historical fiction

Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge book cover

Local Author Book Review #14: Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge

Despite the subtitle, this book is so much more than a whodunit in a medieval setting. Reading it is like watching the tiny, jewel-like pictures in an illuminated psalter come to life. It is a heartfelt story rooted in history, with a carefully structured plot and memorable characters. Readers familiar with London may recognize familiar place names with amazement at how different things were more than 800 years ago.

The story begins with the coronation of King Richard I (“the Lionheart”) and the riot and fire that followed attacks on Jewish people who attended the event. Sister Katherine nurses some of the victims of the fire in St. Bartholemew’s Hospital. Subsequent scenes introduce her brothers, Robert and William, and several other characters whose interactions create the central question of the story: who killed Master Simon?

As scenes unfold and interlock, leading to the answer to that question, the author’s knowledge of life in medieval England emerges and captivates. The characters represent a full range of social statuses and occupations, such as prosperous merchants, dutiful knights, busy clerks, dedicated religious, craftsmen, farmers and herders. Among them, Sister Katherine and her brothers (the elder a clerk, the younger a monk) play important roles in the final resolution. Women are not all subservient and uneducated, although their roles are more circumscribed than those of men. Details of architecture, clothing, food and drink, commerce, law, and agriculture are skillfully woven into the plot. A glossary at the end offers further information. I came away from the book with an increased knowledge of medieval life.

Parts of the book are set on the road between London and Colchester. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 8, in which one of the characters sets out on a ride to that town:

Robert rode carefully to avoid children who ran laughing after balls or willfully from the restraining arms of their mothers. As he entered the shadow of the ancient double gate with its raised portcullises, he was forced almost to a standstill by a flock of sheep on their last journey to the Shambles. Egged on by dogs and boys with sticks, they flowed around Sparrow’s legs, a moving sea of woolly foam. Then suddenly he was free. Ahead, crowded within the bars of Whitechapel were the workshops of glaziers and bell founders and, in the distance, the village of Whitechapel lay open to the fields. The rutted road was hard under Sparrow’s hooves; white clouds sailed overhead. He nodded to the gatekeeper as he passed the Bars and then smiled fiercely with pleasure as Sparrow tossed her head and snorted.

Aloud he remembered words from his childhood: “Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” He shouted out his response, “Yes,” and Sparrow picked up speed.

By the end of the book, most of the human dramas are resolved in a plausible and satisfying way, although not without a few tantalizing loose ends which make me wonder if a sequel is to follow. I certainly hope so.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars (in my own rating system: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative).

Constant Sister is published by Quadra Books and available on Amazon.

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Local Author Book Review #7: Triptych by Malcolm McCallum

Right at the start I will note that parts of this novel were read and discussed two or three years ago at meetings of a critique group of which I am a member. This review, however, is based on my recent reading of the complete published work.

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Here is the author’s description of the book:

In Belle Epoque France, an art patron and his wife invite three painters to their countryside villa for the summer in order to create a new art movement. Murder ensues.

Triptych is not a murder mystery, however. The mysteries it explores are human nature and the creative act. Malcolm McCallum is himself a painter, and his book is full of vivid, detailed scenes and fully-fleshed characters: Roland de Grenville, the foolish art dealer and critic, Madeleine, his beautiful, dissatisfied wife, and, of course, the three artists. They have been selected by Roland as representatives of three types — the Intellectual, the Lyric and the Romantic. He hopes they will intermingle their talents to create something that will make him famous. Charles Montaigne, a wounded bear of a man, is the Romantic. The handsome seducer Boniface Roy is the Lyric, and the wizened oldster Ambrose Ferland is the Intellectual. Ambrose brings with him a young daughter, Ghislaine, and Jacqueline, his conniving wife. Emerging at crucial moments to yank on the threads of the plot is the lecherous man-about-town Gaston Hector, a good friend of Roland’s.

These are the ingredients of a rich, thick, fruitcake of a book.  The characters are distinct and real, bringing with them complete, lived histories, foibles, emotions and ambitions. Inevitably, there are conflicts and undercurrents, seductions, connivances and misunderstandings, leading to trouble and tragedy.

The action takes place in two locales — Roland’s country house in Amance and in Paris. The summer of artistic experimentation ends abruptly with a murder, blasting most of the characters back to Paris where they regroup into new configurations. Old entanglements cannot be ignored, however, and lead to further conflicts and alliances. A new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book — the bowler-hatted Harry Bellamy, lawyer and sometime investigator — who propels the action in unexpected directions. (Hats, by the way, appear frequently in this book, not surprising given the time period).

The making of art is the foundation of the plot, and it is present on nearly every page. The reader is privy to the artists’ thoughts and stands at their sides as they apply pencil to paper and paint to canvas. Colours (and this book is full of colour) are given the names found on tubes of paint — viridian, ochre, umber, titanium white, alizarin. The practicalities of art are at the forefront always, holding down firmly any tendencies toward windy gushing.

McCallum’s prose is sincere and idiosyncratic, bringing the tone of this 21st century work curiously close to the time in which it is set, the late 1800s. Scenes are built up from small details, finely rendered, working up to a wrenching climax and a final scene that is not without hope. It is not a fast read, but a rewarding one.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars.

Triptych may be obtained in print or ebook form from Lulu.com, and a copy is available to users of the Greater Victoria Public Library.

Local Author Book Review #4: The New Fire by Ada Robinson

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The New Fire by Ada Robinson is a historical novel about a history that never happened set in a place that does not exist. But it reads as though rooted in a real place and time.

This is from the back cover:

Imagine a land blending the geography of California, the technology of medieval Spain and the theology of pagan Rome. Isolated by distance and slave-hunters, the community of Iktalan has diverged from its Hispani roots.

Ada Robinson has taken pains to craft her fictional world and its inhabitants, rendering vividly its geography, economy and cultures. The Iktalai and a related people, the Zalatai, are the native peoples of the region. The Iktalai have had more contact with the Hispani, who come from Nueva Hispania on the other side of the mountains; indeed, they have intermarried at some point. Then there are the fearsome Bakai, enemies of all three peoples, who raid coastal settlements to take prisoners and slaves, using repugnant means to subdue them.

The story plays out over a period of months, during which a treaty is negotiated between the Iktalai and the Hispani, guaranteeing protection of Iktalan from the Bakai by the Hispani army in exchange for tribute.

Woven into this tapestry is the story of Sakela, a young Iktalai woman who represents her community in the treaty negotiations and serves as a herbalist and healer. She encounters dangers and challenges, not least among them the need to overcome a personal tragedy. In the course of these adventures she meets the new Governor of Tierra Ermosa, Don Francisco Montoya, and a warrior of the Zalatai who is also her cousin.

Robinson’s prose is clear and direct, outlining with equal clarity religious ceremonies, community feasts, military operations and issues around land claims and taxation. The human stories are nearly obscured by the volume and detail of this information, especially in the opening chapters. Some readers may be discouraged by this, but persistence is rewarded by several tense situations and their resolution, only to be followed by additional complications.

The technique of creating a fictional world that engages readers by its similarity to the real one, while allowing the writer freedom to plot, has been used in several well-known novels by Guy Gavriel Kay. Robinson has accomplished something similar in this novel, with less drama and intensity, perhaps, but with admirable sincerity and thoroughness.

My rating: 8 stars out of 10.

The New Fire is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and at the iBookstore, as well as in print from Amazon. It is also part of the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.