Leda: An Extract

41tefr22DjL

When Hal goes bad, she goes really bad. Here’s an extract from my latest book, Leda – Part Three of The Duellist Trilogy. 

Tipping the Balance

This bloodsucking leech of a world which just seemed to keep taking until Hal had no more left to give…it had finally thrown something back. Leda was the break of sun through storm clouds; she was flower petals mingling with the sand and heat of the desert. She had returned.

Hal held Leda at arm’s length, unable to speak, taking in the girl’s outlandish clothes ˗ the shirt and trousers twice her size, besmirched with mud and torn to rags. Her ill-fitting boots and the heavy sheepskin draped over her shoulders. Her wild curls were plastered to her face with rain and sweat and dirt. She was thin: half-starved, Hal guessed, and pale with exhaustion. And somehow aged, as if in weeks she’d witnessed years. Unwilling to let the girl go again, Hal drew her closer, squeezing her so hard that Leda yelped.

“Where have you been?”

“If I told you, Hal, you might not believe me. I’ll write you another book some day. It all seems more like a story than the truth.”

Hal read the suffering in Leda’s face, the lines of worry etched into her skin. “A tale to frighten children with?”

Leda looked away. “Something like that.” She gnawed on her lower lip and shivered. “My saviour, Oræl,” she said.

Drawing from Hal’s embrace, she threw an arm around the shoulders of her companion: auburn haired and golden eyed, strong and long of limb, her face freckled, weather-worn and honest. Hal warmed to her immediately.”Is it true?” she asked. “Did you save her?”

“We saved each other,” Oræl said. Hal detected a crofter’s accent, thick and melodic. She observed, too, how Oræl leaned towards Leda, as if drawn to her on an invisible thread.

There was a snapping of undergrowth, a pummelling of the ground, as Roc’s army marched outwards and onto the moors. Leda gripped Oræl’s hand in fear.

“Don’t worry, Leda. That’s the rest of us. Magda is here and Jools, and…”

“Mother?” Leda asked, the breath catching in her throat.

Hal shook her head, guilt and loss stealing up on her in equal measure. “Leda, your mother is Josen’s prisoner.”

“What?”

“It was my fault. We argued and…”

“Well, well, well…the moors do deliver up their treasures!” Jools jumped down from her horse, her voice sharp with surprise. Hal closed her eyes in frustration.

“Leda, from which well of hope did you spring?” Jools grinned, swinging Leda around. “Sometimes it’s like all your birthdays rolled into one, ain’t it, Hal?” She caught Hal’s eye and winked. “Well cheer up for the spirits’ sakes! Something good’s happened for a change.

“She doesn’t know yet,” said Hal.

“What doesn’t she know?”

Hal hissed with irritation. “Leda,” she began gently.

“We’ve already heard, Hal. We passed through Lake End and they told us everything. We were headed for Hannac, but…” her voice trailed away, her eyes deepening with sorrow. “Now Dal Reniac needs us. I’ll talk to Castor, I’ll do anything to stop him.”

“Well, what do you know?” Jools said, elbowing Hal in the ribs. “That’s exactly where we’re headed too, isn’t it, Hal?”

Hal winced. “My dead are at Hannac.”

“But it’s the living in Dal Reniac who need us now, Hal.” Magda, pushed her way through  the throngs of soldiers. Word of Leda’s return was greeted with cheers and shouts as the news carried through the ranks. Magda embraced Leda warmly, kissing her on her forehead.

“Hal, you can’t help Hannac now. I know how desperately you must want to get back there,” Leda said. “I want that too, believe me. But we have a duty to the city. And to Edæc.”

Magda threw Hal a confused look. “But my brother’s probably dead, Leda.”

“No! At Lake End they said he fled to Dal Reniac before Castor had reached Hannac.”

Relief flooded Magda’s face. “Spirits, may it be the truth,” she whispered. A snort of contempt from the older of the two prisoners cut through her prayer.

“So these are Castor’s spies?” Jools turned her gaze on Davic and his companion, still held at knife point by Roc’s men. “Hal, they’re all yours.”

