Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

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Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Hild is a complex, beautiful weave of words: a novel which threads life into a distant past, revealing it to be at once distant and strange while at the same time hauntingly recognisable. For as the author Nicola Griffith states in her afterword: “While people in Hild’s time may have understood their world a little differently from how we understand ours, they were still people – as human as we are. Their dreams, fears, political machinations, fights, loves and hesitations were shaped by circumstance and temperament.”

It is perhaps the story’s bidirectional dynamic which fuelled my fascination. Here are people who are motivated by power, by perceptions of who is ‘kin’ and who is ‘other’ – we could easily find points of comparison between this world view and our own modern conceptions of national identity. Yet at the same time, Griffith portrays the British Isles at a period of massive upheaval: both religious and political. And these are changes on an almost seismic level which will completely alter the cultural fabric of these islands.

At one point, Hild presents the Irish Priest Fursey with a copy of the psalms and he describes it as a ‘palimpsest’. I take this to be the best analogy for the Britain that Griffith represents – a territory which has been staked out, re-imagined and rewritten by so many groups of people – Roman, Celtic and Anglisc, the future up for grabs and the present constantly shifting beneath their feet. It was this aspect of the book which particularly engaged me: the realisation of just how complex and volatile Hild’s world was. The best writers of historical fiction help us to read history from back to front – to understand the contingencies and accidents which got us where we are today. And this is exactly what Hild does.

Hild herself is a figure of great ambiguity, and the disparate narratives of this story all seem to coalesce in her person as the arch weaver, the perceiver of patterns. Her father Hereric is destined to be king, but is poisoned when Hild is a child. Together with her mother and sister she is taken into the household of king Edwin, her Uncle, and learns to navigate the turbulent and dangerous waters of the Deiran court from an early age. She is at once trusted seer to the king, and mistrusted ‘hægtes’ or witch, as comfortable amongst the British speaking wealhs as amongst the Anglisc speaking nobility. She makes the transition from Paganism to Christianity, she loves both men and women. She is, in short, the ultimate ‘passing’ character, a woman who wields a masculine form of power and who lives by her wits.

Hild is a book which confirms – in my mind – that we are living through a golden age of historical fiction: that the genre is challenging our concepts of the past and our relationship with it in ways that conventional historiography never can. It’s a demanding read, but I closed it with the feeling that I would have loved to linger just a while longer in Hild’s complex, brutal, beautiful world.

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The Fresco and the Fountain: Sample Chapter

 

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Here’s part of Muna’s story from the novel I’m working on at the moment: The Fresco and the Fountain is the sequel to The Firefarer, which you can obtain here:

Just a warning that if you’ve not read the book, this chapter contains some spoilers.

Muna

The Firefarer wandered distant shores in search of herself; her skin dusted with sand, her dress worn to its weave and the brackish taste of brine on her lips. And now the night was setting in; the sun a line of red draining into the ocean’s distant horizon. She watched it fade and sink. A few stars pierced the haze of dusk and a night wind plucked at her hair, whisking it before her eyes. The exertion of rowing had soaked her clothes in sweat, but now her muscles cooled and cramped and she shuddered, wrapping her arms around her waist and worming her toes into the grainy wetness of the beach.

She was back amongst her people at last; the lands of the Pagi a fading nightmare in which illusion had chased illusion.  She thought of Simone: so young, so beautiful and beguiling. Yet on the point of a knife he’d revealed himself to be a broken husk of a man, his body twisted and deformed with age. She thought too of the artist Artemisia who had sealed flesh and blood into canvas. And then she thought of her brother Hori, too weak to withstand their magic: burning himself to pieces on distant plains. She stifled the moan rising in her throat. If only she’d understood her own power. If only she’d acknowledged it; if she’d not blinded herself to it, then she might have saved him.

The dunes bristled with long grass and scrub, the wind sculpting the sand into deep hollows and steep rises. She longed to rest amongst them: to sit with her face buried in her arms and weep until the dawn. But to do so was to invite death, and Muna was not yet of a mind to die.

“Return to your source,” Moran had told her after the battle. “And once you’ve found it, return to us.”

She would do that for Hori’s sake. She would learn of her power, and of how she might control it. And when she was ready, she would take revenge for her brother’s death: first upon those Ahi warriors who still dreamed of war, and then upon the Pagi themselves. She thought of vengeance, of their screams, their panic and suffering, and raised a hand before her eyes. It pulsed. It glowed with light and heat, with rippling fire.

She allowed the image to slide away, her skin cooling as she forced herself to focus on the white swell of the waves, on the hissing of wind through the long grass, the air infused with the scent of salt and seaweed. This was not the time to waste her energy. She had to find food and shelter before the night sunk its claws into the land for good.

Muna pushed on upwards through the dunes, tiny avalanches of sand breaking beneath her bare feet until at last she could look across to wide, barren plains shielded on both sides by the shadowy mass of mountains. Dark patches littering the valley floor suggested villages or settlements: places where she might rest. But she knew her people built for the season not the year; ready to leave their homes any moment in search of food or safety. Those huts and hovels she spied might well be occupied by hunters, by warriors, by anyone who’d chanced upon them. Or they could just as easily be empty. She stepped onwards into the vastness of the gathering night.

That great, wild, open space beyond promised peace: a place to lie down, perhaps some dried meat or an abandoned skin of water. But it was too late to risk setting foot on the plains now, alone as she was and travel-weary. And to her right, a dull bark of laughter split the night. Startled, she turned and crouched back down beneath the line of the dunes, moving crabwise until she was level with the source of the sound. A flickering line of smoke payed out into the evening sky, carrying with it a hint of charred fish. Another coarse hack of a laugh was followed by muffled conversation and then a baby’s wail. Muna sucked on her lower lip. Just a family then, gathered around their fire to eat and talk, so heedless of the threat lurking in the dunes. For she was a threat: she was the fire to end all fires. But while hunger and thirst scratched at her belly, she could not remain in silence, hidden by the fading light. And so she forced herself to her feet, striding over the top of the dunes and down towards them, her hair and the bare threads of her clothes scrolling out on the wind.

At first they didn’t see her, absorbed as they were with the baby and their conversation. Their supper, she now saw, consisted of a few limp fish skewered on wooden staves and left to cook and spit over the flames. But her stomach grumbled at the sight and she pressed on until she was standing on the opposite side of their fire pit. Two men, one woman, their faces cast in shadow and light sat outside a roughly timbered hut. A small child peered out from behind his mother’s back, his eyes rounding with fear while she nursed the screaming infant, rocking it in her arms and glancing up at Muna. Naked to the waist one man rose, his chest and face dark with tattoos.

“What is it? What do you want?”

She fixed a shaking finger on the fire. “Warmth,” she said. “Food.”

He shook his head. “That’s for us. Those fish are for us – and there’s not enough. Go!”

She stood, staring, queasy with hunger. Desperation welled within like bile. She swallowed it down, knowing now where it might lead. “Please!”

The other man was on his feet now, older than his comrades, his thinning hair greying at the tips and his face lost entirely to ink. “You heard him. We’ve not enough for ourselves, never mind you. Be gone before my axe hears my anger.” He indicated the weapon propped against the beams of their hut, its twin blades gleaming in the firelight.

