THE KING’S MISTRESS by Emma Campion (Review)

The King’s Mistress is a biographical novel based on the life of Alice Perrers, “mistress” during his final years of King Edward III. It is reminiscent of Anya Seton’s masterpiece Katherine, even to the quotations from Chaucer at the top of each chapter and the presence of Chaucer himself throughout the novel, but that is not a bad thing. In fact it is a very good thing, and anyone who has read Katherine as often as I have will definitely enjoy this one, too.

For a start, Alice has received a constantly bad press from writers of both fiction and “historical fact”. But this author (Emma Campion, better known as Candace Robb) sets out to see everything from Alice’s point of view. And as Alice herself says, “When had I a choice to be other than I was?”

It is her father who arranges her marriage, when she is still hardly more than a child, to a sexy widower “twenty years her senior”.

Janyn was splendid in a deep jewel-hued jacket, leggings and hat, the latter ornamented with peacock feathers. From his neck hung a gold chain set with medallions of lapis lazuli. The sun had darkened his complexion. He looked glorious, as I imagined a lion might look. And as I approached I felt a sense of great power as his expression of impatience metamorphosed into a look of sheer delight, and then something darker, a hunger. As if he were a lion and meant to devour me. Yet I did not fear him. I felt I shone in his presence. I came alive.

It is her husband who is under the patronage of the Queen Mother, Isabella, the She-Wolf of France, and so Alice too comes, willy-nilly, under the old queen’s aegis.

It is the old queen who places Alice in the royal court as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, when Alice’s husband Janyn is murdered..

And it is Queen Philippa, now an invalid, who literally pushes Alice at her ageing but still very virile husband, the King, Edward III.

Queen Philippa too noted my weight loss and that I looked as if I were not sleeping. She listened to my explanation with sympathy. She shared with me her own reason for melancholy: that she had so much pain in her pelvis she would never bear another child, and that she and the King now lived as brother and sister, not husband and wife […]

I had heard previous speculation from the women waiting on Her Grace that her riding accident had ruined her for sexual pleasure, and that shortly afterwards her courses had stopped. However, I had never heard her speak of this herself. I felt honoured by her confidence, sad for her, and unsettled by a sense that she was absolving me from guilt. The new gowns, this confidence …

Of course, she soon has many enemies. How could she not? And all the jealousy and bile finds expression in the writings of Thomas of Walsingham, a monk who seems to have had a lot in common with the oh-so-religious woman-haters who still hold sway in many parts of the world today.

Alice Perrers at the deathbed of Edward III

I loved it, and identified with Alice completely. What more can I say?

THE BOOK OF SALADIN by Tariq Ali (Review)

Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem; 1181-93

Everything has changed. Fortunes fluctuate like the price of diamonds in the Cairo market. When I left his side, nearly two years ago, the Sultan had conruered every pinnacle. His eyes were bright, the sun had given colour to his cheeks and his voice was relaxed and happy. Success dispels tiredness. When I saw him this morning he was clearly pleased to see me, and he rose and kissed my cheeks, but the sight of him surprised me. His eyes had shrunk, he had lost weight and he looked very pale. He observed my surprise.

‘I have been ill, scribe. The war against these wretched infidels has begun to exhaust me, but I could cope with them. It is not simply the enemy that worries me. It is our own side. Ours is an emotional and impulsive faith. Victory in battle affects Believers in the same was as banj. They will fight without pause to repeat our success, but if, for some reason, it eludes us, if patience and skill are required rather than simple bravery, then our men begin to lose their urge. Dissensions arise and some fool of an emir thinks: “Perhaps this Salah al-Din is not as invincible as we had thought. Perhaps I should save my own skin and that of my men”, and thinking these ignoble thoughts he deserts the field of war. Or another few emirs, demoralised by out lack of success, will think to themselves that during the last six months they and their men have not enjoyed the spoils of war. They imagine that it is my brothers, sons and nephews who are benfiting and so they pick a quarrel and go back to Aleppo. It is a wearying business, Ibn Yakub.