Reluctantly, Hal shifted her gaze from Leda to Davic. “It seems odd, doesn’t it?” she asked. “We hear so many reports of Hannac destroyed, of all its people put to the sword or burnt alive. And yet here you are, Davic. Wandering the moors at will.”

“I escaped, Hal,” Davic gasped. “It was awful. I ran, and…they were screaming. People running, Castor’s guards everywhere, blood…” spit flecked his lips.

“Yes. So I imagine. Every hour of every day and night.”

“He’s lying!” Leda cried. “We heard them talking before you arrived. They were speaking about you, Hal, and of the thieves…and of what Davic had done at Hannac.”

“Well is that so?” Hal wetted her lips with her tongue. She’d never trusted the boy. He’d always had a tendency to whine, to blame others for his own weaknesses, to gossip and gloat over the tenants’ misfortunes. She’d tolerated him for Luc’s sake. “And just what is it that you did at Hannac, Davic? Perhaps your friend here can enlighten us. I don’t remember seeing him before.” She slipped her sword from her belt, waving it an inch from the spy’s face. “You’re a Berasé man, perhaps?”

He watched her for a moment, a thin smile creeping across his dark, unshaven cheeks, his eyes fuelled with hatred. And then he hawked hard and spat in her face.

After all those nights spent dreaming of murder and revenge, after the days of riding, hollowed out and lost, she surprised herself with her restraint, dragging the back of her sleeve across her cheek. But then, she realised that for the first time in days she had power. She was in control. And she was prepared to take her time.

“Your friend doesn’t seem to like me, Davic,” she said. “I wonder why?”

“It’s true what I said, Hal! I met him on the moors. I was wandering for days. My Da killed, and Arec and all of them.” He broke into pitiful sobs. “It was hell.”

“I’m sure. Tie them both to that tree over there.”

As Davic and the older man were dragged to a thick oak tree on the fringe of the forest, Magda laid a hand on Hal’s arm. “Hal,” she warned. “We’re no better than they are if we…”

“I know what I’m doing,” she growled, hit by a sudden flash of anger. “And you’d do the same in my place. Jools, give me your knife.”

“With pleasure.”

She was wrong of course, and Magda was right. She knew it in the very fibre of her being. What she wanted to do now would break her apart. It would send her spiralling, plummeting away from herself, from all the rules she had ever consciously clung to. And yet she couldn’t stop herself. Something had snapped within her back at Roc’s fortress. She couldn’t hold herself back. The world had demanded too much for her to care about restraint anymore.

Hal crouched in front of the two men, now bound to the broad trunk of the oak, Davic whimpering and crying, the older man still capable of contempt, his eyes hard and fixed on the point of Jools’ knife which she waved before his face.

“So who are you, Sir? I like to put a name to a man I’m about to hurt.”

His lips tightened to thin, white lines. She considered him for a few moments, balancing the knife on the tips of her fingers, rotating it over and over. And then she drove it hard into his left shoulder. There was a collective gasp, punctured by a few ugly cheers. Magda dived forwards to stop her, but Roc and Cesary held her back.

“Bastard born bitch of a whore.” He spat the words out at her in his pain, sweat beading his brow, blood blotting the worsted of his jacket and fanning out beneath his armpit and across his chest.

“Well he’s right about the first part,” said Jools helpfully, peering over Hal’s shoulder.

Hal threw her a look of disgust. “Now, Sir, no more speculating on my birth, my character or my occupation. We’re here to talk about you. And what you were doing wandering the moors with Davic.”

“Kayetan!” Davic suddenly screamed. “His name’s Kayetan!”

“Good. That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Don’t utter another word, fool!” Kayetan gasped, his face draining of colour.

“Davic,” leaving the knife buried in Kayetan’s shoulder, she twisted round to face the Hannac boy. Leda stood just to the left of the oak. The girl’s face was bereft of emotion, her grey eyes cold and impassive. Something told Hal to stop: to pull out the knife, to patch Kayetan up, to leave him to heal and Davic to his guilt. To stop this vile, bloody performance before more damage was done. But she couldn’t. The anger, the sorrow, the fracture to her spirit: it all ran too deep.

“Davic,” she said again.

He was a crumpled, weeping mess. A hot trickle of urine leaked out onto the grass between his legs, steaming as it hit the cold earth.