It was beginning: a tight kernel of heat unfurling within. Their refusal to allow her even a seat at their hearth, to feed her just a meagre mouthful of their fish. This was who they were: her famed people, the Ahi. Unwilling to help their own, to offer protection to a single, starving woman. Did they know who she was? If they did, they gave no sign. No sign, that was, until her skin wavered, translucent and light; the ochre and amber of flames flickering beneath it. The woman rose, backing away, clutching the baby in one arm and dragging the child behind her who still kept round eyes fixed on Muna. And then the men rose, the elder reaching for his axe.

The heat spread. She could feel it welling up, rising like a tidal wave in search of shore. She was spinning, wheeling upwards away from herself, and looked down at her own body: a blazing light against the darkness of the dunes. The woman was running from the hut, her child stumbling out onto the plains behind her while the warriors wielded axe and blade, circling her warily. Run! She told herself. Run, before it touches them: before the flames lick at their flesh. Before the skin melts from their bodies. Before fire kisses the grasslands and the dunes and wraps itself around the woman’s legs. Run!

She was running. Back in her body, exhausted, famished, the heat ebbing even as she drove herself forwards, stumbling, rising, falling again. She passed the woman and the children and continued into the night. Somehow, the flames had not consumed her this time: she had found her way back into her body before it was too late. But the thought of what might have been: of children lost to the heat of her rage, it caused her to gasp: to cry out in terror.

She sank again, turned around and peered back in the direction of the hut and the coast. They were not chasing her at least; they had been wise enough to stay where they were. But soon word would spread that the Firefarer had returned. And what then? What if they sought her, as they had sought her brother: to use her, to turn against their enemies? Or, more likely if news of the battle had reached their ears, perhaps they would hunt her down and destroy her. Sobbing, she scrabbled to her feet again and ran: stones, thorns and the sharp blades of grass biting into the bare soles of her feet. And up ahead, in the darkness, shapes were massing.

She paused, frozen. Out here on the plains was nothing but space, emptiness, wind and silence. She felt the mountains’ mass and might, looming on either side of the valley. There were no trees to shelter behind, no boulders beneath which she might crouch, and no way of knowing how close the nearest settlement lay. For a brief moment, she longed for the green forests and meadows of the Pagi, but they were far across the sea now and as treacherous as a night in the barren lands of the Ahi. And so she stood, and waited.

A horse snorted, there was a steady thud of hooves and then the shapes coalesced into the figures of five riders, all of them helmed and armed with spears, with tridents and swords, axes, bows and blades. They halted before her, stopped and stared. One man leaned over in his saddle and spat into the grass.

“And where might you be going?” A woman spoke, eyes set deep, glittering and hawkish behind her visor.

“I…” Muna’s voice had grown hoarse through lack of use. “I seek a bed for the night. And food. That is all.”

One man smirked. “She’s welcome to mine.”

“No!” The woman shook her head and jabbed at Muna’s chest with the butt end of her spear. “Look at her. No ink – some outcast or freak. How old are you, girl?”

“I…I don’t know. I’ve seen seventeen summers, I believe. Just let me pass. I’ll be on my way.” Again her fear was burying deep, transforming itself, turning into something vital, something dangerous. And this time she knew she would not contain it. “Let me…”

“Seventeen and no ink? No tattoos?” The woman’s words were an open challenge.

“No. I never…I was always too weak to fight.”

“You don’t look that weak to me, girl. In need of food, true enough.” The warrior’s voice was a needle pricking, burying its point beneath her skin. “Perhaps just kept at home too much? Daddy’s darling? Perhaps your family were protecting you?”

Protecting you, more like. “Look, just let me go. I’ll be on my way.”

“No. I don’t think so.” The woman straightened in her saddle. “I say we take her with us to the Pagi. Teach her to know her enemy; to earn her ink.”

“To…the Pagi? You can’t!”

“We can’t what?” One of the men rode behind her, preventing any flight back to the shore. The cold steel tip of a sword pressed between her shoulder blades. Fire licked at her veins, creeping with slow intensity through her body.

“We can’t what?” he repeated. “Avenge those men and women we lost out there? Who sought adventure and never returned? Take land from the Pagi which they are neither fit for nor worthy of?” He twisted the point of his blade, nicking her skin. Blood seeped into the seam of her dress. “You, an inkless brat would tell us what is and is not possible?”

“Yes. I would. I’ve been to the lands of the Pagi…”

The woman’s snort was indignant. “A stripling like you? Don’t lie, girl. If there’s one thing I hate more than a spoilt brat, it’s a liar.”

“I saw…” her mind was wheeling. Just a few more heart beats and she would lose control. Why would they not leave her be? “I saw the battle between the Pagi and our army.”

One of the men scratched at his jaw with casual contempt. “She’s lost her wits. She’s clearly mad…we should have seen it. Stumbling out here alone.” Bending low in his saddle, he spoke to her as if to a tiny child. “No one lived who was there. All that our people found were piles of ash. The Firefarer destroyed them all.” And then he froze. She noticed how his hands shook where they clutched the horse’s reins, how he straightened up and his lips moved around voiceless words. He understood: she saw it in his eyes. But his companions remained blind. And now she was above herself once more, staring down at them: at her own body which had acquired a sheen of light. She saw her assailants from above, the plumes of their helmets streaming out on the wind. And the grasslands stretching for league after monotonous league, leading west and towards the fire mountain.

“I said I saw the battle. I was there.”

“She’s…the Firefarer!” The words came out, a strangled whisper; the rider had reeled his horse around, was galloping away towards the coast, his fellow Ahi creased over in their saddles with laughter.

“Unta!” the woman called out, “The Firefarer was a boy. Don’t worry, we won’t let her hurt you.” And then the words dried on her lips, for she had seen the flames coursing beneath Muna’s skin: the way her body fractured as if it were a mere shell to reveal the liquid heat running beneath it.

“Spirits! Ride!”

The sword was gone from Muna’s back, they were readying themselves to charge, perhaps to ride her down. The fools. They were lost. She was lost. She couldn’t control it now: it was too late. And as the Ahi horses screamed with fear she watched, helpless as her own body betrayed her. As heat rose, as the animals sank to their knees, as flames engulfed the grass and scrub, and the skin of humans; the flesh of their mounts slid, viscous as resin from their faces, their limbs. As the stink of charred flesh became the cloying, acrid stench of ash. And she was back once more on the earth, staggering away in her weakened body, her tears transformed to steam even as her skin hardened and cooled. This curse had killed Hori: would it destroy her too? Would it eat her away until she herself was no more than flames and ash? She would never know, she realised, sinking to her knees in despair, unable to walk any further, hunger and exhaustion crashing down upon her, felling her until she was sobbing on the ground, surrounded by nothing but the wind, the mountains; not even a drop of water to quench the burning thirst which gripped her throat. It was over. The plains would take her. Muna closed her eyes. The world was a dark place. But the void into which she now fell was even darker.