I have to fight on two fronts all the time …’

This is a long slow book, and I do not like long slow books. However, it does redeem itself more than adequately by recreating, in such detail that we willingingly suspend all doubt and disbelief, the world of Yusuf Salah ud-Din ibn Ayyub, Commander of the Brave, and if you have the time and the patience to read all the anecdotes (preferably lubricated by glasses of mint-tea – which must be made with fresh mint and green tea, and rock sugar, though this last is not essential – then you will end the book well satisfied.

I say anecdotes, for that is what it is: a series of ancdotes cleverly strung together by the device of a narrator/biographer, one Isaac ibn Yakub, friend of the physician Ibn Maymun (known to us as Maimonides). Both are Jews and both, when the book opens, are resident in Cairo, Ibn Maymun having reached there as a refugee from Cordoba in Andalus via Fes in Morocco (where he had to pass himself off as a Muslim – and about which he is still furious!).

Also resident in Cairo is the Sultan Salah ud-Din. Ibn Maymun is now the Sultan’s physician, and it is through him that Ibn Yakub meets the Sultan, becomes his personal scribe and is commissioned to compile the Book of Saladin, the story of the Sultan’s life and times.

As the book progresses and Saladin moves to Damascus en route for al-Kadisiya (Jerusalem) and the expulsion of the Franj (the Crusaders from the west), so we gradually piece together his life and the lives of those around him. For Ibn Yakub goes everywhere with him, and not only spends hours day after day, year after year, listening to the Sultan himself, but also has access to all those who are close to the Sultan.

Some of whom are great characters. For instance, Shadhi, the old Kurd (an illegitimate son of Saladin’s grandfather and now in his nineties) who knew Saladin when he was a boy, taught him to ride and to fight, and has remained at his side ever since, totally loyal, irrepressible, tactless and wise, and a fund of tales, few of them politically correct (even for that society!) and many of them not for those under 18 (in this society). An example? I like this, for instance (Shadhi is speaking now of himself when he was young back in the mountains): I was nineteen years old. Every spring my sap would rise and I would find a village wench on whom to satisfy my lust. I was no different from anyone else, except, of course, for those lads who had difficulty in finding women and went up the mountains in search of sheep and goats. You look shocked, Ibn Yakub. Recover your composure. You asked for my story and it is coming, but in my own fashion. When we were children we used to tell each other that if you fucked a sheep your penis grew thick and fat, but if you went up a goat it became thin and long!

It is good on men and women. There is a beautiful woman of twenty or so who is guilty of adultery and due to be stoned. She has been brought before Saladin to confirm the sentence. He puts her in his harem, thereby saving her life. This is Halima, who is later interviewed by our narrator (who was present when Saladin spoke to her and saved her, and himself fell more than a little in love with the girl). Now Halima is telling him about the Sultana, Jamila, a princess from Arabia who has become the Sultan’s favourite wife.  Since you will never set eyes on her, Ibn Yakub, let me describe her to you. She is of medium height, not as tall as me, dark skinned and dark haired, with eyes which change colour from grey to green, depending on where you catch sight of them. As for her body, what can I say? I embarrass you again. […] It is Jamila who keeps our minds alive. Her father was an enlightened Sultan. He adored her and insisted that she be educated, just like her brothers. He refused to tolerate any attempt to restrict her learning. What she has learnt, she tries to teach us.’ Among those things is the writings of the Andalusian Ibn Rushd, who claimed that the world of those who believe in Allah is crippled by half its people being disempowered and unable to function in that world.

Saladin’s mother would have agreed. He tells Ibn Yakub that his father could never resist a pretty serving wench: He would feel the sap rise in him, and he never wasted his seed. Once my mother reproached him for this and he hurled a hadith at her head, according to which, if it is to be believed, ‘the share of a man to copulate has been predestined and he will have to do it under all circumstances.’ My mother, who was a plain-speaking woman, after a few sentences of the choicest Kurdish abuses which I will not repeat, then asked him how it had come about that men could find a hadith to justify everything they did to women, but the opposite was never the case.