“I want you to watch what I’m about to do to Kayetan,” she continued.

“No!” He moaned.

“Watch him!” She seized the boy’s hair, twisting his head around until he could not help but look at the older man. “Because I’m going to do it to you too…”

Davic’s breathing grew feverish and ragged, his sweat coated her hand.

“…unless you answer all my questions. For the sake of your father who was ˗ I assume he’s now dead ˗ an honourable man, I’ll give you a chance. But tell me, what really did happen at Hannac?”

“I ran,” he said, but this time there was no conviction in his voice. “I escaped.”

“But Leda says otherwise. And with all the best will in the world, Davic, I trust her far, far more than I ever trusted you.”

“I…ran.”

“No you didn’t.” She curled her fingers around the handle of Jools’ knife. And then she twisted, Kayetan screaming as the blade ground through gristle, tendons and muscle.

“I think he’d rather you told the truth actually, Davic. Isn’t that right, Kayetan?”

“You monstrous traitor.” Kayetan was breathing hard through his nose, his jaw clenched in a bid to stop himself from howling in agony.

“Now I’m certain that he doesn’t like me.” She turned back to Davic. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been there myself, you see. I know how he feels. At first, you think that the torture will stop…eventually. When you realise that’s not about to happen, you start thinking about death, and what a relief it would be.”

Kayetan seemed to be fighting a battle with consciousness, his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breathing feverish.

“I don’t think he’s quite there…yet,” Hal said. “When you realise that they won’t even grant you that mercy, you wonder if you can bring yourself to beg. For death, I mean. It’s an awful thing. It takes you apart piece by little piece, until you forget who you really are. I don’t think you ever truly recover.”

Leda was still there, hovering behind Davic, her expression one of crafted ice. Hal immediately regretted the confession.

“But look,” she said. “I don’t want us to get that far. So for the spirits’ sakes!” She grabbed his hair again and shouted into his face. “Tell me what happened!”

He twitched and spasmed, his body now jerking beyond his control. He closed his eyes. “Arec let him in,” he said at last.

“So it was all Arec’s fault?”

“No! He thought…he though Castor would respect the ancient laws of hosts.”

She rocked back on her heels. Arec ˗ he would have done that, the trusting fool. He would have seen Castor as another Diodiné: a firm, fair respecter of tradition. “And then what?” she asked quietly.

“Castor and his men…they murdered, slaughtered, burnt…all of them.” Bending over in his bonds, he heaved and retched, vomiting into a patch of leaves. Ready to throw up herself, she backed away, rose and turned.

Still caught between Roc and his son, Magda shook her head. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Whatever it takes.”

Hal twisted back round and peered down at Davic. “So they all died, did they? All of them? Your father, Arec, Elis, the tenants, their children?”

He nodded, a few strings of drool flecking his lips and chin.

“Except for you.”

“He betrayed the Crofter, you stupid cow!” Kayetan suddenly brayed.

“What?”

“He betrayed the Crofter from here to hell and back.”

“No!” Davic gasped.

“You told them Edæc had run?” She dropped back down to face him. “Did you?”

There was a silence, broken only by the angry mutterings of Roc’s men. And then Davic screamed, “Yes!”

“Why?”

“I thought it would save us if I told them Edæc was gone.”

Before she even realised what was happening, Leda had slapped Davic hard across the face. “How could you? Davic, we were children together ˗ all of us. We were friends!”

“He was never one of us!” Davic rasped, ducking from her blows. “He was always yours!”

“Leda!” Hal seized Leda’s wrists, drawing her close until the struggle had left her, until she had exhausted herself.

“Didn’t make any difference, anyway.” Kayetan’s laughter was a hoarse rattle of phlegm. “Fabiac and Gric handed him over to Castor once he reached Dal Reniac. He screamed for you, Leda Nérac, when they strung him up. Screamed and yelled your name, he did, thinking you were dead. Wept like a babe.”

She tensed in Hal’s arms. And then she fled, ripping from her grasp, running down into the forest. Without a word, Oræl turned and followed her.

“And you too.” Kayetan fixed his leer on Magda. “You’re Brighthair, aren’t you?”