 

Picture credit: Josh Sorenson

 

 

 

Maria Edgeworth

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Maria Edgeworth by John Downman

Several years ago, while carrying out some research for an academic paper, I came across the following quotation from the Anglo-Irish writer Maria Edgeworth:

“The blunders of men of all countries, except Ireland do not affix an indelible stigma upon individual or national character.  A free pardon is, and ought to be granted by every Englishman to the vernacular and literary errors of those who have the happiness to be born subjects of Great Britain.  What enviable privileges are annexed to the birth of an Englishman! and what a misfortune it is to be a native of Ireland!” [1]

I loved the quote. For me, it was a great, stinging blow to English ignorance, couched in the most sophisticated, savage irony. You’re judging the Irish before you’ve even met them, Edgeworth seems to suggest. You recognise that  Irish English is different. Therefore, you assume it’s inferior. What a misfortune indeed to be born Irish – her scorn cuts to the bone.

Edgeworth’s mockery seemed to resonate – there was something very modern about her satire, something almost rebellious in the way she, as a member of the Irish Ascendancy class, chose to refute the attitudes and prejudices of her peers. And in fact her Anglo-Irish heritage added another layer to Edgeworth’s fascination: she emerges as an outsider figure, born into a marginalised group within an already marginalised society. This is perhaps one of the reasons why her legacy is not celebrated in the way that, for example, we celebrate the legacies of Austen or the Brontes. And yet what she was doing in her literature was so radical that she influenced them and Walter Scott with whom she corresponded.

So I decided to read her first significant work, Castle Rackrent – a biting satire on the subject of absentee landlords and the depravities of the gentry in late eighteenth century Ireland. And while that might seem a subject well out of our frame of reference, the humour of her novel and the degree of psychological insight is anything but. The story is told from the perspective of Thady Quirk, servant to the Rackrent heirs, and loyal to a fault. While Thady’s masters prove to be a bunch of dissolute, mendacious, heartless bastards, Thady serves without question. And whether he turns a blind eye to their faults or really is such an innocent, we’re never quite certain. Yet his naivety throws into relief their sheer awfulness. It’s a carefully realised exercise in irony, and it has been suggested that Edgeworth was one of the first novelists to use the device of the unreliable narrator, a literary strategy subsequently employed by writers from Emily Bronte to Nabakov.  Her work was bold, experimental and infused with wry,  bitter humour which throws into relief the political and social disparities of her day.

Edgeworth went on to write essays, novels and children’s stories and yet seems a somewhat shadowy figure, hidden behind giants like Austen, the Brontes and Scott.  And so I think that Ireland’s national day is a great opportunity to celebrate one of a great literary nation’s lesser known literary heroes.

 

[1] Maria Edgeworth, Tales and Novels Volume 4 – Castle Rackrent; An Essay on Irish Bulls; An Essay on the Noble Science (Charleston S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2006), p. 90.

The Fresco and the Fountain

I’ve now started work on the next book in the Artist Enchanters series, The Fresco and the Fountain. This is a series which follows the journeys of three exiles as they travel through a land in which art really is magic and the greatest dangers often lie within their own hearts. Part One of the series, The Firefarer, is now available on Amazon. I’ve decided to write part two away from Wattpad, as I hope it will give me greater freedom to play around with the development of the narrative and the characters.

However, here is a sneek preview of chapter one in which former monk Vito begins to learn the arts of the Pagi. Warning – if you’ve not read The Firefarer, look away now as it contains spoilers!

Chapter One: Adama

“Now that,” Vito said, wiping a crumb from his cheek, “was delicious. What did you say your name was?”

“Nico. Nico Ol Arcano, my Lord.”

Vito winced. “I’m not a Lord, Nico.”

“Oh. I thought…” the young man’s face flushed, embarrassment clouding the pale blue of his eyes. He was lean and light in build with soft, almost feminine features and long, copperish hair.

“I mean…look at me. Do I resemble a Lord?” Vito squeezed a grape between his teeth, revelling in its sweetness.

“No, Master Vito. I mean…you have Lordly bearing. I should have thought…under different circumstances…”

“Please!” Vito shook his head. “I’m a corrupted monk, Nico. I’m at best a caretaker in this house, at worst…”his fingers settled on the seal in his pocket. “…at worst a cuckoo. I’m merely looking after it until the Duchess of Libarum returns.”

“The Duchess? I thought…”

“Or some  distant family member,” Vito added with haste. “But they tolerate me here because of this.” He plucked the seal from his pocket, turning it over in his hands so that Nico might see the scroll engraved on one side, the image of the Libarum palace on the other. “At present, I am the only acknowledged bearer of such a seal. And it bestows certain…rights.”

“I see.” But Nico’s frown suggested that he didn’t. “And might I ask, Master Vito…”

“Just Vito, please.”

“Might I ask how you came by this?”

“Ah.” Vito’s mind retraced its steps to the carnage of a battle field; to a woman’s groans, to searing heat and pain. “That,” he faltered, “is a story for another time.” He slipped the seal back into his pocket. “For now, my dear Nico, I would like to employ your services as a cook.”

Weak autumn sunlight strayed through the windows of the study. Had she once looked out at that same view? At the burnished gold of distant vineyards and woodland; at the terraces of the palace spilling down into orchards and fountains?

“Tell me…” Vito leant across the remains of his supper. “Is cooking…cuisine…is it as valued an art as all the others?”

“More so.” Nico moved to the hearth, rubbing his hands before its warmth. “A well prepared feast feeds all our senses.”

“Even our ears?”

“Have you never listened to the harmonies of a well-tuned kitchen, Vito?”

“No. I can’t say I have. Well…” he rose and shook hands with Nico. “I hope that you will introduce me to this…most mystical of arts. Many thanks for this…” his hand hovered once more over the remains of his supper. For some reason his mind failed to grasp what it was he had just eaten. “…inexpressible…delicious…well, I have to study now.”

Nico raised an eyebrow. “To study?”

“Yes. I have much to learn about all the arts.”

“I thought monks shunned such knowledge.”

With a smile Vito whisked open the door, waiting for Nico to pass through. “A corrupted monk, my friend. Corrupted.”

***

“You will observe how the artist draws our attention to the hunters’ chase.” Avala Ol Hauriro circled the central motif of the painting with a jewelled finger.

Vito craned forward. “Yes. I see.”

The artwork was small in scale, framed in dark, resinous walnut and balanced on an easel in the centre of his study. To its fore, a tight knot of Pagi hunters pursued a wounded hart through dense woodland. The forest itself resembled an exercise in geometry rather than a depiction of nature, its trees a sprouting series of matchsticks.

“Look carefully, Vito. The artist was cunning. The hunters themselves are a mere distraction.”

“They are?” He peered into the painting once more. Nothing changed. One grand Pagi Lord charged, suspended in paint, his spear raised high above his shoulder. Behind him rode his band of followers pointing, crying out as the deer sprang away into the distance. Vito shook his head, frustrated. “What am I looking for?”

“Vito…” Avala eyed him with grave, grey eyes. It was hard to guess her age. And the Pagi were nothing if not arch dissemblers. But she seemed of middle years; a cascade of thick, chestnut curls framing the sharp, even contours of her face. “Vito, as I have already explained, the painting itself is an assembly of ochre and lead, of malachite, copper and carmine. Its enchantment is released when you truly see it, Vito. It all depends on your act of sight. Look at it again. Look beyond the hunters and into the forest. Look at it and see what the painter is really telling you.”

