Dead that surrounds us at all times,

The book opens with Mariana paying a disastrous visit to the Savoy Palace in London, home of the Lord Regent, John of Gaunt, where she has an appointment with Gaunt’s sister, Princess Isabella. That chapter has been posted HERE on the “A Tudor Writing Circle” site, and it was noticing this that prompted me to get this review posted. Please do visit that site to get another taste of this story.

Soon after that catastrophic visit, Mariana is recruited by ex-Queen Blanche of France to the Arcane Net, a network of spies and secret agents set up by the late Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV to keep track of all practitioners of the Dark Arts, indeed of all arcane activities. It is as Blanche’s agent that she is sent to Colchester to trap and kill (re-kill) one or both of the undead serial killers operating in the area: the first is a revenant, a corpse up out of the grave tearing priests and monks apart, and the other a wraith tearing the throats out of “green-eyed sluts” (“like you” Blanche tells Mariana).

Mariana soon comes to realise (a) that it is not her cover as a local prostitute which is in danger of being blown, but her identity as Lady Marian MacElpin, her real self – everyone believes that she really is and always has been a prostitute – and (b) that she is there not so much to entrap and decapitate the Undead as to be the live bait in a plot of which she knows little or nothing.

Don’t miss this story! But I have to say that it is not a stand-alone. You really do need to have read Mariana de la Mar 1 (Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists) first, and perhaps also the prequel to the series, Mermaid out of Water (which I haven’t reviewed here yet, but will soon, I promise).





COLD SIGHT by Leslie A. Kelly

30 01 2018

Aidan McConnell is a psychic living in retirement – in hiding, we might say – after making a mistake and subsequently being blamed for a child’s death. Blamed not only by others, but by himself.

Lexie Nolan is a reporter with the local small-town newspaper. She, too, is in disgrace, after claiming that a series of missing teenage girls were not runaways and quite separate incidents, but all victims of kidnapping and possibly murder at the hands of local people important enough to be able to cover the whole thing up. This of course led to accusations of jumping to conclusions and threats of libel suits, and brought her paper into disrepute. Now she is hanging onto her job by the skin of her teeth.

But when another teenage girl goes missing and Lexie is expected to report it as simply another runaway kid from a “garbage family”, she has had enough. She knows of Aidan McConnell, of course, knows his story, and while not believing in “all that psychic nonsense” knows that he has a record of successfully locating victims such as this girl. Only she prefers to call it intuition, having a hunch.

At first he is not remotely interested, but when they do finally get their act together …

The corrupt mayor, judge, police chief and bank manager are vividly portrayed and totally convincing. A small-town version of the Washington DC swamp. Perfect.





The alphabet book tag A-Z

9 01 2018

I took this very nice idea from mrsrobinsonslibrary.wordpress.com – please visit her there to see her A-Z.

Now for mine …

A – Author you’ve read most books from: Paul Doherty, without question. I’ve read one or two of his books set in ancient Egypt and I like and recommend his books set in the Rome of Constantine the Great and Helen – see for example my review of Murder Imperial and The Song of the Gladiator – but it is his medieval mysteries I am addicted to. They consist, apart from one or two stand-alones, of three series, each its own little world within a world and quite unforgettable: The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan; the Hugh Corbett Medieval Mysteries; and the Canterbury Tales of Murder and Mystery.  The links are to my reviews of one of the books from each series.

B – Best sequel ever: for me, this has to be The Lord of the Rings, originally conceived and written as a sequel to The Hobbit. It won my vote for Book of the Century in the year 1999.

C – Currently reading: I’ve just started on Shepherds by J. Drew Brumbaugh. I’ll review it when I’ve finished it. (The review is now posted HERE.)

D – Drink of choice: While reading? A cuppa – a nice cup of tea, English style.

E – E-reader or physical book? I’m growing accustomed to my Kindle Reader, and it is much lighter (less strain on the wrists!) than the hardcover editions I love. Cheap paperbacks I’m not fussed about and I rarely buy new ones now, though I do buy secondhand ones when I come across something I fancy by chance somewhere.

F – Fictional character you would probably have dated in High School: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. I loved him when I was a child and I love him still now.

G – Glad you gave this book a chance: there have been many, but a good example would be Dune: House Atreides, and all the rest of the books written by Frank Herbert’s son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson and set in the Dune Universe. People were sneering about that first one, but I gave it a chance and have since read all their Dune books.

H – Hidden Gem: Dorothy Nimmo’s The Wigbox is a little-known gem. Click on the image for more information here on this site:

I – Important moment in your reading life: Coming across Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael quite by chance (I think it was One Corpse Too Many) triggered my lifelong love of the Medieval Mystery.

J – Juvenile favourite. Mine is probably Kim (see “F” above) but there are many others I love, from Hans Anderson’s The Snow Queen and Kingsley’s The Water Babies to the Harry Potter series and the His Dark Materials trilogy.

K – Kind of book you won’t read: books by illiterate “authors”, either unedited or “edited” by illiterate “editors”.

L – Longest book you’ve read: A Glastonbury Romance by John Cooper Powys. I have read all 1, 120 pages twice but still haven’t got round to writing a proper review!

M – Major book hangover because of: Lin Anderson’s Easy Kill. Read my review of it here and you will see why it moved and upset me.

N – Number of bookshelves you own: Six bookcases, and books everywhere. (But my Kindle is definitely easing the pressure!)

O – One book you’ve read multiple times: The Bhagavad Gita.

P – Preferred place to read: The beach in summer or when I’m travelling. Otherwise anywhere warm and cosy.

Q – Quotes that inspire you: Here are a few I like

ALICE BORCHARDT

I have often thought if one could impart the doings of mankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon. (The Silver Wolf)

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Chastity – the most unnatural of all the sexual perversions. (Eyeless in Gaza)

EMILY DICKINSON

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face …

LAURENCE DURRELL

I find art easy. I find life difficult.

WILLIAM GOLDING

We did everything adults would do. What went wrong? (Lord of the Flies)

R – Reading regrets: My TBR list grows longer and longer while the reading time left to me in this life grows shorter by the day.

S – A series you’ve started and need to finish: Shakespeare’s plays! There are still several I have neither read nor seen.

T – Three of your all-time favourite books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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U – Unapologetic fangirl:

The James Bond novels – and the early, Sean Connery, films.

V – A Villain permanently etched on your brain:

Charles Dickins’ Fagin – in the book and as portrayed by Ron Moody:

W – Worst book habit: Writing notes and comments in books.

X – X marks the spot: pick the 27th book from the left on the top left shelf:

Balthazar – the second volume in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, another series I love and have read right through three times – and plan to read again!

 

Y – Your latest purchase: I take this to mean of a physical book, so Yeats’s Ghosts, the Secret Life of W. B. Yeats, by Brenda Maddox (a hardcover, secondhand, but like new). I will let you all know what I make of it!

Z – zzzz-snatcher: The Cold Heart trilogy by Lynda la Plante – three books (Cold HeartCold BloodCold Shoulder), three nights up all night!