Magda had wrested free of Roc and Cesary; was prowling with soft, dangerous steps towards him, her revulsion at Hal’s cruelty now giving way to abject, undisguised horror. “They hung him?”

“Aye. With a placard around his neck: ‘Lord Crofter.'” His laughter was like a rook’s harsh caw. “You’ll see him before you reach Dal Reniac. In fact, you’ll probably smell him before you see him by now, I’d expect.”

Magda ran, bowling into Hal who pushed her back. “Magda, don’t. We need him alive,” Hal yelled, but Magda had already forged past her, dragging the knife from Kayetan’s shoulder. His eyes rounded in fear as he saw his own death before it hit him, as she plunged the dagger deep into his chest. Blood bubbled out between his lips and he flailed helplessly against the ropes. And then he sank, the life moaning out of him as Magda stepped away, staring at her own hands and shaking, her face twisted with torment. Hal reached for her but she staggered from her grasp and disappeared amongst the troops.

“Well,” Hal breathed. “It looks as if it’s just you and me now, Davic. So you really had better start giving me more. What are Castor’s intentions in Dal Reniac?”

Davic swivelled around, unable to look away from Kayetan’s corpse; at the way the dead man’s head lolled on his neck like a ball on a string, his body folded in upon itself. Then he looked at Hal. “He’ll bend it to his will,” he said, his voice now strangely sober, the tone of a man who’d witnessed so much terror that he’d been purged of all fear. “Or he’ll break it.”

“I see. So Gric and Fabiac let him in?”

“They opened the gates to him, yes.”

“And if he’s so certain of his power, why send spies like yourself back outside the city?”

“Because…Hal, did you mean it? Will you let me go?”

“I always say what I mean, boy.” She was tired suddenly, so tired of all this pain, this cruelty, of the damage she’d inflicted on others and upon herself.

“An army’s coming.”

“Well of course an army’s coming, boy!” Roc sounded incredulous. “My army!”

“No!” Davic panted. “From the east. Another one. When he heard of it he…Castor…he decided to send out scouts everywhere.”

“She’s done it!” Jools suddenly screeched, performing a mad little dance. “Oh my darling! Oh my princess! She’s a diamond, a little beauty! Oh! Oh, Kris! Oh, you’re a genius, mate!”

“Jools!” Hal turned to her, shaking her head. “Please!”

“Don’t kill me! Please, Hal!” Davic begged again.

“Shut up! Shut your lying, betraying mouth, Davic!” She pulled the knife from Kayetan’s chest, her hands now slippery with blood and raised it before the boy’s face. He closed his eyes, whispering to himself in prayer. And then she brought the blade down hard against the ropes. When he opened his eyes, he was free.

“Listen to me, Davic.” Before he could scrabble to his feet, she’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him to his knees, his face hovering an inch from Kayetan’s slumped body. “You see what I did? You see what Brighthair did?”

He nodded, snivelling and sobbing, his entire body heaving. “I’m going to give you a horse. I’ll even give you an escort, just so I know you’ve made it to the gates of Dal Reniac. And once you’re in, I want you to deliver this message back to your Master, back to Castor.”

He shifted beneath her grasp but she held him down, pressing the knife to his neck. “Tell Castor that I’ll do the same thing to him. Look at him, so that you remember every detail. Can you do that?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Now get up.”

He was on his feet, his face flushed, his eyes red.

“And go.” She was so exhausted that she could barely stand herself. “Go!” She pushed him towards a pair of guards. “Follow him. Make sure he gets there,” she said.

“He won’t tell Castor.” Jools bent to retrieve her knife, wiping it on a rag.

“Once he’s inside Dal Reniac, he’ll have no choice. They’ll find him.”

“I never knew you had it in you…” the thief said, jabbing her thumb at Kayetan’s mutilated body, her eyes glittering with what might have been admiration.

Hal felt sick. “Neither did I,” she whispered, heading for the forest. “Leda!” She yelled out into the trees, but there was no reply. “Leda!”

Had she lost her again? Desperate, she scrambled down the bank: running, clinging to branches for balance.