He shifted his gaze from hunters to trees as instructed: at the mustard brown of their bark and the emerald shreds of their leaves. At the quaint parakeets and owls which nestled in their branches. The lightest breath of wind brushed his cheek, like a woman’s kiss. Vito shivered. This was unwise; he should tear himself from the painting now. He was too old to learn of Pagi art without falling into its net. It would ensnare him: a poor, lapsed monk who knew nothing of its dangers. But without this knowledge, he would never match his brother. And so he forced himself to look.

The forest parted. Boughs bent to his sight, the wind sifting the leaves. The hart bounded past, having evaded the Pagi. And there, lying amid a grove of fir trees lay a naked man and woman, their clothes strewn across the grass. They clung to each other, rising together in their love making. And then the woman raised her head and looked directly at Vito, her grey eyes meeting his over her lover’s shoulder. Her hair was a wild shock of brown curls.

Sucking in his breath, sweating, his heart dancing wildly, Vito stepped away…and back into the studio, into the waning light of an autumn afternoon. He stared at Avala. “You!”

“So you saw us.” She played idly with a ring of sapphire set upon her right index finger.

“And he…he was…”

“Vito,” her eyes betrayed amusement. “He was the artist. And the Pagi Lord…”

“Your husband!”

“Yes. My husband. Philo Ol Hauriro. But we’re not here to talk about my infidelity, are we? We’re here to talk about art.”

“Does he know?” Vito gasped, breathless.

“He would do if he’d looked at that painting in the way you just had, Vito. The irony is that it hangs on my bedroom wall and yet he’s never really seen it. Vito,” she grasped his wrist, shaking him out of shock. “You invited me here to teach you about art. For what purposes I neither know nor care. But let this be our first lesson. Every Pagi painting is a lock. And your eyes are the key to that lock.”

A lock and its key. The words threaded through his memory, stirring and disturbing. “And all art acts in this way…music, sculpture, architecture…they are all locks to which my eyes…my mind is a key?”

Avala nodded. “Without your sight, your way of perceiving them or hearing them, they are nothing. Imagination is alchemy, Vito.”

“And what…what about words. Could my own thoughts work upon them in the same way…as a key?”

“Indubitably.”

“Wait here.” He held up a hand and dashed from the study, tearing down corridor after winding corridor until he’d reached his own chamber. Breathless, he crouched beside the bed and dragged a battered old satchel out from under it. The leather of the bag was faded, scratched and in places pocked with scorch marks. Vito slung it across his shoulder and raced back to the study where Avala stood with her back to him gazing out of the window. He felt inside the satchel for the book, tracing his fingers over its torn cover; over the title engraved across its spine. Then, without further hesitation he tipped it out onto the desk, embarrassed when two tawny plaits of hair fell out beside it. Hastily, he brushed them back into the bag and opened the book, flicking through its pages, trying to ignore the stories it had weaved all that hot summer as he had wandered grief ridden along the parched paths of the Pagi and into an arena of mass slaughter.

The words were still there, written by an unknown hand, scrawled across the base of the final page. Death is but a locked door. And I am the key. And now he was certain that Avala, with all her knowledge of Pagi ways, with her insights into magic and art, would help him to unlock that door. A strange coldness pricked the hairs on the back of his neck. She was behind him, he realised: peering over his shoulder at the book. He sensed her fear.

“Where did you get that?” she whispered.

“Is it true, Avala?” He turned to her. Her lips had thinned to pale lines; her eyes worked with strain. “Is it true?” he repeated. “If I read these words in the right way; if I set my imagination to work on them, will I unlock the door of death?”

“Vito,” her voice seemed to echo up from cavernous depths. “Vito, I am going to leave now.”

“But you said…you said you could teach me all there was to know about art!”

“Vito, I have given my life to art. But I won’t give up my soul for it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Burn that book, Vito. For all our sakes. Don’t let it tempt you. Don’t read it, don’t look at it. I’m…I must go. I can’t stay here.” She was gathering up the painting, wrapping it in a swathe of linen.

“Avala, please!”

“I’m sorry, Vito.”

She didn’t look back. She was gone, out the door, her footsteps echoing to light clips as she fled from the palace. He sank down in his chair, brooding on the book. It was all he had…that, the seal and the hair. Avala didn’t understand; how could she? She hadn’t seen the things he’d seen, and for all her knowledge of art, she wouldn’t ever come close to the powers, the forces which had laid waste to entire armies, which had wrought such suffering, pain and death. Avala, he decided, was a novice. And so, for that matter, was his brother. If he unlocked the door of death itself, if he could right the wrongs of the past, then he would be greater than all of them. And Andre would come back, fleet of foot, tearing through the fabric of time with brightness and grace. Immortal.

 

 

 

 

 

Hal – Sample Chapter

A Sample Chapter  of Hal – “Books.” Complete with Hal’s sexy new cover.

Hal Dryad Fantasy Kindle Cover

Books

“Was this the book you requested, Miss Léac?”

The librarian craned down at Meracad from his ladder, swaying beneath the dusty weight of a leather-bound volume. Standing on tiptoes, she studied the engraving on its spine: The Imperial Chronicles, Volume Two.

“Yes. That’s it. Thank you.”

He staggered down the rungs, laying it with reverence upon the reading desk. “Are you certain that you wish to read this?” Grey-flecked eyebrows shot up above a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.

“And why not?” Her voice echoed around the silent, empty vault of the reading room.

“It is not common reading matter for young ladies, Miss Léac.”

“And who would it be common reading matter for, then?” Try as she might, she could not quite keep the defensive note out of her voice.

He shrugged. “Senators, courtiers…”

“I wish to know how my ancestors lived, Sir. How our empire came into being…why Colvé was built.”

The librarian raised a bony, nervous hand to his thinning hair, patting down a few loose strands. “Of course, Miss Léac. An admirable pursuit, if I might say so. Now I really must be…” he gazed around absently as if he had forgotten what he ought to be doing. “I must get back to my work.”

She sat down and began to leaf through The Chronicles, inhaling the delicate, woody scent of ancient parchment. She disturbed him: she could see it in his milky, half-seeing eyes. Every time she entered the library he studied her, followed her, interrogated her with stammering questions about her choice of reading material. Would she not, perhaps, prefer some courtly romance? That was what the young ladies craved these days. Or Mistress Egré’s latest guide to etiquette. He was not, after all, certain that Master Léac would approve of her choice of books.

Meracad stifled a sigh, pressing down a time-stained page to reveal a fresh chapter in the empire’s glorious history. Would he pass on details of her reading habits to her father, she wondered? Would she now find herself forbidden to enter the library? Colvé was a maze. She ran along its avenues, only to find them sealed.

“I thought it was you.” The voice pulled her from a world of battles and sieges and back into the cool, musty reality of the library. Frowning, she raised her head and stared at Hal Thæc who had planted herself on the opposite side of the desk.

“I’m sorry,” Meracad said, her fingers fidgeting with the edges of the parchment. “I didn’t see you.”

Hal Thæc offered her a lop-sided grin in response. “Must be a good book.”

“It is – The Imperial Chronicles.”

The Chronicles?” Hal feigned a yawn. “They made us read some of those when I was a ward.”

“You didn’t enjoy them, I take it?”

“Well I wouldn’t read them out of choice.”

Meracad closed the book, running her fingers along the impressions upon its spine. “So if you’re not fond of reading, what are you doing in a library?”

