THE SENTINEL by Jeremy Bishop

22 11 2017

It all starts when an anti-whaling ship rams a whaler off the coast of Greenland and the whaler, instead of turning the other cheek, rams it right back, rather more disastrously. But then the whaler explodes.

 

How? Why? What happened?

 

Read it and see. Then follow the adventures of the few survivors on a frozen island inhabited by “draugre”, Viking revenants – zombies under another, older name.

 

I liked the narrator, Jane Harper, a real kick-ass ex-military-brat, who responds with a sarcastic quip to everything Greenland and the paranormal can throw at her, but I have to say that while I found the story and the setting exciting I didn’t really get any feeling of “horror” – as promised in the subtitle.

 

As a horror story I would say it fails – 3 stars at most. As a thriller with an unusual setting and a very strong female protagonist, it succeeds – 4 or 5 stars.

 

So 4 stars.

 

And I shall definitely read the sequel, The Raven.

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“Mlle Duchamps”….with a warning about theme.

3 11 2017

A short story written by a poet who is also a loyal follower of this site. Read and enjoy – but heed her warning before you start.

Lady Nyo's Weblog

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I am putting together a collection of short stories for publication next year.  This is one of them.  I had wanted to post this around Halloween, but missed the date.  Don’t read if you are perturbed by vampires or lesbianism.

Lady Nyo

Many years ago there was an elderly gentleman who lived  with his invalid daughter Marie, in the Vercors region of France, near the Swiss Alps. Comte d’Epinay was impoverished, due to the death of so many relatives by Madame Guillotine, and the taxation upon those of the aristocracy who managed to keep their heads.

For a while, Comte d’Epinay was addressed as “Citizen d’Epinay”, but the country folk reverted to M d’Epinay, and an uneasy peace existed.  M d’Epinay lived without the luxuries of his youth in a decaying house, too small to be considered a chateau and too large for economy.  The roofs leaked, the fireplaces…

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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.





THE MIDNIGHT SEA by Kat Ross

14 03 2017

FREE TODAY ON AMAZON

Nazafareen’s sister Ashraf was killed by the Druj (Undead things with iron swords and shadows whose touch meant death) when Nazafareen was twelve and Ashraf was seven. Now, all she lives for is revenge.

When the authorities-that-be discover she has the power to link with a daeva she willingly agrees to do so if this means that together she and the daeva will be a match for the Druj and able to hunt and destroy them. At first, she distrusts the daeva, whose name is Darius, thinking of him only as another kind of Druj but tamed and under her control – litle more than a sentient weapon. But living together, linked like that, she and Darius find themselves growing too close for her comfort in other ways.

This is an alternative version of ancient Persia and features a form of the dualistic Zoroastrian religion, in which two Gods fight an endless war, and people have to choose which side they are on, the Good or the Evil. (I have always found this form of dualism much more philosophically tenable than strict monotheism.) It also features both the prophet Zoroaster, the founder of this religion, and Alexander the Great, though here in this book they remain in the background; in Book 2, Blood of the Prophet, which I have already started reading, they both move into the foreground.

 

Extremely well written and highly recommended.





A Conversation with Writer Jim Hawkey/James Munro

1 03 2017

Kanti Burns interviews the author of the Mariana de la Mar books

Please note that Mariana de la Mar Book 1, Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists, will be FREE on Amazon from the 1st to the 5th of March.

* * *

Perhaps I should mention in advance that Jim and I are not strangers, though our friendship has always been at a distance, via the internet; we originally got to know each other when, for several years,  we both wrote reviews for the late, lamented MedievalMysteries.com.

KB: So, shall we start at the beginning? It’s a long time now since you wrote the first Mariana book. I remember reviewing it for Medieval Mysteries.

JM: A very long time. I suppose I’ve had Mariana on my mind for about fifteen years. I published the first completed Mariana novel, The Witch of Balintore, with Lulu in 2004.

KB: Then you published two more as part of a planned series, the Mariana Books. But what I want to know, as someone who wrote five-star reviews of the original books, is why you later withdrew them all and then, last year, started publishing radically revised versions of them with new titles and under a new pen-name, Jim Hawkey. And even then, back in 2004, why you started with Marian, Mariana, as a woman of – what? 26? – in The Witch of Balintore – and then afterwards worked backwards until finally you reached her childhood (in Mariana la Loca).