“She’s here!” Oræl’s voice filtered back up to her through the woodland. Hal ran, slipped, cursed and ran again, spying at last the two women as they clung to each other ˗ Leda shaking, her knuckles white where she gripped Oræl’s shoulders. Over Leda’s head, Oræl stared at Hal with a look which almost bordered on fear. Hal glanced down at her hands, still running crimson with Kayetan’s blood. Bending over, she plucked some leaves from the ground and wiped them across her palms. The crofter backed away, leaving Leda alone amongst the trees.

“What have you done?” She turned to Hal, drawing her hands across her face, her lips twisted with shock and disgust.

“What do you mean?”

“Hal, you just tortured a man. You tied him to a tree and you…that wasn’t defending yourself or fighting in battle. That was sadistic. It was…oh, I haven’t words!”

“Leda…Edæc’s dead!”

“I know he’s dead! I know that. I feel it with my entire body. But will your butchery bring him back to me?”

“Butchery?”

“Yes! Let’s call it by its real name. Let’s not pretend. What makes us different from Castor, Hal, is that we don’t torture or kill others just because we have the power to do so. And the minute we do…as Magda said, we’re no better than they are!”

“Magda…who just drove her knife through a man’s heart out of revenge?”

“She was finishing what you’d started. What would my mother have said, Hal?”

“Oh…” flooded with shame, she turned away, unable to look at Leda. “You play your cards so well.”

“This isn’t a game and I’m not holding any cards. What would she have thought?”

She was so weary, her spirit so weighted down now. Hal leant against a tree, her back to its bark and slowly worked her way down until she was sitting amongst the roots. “She’d not recognise me,” she said at last. “These days, Leda, I barely recognise myself.”

Her face swollen from crying, Leda stared at her for a long time. The fog had lifted, but rain had taken its place ˗ light, gentle, as if the sky itself were weeping. With a long, mournful sigh, Leda flung herself down onto the wet earth beside Hal. “I still see you, Hal Hannac,” she said at last. ‘You’re still there. Just try to do what you do best. Defend us with your sword if you have to, take the fight to Castor. But please, no more torture. No more cruelty.”

Hal rested the back of her head against the tree, rain dusting her face.

“Hal, I know…I understand what tips the balance between man and monster, I feel it so well. It would take so little to turn me into my father.”

“What?” Shocked out of her stupor, Hal turned to look at Leda. “What did you say?”

“I understand,” Leda said. “I could kill every one of them now, for Edæc’s sake. I could have stood and watched you rip out Davic’s heart. I come this close every single day.” She held her thumb and forefinger up to the air. “My fear over what you’re becoming…it’s my own fear. It’s fear for myself.”

Hal shook her head. “What are you talking about, Leda? You’re the purest thing living in this rotten world.”

“No, I’m not. And you see it…you and my mother. I know that you do. You see my father every time you look at me.”

“Your father? Oh, Leda!” Hal slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “You’re not Bruno Nérac’s daughter,” she said.

Leda stiffened. “Am I not? Whose daughter am I, if not his?”

“You’re mine.” Hal drew her closer. “You’re my daughter, Leda. You always have been. And you always will be.”

“Spirits!”

She felt the girl break again, her body racked with sobs as they sat beneath the tree, rain washing away the blood.

Advertisements

Review: Juliana by Vanda

410gFjGjFvL._AC_US218_

Juliana is set in New York in the early years of World War II. Alice (Al Huffman) arrives in the city fresh from the provinces and keen to make her name and fortune on Broadway. Accompanying her are her childhood friends, all of them bright-eyed, naive and full of hope.

The war and city life conspire to strip them of their illusions and to disrupt their lives in ways they could never have imagined. For Al, this entails a journey into self-awareness as she struggles to come to terms with the attraction which she feels for beautiful night club singer Juliana.

This is a novel which throws into relief the extent to which social attitudes have changed in relation to LGBT identities and rights. Al and Juliana live within a society which views same sex relations as a sickness, and in which lesbians and gay men are viewed as ‘sexual psychopaths.’ The degree of prejudice is such that Al has internalised it herself, and refuses to accept that she’s ‘one of them.’ As that position becomes untenable, the reader follows her on an emotional and psychological journey which leads inexorably into Juliana’s arms.