Folding her hands behind her head, Hal leant against the backrest of the chair. “It’s cool in here.” Her blue eyes danced with irony. “And it’s hot out there.”

Meracad smiled in spite of herself. The duellist appeared calmer, less frantic than she had done a few days before at Remigius’s party. Cropped, coal-black hair threw the paleness of her skin into relief. Her long-limbed, wiry frame was wrapped in leather vest and trousers.

“The public baths are the place to cool off, I believe,” Meracad said.

“I’ve tried them. They’re full of courtiers.”

“Oh yes. I’d heard you had an aversion to courtiers.”

Hal leant forward, her bare arms forming a frame upon which to rest her chin. “Really? Who told you that?”

The conversation was already sliding into treacherous terrain. Meracad shrugged. “I thought it was common knowledge. You left the court because you couldn’t stand it.”

“I left the court in order to duel.”

The librarian limped forward, hobnails clipping on the polished marble of the floor. Hal raised her head, acknowledging him, Meracad noticed, with a provocative grin.

“Mistress Thæc,” the old man began, “you seem to be making a habit of turning the library into your own private forum.”

“I was sharing my appreciation of The Chronicles with Miss Léac,” she replied, her voice low and lazy.

“Miss Léac’s devotion to the library is admirable. She comes here to read!”

“Miss Léac is to be admired, I agree.”

The librarian turned on his heel and stamped away, fuming. Meracad grew uncomfortably aware of the blush which now worked its way up her neck, and of Hal’s steady gaze.

The duellist leant forward as if conspiring against the librarian. “Why do you love to read so much?” She asked, tapping a finger upon the cover of The Chronicles. Meracad smiled, sensing that the conversation was back on safer ground.

“To take myself beyond this cess-pit of a city.”

The duellist’s eyes rounded in surprise. “You hate it so much?”

Meracad felt her pulse quicken. No one, she had learnt, was to be trusted ─ not maids, dancing tutors, librarians, servants. Not senators, courtiers or her father’s fellow merchants. Gossip ran rife as plague around the city. A single word whispered in a moment of forgetfulness would work its way back to her father’s house. So why did she now find herself so desperate to reveal it all ─ all the misery and frustration ─ to this strange woman?

“Don’t all prisoners hate their cells?” The words slipped out as if on their own accord. And once out, they couldn’t be unsaid.

Hal’s sharp features softened, the easy smile dropped from her face, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Your prison is in here, Meracad.” She put her fingertips to her temples. “Within, not without.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Why easy? We live in the same city, don’t we? We’re bound by the same rules.”

“Not you. You’re of noble birth. Your privileges are assumed ─ were assumed until you left court. My father clawed his way up to wealth and position. He expects my appreciation ─ he demands my respect.”

The smile returned to Hal’s lips. She stretched with fluid grace. “So you’ll simply do as you’re told then? Lie to yourself that these books offer you freedom, however fake that freedom really is? You’ll marry who you’re told to marry and move from one prison to the next?”

“It might get better.”

“It won’t.”

The librarian was hurrying towards them again, huffing and snorting like a small, irate dragon.

“Miss Thæc, I must ask you to leave! This is a library, not a public house.”

“Well I’m certain Miss Léac would never find herself in a public house,” Hal drawled.

Meracad glared at her, resenting the jibe, wishing Hal gone and at the same time willing her to stay.

Hal rose but kept both hands flat on the desk as she stared down at the merchant’s daughter, her eyes flecked with a cool arrogance. The librarian put a hand to her arm, guiding her away.

“I don’t expect to see you in here soon, Miss Thæc.”

“I don’t expect to return. But if Miss Léac wishes to discuss the empire’s history with me some more, she knows where to find me.”

“Why would I want to find you?” Meracad called out to Hal’s departing back.

The duellist turned round and shrugged. “I have no idea.”

The doors opened, rays of sun channelling through the library’s dusty haze, and for a moment Meracad saw Hal’s sleek form silhouetted against the light. Then the doors slammed shut and all was silence.

“My apologies, Miss Léac.” The librarian bustled forward once more, smoothing his hands down his apron as if to wipe them clean. “The woman knows no bounds, it would seem.”

“No, Sir. She doesn’t,” murmured Meracad, gnawing on a nail. A sudden wave of disappointment descended upon her, like clouds cancelling out a sunny day. The Imperial Chronicles no longer seemed a haven of romance and adventure to which she might escape. Grimacing, she pushed the volume back towards the librarian. “My father will be expecting me. I had better go.”

“Should I keep the book for your return?” His gaze was, she felt, just a little too intrusive.

“No, Sir. That won’t be necessary.”

Meracad threaded her way between the reading desks, eager to escape the suffocating gloom of the library. What had appeared a place of refuge now seemed just one more closed avenue of the maze, an illusion of freedom. Pushing open the door she lost herself amongst the dizzying play of courtiers, merchants, street-hawkers, of children, senators and thieves, the heat so intense it carried almost solid weight. She peered up and down the street but the duellist had disappeared. Biting her lip, Meracad set off in the direction of home, confused and alone.

Hal is available on Amazon: http://geni.us/B00TQCH4VQ/

Review: The Caphenon by Fletcher DeLancey

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I realise I’m a bit late to the party on this one, as the sixth instalment is due out in three days, but that only makes me regret not having read it sooner. Anyway, I’ve not done much reviewing for a while, so here goes…

I recently heard a radio interview in which Neil Gaiman was discussing the work of the late Brian Aldiss. Science fiction, suggested Gaiman, is a vehicle for speculation – a genre which should always make us ask ‘what if?’ It is precisely that curiosity, that desire to interrogate and push at the boundaries of possibility which drives Fletcher DeLancey’s novel The Caphenon. What would happen –  the book asks – if empathy could be used as a defensive weapon? What if faster than light travel were possible? What if gender fluidity were the norm?

These are the kinds of questions which feed into the compelling narrative of this novel – a story which fuses romance with adventure against a well realised backdrop of interplanetary politics. DeLancey’s world building is simply outstanding. From the beginning, the reader is thrown headfirst into the language, culture and traditions of Alsea, largely seeing it through the eyes of aliens who crash land their ship onto the planet. Suspicious of each other at first, Alseans and Gaians are forced to  confront issues of trust and respect if they are to have any chance of defeating a common enemy, .

While I worried at first that the main characters came across as being just a little too perfect – a lot of angst and soul searching took place within the opening chapters – they turned out to be flawed enough to seem genuine and attractive. There was always just enough tension and mistrust between Alsean leader Lancer Andira Tal and Gaian captain Ekatya Serrado to make their relationship a fascinating one. And the engaging quickfire dialogue between Serrado and her anthropologist girlfriend Lhyn was offset by scenes which revealed just how deep their love really ran.

My only misgiving about the book was the fact that – particularly towards its end – there was a tendency to relay certain scenes through Tal’s thoughts and memories, effectively info dumping. And while I understand that this was because the author probably had other priorities to focus on, some sense of the characters’ firsthand engagement with these events would have given the action greater immediacy.

However, that’s a very subjective observation. Overall, I just thought this was sci-fi writing at its very best and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book in the series.