In fact, Ibn Yakub does set eyes on Jamila, for the Sultan gives him permission to interview her whenever he wishes and they soon become close friends: so it is not just the story of Saladin but of Jamila also, and of Halima, and others – like the handsome – indeed, beautiful – young Coptic boy-scribe, Tarik ibn Isa. And the young poet who becomes involved in a murder of passion. When Ibn Yakub tells Jamila that the Sultan has saved him by sending him to join the army assembling for the attack on Jerusalem, Jamila is not impressed. Typical. [She mutters.] The Sultan has lost interest in poetry. Twenty years ago he could recite whole poems with real passion. Sending poets to fight in wars is like roasting nightingales. I will have that boy returned.

The more I read of the book, the more I liked it. And the better I understood Saladin and the others who dreamt of retaking Jerusalem, and succeeded, against all the odds – which is why Saladin is so famous – but then with the arrival of Richard (yes, the Lionheart) things began to go wrong and although the Crusaders never regained Jerusalem, Saladin’s star was waning (he was twenty years Richard’s senior) and in 1193, at the end of the book, he dies, with the reputation more of a saint and a sparer of life than of a ruthless killer like Richard.

So. Not for the easily-bored or those in search of an exciting read, but extremely well written, and strongly recommended.

THE CLERKENWELL TALES by Peter Ackroyd (Review)

Medieval Outsiders

>  Sister Clarice, a nun who prophesies: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine?

>  William Exemewe, friar and conspirator

>  Hamo Fulberd, “simple’ or “silent” Hamo, abandoned as a child, brought up in the priory; attaches himself to Exemewe

>  Richard II, deposed king; has lost his wits 

1399 is the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o’ Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called “Dominus”, whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don’t change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author’s arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty’s An Ancient Evil are intended to be). For these are “The Clerkenwell Tales”, not “The Canterbury Tales”, and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell.

So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be in noted, a tale told by that character). But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard’s downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the century.

The main character, though, is the nun, Sister Clarice: Brank Mongorray opened the window of the nun’s chamber to enjoy the air of May. He was on the first floor, above a lead cistern of water which the birds used for their refreshment. John Duckling was crouched silently against it, so that he might hear any words that were spoken.

‘Did you hear the thrush this morning, Brank?’ It was the nun’s clear voice, known now by so many. ‘They say that if a man is sick of the jaundice and sees a yellow thrush, the man shall be cured and the bird shall die. Is that not too cruel?’

‘A man has an immortal soul. A bird does not.’

‘Who can be sure of that? Dieu est nostre chef, il nous garde et guye.’

Duckling had never heard her speak Anglo-Norman before; for some reason this seemed to him to be evidence of her duplicity. There was more conversation but the monk and nun had moved away from the window; Duckling could make out only occasional words until he heard her cry, ‘When will come the day of the Seven Sleepers?’ Then she called out, ‘Deus! cum Merlin dist sovent veritez en ses propheciez!’ These were marvellous strange words from a young nun: Merlin was no more than a devil worshipped by the little folk who lived in the moors and marshes. He could hear Brank Mongorray talking quietly to her. Could they be in league against the world of holiness?

If you enjoy good writing and a wealth of detail, read it.

CROWN IN DARKNESS by Paul Doherty (Review)

A mystery featuring medieval sleuth Hugh Corbett

Scotland, 1286

The north of England had been a new experience to Corbett who had served in Edward’s armies in France and Wales, but Scotland was something different. Quieter, more lonely, beautiful yet menacing. He had observed it carefully as he travelled into Edinburgh. Vast forests of pine, dark and forbidding, where boar and wolf ruled; wide wastes of lonely, haunting moor, bogs, mountains and lakes covered the land. In England, the old Roman highways, sometimes much broken but their foundations still solid, spread out from London to form the main routes for travel. In Scotland, apart from the King’s Highway. the Via Regis, there were few roads, only beaten tracks. Corbett had found it difficult to reach the royal burgh of Edinburgh and. when he did, bitterly wondered if it had been worth the effort …

I have been looking at some of the early Hugh Corbett mysteries, ones I missed first time round.

Crown In Darkness takes as its historical setting the death of 44-year-old King Alexander III of Scotland as he rode from Edinburgh to his wife at Kinghorn on a wild night in March, 1286. The horse stumbled and fell, the king was killed.

