Extract from Leda – Book 3 of The Duellist Series

I was just writing this scene and realised it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Basically it’s a monologue told from the perspective of Castor, chief villain of the story as he is crowned Emperor. But I think it also reveals some of the major tensions in ‘Leda’. I’m serialising the novel over on Wattpad at the moment. The first parts are available on Amazon.


Around him went the priests, swinging thuribles of incense on long brass chains. On the verge of choking, Castor squeezed his lips together, refusing to submit to weakness at this most symbolic of moments. His eyes watered, he held his breath…it was no good. Air starved, he glared up at the temple guardian who circled the throne once more, his beard coiling to his waist, a long, brown swathe of plaited hair snaking down his back. The man’s eyes were sharp with zeal, his voice reverent and low as he muttered incantations, prayers to the spirits, Diodiné now seated amongst their highest ranks. But it was no good appealing to a fanatic like the guardian, Castor realised. Without the incense and invocations, without the vigils, the holy water and oil, Castor could not be Emperor. All of it mattered – every last detail of this painful process. For there could be no question – no single doubt in the people’s minds that he was their ruler.

This was the moment which would end all the gossip, the slander and the lies. For he, and only he was the rightful heir to Colvé, the North, the eastern seaboard, Brennac and the vales and mountains of the West. Even Yegdan and those barbarians would come to understand that soon. He, Castor, third of…it was no good. He had to breathe. He couldn’t stand it any longer. If only that idiot would give up his droning for a moment, would put his stinking incense aside…but it was too late.

Castor coughed into the back of his gloved hand, and found he could not stop. Tears ran down his face, coursing a path through the white powder on his cheeks. When he sealed his lips, his lungs seemed to spasm and flare, birthing yet another cough, until he was crumpled and wheezing, the wide eyes of the court turned upon him, and the temple guardian apparently oblivious to the torture he was inducing in his Emperor.

At last the droning stopped, the incense was set aside and the air began to clear, revealing Castor bent double, shaking and gasping for breath. Once his coughing fit had subsided, he managed at last to sit upright. Was somebody laughing? He listened hard. The priest droned on, his words echoing out into the temple’s stillness. Castor was almost certain now that his future subjects were smirking at him. But who? Who amongst this throng of people could he trust? Who could he not?

To the fore sat his immediate family – his mother, too mad to even care if he were emperor or ironmonger now. She stared lifelessly ahead, her eyes a pale, blank blue, her lips curled up into their habitual smile as she whispered to herself in half remembered words. And his aunt Evelia, fat and sweaty in her black mourning garb. An old traitress who’d hung on her dead husband’s every word and had whispered against Castor in the corridors of the palace with the old court cronies she called her friends. Soon to join Diodiné, if there were any justice. No wonder her private guard accompanied her everywhere – that Brighthair woman – freakishly tall and powerful of build, with cropped auburn hair and a sword swinging from her belt. A former duellist, he’d heard, now retired into court livery and a handsome salary drawn right out of the palace coffers. Well, she’d be losing both once the old bitch had gone the way of her husband.
And beside them, Josen. Could he trust his brother? Did he trust his brother? Castor prickled with unease. Of course he didn’t. Trust a man who befriended scoundrels like Degaré of Dal Reniac and his two thieving accomplices? Who spent his nights amongst the dregs of Riverside stirring up who knew what trouble, and his days fraternising with Senators who ought to know their place? And of course, loved by every woman from the palace to the city walls for his lazy good looks: that head of thick golden hair and those sky blue eyes which spoke charm but hinted deceit. But Josen would know that even a Prince’s neck would fit a noose given enough time.

The guardian was returning, this time with a casket of holy oil. Castor closed his eyes. Just one more ritual; one step closer to confirmation of his absolute power, a power invested in him by the ancestors themselves. He felt the guardian’s thumb slide down his forehead, slick and warm, leaving a trail of the precious substance which dripped down onto the tip of his nose. That added to his discomfort. He wanted to wipe it away, but knew that to do so would be to annul the entire ceremony. And there could be no risk of that – no risk of uncertainty. Not when so many of those now gathered in the temple today had once questioned Castor’s right to the throne.