Leda – Sample Chapter

As Leda is progressing on Wattpad, here’s a sample chapter which shows Hal doing what she does best. You can catch up with the story here: https://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

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“I’m accounted a fine singer amongst my people.” Roc swayed side to side in his saddle and closed his eyes, humming under his breath. “I’ll give you a demonstration, Hannac, if you care for one.”

Hal cringed inwardly. “My Lord, as much as I would love that…”

Roc opened his mouth and puffed out his chest.

“…if Castor’s men are in the area, we should not risk being overheard.”

He opened his eyes, favouring her with a sage nod. Jools winked at Hal as she rode past.

“You know, Hannac,” Roc said then in an exaggerated whisper, “I knew your father.”

“So did I…eventually.”

His massive head wagged like a great pendulum when he laughed. “Well yes, he did what he could to keep you a secret. Although having also met your mother, I can’t blame him.”

‘You were doubly blessed, then.”

“You’d never have thought it – the pair of them. He was a dark horse, Franc Hannac. But an honourable man, deep down.”

“He was, my Lord.”

“He would have made short work of Castor. He’d have taken an army to the gates of Colvé, if necessary.” He threw her a long, steady look.

Hal knew immediately where the conversation was leading. “My Lord, it may have escaped your attention, but I don’t have an army.”

Roc chuckled. “Not yet, lass. Not yet, you don’t.” He nodded at the mountains which now loomed closer with every passing day, the forest thinning at their base to mere scrub and thorn. Hal tipped back her head to take in the soaring grey mass of rock which rose into countless peaks, some of them already crested with snow. The wild mountain ranges of the West had been little more of a faint silhouette from the ramparts of Hannac. Now they seemed like crouching giants. She felt their power, their threat and beauty.

“But just wait until we’re on the other side of The Tooth,” Roc continued.

“What’s The Tooth?” she asked nervously.

“That fellow there.” He pointed at a peak which jutted high above the others – a ragged fang of rock.

Hal shivered. “We’re going over that?”

He stared at her. “Well there’s no other way, woman. And on the other side, in the valleys below…” he closed his eyes again, lost to his daydreams. “In the green valleys below lie my lands, my fort. Home, Hannac! Think of that. Home. And a thousand men waiting for my word – to rally against Castor and kick his vicious little arse off the throne. Just think of it – the houses of Roc and Hannac allied at last. It’s what your father would have wanted.”

“I’m sure,” she murmured. So that had been Jools’ plan all along. All that talk of evading Castor by heading west. Why else had she stored those weapons at the rocks? What other tricks did the little thief have up her sleeve? She observed her old friend as she rode ahead, laughing and joking with Salvesté. There would be words, Hal decided. There would definitely be words.

The last fringes of deep woodland gave way to sparser undergrowth and windswept, lonely rowans. They had passed the occasional woodsman’s hut or cottage on their journey through the forest – their movements tracked by eyes half-mad from isolation, peering out at them through a window. She’d witnessed a poacher wearing an old fur hat and little else skinning a rabbit. Now, however, for the first time since they left Colvé, there were signs of community – of sorts. An uneven array of wooden shacks nestled at the foot of the mountains, sweetly scented wood smoke wisping up through the makeshift chimneys on their roofs. A few half-naked children ran about, splashing in a stream, impervious to the cold. Outside their cottages sat two old women washing clothes in barrels, pipes dangling from their mouths. They observed the travellers wordlessly. And then, one by one, more men and women emerged from their huts, squinting into the daylight – some old, some young, although in many cases it was hard to tell their years, as their faces were so weather beaten and wrinkled, tanned by wind and sun.

“Who are they?” Hal whispered to Roc.

“Everything and nothing,” he said, observing the villagers. “They search for gold here amongst the streams and rocks. They poach, they drink, they fight. They’ll guide people like ourselves over the mountains. For a fee.”

“But we don’t have any money.”

“Not that kind of a fee,” Roc said with a grin.

“Lord Roc!” One man stepped from the group – lean, angular, his long, greying hair tied back from his face, his eyes wise and cunning. He was dressed, like Hal, in shirtsleeves and trousers, although unlike Hal he seemed oblivious to the cold. “Long time since your Lordship’s graced these parts.”

“Been entertaining the Emperor, Master Gorec.”

“That so?” Gorec spat. “His men were here not long ago now. Demanding their tribute.” A few angry mutterings and curses followed. “Won’t give us any peace, that Castor,” said Gorec. “Like his Uncle before him.”

“Believe me, this one’s worse than Diodiné,” Roc replied.

“Well, he certainly seems to have taken a dislike to you, Lord Roc.” Gorec grinned suddenly. “Enough at least to have had your portrait commissioned.” He nodded to a small, scrawny boy who ran inside a hut, re-emerging with a pile of scrolls. “This’d be you, I suppose?”

Gorec unrolled the parchment to reveal a grotesque caricature of Roc. The artist had given the western lord the appearance of a debauched old sot, with the heavy rings of a drinker around his eyes and a bulbous nose. Jools laughed out loud, and Roc scowled.

“I believe they’ve caught your very essence, my Lord,” Jools observed.

“You were amongst the artist’s subjects too, Mistress Jools, if I’m not mistaken.”

If the artist had given Jools a pair of horns, he could hardly have made her look more devilish. Now it was Roc’s turn to laugh.

“In fact,” said Gorec, “I do believe we have the whole collection. In the event of your capture, they’ll raise us quite a fortune.”

“We don’t intend to be captured, Master Gorec,” said Hal, reaching down to receive her own likeness. A scowling fugitive with murderous eyes stared back at her from the parchment. “Is that me?” she asked.

Salvesté peered over her shoulder. “It looks miserable enough to be you.”

She shook her head, rolled up the scroll and handed it back to Gorec. “Keep it, Sir. Although I shouldn’t hope to get rich from it anytime soon.”

“We’ll see,” Gorec said, studying her. She gazed back at him. There was no doubt that this man would sell them to the highest bidder, given the chance. But the fact that Castor’s men had already passed through the village left her with a vague sense of security.

“Looks like you could do with a place to rest your heads. And some warm clothing – if you’re to cross the mountains,” Gorec said, turning back to Jools.

“We can’t pay you, Gorec.”

“Money isn’t as much use to us as the horses you’re riding. And you won’t be taking them over The Tooth, I’m sure.”

“They’re yours,” said Salvesté. “We’ve some weapons spare too, if you wish them.”

Gorec grinned. “Weapons are welcome. This place gets wilder by the minute with folks such as yourselves stalking the land free. So…your horses, your weapons…and I’m sure, Lord Roc, you know us well enough to indulge our traditions?”

“What’s he talking about?” Hal whispered.

“One of you must fight, Mistress Hannac,” said Gorec, who evidently had sharp ears. “It’s an old custom amongst us. A symbol, if you like – that we’ll only give our hospitality to those worthy of it.”

“The mountain people’s trust is soon won and easily lost, Hannac,” Roc added.

“I see.” She felt the others eyes on her, and knew that trouble was brewing. “What?”

“Well we didn’t just save you for the sake of your pretty face, Hal,” Jools said with a vicious grin.

She looked at them in turn, and they met her gaze with smiles, shrugs and expectant eyes.

“Why me? Why not Magda?”

“You seem to have been spoiling for a fight of late, Hal.” Magda raised an eyebrow. “What’s changed?”