But Was there more to it than that? my favourite medieval-mystery writer, Paul Doherty, wonders – and sends Sir Hugh Corbett to investigate.

Why should there have been more to it than that?

Because both his sons were dead, and his eldest daughter, who was married to King Eric of Norway, had also died, in childbirth, so Alexander’s sole heir was his three-year-old Norwegian granddaughter. An unlikely contender for the throne.

What is  more, Alexander had recently taken a second wife, Yolande, a French princess and it was to her that he was hurrying the night he died (or was murdered).

No, he had to read Kinghorn where Yolande was waiting. He thought of his new French Queen. The beautiful face of a Helen of Troy framed by hair jet-black as the deepest night., olive, perfumed skin and a small curvaceous figure clothed and protected in a profusion of satins, velvets and Bruges lace. He wanted her now; to possess that soft warm body, ripping aside the protests and the pretences. Perhaps she would conceive, bear a son, give Scotland a Prince. A vigorous boy to wear the crown and protect it against the ring of wolves and falcons both at home and abroad. He must reach Kinghorn …

And there on the road he died (orwas murdered).

But cui bono? Who would benefit (a) by the king’s death, and (b) in particular by the king failing to reach his queen before he died?

The man who thought he would step into the gap was Robert Bruce, grandfather of the Robert Bruce who did eventually become king years later. Robert Bruce the elder, who was now nearly eighty years old, was still full of energy and was, after the late king, the most powerful man in Scotland.

The other potential king was John Balliol, who did eventually become the next king. His claim was probably better and he had the support of the man who was de facto if not de jure overlord of them all, Edward I of England.

This is the setting. Hugh Corbett does not want to go to Scotland and does not enjoy his visit. But he does manage to solve the murder – for murder it was – before being declared persona non grata (a lot of Latin today!) in Scotland and deposited unceremoniously on the English side of the border – to his great delight.

A classic.

MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth (Review)

Sicily, 1149

Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’
‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so.
‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’
‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’
‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’

An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.

In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.

All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.

A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?

A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.

KINGDOM OF THE GRAIL by Judith Tarr (Review)

This book is set in post-Arthurian times when Merlin was still bound by Nimuë’s enchantments and the Grail still something a knight might reasonably set out in quest of. It is a period of which I am very fond, but the only other time I had tried to read a Judith Tarr novel, I gave up after a few pages! I expected the same thing to happen here.

It did not. Far from it! So probably that other time had been me. (And why I almost never write negative reviews!)

After the first few pages, I could not put Kingdom of the Grail down.

It is the story of Roland, hero of the epic poem La Chanson de Roland in which Roland dies when he is ambushed by Saracens in the pass of Roncesvalles in the high Pyrenees. Only here he does not die: the story goes on, made wonderful, made mythical, by Judith Tarr’s own brand of magic. Roland, a descendant of Merlin, is both enchanter and shape-shifter – it is in his blood – and warrior – he is Count of the Breton Marches and one of the King’s Companions of Charles the Great of France.

A beautiful woman, Sarissa, appears at the court in France, bearing a magical sword, Durandel, and offers it as a prize. Roland wins it and becomes both her champion and her lover.  But what does she represent? What force, what kingdom, is he now champion of?

As the story moved on, I noticed how much Tarr has been influenced by such writers as Tolkein and Lewis. Everything leads up to a final battle between the forces of Good and Evil that is the best I have come across since the closing chapters of Lord of the Rings and The Last Battle which brings the Narnia books to a close. And her wizard (Merlin = Gandalf) and wicked sorcerer (Ganelon, tool of the Dark Lord) are the real thing, as is her man born to be king (Roland) of the enchanted land whose ancient king (Parsifal) is dying, waiting only for his successor to take up the sword and fight the great war that he himself no longer can – though before that can happen, Roland, not fully trusted yet by Sarissa and blaming her for the massacre of his friends at Roncesvalles, flees in the form of a hawk and is for a while lost to mankind, his home the wilderness, the wasteland. “He had been human once. He had no particular desire to wear that shape again …”

But this is not mere imitation. It is great writing of the same genre. It has everything, and I cannot recommend it too highly.