He opened his eyes, picking them out one by one. There, for example, half hidden behind that column was the Senator, Tobiac Treniac, who had championed the senate’s rule in the absence of a direct imperial heir. Half his thin, rat-like face was shielded by stone, the other watchful – nervous. And with good reason.  And then towards the rear of the temple was the Westerner, Lord Roc, who had declared that his own son had a greater claim to the throne than Castor – some nonsense about imperial forebears. Surely, Castor thought with a grim, inward laugh, a headless son lacks all legitimacy? And then…

His eyes fell upon a strange group, also huddled like conspirators at the back. He made out the frail frame of Senator Marc Remigius, his gnarled old hands wrapped around an intricately carved walking stick. Remigius had been Castellan of Dal Reniac for some time, until the city could be handed over to…Castor started. That must be her. He hadn’t laid eyes on her for, perhaps twelve years. She had been a child then. Now, she was a woman grown – weather tanned like other northerners, but slim and lithe as a young colt or cat. A mass of dark curls tumbled down her back, and her grey eyes were sharp and intelligent. Well, her father had been Bruno Nérac after all: a true descendant of emperors, not like Roc’s jumped up little pretender. Was it possible that her grandfather had been a mere merchant? For there was nothing workaday or vulgar about Leda Nérac. She was an aristocrat – a thoroughbred. Blue of blood and … his pulse quickening, his gaze fell on the two other members of her little entourage. That must be the mother – a good looking woman too. Waifish in build, she wore a simple dress of green satin, her hair threaded through an intricate series of loops and plaits. His attention slid from Meracad to Leda and back again. Wife? Mother-in-law? would it…could it work? Had Josen been right after all? In one brilliant move to control the North, to bring it to heel without the need or expense of war and to suppress all those doubts? For surely no one, not even Roc would dare question his own claim to the throne when it was tied to the Nérac dynasty. No one except…

She was there too. For that must be her. What other woman would have the arrogance to attend her coronation in such attire? He clenched and flexed his fingers. Bastard born and dressed like a man in a great coat and trousers, her hair tied back to reveal a gaunt, almost hawkish face.

The descendant of a rebel and a known whore. A woman who would certainly corrupt Leda Nérac if she had not done so already, who might even seek, through Nérac, her own influence and power. Diodiné had sought to marry Leda to Castor when she came of age, but Hannac and her ‘wife’ had opposed it. How dare they! And how could his Uncle have backed down? Another example of his weakness.

The plaited fool was back again, this time bearing the crown. Once again, Castor closed his eyes. This time, no one would force him to remove that golden circlet from his head, no one could take this honour from him. He rose, the court rising with him, cheering and applauding. He looked over their heads and caught Hannac’s eye. With arms folded and insolent eyes, she stared back. No one.


Review – “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet


Although I finished this book several days ago, it’s taken me some time to sit down and write a review. The reason for this is that it’s hard to register the impact of His Bloody Project until you’ve allowed the novel to really seep into your skin. It’s not so much the story we encounter on the page that makes this such a fascinating read, as the questions which that story leaves in its wake. That’s why I decided to consider my response to the narrative for a while before putting fingers to keyboard.

His Bloody Project is not a narrative which sits comfortably in any particular genre. While ostensibly a work of historical fiction, it is conceived as an investigation into the real murder of three members of a crofting family in the Scottish Highlands. The story is first presented in witness statements and through an account provided by Roderick Macrae, a seventeen year old crofter accused of the murders. Then come reports following Macrae’s trial, the verdict and its aftermath. This approach serves to immerse the reader not only in the tragedy itself, but also in the dying culture of the highland crofters who eke out an almost feudal existence in stark contrast to the industrialisation and capitalism surrounding them.

For me, this was one of the book’s greatest strengths and in this respect it feeds into current debates as to whether Scottish literature can or ought to be considered in any respect postcolonial. Roddy’s narration of his life up to the point of the murders serves as far more than a sensationalised account of a brutal crime. It reveals the severe hardships and pressures of a people still clinging to their traditions and ancient ties of kinship – a way of life which by this period had been forgotten in most other parts of the United Kingdom. It also reveals the way in which the complexities of the clan system and highland culture are misunderstood by outsiders who regard the crofters as primitive and savage in the same way that Victorian imperialists would regard subaltern cultures in other parts of the British empire as barbaric, thereby justifying the entire imperial project as one of ‘civilisation.’ This perspective is embodied in the figure of James Bruce Thomson, a genuine pioneer in the field of criminology and criminal psychology, who attempts to categorise Roddy and his community while failing to truly engage with them; his claims to be an objective man of science are undermined by his own arrogant assumptions and personal bias. As such, his representation of croft life reflects imperialist narratives of progress and evolution: “It is a shameful truth,” claims Thomson, “that the lower tribes of our country continue to exist in a state barely higher than livestock, deficient in the will to self-improvement which has brought progress to our southern regions.”

