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.