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.


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.

SWEENEY (by Matthew Sweeney)


Even when I said my head was shrinking
he didn’t believe me. Change doctors, I thought,
but why bother? We’re all hypochondriacs,
and those feathers pushing through my pores
were psychosomatic. My wife was the same
till I pecked her, trying to kiss her, one morning,
scratching her feet with my claws, cawing
good morning till she left the bed with a scream.

I moved out, onto a branch of the oak
behind the house. That way I could see her
as she opened the car, on her way to work.
Being a crow didn’t stop me fancying her,
especially when she wore that short black number
I’d bought her in Berlin. I don’t know if she
noticed me. I never saw her look up.
I did see boxes of my books going out.

The nest was a problem. My wife had cursed me
for being useless at DIY, and it was no better now.
I wasn’t a natural flier, either, so I sat
in that tree, soaking, shivering, all day.
Everytime I saw someone carrying a bottle of wine
I cawed. A takeaway curry was worse.
And the day I saw my wife come home
with a man, I flew finally into our wall.

RED RIDING HOOD (by John Arnold)

Out beyond my window
in twilight’s winter forest,
out in small clearings
where hutted villages cower
from the ceaseless probings of wolves:

the convention is – ignore them
and they’ll go away.
But still they come: they took
Granny from her lonely cottage.

The menfolk shoot them
yet say nothing
of the glimpsed metamorphoses,
their guilt, the piled bodies
of young men and women,
lips and genitalia frozen
beneath leaden skies.

And I say nothing
of the formless terror
seething in my gut, tinged
with a sweet moist pleasure
that musks my thighs …

Tonight the woods are stilled
by moonlight: the baying
echoes through me
as the covers slide.
My patch of curls glisten,
quiver in the silver light.

Now I am waiting
for my scent to reach them,
for the weight of paws
upon my breasts,
dense fur upon my belly,
and the lupine thrust

that will seal my new allegiance;
remove me far,
far beyond the village pale.

THE WOLVES OF PARIS by Michael Wallace (Review)

Good tales of the supernatural set in medieval times are few and far between so I was sceptical when I noticed The Wolves of Paris on offer from Kindle and claiming to be just that. But it was Free, so I downloaded it – nothing to lose. And almost gave up after the first few pages which – well, let me simply beg you: keep reading! The rest of the book is as good a story of sorcery and werewolves, and the all-powerful Inquisition, as I have ever come across.

It occurs to me that most werewolf/vampire stories I have read – or viewed – recently have had me identifying with the vampires or the werewolves – how can you not in, for instance, Vampire Diaries? – or in A Taste of Blood Wine? – but here, in this novel, the werewolves and the sorcery surrounding them are depicted as irredeemably evil. And the Inquisition is quite as bad, in its own way: Henri Montguillon, Dominican Prior, is a figure out of my worst nightmares.

In Paris lives Lucrezia de l’Isle, born Lucrezia di Lucca, now a widow with a terrible secret.

And approaching Paris are two brothers from Florence, the elder a banker and investor, the younger in disgrace after getting on the wrong side of the Inquisition at home in Italy. Both are in love with the beautiful Lucrezia – have been since before her father married her off to the wealthy French aristocrat – and both dream that now, this time …

But Lucrezia’s husband is not dead. He is a werewolf, one who retains his human mind but can never resume his human shape – thanks to her intervention when the spell that first changed him into a werewolf was cast. 

Highly recommended if you feel at home in medieval Paris – and can imagine the Seine frozen solid, enabling packs of starving wolves, and gigantic werewolves, to hunt unhindered within the walls of the city itself.

FOREVER by Maggie Stiefvater (Review)

In my post on the first two books of this wonderful trilogy – Shiver and Linger – I said it was not often that a story moved me to tears these days and quoted Robert Frost’s “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”.

The third book, Forever, did it again.

The last part of Forever is so gripping, so moving, that I defy you to put the book down – or close your Kindle – after you have passed the 80% mark. By this time there are four separate characters you find yourself identifying with or at least rooting for and bowled over by, and each one’s fate hangs in the balance.