Roderick Macrae proves resistant to Thomson’s reductive narratives however, just as he slips through the pages of His Bloody Project without ever fully revealing himself to the reader. We learn from various sources that he is the most gifted, intelligent student at his local school, but that his father refuses to allow him to leave the croft for a better life. We know that he has an almost obsessive relationship with his older sister Jetta, that he is furious with the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie for the way he bullies the Macrae family, and that Roderick develops another obsessive longing for Mackenzie’s daughter, Flora. As the story unravels, however, the reader discovers that Roddy’s account of the events leading up to the murders is remarkable as much for what it conceals as for what it reveals.

Initially, when I finished reading this book, I felt as if I needed a greater sense of conclusion. It occurred to me, however, that Burnet probably wants to leave the final judgement of Roderick Macrae in the hands of the reader. And I think this is what gives the book its real power: it’s a story which continues to retell itself, long after you’ve finished the last page. This is a book which takes on a life of its own, and its impact rests in its ambiguity. Simply brilliant.

Review – Hot Milk by Deborah Levy


“What is a myth?” That is a big question. It would be true to say that I was probably obsessed with it.

This is Sofia, protagonist of Deborah Levy’s novel Hot Milk attempting to establish her place amongst myths. And just as those stories are part of our cultural DNA, so Levy’s narrative creeps under the reader’s skin, stitching and unstitching its plot until Sofia arrives at a position if not of understanding, at least of wisdom, as her name indicates she ultimately must do.

Arriving in the Spanish resort of Almeira, Sofia accompanies her mother Rose who seeks a diagnosis for the paralysis which affects her legs and sometimes her entire body. But in fact it emerges that Sofia is as much in need of a cure as her mother – a cure that will free her from her own psychological paralysis, for Sofia has become  a prisoner to her mother’s whims and to her own personal sense of failure.

Trained as an anthropologist, Sofia uses her awareness of myth, of kinship ties and cultural encryption to make sense of the people she encounters. But such categorisation of human behaviour proves inadequate in comprehending her love for the powerful German seamstress Ingrid Bauer, or her relationship with her absconded Greek father, Christos. Ultimately, it is a much keener sense of reality and of the deep, deep ties which bind us together which promises to release Sofia from her limbo. This is a study in self-liberation, couched in  achingly beautiful prose. It is the first book by Deborah Levy that I’ve read,  but it certainly won’t be the last.

Review – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

All too often, what passes for satire in novels is just cynicism dressed up for a few cheap laughs. It doesn’t really do what satire ought to do which is to take the reader way, way out of their comfort zone. Satire emerges as a mere excuse to poke fun at passing fads: at here today, gone tomorrow political fallout, at easy targets. In fact, as many comedians have recently observed, the task of creating satire is done for them by people like Donald Trump. Why write comedy when the next candidate for POTUS is a walking joke?

But The Sellout is something different altogether. It doesn’t just examine the way systemic racism still informs and props up contemporary American culture. It insists that racism is America and America is racism, and that it always has been. By Beatty’s own admission, that’s a pretty bleak, nihilistic message. But eventually even Me, protagonist of The Sellout admits: ‘sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.’

Me’s fictional ghetto, Dickens, set ‘on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles’ disappears from the map as a result of urban gentrification. Me sets about reinstating Dickens through a process of racial segregation and even slavery, becoming the reluctant owner of Hominy, former star of the racist TV show ‘Little Rascals.’ So ingrained have those stereotypes become that Hominy is now incapable of living without a master, and spends his entire existence assuming the role of a cotton picking, forelock tugging underling whose idea of a birthday treat is being whisked round on a segregated bus.

This is satire which is vicious, angry and does what satire really ought to be doing which is exposing the reader’s moral pretensions. It kind of functions as A Modest Proposal for our times. Jonathan Swift exhorts the eighteenth century British public to eat Irish children – because they’re killing them anyway. In the same way, Beatty waves the stereotypes embedded in our culture under our noses. You want racism? I’ll give you racism. You want to pretend segregation isn’t still a covert aspect of American culture? Let’s bring it out into the open – and see if we can look one another in the eye afterwards. It’s a book which shocks the reader out of all complacency. And that, at the end of the day, is the real purpose of satire.