THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt (Review)

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I always identify with immediately, for instance Lucilla, the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this?I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.

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THE BURNING TIMES by Jeanne Kalogridis (Review)

In Carcassonne, in the south of France (in the heart of the Occitan – Cathar and Templar country), Marie-Françoise, a nun, the Abbess of the Convent of Poor Clares, is arrested on a charge of heresy and witchcraft. A young Dominican inquisitor, Michel, finds himself appointed to interrogate her, his superior having fallen ill, and there being no time to bring in a replacement.

In fact, they have already encountered one another: she once performed a healing miracle in his presence, he considers her a saint, and she herself refuses to speak to anyone other than Michel.

Michel, however, is shocked when it transpires that the Church has already condemned her, that the hearing is just a formality, that she is to burn. He insists on listening to her, hearing her story. And what a story it is.

Who is this woman, this healer, whose real name is Sybille and who has brought down the wrath of the Church upon herself? Is she one of the last of the Race, as she claims?

And who is Michel? Is he simply the young monk he seems to be? Or is he something else altogether, as the Abbess, Sybille, appears to believe?

There are wonderful descriptive passages – the dead and dying at the Battle of Creçy, several appalling burnings, one in Toulouse, one in Avignon, and one in Carcassonne, and a description of Avignon and the Palais des Papes that is quite unforgettable:

Heaven and Hell, it is. Never have I ridden through streets narrower, filthier; nor seen more whores, brigands, beggars and charlatans gathered in one place. (They say in Avignon there are so many reliquaries containing a lock of the Magdalen’s hair, it must have been long enough to encircle the world; and so many fingers belonging to Saint John the Divine that he was obviously a monster, graced by God with a dozen arms.)

Likewise have I never beheld such beauty, such grandeur, such wealth. More ermine exists in Avignon, they say, than in the rest of the world combined, and I can vouch for it now. On my arrival, I let myself be led by the Goddess into the great square in front of the Papal palace, and watched the glorious display of finery: the nobles in their canary, peacock and purple silks and brocades, the Papal gendarmes in uniforms blue as the broad Rhône, the cardinals in wide-brimmed carmine hats and snowy furs. Across from me stood the Palais des Papes, the Palace of the Popes, that magnificent cacophony in stone, built upon a cliff that dropped precipitously to the shores of the Rhône. Tall as a great cathedral, it was much broader in span – in fact the size of a king’s estate, grand enough to house several hundred, its massive walls enclosing dozens of spires and turrets. And those walls faced a great city square.

As I neared the Papal palace, my steed atremble as if he sensed the Evil residing there, I saw a platform.

A platform for inquisitors, and before it an execution berm. …

It is a book you need to read twice. Not that it doesn’t come over first time – it does – I was awed – but when you re-read the Prologue after finishing the book, you suddenly appreciate nuances you missed first-time round, and are drawn on unresisting into Part I again.

MAGNUS by George Mackay Brown (Review)

[ I am reposting this review. I posted the original a while back and when I looked for it recently I found that for some strange reason it had disappeared. There was just a blank page with only the comments still intact.]

This is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a superb short story writer and, like his wonderful first novel, “Greenvoe“, and the Booker-shortlisted “Beside the Ocean of Time“, this book reads like a series of short stories. Yet the same characters appear and reappear throughout, some (like the tinker couple, Jock and Mary, and Magnus’ boyhood companions) growing older along with Magnus, others (like the peasants Mans and Hild, and Bishop William) archetypes who are always there unchanging like a chorus in the background.

One of its most unconventional features (considered as Historical Fiction) is that it occasionally slips out of its twelfth-century setting. During the war between the two earls, we are suddenly presented with a news bulletin in modern radio idiom. Then Magnus foresees how it might be, how “in an evil time, when all the furrows are disordered, a chosen man might have to mingle himself with the dust […] Two images came unbidden into his mind. He saw himself in the mask of a beast being dragged to a primitive stone. A more desolate image followed, from some far reach of time: he saw a man walking the length of a bare white ringing corridor to a small cube-shaped interior full of hard light; in that hideous clarity the man would die.”

And in the end it is not the death of Magnus at the primitive sacrificial stone that we witness at all, it is death at the end of the white corridor, the death of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. And Hakon Paulson’s foreign cook, whom he orders to ‘perform the sacrifice’ is called Lifolf – as is the officers’ chef at Flossenberg, who is called upon to hang Bonhoeffer in a special ceremony on April 9th 1945, one of the last executions of the war and performed at the express orders of Hitler himself.

Unconventional yes, and in fact one of the best examples I know of the novel as an all-encompassing work of art, but not a difficult read. On the contrary, it is easy reading, and at times un-put-downable. There are moments and scenes which engrave themselves on your memory (like when Hild tells Mans to give the tinkers food and drink, and says “We’re only as rich as the poorest one among us”) and when you finish the book you feel you understand a little more of the nature of religion and of sacrifice, and of man’s place on the earth – and indeed in the universe.

George Mackay Brown returned to Earl Magnus in the short story The Feast at Papay, which, for those – like me – left thirsting for more, forms a delightful postscript to the novel. It is included in his short story collection Andrina, and is also highly recommended.

AISHA’S REVENGE (by D. L. Myers)

The sky was black and filled with glowing sparks
The day that Aisha met the judge’s flames.
A mob of Townsfolk jeered and called her names,
“Abhorrent trot!” and “Devil!” their remarks.

The Willow twins implied infernal claws
Were twined with hers amongst the forest green,
But they could not describe what they had seen
Except to speak of “shapes” and “gnashing jaws”.

Then from the pyre her voice rang out this curse,
“That all of you shall burn for what you’ve done,
And all this wicked place forever shun
For through my words shall all your fates reverse!”

And as the crowd looked on in disbelief,
She burst into a swarming cloud of ash
That caught amongst the judge’s fancy sash
All whilst the ravens croaked in choking grief.

A year gone by again the sky was black
With boiling clouds that swallowed all the light,
And Townsfolk stared and trembled at the sight
Of day so fiercely crushed and driven back.

And then from out those seething clouds, great jets
Of silver fire engulfed those watching eyes
In roaring sheets of flame that drowned their cries
And granted them the fate that hate begets.

THE GLEEMAIDEN by Sylvian Hamilton (Review)

The Third of the Sir Richard Straccan boooks

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.

THE PENDRAGON BANNER by Sylvian Hamilton (Review)

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 (Review)

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.