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.

THE DRAGON QUEEN by Alice Borchardt (Review)

This novel, by the late and sorely missed Alice Borchardt, is the fantasy version 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.