This is a finely written novel, and the characters emerge as complex, nuanced and believably flawed individuals. The portrayal of war time New York is rich but not overburdened in historical detail. My only criticism would be that the story ends somewhat abruptly, and while I think I understand the author’s reasons for this, a little more of a sense of closure would have been welcome. However, I was left in absolutely no doubt that I wanted to read more about Al and Juliana, and to discover whether their relationship flourishes or founders in the next part of the series, Olympus  Nights on the Square.

Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

61HYv89xPDL._SX313_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

Review – Backwards to Oregon by Jae

51smAh4nIrL

 

So I bought this book on recommendation from some of the girls at thelesbianreview.com who recognise a good tale when they see one. And as I’m a sucker for historical fiction, I figured that this was a story which was going to push all the right buttons – and it didn’t disappoint.

Set in mid-nineteenth century America, Backwards to Oregon tells the story of Nora – a prostitute – and Luke – a former soldier and survivor of the Mexican war . Luke offers Nora and her three-year-old daughter Amy the chance of a better life. In marrying him, she can put her past behind her and pose as his wife as he joins a group of pioneers travelling to Oregon. But there is a catch, which we as readers know right from the beginning – Luke is in fact a woman, who’s managed to successfully keep her identity a secret. And to reveal who she really is would be to invoke disaster.

As the plot unfolds, that is just one of the tensions which makes this story such a fascinating one.  How will Nora – who is obviously falling in love with Luke – cope when she finds out what Luke has been hiding? Both characters emerge as strong, beautiful women in their own ways, and you end up with the feeling that both really deserve each other. Luke, having disguised herself for so many years is forced to rediscover herself as a woman, while Nora shakes off her past to take on the role of  pioneer wife: resilient, determined and brave enough to do anything to protect those she loves.

The narrative also carries the reader along the journey west with its attendant risks of illness, dangerous river crossings and mountain passes, and with the sheer hardship of everyday life. What I liked in this respect is that, even though the author has evidently put in the hours when it came to research for her book, historical detail is integrated smoothly into the narrative. As a result, pioneer life is never romanticised, but is convincingly realised.

There were a few places where I found the prose a bit clunky. There were also one or two etymological slips – I’m not entirely sure that mid-nineteenth century Americans used terms like ‘gender’, and Luke’s prescience is a bit overstated at times. She, for example, is blessed with insight into the causes of cholera which eludes her peers.  But these were minor slippages and didn’t detract from the story itself which is compelling, well paced and sucks you into a world which was in some ways far more complex, dangerous and beautiful than our own.

Review: Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones

30072959

Another beautiful installment of Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series, which  introduces us to composer Luzie Valorin and Serafina Talarico, a vidator who is blessed with the power to see fluctus but not invoke it. Serafina appeared briefly towards the end of the second book The Mystic Marriage, but here her story is taken up in full. Born in Italy to Ethiopian parents, she escapes a loveless marriage to pursue her study of thaumaturgy, lodging with Luzie, a widow and musician who struggles to make ends meet following the death of her husband.

All the other major characters from the previous books are also given their own stories and the book emerges as a complex weave of narratives, each subtly related but distinct in the way they represent different aspects of Alpennian life. And while the book doesn’t draw all the individual strands of the story to their conclusions, the ending is really satisfying and leaves you hankering for more. Having said that, I did feel that as more characters are thrown into the ensemble, there’s not always enough focus on each one. I feel the author might have gone for broke and even doubled the length of the book to deliver more insight into the lives and relationships of these characters who never fail to fascinate.

That, however, is just a grumble which proves how much I love this series. It’s expertly penned, the prose style is tense and concise, it’s convincing in terms of characterisation and you just find yourself completely absorbed by the whole idea of Alpennia and its mysterious inhabitants. Can’t wait for more.

Review – A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

51FwbT3AFpL._AC_US218_

It takes nerves of steel to write a novel on the French Revolution. I can’t even begin to imagine how you’d approach such a project given the complex, ambiguous weave of personal and political motivations and relationships which contributed to this watershed in European history. On the other hand, it is an irresistibly dramatic subject: the  notion of an ideal which rots even as it takes root. And the very fact that the “reign of terror” was ultimately birthed by staid, middle class, respectable lawyers somehow prefigures the cold calculations of the Nazi death machine – the Nazis, it should be added, employed the guillotine during the second world war.