When this book opens, it is Grace who is the wolf and Sam the human who has to wait through the long, long winter for the weather to warm up and the wolves who still can to change back into their human form. And keeping Sam company in Beck’s house ( if you don’t know what I am talking about read the first two books) is drop-out rock megastar Cole StClair, who is managing in his own inimitable way to melt the ice-queen Isabel – whose father is organising a hunt with a helicopter :to wipe out these wolves” once and for all!

And Sam is suspected of kidnapping and being complicit in the death of two girls – Grace herself, and her friend Olivia, who had also become a wolf and was found dead in the forest near Beck’s house after shifting back into human form!

I’ve given too much away, but read it anyway. By far the best werewolf series I have ever come across, full of rounded and totally sympathetic characters, and all set in a world I would joyfully return to any time.

SHIVER and LINGER by Maggie Stiefvater (Review)

I read Shiver a while back and loved it and meant to say so here, but never got round to it. Then a few days ago I picked up a copy of Linger (the sequel) and was instantly drawn back into that world. It is, if anything, even better. Books don’t often reduce me to tears but the last few pages of this one did. What did Frost say? “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”? Maggie Stiefvater must have had trouble with a soggy exercise book (I always use one first) or a dangerously wet keyboard while she was rounding this story off.

Grace Brisbane is an ordinary girl – boringly ordinary, really, in the opinion of her friends and all who know her. Hard-working and serious – straight-As, never misses school and, as she says of herself she “would never colour outside the line”.

Nothing odd at all, then? Well, she is very independent. She has to be, because her businessman father is almost never at home and her artist mother spends her time in the studio upstairs and goes out in the evenings. Grace looks after herself – and to a large extent looks after them.

In fact, her father is such a bad parent that when Grace was seven he forgot he had her with him in the car and left her locked in it for hours at the height of summer without any air or water. Everyone agreed that she should have died. No one could understand how or why she didn’t. And thereby hangs a tale – this tale! – but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that if you like werewolf stories set in the ordinary, everyday world (in this case small-town America) rather than say 19th-century Transylvania, then these two books are just what you’ve been waiting for.

And though it says TEEN on the back, ignore that nonsense. These books are for everyone.

Afterthought: What does TEEN mean anyway? I supposed, mindlessly, that it meant aimed at teenagers, with teenagers as the main characters and the adults in the story mostly brain-dead, nasty or downright evil and living in their own materialistic world. Then I thought, but hold on, 13-year-olds are children, 19-year-olds are adults. What kind of stupid generalisation is this? Then the word “adult” got me thinking again and now I’m beginning to wonder whether TEEN simply means not ADULT – i.e. Trust us: this book contains no explicit sex so you can safely buy it for your teenage niece/nephew (who probably knows more about sex, at least in its more weird and wonderful forms, than you do!).) So there you go.

Second Afterthought: (Just can’t stop today!) I want to make a confession. At first, of course, I identified with Grace. She is the protagonist, she is very sympathetic, and her situation is one we can all imagine ourselves in – at least if urban fantasy forms part of our cultural diet  But gradually, as the second book got under way, I found myself identifying more and more with Isabel (“she-of-the-pointy-boots”), who – if you’ve read only the first book you will know to be a nasty bitch and you will begin to think I must be one too. But I challenge you to finish the second book and not begin to find that while Grace has become a bit of a damsel in distress – through no fault of her own, I hasten to add! – her knight in shining armour is failing dismally (he is busy reading Rilke and Mandelstam, which I must say I find refreshing even if it’s not going to save the situation) and Isabel has completely taken over from Grace as the one you find yourself following avidly from scene to scene. There is a third book out now. Will Isabel dominate it? Or Grace? I was about to say that I’m going to download it to my Kindle, but I’ve just checked and the Kindle edition costs more than the paperback. Totally absurd. Let’s keep cutting down our forests!