‘Well if that’s how it’s to be…” groaning she lowered herself from the saddle, unsheathing her sabre. “Master Gorec? Shall we?”

He shook his head and spread his hands. “It’s not me you’ll fight, Halanya.”

The villagers had walled themselves behind Gorec, exchanging brisk, high words in a dialect that Hal didn’t recognise. And then a figure stooped below the crossbeam of one of the huts and stepped out into the centre of the village: a man so tall, so hard and so wide that he put Hal in mind of a human oak tree.

She had once heard stories of strange beasts that lived in the mountains – half man, half wolf – and she was now inclined to believe them. The messy black thatch of curls which framed his massive head extended down across his face and chest. Clearly he was oblivious to the cold, dressed as he was in mere breeches and boots, the muscles of his chest and arms fused and knotted as thick as tree roots. She was aware of her head swimming, of the others jumping from their horses, wide-eyed and open mouthed, of Roc clamping a consolatory hand around her shoulder.

“We don’t like to lose,” said Gorec.

“So I see.”

Her opponent sized her up with open contempt. “I’ll not fight this…scarecrow.”

Hal swallowed hard. Use his size against him, Beric would have told her. But then Beric had always pitted her against flesh and blood, not bark and sap.

“As scarecrows go, Sir, I’m accounted swift with a sword.”

The wolf man shook his head. “I’ll not fight that,” he growled. “It’s an insult.”

“I never knew your feelings could be so easily wounded, Fælc,” said Gorec.

Fælc shook his monstrous head. “Not today,” he said, and turning his back on them all wandered back in the direction of his hut. “Wasn’t worth my getting out of bed.”

Hal turned and looked for support to her fellow travellers. “Now what?”

“Well go on!” Jools urged, waving frantically.

“But he doesn’t want to.”

“Hannac…” Roc gazed at her solemnly. “Not to fight is to insult them.”

“Right.” She turned around. Fælc had almost reached his hut. “Right,” she said again, and ran at him, leaping onto his back.

Some of the villagers clapped and cheered, others yelled at Fælc to fight. She clung on as hard as she could, one hand wrapped around his head, her legs knotted across his waist while she fumbled with her sword. Fælc flailed and swatted at her as if she were an insect, then grabbed her sword hand. Pain shot up her arm – she felt bones crush, dropping the sabre as he whirled her around in a few dizzying spirals before flinging her to the ground. She lay for a moment, unable to breath, gazing up at the weave of clouds high above – and then his shadow loomed, her sword dangling from his fist, clearly now as mad as a hungry bear. With a yelp, Hal rolled over, launching herself back onto her feet. “A sword, for the sake of all the spirits!” she gasped.

Magda threw her another sabre. She caught it by the hilt, ignoring the way the bones in her hand now seemed to grind together. Then the two of them stood, facing each other.

“You’ve got courage – for a scarecrow,” Fælc conceded.

“Well we scarecrows are noted for our tenacity.”

“What?” he frowned. The sabre resembled a knitting needle in his meaty hands.

She shook her head. “Never mind.” They circled for a few moments, eyeing each other, swords swaying, until Fælc – evidently not a patient man – raised his blade, arcing it down towards Hal’s chest.

“I’m too old for this,” she thought, tipping backwards into a half somersault. And she was – landing once again on her back, rolling from his strike just in time. But this, she realised, staggering to her feet, was the kind of display the villagers sought, for now they cheered her on as much as Fælc. Infuriated, he ran at her again. She leaped to one side, bringing the flat of her blade down hard on the small of his back, causing him to gasp and arch in pain.

Hal caught Magda’s eye and grinned, memories of the Circle resurfacing – the roar of the crowds, Beric’s threats, the ring of steel blades. As Fælc recovered, he brought his sword back down and she blocked, sensing his sheer power. Now it was his turn to smile, peering down at her as she forced him back, the strength sapped from her arms, sweat coursing down her forehead. She broke, exhausted, ignoring the catcalls of the villages, their fickle allegiances easily swayed.

“Poor form, scarecrow,” he taunted.

She watched him with wary eyes. She could never match his raw power. And he was, she realised, a man who could fight all day, his stamina bred from the harsh, unforgiving mountain conditions in which he lived. In such events, Beric had always advised her, wit and cunning were all she could rely on. And there’s little enough of that knocking around in that empty head of yours, girl, so don’t expect too much. She recalled his words, and grinned. And then, as Fælc ran towards her, she dropped her sword and rolled across the ground, straight at him. Her head rang with the impact; the world suddenly condensed into a confusion of arms, legs, clouds, grass – she could no longer tell which way was up or down.

She freed herself from the mess of limbs in time to see Fælc still kneeling in the dirt, his hair and beard speckled with grass. As he tried to peel himself off the ground, she picked up her sword and ran at him, leaping onto his back once again. He crumpled beneath her with a groan and she straddled his waist, pulled his head back by the hair, and slid her blade beneath his chin. “Yield?”

“Ugh,” said Fælc.

“Is that a yes?”

“Alright. Scarecrow.”

“So was it worth getting out of bed for the fight?”

He groaned.

“Was it?”

“It was.”

“Alright.” She threw her own sword back onto the grass and wiped a streak of blood from her mouth, dimly aware of the villagers laughing at Fælc, pouring each other tankards of what might have been ale. Her own companions crowded around to congratulate her, passing her amongst them until she was dizzy. Heat spread through her body – a curious joy which she hadn’t known in months, perhaps in years.

Fælc was on his feet, staggering towards her. She stiffened, observing him, preparing to run. And then he wrapped his arms around her, encircling her in a hug which almost cracked her ribs.

“Not bad, scarecrow.”

“My name is Hal.”

Fælc grinned down at her. “Hal,” he said. “Now the real contest. Bring us both a drink!”

“What?” She groaned as one of the washerwomen handed them both mugs of smoky dark ale. “Oh no!”

 

Leda – Sample Chapter: Oræl’s Story

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As Leda is now well in progress on Wattpad, I thought I’d post another sample chapter here as it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Leda has been rescued from drowning by crofters.

You can catch up with the whole story here: www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

***

Yaga sighed and slumped down on the edge of the bed. “You tell her,” she said, throwing Lev a harsh, hard look.

He seemed to deflate suddenly, no longer the bear-like, burly fisherman who’d saved Leda from the lake, but an aging, weakened, careworn man. He crossed the croft to its furthest end, peering out through the tiny square of window at Brennac – its waters reflecting a soot coloured sky, the clouds rain swollen and ready to burst.

“I don’t suppose you know much of life down here on the crofts, Leda. Not living up there in your great fortress in Dal Reniac.”

“I know enough.” She curtly jutted her chin. “I’ve lived at Hannac most of my life, I know all my parents’ tenants.”

“Aye, it’s not the same, though.” He turned back into the room, his face grey and haggard. “You’ve not lived amongst us – until now. You’ll not know. It’s not just the years of fishing and farming, out in all weathers and all hours – day and night. It’s not even this – that your child cries for food at a time of lack such as is now, and you’ve nought to give them save water from the lake.”

“What is it, then?” she asked gently.