JM: Right. I often holiday in the north of Scotland, and I wrote The Witch of Balintore after spending a month near Tain and on the Nigg peninsula in Easter Ross – that’s where Balintore actually is. I’d already written half of a rather different novel, set in the same area but 800 years earlier, in the 6th century. In that story, the main protagonists were a small indigenous people I called the Elpin – Elps – and suddenly Mariana, who as I say had been on my mind for quite a while, acquired yet another strand to her already very mixed ancestry: Elpin blood, to go with her father’s Scottish ancestry (Pictish, Gaelic and Viking), and with her mother’s Spanish, Moorish, Jewish descent. And she acquired a name to go with it: MacElpin. From there, the novel took off: Mariana from Spain via Paris and London now in the north of Scotland among her father’s people and what were left of the indigenous Elps. It wrote itself, as they say. Then came, Mariana in Paris seven, eight years earlier, with Raoul, who had been in Scotland with her – or rather would be in Scotland with her –

KB: It confuses even you!

JM: No! That was a slip of the tongue. Then I knew I had to write the story of her life before Paris, the one that was originally published as Wrong Way Round the Church. I started it, but got stuck, distracted by other things, busy at the school, and so on. But listen. Let’s leave that and switch to the new series of books. The new Thirteen-Card Spread, the one set in Paris, is called Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

KB: Which you wrote under the name Jim Hawkey. Why is that? When an author publishes under two or more different names, it’s often because he prefers to keep the different genres he writes in quite separate. Is that what is happening here?

JM: It is, yes. Under my own name, I normally publish poetry and articles and posts on esoteric religion and philosophy, gnosis, reincarnation, as anyone who follows me on Twitter for instance, or WordPress, will know. When I first started writing the Mariana books, I envisaged them fitting in with this –

KB: Literary novels written by a poet.

JM: Yes, and with esoteric themes, like the witchcraft and astral travel and tarot in what is now Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists.

KB: And the Cathars and the Mary Magdalene Heresy in The Rose of Sharon. Well, I’ve read the new versions of both, and I think I can see what is coming.

JM: The best laid plans of mice and authors gang oft aglay. I’ve found I’m incapable of imposing my will on the main characters in my novels. Mariana in the first two books as I originally wrote them was a Lady with a capital L forced into playing the whore. It wasn’t really working in Thirteen-Card Spread, and spoilt the book. In Wrong Way Round the Church, the prequel to Thirteen-Card Spread, it became obvious that to everyone else she was a whore playing at being a Lady, whatever her background may have been. Everyone, that is, except her late father’s old friend, the Scottish knight Sir Farquhar. He insisted on her being her father’s daughter, the Scottish Lady, rather than the Spanish whore she had become between being kidnapped at the age of fourteen and arriving in Paris with him soon before her twentieth birthday. I believe strongly in character-led novels, and these two were leading me from – from –

KB: From James Munro to Jim Hawkey. From literary fiction to what Graham Green called “entertainments” laced with erotica.

JM: Well, not erotica exactly, but given Mariana’s special niche

KB: So you rewrote the books, giving Mariana a free hand and allowing all those around her to react and respond in the way they naturally would.

JM: Exactly. I’d been bowdlerising my own work! And the turning point was Avignon in the last part of The Rose of Sharon, where Mariana is forced through no fault of her own to work once again in a bordel. The Mariana who – let’s be honest – took to that like a duck to water was not the Lady Marian – or even the Mariana! – I’d depicted in Paris or in Scotland. They had to be completely rewritten. But in order to do that successfully, I had to give myself free rein as well. As James Munro I was – I am – too straight, too much the child of my upbringing, too tight-arsed in a word – too inhibited, too repressed. But when I adopt the Jim Hawkey persona …

KB: You are suddenly free to – I was going to say to be yourself. Which is the real you, I wonder? But can we just get the new books and their titles clear for people who read this. I notice that Mariana in Paris, Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, is Mariana de la Mar 1 now.

JM: Yes. And the prequel has been rewritten and published as The Rose of Sharon.

KB: Okay, so we have the prequel and book 1 published. And next?

JM: The Undeparted Dead (Mariana de la Mar 2) will be out on April 1st. That’s set in Southwark, for hundreds of years the red-light district across the Thames from London, and in Essex, where Mariana finds herself being used as live bait by powerful people attempting to trap the walking dead –

KB: Zombies? Don’t tell me!

