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review 2017-03-07 17:32
The Darkling Plain
The Darkling Plain - Douglas R. Mason

The north-west of England,

13th Century

 

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, 'Here, Master. What do you lack?' and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain's men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. 'When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you'll feel the weight of my hand.'

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[...]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, 'Here's a stroke of luck for you now. Here's a gentleman looking to employ you. He'll give you a fair price and set you on your way …'

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

 

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

 

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

 

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.

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review 2015-11-24 15:31
The Gleemaiden - The Third of the Sir Richard Straccan books
The Gleemaiden - Sylvian Hamilton

England, 1211

 

Père Raimond … She missed him as she would a limb. For nine years he had been her teacher and her father both, and she could barely remember the time before that. Her life had begun on the day he bought her.

Raimond de Sorules paid one Paris lire for the starveling urchin. He'd heard her singing in the market place, seen her scrabbling in the kennel for the rotten fruit thrown at her by those who thought it funny, and he followed her home. The mother was only too willing to be rid of her.

He scrubbed her in the horse trough at his inn. When he'd got the dirt off, most of it, washed her matted hair and de-loused her, he stood the small trembling body on a barrel and walked around it with a critrical eye, frowning at the raw weals on her knobby back and the bruises and bug-bites on her shins, ribs and arms.

The stable man sold him a pot of smelly salve. It stung, and tears rolled down her face, although she made no sound. He put one of his own shirts on her, far too big, but it would do for the time being. A length of twine served to girdle it so she wouldn't trip on the hem, and the inn-keeper's wife, sorry for the big-eyed waif, plaited her hair in one long, thick braid and tied it with a twist of wool.

That night she ate her fill for the first time in all her seven years.

He made a nest of pillows for her in his bed. Seeing the stark terror in her eyes, he set the great hard bolster firmly between them, but she didn't sleep. Nor did he, and all that night, in the darkness, he could feel her desperate stare.

 

Sylvian Hamilton was a wonder with opening lines. This new book begins:

 

Countess Judith kept her husband's head in a box. At night it perched on a pillow by her side, at meals it sat on the board by her plate …

 

Of course the head goes missing and later comes quite by chance into the possession of Sir Richard Straccan, hero of The Bone-Pedlar and The Pendragon Banner, dealer in sacred relics during the period known as the Interdict, when the whole of England was under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.

 

Inside the splendid, cross-shaped church [Waltham Abbey] the miraculous Black Rood hung over the west door, veiled now, of course, because of the Interdict. None in all England might gaze on the crucified Christ while its king persisted in his wicked flouting of the Pope.

Not that the head of Lord Joceran, Countess Judith's husband, was a sacred relic – far from it.

 

In The Gleemaiden, Straccan sets out to escort an enormous bell from London (where no bells may ring because of the interdict) to the Abbey at Coldinghame, in Scotland (where they are in need of a bell and no interdict exists), but finds himself also excorting the beautiful Roslyn de Sorules, the gleemaiden of the title and her charge, a seven-year-old boy named David; Roslyn and David are refugees from the iniquitous Crusade against the Cathars in the south of France and are even now, in England, being pursued by three knights of the horrifying White Brotherhood, a company of fanatical heretic-hunters used by the Church to track down and eliminate "extreme cases".

 

In the background are Gilla, Braccan's daughter, and Janiva, the healer and wise woman with whom Straccan fell in love during his previous adventure (as readers of the first book will remember), and the spy, Larktwist also makes a welcome reappearance and plays a large role in ths book.

 

Larktwist sniffed. 'What about money?'

Mercredi pushed a purse across the table, and Larktwist secreted it somewhere among his tatters, scratching as he felt the migration of a tribe of lice from armpit to groin.

Mercredi frowned. 'Locksey's a small place; you can't pass as a beggar there, and they'll drive lepers out, so get yourself cleaned up. Look respectable – if you can.'

'Course I can,' said Larktwist, affronted. He knew how to mix with nobs, if the need arose. He hitched his rags about himself with dignity and turned to leave. 'Trust me.'

'A touch of refinement wouldn't go amiss.'

'You want refinement? Easy! I'll be as refined as a nun.'

As he reached the door, Mercredi said, 'And Larktwist …'

'Yes?'

'Stick to him.'

'Oh, I will, sir. Like shit to a blanket.'

 

Another great read, with many memorable scenes, such as the description of one small part of the slaughter that took place during the Albigensian Crusade, and a host of memorable medieval characters.

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review 2015-11-24 15:18
The Pendragon Banner - The second of the Richard Straccan books
The Pendragon Banner - Sylvian Hamilton

England, 1210

 

'Father?'

He sat up in bed. 'Gilla?'

She had brought a candle; it lit her face and bright hair, edging them with gold as she stood at his bedchamber door.

'What is it? Are you sick?'

'No. Can I come in?'

'Come here.'

She set the candle on the aumbrey and scrambled up onto his bed, tucking her bare feet under her. He reached to grasp one small slender foot and found it cold as stone.

'Where are your shoes?' he asked, wrapping the coverlid round her.

'I forgot them. Father, I think I can find Janiva.'

'What? How?'

'I can scry for her.'

He drew in a long, long breath and let it slowly out. She could do that; it was an ability she shared with Janiva. Last year, when Gilla was kidnapped, the witch Julitta de Beauris had sensed that power in her and forced her to use it against her will. Later, Janiva had taught her how to manage the gift, if gift it was.

Uneasily Straccan said, 'I don't know, sweetheart.'

'I can do it.'

'Now?'

'Yes. It's easier when everything's quiet.'

He reached for his bedgown and wrapped himself in it. 'You need a bowl of water.'

'No, it works better for me with the candle. I just look at the flame.'

She sat cross-legged in the middle of the bed, and he watched her as she watched the flame.

'Janiva,' she whispered, 'Janiva, where are you?'

 

Sir Richard Straccan, hero of The Bone-Pedlar, continues his adventures as a dealer in sacred relics during the period known as the Interdict, when (King John having fallen out with the Pope) the whole of England was placed under interdict and no religious ceremony of any kind was permitted to take place.

 

This time, the King sets Straccan to find a banner woven by Queen Guinevere and carried into battle by King Arthur, a banner reputed to contain, sewn up inside it, the napkin used to wipe blood from the face of Christ during the agony in the garden of Gethsemane. His antagonist is the brutal Lord William of Breos, who wants the banner (said to guarantee victory in battle) for his own sinister purposes.

 

Meanwhile, Janiva, the healer and wise woman with whom Straccan fell in love during his previous adventure (as readers of the first book will remember) is accused of committing murder by means of witchcraft:

 

'In malice, she also sought to kill you, my lady, and your child ...'

From the bosom of his tunic he drew something wrapped in a rag and threw it down on the board. 'There's proof.'

Richildis reached and picked it up. The rag fell away. Something dark, dry and shrivelled, something that seemed to have arms and legs and perhaps a head, like a small mummified monkey, rolled onto the board. ...

 

And Julitta, the wicked witch, sometime mistress of King John himself and now mistress of William de Breos, is up to all her old tricks again - including child-sacrifice.

 

This book is as crammed with eccentric characters and vivid medieval detail as the first one was, and is as wonderfully readable. My only complaint is that the Prologue, in which we are present at the death of Guinevere hundreds of years earlier, is so well-written that we want ( or at least, I wanted) that story to go on. The Prologue read more like an introduction to the life of Guinevere. After that, it was an anti-climax to find myself back in the fourteenth century with Sir Richard: the fourteenth century had suddenly become reality, the sixth the exotic escapist dream.

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