“Leda, it’s… us. The crofters – that is, we place bonds on ourselves. We watch each other. We wait. Who didn’t visit the shrine last week, who seems to look at another’s wife or husband, who’s dressed like a lord – wears fancy clothes – or who takes too much ale. Every moment, every minute of our lives we watch. We talk. We laugh, mock and sometimes we even chase out those who don’t belong – who, in our eyes at least don’t belong. Isn’t that so, wife?”

Yaga nodded, her eyes cast down to the floor.

“But Lev, Colvé is no different – or so my parents tell me. There are few who can truly call themselves free.” She thought of the night of the coronation – of her harsh exchange with Hal – and a hot, vicious seam of shame welled within.

“No, I’m sure,” said Yaga. “I’m sure folks are the same anywhere. But you see, Leda, here in a village like ours, we – we see more. The torment can be too great. And so it was with…with our daughter, Oræl.”

Leda sucked in her breath. “Your daughter?”

“Aye.” Lev’s eyes grew glossy, threatening to spill. He dragged a small stool to the centre of the room and sat down, clutching his knees in a strangely childlike way. “She was…always different, Oræl. Always wanting to fish with me – you could never keep her inside. Always had to be dashing about. If she wasn’t fishing, she’d be swimming or hunting. She was a wild, wild girl.” He smiled, and Leda detected a hint of pride.

“But that was alright, so long as she was a child,” Yaga continued. “Spirits, how good it is to speak of this to another. We’ve never told a soul, have we, Lev?”

“No. Never.” He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“As time went on, though,” Yaga continued, “the folks here saw it. Said it were a shame – in a young woman. Fit to be married, to have children of her own, and there she was – careering about the place like a savage. Fishing’s men’s work, they said. You remind her of that. With your belt strap, if need be.”

Lev winced. “Once. Once, I did it. Didn’t work, though. Just made her look at me different. After all, I was the one who’d allowed her to fish – she’s good at it. Where was the harm, I’d thought.”

“She’s…she’s alive?” Leda ventured.

“Oh aye. Alive. But not to us. Not to us.” Driven to tears, Yaga rose and left the croft. Leda stared at Lev.

“Yaga blames me, of course,” he said. “Thinks it’s all my fault.”

“Why?”

He shook his head. “The village was outraged. said they’d no longer have such a…a cursed creature like Oræl amongst them. There were even those who said she was a ræsling.”

Leda suddenly understood. “You made her go?”

Lev’s face crumpled, his eyes welled and finally spilled, and he sank his bare head into his hands. “I thought I was helping her, Leda. I thought I was saving her. I told her she’d no more a home in my croft until she’d learned her place – I’d find her a good lad from the village, I told her. She could settle down, bear us some grandchildren. I loved her – I didn’t want her to change. She’s my Oræl and she always will be. But I was a coward.”

He rose, and then, with unexpected viciousness, kicked the stool across the room. It crashed into a pile of nets. “I was such a damned coward.”

“Aye, Lev. You were.” Yaga spoke quietly from the doorway, her face now dry, her composure regained. “I warned him to leave her be. You could never keep Oræl down. She’d always have her way.”

“Just like someone else I know,” Leda murmured. “Where is she now?”

“Fishing up north somewhere – out of Anstræc most likely,” said Lev, trembling. “I went up there, begged her to come back. She just told me to take my boots off her boat.”

There was something so profoundly sad about Oræl’s story. Leda recognised Hal in the girl’s refusal to bend or break. She heard, too, the threat of loveless marriage which had been a reality for Meracad and could very nearly have become her own fate – that denial of freedom, that slow, living death. She saw this girl running, like herself, making her mark, casting her nets into Brennac’s dark waters while the world conspired to make her its slave.

“I’ll find her,” she said suddenly. “I’ll bring her back to you.”

Yaga’s smile was mournful. “It’s good of you, Leda, but you yourself are – well, the Emperor’s men are searching for you.”

“I know.”

“They’ll catch you.”

“They won’t.” They’ll never catch me, she decided. Not alive, at least.

“Leda, what are you doing? Where are you going?”

It had started to rain. She stepped outside for the first day in many – turned her face to the clouds dressed in her crofter’s coarse woven dress, her feet bare, the mud of the village oozing between her toes. Across the dirt road two men stared at her – both weather brown and wrinkled – one with a coarse growth of greying beard across his chin, the other clean shaven, wiry, his expression hardening from surprise to recognition. She didn’t care. The rain fell harder, soaking her to the bone as she strode to the centre of the village – to the post on which hung her likeness, and that of her mother. As more faces peered from croft doors, she stripped the parchment from the post and held it aloft.

“This is me – Leda Nérac, Lady of Dal Reniac. Just so you can tell the Emperor’s men when they pass this road again that you’ve seen me.” She crumpled the paper in her fists. “Or you can remain faithful to me – support me and my family. The Emperor is dangerous.”

All eyes were on her now. In spite of the rain, her blood felt hot.

“He is a tyrant. You may not believe me now, but by all the spirits you will do when the time comes. So make your choice. You can hand me in, if you like, but if you let me go now, I’ll return home to Dal Reniac, and I’ll fight for you.”

Not a word. Not a murmur.

“I ask just one thing – give yourselves freedom. Only you can do that.”

She turned at last to Lev and Yaga who stood shivering in their doorway, Lev’s arm folded around his wife’s shoulders. “I keep my promises,” she said.

A single track wound its way from the village, up across moorland towards the jagged crags which overhung the lake. Leda began to walk. And no one followed her.

Review – The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s latest novel proves to be as elusive a beast as the Essex Serpent itself: a story which coaxes the reader into a literary terrain every bit as shifting and unstable as the salt marshes amongst which it is set.

Following the death of her abusive husband, Cora Seaborne sets about reinventing herself – stretching her wings and re-evaluating her relationship with her friends, and with society in general.  Freeing herself from the disapproving gaze of Victorian London, Cora moves to Essex in the hope of scouring the local beaches for fossils. Intrigued by the possibility that a “living fossil” may have been sighted near the village of Aldwinter, with local sightings of a winged sea beast reported, she moves there with her friend Martha and autistic son Frankie.

In truth, if there is any geology to be had in this novel, it is of the personal sort – the gradual chipping away at layers of emotional sediment to discover the uncomfortable truths which Cora – and many of her friends – keep deeply buried. On encountering local Vicar Will Ransome, Cora dredges her own sense of self to make sense of her feelings for him, while Will finds himself torn between the superstitions of his congregation and the foundations of his own religious belief. This is a story which explores the porous boundaries between pleasure and pain, between faith and superstition and between love and hate. Imbued with all the rich ambiguity of a Turner painting, it throws an alternative view of the Victorian age into relief – one in which sexual desire and sexuality lurk just beneath the surface of public consciousness, and are easily implied if not expressed.

Comparisons have been drawn between Perry’s sublime work of Victorian pastiche and Bram Stoker/Dickens. I didn’t quite feel that myself – it doesn’t really function as gothic, or as social commentary – at least not directly. I did, however, find myself thinking about Hardy as I read it: of his pivotal themes of sin and redemption, and of his exposure of the hypocrisies of nineteenth century British society. But what I really find most valuable here, is the uniqueness of Perry’s writing, and the way she gives a voice to characters whose stories are repressed or never heard at all in Victorian literature. A book which very definitely deserves to be re-read.

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.