JM: Revenants, back up out of the grave. It seems there were many such in the years following the Black Death, especially in Essex. But also a wraith and a harpy and –

KB: I want an advance copy!

JM: You’ll be the very first. Then there is Mariana in Revolt, which will be Mariana de la Mar 3. You remember what happened in 1381?

KB: The Peasants’ Revolt. But I had no idea Mariana was caught up in it?

JM: Oh, yes. And on both sides. As the Lady that old Sir Farquhar, who has now assumed complete authority over her, still expects her to be, and as one of the girls at the Green Unicorn in Southwark and the Shag in Colchester, Essex, where many of the rebels and their leaders come from. Mariana in Revolt contains a sub-plot called An Errand for Lady Alice, which I’d originally intended to stand alone –

KB: Lady Alice? Not the much-maligned Alice Perrers?

JM: Yes, old Edward III’s mistress.

KB: Plots and sub-plots. Right. Anyway, that brings me nicely to something I always like asking authors about: your thoughts on the interface between fact and fiction and fantasy in historical novels, especially those set in the medieval period. Alice Perrers is fact, a historical character, while Mariana is fiction, a figment of your imagination.

JM: Right. And then we have mermaids and lamiae, which are fantasy. Let’s try to clarify this. Bruce wins at Bannockburn: historical fact. Bruce hiding in a cave by the sea watching a spider swing back and forth: legend that could be historical fact. A woman with Bruce in the cave: historical fiction.

KB: How do you know?

JM: I just made it up. A mermaid with Bruce in the cave: fantasy. So far, fairly clear. But between the last two, for instance, if it’s the woman, not the mermaid, but she’s a witch? She is communicating with the spider, influencing it, making it keep swinging: historical fiction, or fantasy?

KB: Yes, witchcraft – and shape-shifting. All the things that Mariana can do, and her Scottish grandmother, and Niniane in Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists, and the old witch that Niniane and Mariana take on. And then, of course, the revenants and wraiths and harpies you just mentioned.

JM: The question is, to what extent should our criteria for what could have been true depend on their idea of what could be true rather than our idea now?

KB: How many impossible things was it possible for them to believe before breakfast.

JM: When you are writing historical fiction, it’s all a matter of point of view. From the protagonist’s point of view, anything is acceptable and believable that would have been acceptable and believable then, at that time, while anything which would not have been acceptable and believable is inadmissable. When it is First Person narrative, this becomes even more so. A hint by the author to the effect that of course he doesn’t believe all this rubbish, and the whole thing is ruined. His hero becomes a time-traveller, not a native born and bred in the period.

KB: I like that, yes. Homer mixes history, legend, fiction and fantasy and his characters are all absolutely at home in that setting, and we have the impression he believes in it all as well. Whereas Euripides’ Agamemnon and Iphigeneia are clearly time-travellers.

JM: That’s a very good example.

KB: Thank you. And now we’re going to have to stop.

JM: And thank you, very much, for your support over the years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





PHOENIX BLOOD by Jenny Schwartz

27 02 2017

phoenix-bloodThis is a story set in a world of magic. Not quite the various worlds of vampires and/or werewolves we have all grown accustomed to – or the world of Hogwarts, although it does feature an English boarding school (the Old School of the series title) where magical talents are fostered.

Sadie Howard’s talent is Finding. She can find anything, whether it be a physical object like the pendant she is carrying when the story opens, or something more intangible like the safety she is seeking as she races into a bikers’ bar on the opening page pursued by two “Stag Mercenaries” intent on killing her and seizing the pendant, and finds safety with a man sitting quietly in the corner with his pet bird of paradise.

(Do you think one can judge a person’s age by the length of her sentences?)

A man called Marcus Aurelius, who nine years earlier “couldn’t fight a feather duster” but now effortlessly disposes of the two killers; who nine years ago had dropped her publicly and brutally, and broken her heart; who nine years ago had not believed in magic but proves now to be a powerful magician in his own right.

(I did it again.)

That, then, is the situation. But who wants the pendant so badly that he is sending Stag Mercenaries after Sadie? Will Sadie and Marcus ever complete the long road journey across the States to California, where she must deliver the pendant? Can their love have survived the nine years of heartbreak and loneliness they both (yes, both) went through? And what, really, is the entity now passing as a bird of paradise and Marcus’s companion?

A great story that on two successive nights kept me riveted to my Kindle till the early hours of the morning.