Review: Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones

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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.

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Writing Updates: The Duellist Series

So I’m delighted to be able to confirm that all three parts of The Duellist Series will be available to buy on Amazon as of 18th February, together with updated covers.

Set against a backdrop of political intrigue, epic battles and adventure, The Duellist Series follows the lives and loves of three women who risk their lives for freedom.

A disinherited young aristocrat, Hal Thæc forsakes her place at court to earn her living as a duellist. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a rich merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves.

The descendant of ancient emperors, Leda Nérac has finally come into her birthright: the wealthy northern city of Dal Reniac. Yet power brings new responsibilities and dangers. After the Emperor dies, his nephew Castor claims the imperial throne, instigating a reign of terror. Will Leda survive the bitter conflict which ensues?

 

I’ll be posting free chapters of the books, blog posts, details of discounts and perhaps even a reading of one of the chapters before the release, so stay tuned.

 

 

 

Moreover, the trilogy will also be available to purchase as a set together short story The Invitation:

 

 

Review – A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

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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.

Leda is now complete!

Leda Dryad Fantasy Kindle Cover

It’s been quite a journey, but Leda is now finished at last! It’ll remain on Wattpad while I’m editing it, and will be available on Amazon in the new year.
So…if you like any of the following: lesbian characters, duelling, windswept fortresses, tyrannical emperors, swashbuckling adventure, high jinks on the high seas, moorland, bisexual princes, hairy highlanders, more moorland, battle scenes, devious thieves, political coups, mystery, excitement, anguish and triumph…then there might just be something in it for you!

Read it for free here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

Review – “The Mystic Marriage” by Heather Rose Jones

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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

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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.

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/

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.

Extract from Leda – Book 3 of The Duellist Series

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

 http://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review – “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet

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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.