Hilary Mantel’s narrative is a dizzying, polyphonic masterpiece. Rather than isolating a single character and their perspective – as she does in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy – we hear from many characters caught up in this political maelstrom, their voices rising and fading in succession, sometimes blurring into each other. While the story pivots around the relationship between Desmouslins, Dantons and Robespierre, we encounter their wives and lovers, their families, business associates and relations, aristocrats, Jacobins and Girondistes. And the text itself has an almost collage-type structure, laced with reports from newspapers and pamphlets, the prose sometimes slipping into pure dramatic dialogue. It’s a chaotic, mind-bendingly complex narrative which sometimes seems to teeter on the brink of losing its form, but Mantel keeps it all together with virtuoso skill.

The narrative is punctured by a robust wit and an eye for irony which somehow deflates our notion of these men and women as icons or emblems – and allows the reader to encounter them on a very human level. Robespierre’s belief in his own value to the revolutionary project, for example, contributes to his failure to save his childhood friend Desmoulins from the guillotine, while Danton – orator and man of the people – is revealed to be permanently on the take, determined to make his fortune and get out of the revolution while the going’s good. Ultimately, of course, it is the revolution which devours him before he can make good his escape.

What I also really appreciated about the book is how many women’s voices we hear, whether it’s the frustration of female politicians such as Anne Theroigne and Madame Roland, straining against the misogyny of male revolutionaries, or wives and lovers – Lucile Desmoulins, Louise Gély and Eleanor Duplay. So often in narratives of the revolution, these are the voices which get suppressed and it becomes male-oriented. The historical role of women has gone unacknowledged, but Mantel brings their voices to the fore, emphasising their insecurities, their own private tragedies and their political influence.

This is a novel which drops you headfirst into Paris at the end of the eighteenth century without too much of a lifeline. But if you’re prepared to take on the challenge, it’s a book which absorbs and fascinates, which prompts you to research as you’re reading, and offers a sustained and intense insight into the minds behind one of the most frightening episodes in European history. Worth not one read, but many.

Review – “The Mystic Marriage” by Heather Rose Jones

51lGYfF4HlL

You know that joy you have when you first discover what it means to read for pleasure as a kid? That sense of losing yourself in another person’s imagination, of finding yourself so invested in their characters that you’re willing them on: that they become, if only for a brief moment, part of the fabric of your own mental world? This is precisely the joy I experienced reading The Mystic Marriage, the sequel to Heather Rose Jones’ first novel in The Alpennia series, Daughter of Mystery.

Jones has created a society in which the strange and the recognisable collide – the gentility and brutality of the nineteenth century twinned with its fantasy other. And in that space of historical otherness miracles really do happen, alchemy is ‘the great art’ and the supernatural is seamlessly woven into the politics and culture of Alpennian life. And – even more amazingly – those seams don’t show. It’s testament to Jones’ skills as a researcher that her stories leap out the page at you with such immediacy that you begin to forget Alpennia is a made up nation – an imaginary central European state with one foot in the political machinations of the countries which surround it.

But then again, you don’t just read fantasy books to marvel at the realism of their projected landscapes. You encounter them and engage with them through their characters. And this time, the author sets up an unlikely pairing: scandalous, flighty Jeanne – Vicomtesse de Cherdillac – and the austere, tragic figure of Antuniet Chazillen, desperate to clear her family’s name after the dishonour brought upon it by her brother. Emotionally worlds apart, the two women gradually come to a position of mutual understanding, respect and love. Their stories are closely bound to those of Barbara and Margarit, the main characters from Daughter of Mystery – and as the disparate strands of narrative are drawn together, the novel unfolds at a breathtaking pace with the jeopardy piled on right up to the final pages. It’s spellbinding writing, propelling the reader into an adventure which never ceases to excite and entertain. Highly recommended.

Review – Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

51KB8N8BecL._SX370_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s quite hard to explain how much I loved this book. Let’s just say I’d already bought the sequel before finishing Daughter of Mystery simply because I knew I’d be paying another visit to Alpennia shortly.

