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.





THE WITCH OF NAPOLI by

10 03 2015

Witch of Napoli

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

A young reporter named Tomasso publishes a convincing photo of an Italian medium, Alexandra Poverelli, levitating a table, and it causes such a stir that the scientist/psychiatrist Professor Camillo Lombardi comes all the way to Naples to investigate the claim. To his astonishment, she proves she can do far more than simply levitate tables.

Result? She and the young reporter, Tomasso, who has fallen in love with her, are taken on a tour, first of Italy and then of the capitals of Europe, by the wealthy Professor Lombardi. Many are convinced by her. Others are either sceptical or fanatically against her – including the representative of an English society which investigates mediums, a repulsive character bent on engineering Alexandra’s downfall.

The novel is based on the life of Eusapia Palladino, who is dismissed in Wikipedia as a fraud (but then so is homeopathy!). However, in this story her powers are certainly genuine. That she can and does accomplish seemingly supernatural feats is not in doubt. The only question is how. Is she really in communication with the dead, or is there some other quite different explanation?

An interesting point is that this (the whole “medium” thing) is often seen and presented – especially in its late 19th-century context – as part of the supposed war between science and religion. In fact the Church is quite as much her enemy as the scientific establishment. More so. Many scientists did – and do – have an open mind (and so they should, for that after all is the scientific method), her sponsor, Professor Camillo Lombardi, being such a one, whereas no one from the Church (as represented in this novel, at least) showed any sign of an open mind.

It is an enthralling story, and it was a brilliant decision to use young Tomasso as the narrator, to watch it all unfold through his eyes, the eyes of one who loved the much-abused but still tempestuous Alexandra for who she was and not what she could do.





SHAMAN, HEALER, HERETIC by M. Terry Green

2 03 2015

Shaman etcI am always more than happy to download a free book from Kindle when an offer catches my eye, but I often read only a few chapters then delete the book if it fails to live up to its cover and blurb – or only a few paragraphs if it is full of grammar and spelling mistakes or has not been properly formatted for Kindle.

The Amazon Free Book system really works, though, when the book on offer is a good one and is the first of a series several of which have already been published. You immediately order – and pay for! – the sequel

And that is what happened here. I got it in December, it sat in my Kindle, ignored, for three months, then I opened it in an idle moment and was hooked. It is, quite simply, brilliant. It is original – I have never read anything like it – it is gripping, and the heroine, Livvy, is perfect.

Livvy is a shaman in present-day Los Angeles. Well, perhaps it is a slightly alternative Los Angeles, I don’t know how popular and trendy shamanism is there in reality, but in this story it is the alternative therapy and shamans are everywhere. But most of them are “techno-shamans” who make use of special goggles to enter other planes of existence, rather than drugs (traditional ones like peyote or mescaline, or more modern ones like LSD or ecstasy) or mind-altering activities such as fasting or dancing. We follow Livvy as she enters the Middleworld, then the Underworld, in search of someone’s lost soul – all absolutely fascinating – and we are there when she realises that all is not right. It is too quiet. Deserted, in fact. What is happening?

And during the night she wakes in a panic. There is someone in her room. Only it is not a someone, it is a kachina, a Hopi god. Which of course is impossible, she tells herself. Her “manager”, SK, a dwarf, later tells her the same. Only it was there. It touched her, tried to communicate with her. Why? Read the book and find out.

As I say, I loved it, and have already downloaded the sequel!





BE STILL, MY LOVE by Deborah Hughes

25 02 2015

Be Still My LoveThis is a difficult book to review without spoilers. At the very beginning something occurs that it is better the reader knows nothing about when she opens the book for the first time. However … as what occurs is stated explicitly in the blurb, I feel justified (albeit reluctantly!) in telling you that  when Tess’s husband goes down the road in his car, with their dog, to pick up one or two things they need for the barbecue they are preparing, he never returns. A drunk driver smashed into his car killing him and the dog instantly.

But Tess is a medium. She has an angel guide whom she trusts completely. Or did. Now, suddenly, she loses her faith in her guide, and her faith in God. Or at least her belief that God is good, blaming Him for the death of her husband and her dog. (She seems just as upset about the dog as the husband!) And as a result of all this anger, she loses her ability to function as a medium.

A year later, still in deep mourning, and still raging at God, she is persuaded by her psychiatrist to go on vacation, and finds herself in a seriously haunted hotel.

The building had previously been the mansion home of a wealthy man and his daughter. This daughter, who had committed suicide following the death of her lover, is one of the ghosts. But there are others, and the others are dangerous. Ghosts are not dangerous, she protests. These are, however, as she soon learns from bitter experience. But are there living men, also, intent on causing further grief?

An enthralling ghost-story/love-story (yes, there is a man at the hotel – an artist – and her dead husband popping up in the background – hence the title); fascinating for anyone who, like me, is intrigued by the whole notion of ghosts and mediums. I shall definitely be reading the sequel.