The novel is an exquisitely crafted romance, deftly paced and with engaging characters, exciting enough to keep you turning the page, cerebral enough to get you thinking deeply about the culture and politics of the world – or rather the country – which Heather Rose Jones has created.

Set in an imaginary central European state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the narrative pivots around the actions of two young women brought together by the stipulations of an old aristocrat’s will. The rules of social hierarchy seem an insurmountable barrier to their love, and yet Margarit – an ingénue and burfro or bourgeois – finds herself struggling to understand the feelings she develops for her armin or private duellist. The novel also explores by proxy the way in which women of this period were denied anything approaching a meaningful education or intellectual fulfilment and stimulation, forced into culturally ordained roles which proved restrictive and demeaning.

The fantasy element of this novel is fascinating. The working of miracles and invocation of saints carry beyond the realm of the mystical in Alpennian society, having a tangible impact on the everyday lives, the politics and the traditions of the nation. Margarit’s abilities as a vidator, capable both of perceiving and working miracles brings risk as much as privilege. In pursuing her scholarly interests, she finds herself plunged into a world of deceit and intrigue which threatens to destroy her and those she loves.

The world building is superlative – I never felt that I was being spoon-fed when I read this novel. The author fleshes out sufficient space for the reader to make sense of Alpennia as both a reflection of 19th century Europe and its ‘other’ – a realm of fantasy in which our awareness of religion and history might be turned on its head. The prose style both challenged and entertained, and I found myself unable to stop turning the pages as the narrative reached its climax. Which means I’m going to have to give it another read to pick up on anything I might have missed. But first I’m off to read The Mystic Marriage – part two of the Alpennia series.

Review – The Miniaturist – by Jessie Burton

Well its been a while since I was last able to get some reviews out, as I’ve been involved in various projects which have proved quite time consuming. But finally, summer is here and I hope to be posting regularly again!

So here’s a review of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.

51kDEfuF-xL._AC_US250_

It’s something of a truism to point out that historical fiction has been reappraised as a genre in recent years, with authors like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters commanding the respect of critics and readers alike. What makes the new wave of historical fiction so special is the way it interrogates our relationship with the past. Rather than feeding us romantic, heroic, Walter Scott style narratives, contemporary authors look at history side on, inviting us to consider the minor narratives which are so often ignored or even annihilated by conventional readings of history. In particular, this includes a focus on the secret, the hidden and the repressed – on the way in which issues such as gender, sexuality and race interact with a general preconception of European/Western history as white, masculine and straight.

In this respect, Jessie Burton’s exquisite novel The Miniaturist is no exception. It is a story which the reader somehow unpeels or unwraps, each layer shedding yet more secrets. The literary equivalent of a Rembrandt or Vermeer, it is to the shadowy areas of Burton’s “canvas” that our eyes are drawn. What is it that the light is hiding? What ironies or subversions are hinted at?

It is 1686, and child bride Petronella Oortman marries into the Brandt household, her husband Johannes a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Petronella (Nella) also encounters Johannes’ enigmatic sister Marin, whose piety and self-repression soon emerge as camouflage, enabling her to act out the role of a devout Protestant spinster. Bored and lonely, Nella sets about furnishing her dolls house – a wedding gift from Johannes – receiving parcels containing dolls and scaled down furniture from the mysterious Miniaturist. As the story unfolds, it seems that the Miniaturist has an uncanny knack of predicting – or possibly even controlling – the lives of the real house’s inhabitants.

The Miniaturist reveals how, even in  the most repressive of environments, space can be found for autonomy and self-awareness. The Miniaturist’s first message to Nella insists that she can challenge those conventions which restrict her as a woman and as a wife: “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.” As readers, we might anticipate Nella’s emergence as that stock character in historical fiction: a romantic figure who finds release through love. Instead, this is a journey into independence and freedom. As the world about her starts to disintegrate, she becomes stronger, increasingly resilient and resourceful. In short, she becomes herself.

Just a joy to read. Perfectly paced, The Minaturist yields its secrets one by one, couched in a sinuous, lyrical prose. A beautiful book.

Review – “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet

pobrane

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.