15 November, 2014

Catherine of Lyonesse, by Rick Robinson. Book review

Corgi, 2014. ISBN 978-0-552-57133-3. 488 pages.

Catherine of Lyonesse is set in the invented countries of Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine, which bear a distinct resemblance to sixteenth-century England and France. All events, places and characters are fictional.

I’m acquainted with the author, Rick Robinson, by email, and Rick often comments here on my blog. I read a draft of Catherine of Lyonesse before it was published, and was very pleased to see it in print. Rick did ask me to review the book; however I had already decided to review it and ordered a copy before he asked. I should also say that I have a particular liking for the somewhat unusual genre of invented history (for a definition, see earlier post), which is set in an invented world but has none of the supernatural elements of fantasy. My own Ingeld’s Daughter is similar, although the setting is more medieval than Renaissance.
Now, on with the review.

Catherine is the elder daughter of Prince Henry of Lyonesse, heir to the old and sickly King Edmund. When her father is killed in a supposed hunting accident, seven-year old Catherine and her three-year-old sister Anne are hurried into exile in l’Aquitaine by their mother, a princess of the Aquitanian royal family. After her mother’s death, Catherine is brought up in exile at the Aquitanian court by Madame Corisande d’Abregon, ex-mistress of the King of Aquitaine and now married to the chief minister, Antoine de Chirac. Catherine is heiress to the throne of Lyonesse, which she should rightfully inherit when her grandfather King Edmund dies. The King of Aquitaine recognises her as a valuable political prize, but he is uncertain how best to make use of her. By the age of fourteen, when the main story opens, Catherine is old enough to know that she does not want to be used by anybody – she wants to reclaim her kingdom and rule it in her own right. But in Lyonesse, ambitious nobles plot a usurpation, and in Aquitaine she has enemies who would gladly see her dead, either for Court factional politics or to replace her with her more pliant sister Anne. In her support, Catherine has only her own intelligence, the education in statecraft she has received from Corisande, and two bright and beautiful young ladies-in-waiting. Can she even survive, let alone claim her throne?

Catherine of Lyonesse is a rollicking adventure yarn. Being set in an invented world, it is not constrained by real events and the story is free to take any turn the author pleases. So, unlike historical fiction, no reader can know in advance the outcome of Catherine’s dramatic – and sometimes ill-advised – escapades. Catherine is a delightful central character, warm, courageous and intelligent, but also impulsive and prone to hasty judgements that do not always work out well. The two ladies-in-waiting, brave and athletic Madeleine du Lac and voluptuous and cunning Solange de Charleville, are as vivid as Catherine herself. The court of l’Aquitaine has a believably poisonous atmosphere of in-fighting and back-stabbing, as rival factions jostle for political power and the influential position of mistress to the King. Long-standing military antagonism between Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine periodically flares into open warfare. Not least when a young nobleman of Lyonesse, William de Havilland, decides to put his experience as a mercenary ship’s captain to use as a privateer, attacking Aquitanian targets and provoking a backlash that puts Catherine in significant personal danger. The web of dynastic and political tensions surrounding Catherine creates a convincing sense of real peril.

As well as the political side to Catherine’s story, she also has an adolescent girl’s natural hopes for romantic love – though her position as heiress to a throne complicates matters – and this provides material for an intertwining sub-plot.

The different countries, cultures and languages in the novel are cleverly portrayed using variations in titles, personal and place names. In l’Aquitaine the language is Gallic, represented by French phrases, French titles (Altesse, instead of Highness), French personal names such as Catherine, Louis and Guillaume, and French spellings of place names such as Kellouique and Richebourg. In Lyonesse the language is Saxon, and the names become Kateryn or Katrin, Lewis, William, Kelliwick and Richborough. In the Republic of Ravenna, a mercantile and maritime city-state bearing a resemblance to Italian city-states such as Venice, the names become Caterina and Guglielmo. Readers familiar with sixteenth-century Europe will have great fun spotting parallels between the fictional world and real European history – almost as much fun, I suspect, as the author had in creating them. There were some that I only noticed on a second reading, and I expect there are more that I haven’t yet spotted. Catherine of Lyonesse is much more interesting than an allegory, though. Catherine has some aspects reminiscent of the young Elizabeth I and the young Mary Queen of Scots, but her actions, situation and personality are entirely her own.**

Rattling adventure yarn set in an invented world bearing a distinct resemblance to Renaissance Europe, with a cracking plot and a most attractive heroine.

**In a comment here once, Rick described Catherine as ‘a sort of improved Mary Queen of Scots’, which I think is a very apt description.

10 September, 2014

The Tribute Bride, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

Acorn Digital Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-909122-63-5. 261 pages.

The Tribute Bride is set at the beginning of the seventh century AD in Deira and Bernicia, the two kingdoms that later became Northumbria in what is now north-east England. The central character, Acha, is a historical figure, as are her husband Athelfrid, her father Aelle and brother Edwin, the Deiran chief priest Coifi and Athelfrid’s queen Bebba. Other main characters are fictional.

Disclosure: Seventh-century Britain is an area of particular interest to me, and my own novel Paths of Exile has the same setting and includes some of the same characters as The Tribute Bride. Theresa and I had several email discussions about the possible life and career of the historical Acha, who is recorded in just one line in Bede’s History. 

Acha is the daughter of Aelle, the ageing king of Deira, and has just reached marriageable age when severe flooding destroys most of the harvest. Aelle cannot pay the tribute of grain to his overlord, the fearsome Athelfrid of Bernicia, so he sends Acha instead. Athelfrid already has a queen, the magnificent Bebba of the Picts, but they have no living child and Athelfrid wants an heir for his ever-expanding empire. He accepts Acha as a secondary wife – officially married to Athelfrid, but not his queen – and soon she is pregnant with his child. But how will Bebba react to a younger, fertile rival? And does the ruthless and cunning Athelfrid plan to obtain more from Acha than a child?

I very much enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl (for young adult readers) and A Swarming of Bees (for adults), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby. The Tribute Bride is set half a century earlier, when the later kingdom of Northumbria was still two separate kingdoms, each with its own dynasty. Acha’s life bridged both dynasties. What role she played in combining the two kingdoms (if any), is not known – which is what historical fiction is for. I summarised what is known about the historical Acha (not very much), in an earlier article Acha of Deira and Bernicia: daughter, sister, wife and mother of kings. So I was very pleased to see a novel devoted to her.

Considering that The Tribute Bride features murder, betrayal, war and massacre, it is a surprisingly gentle read. Most of it is told through the eyes of Acha, who is still only a girl at the beginning of the novel – mid-teens, I would guess – and has a sunny-natured tendency to think the best of people and to make the best of any situation. Her generous and open-hearted character helps her to find unexpected friendships in Bernicia, friendships that stand her in good stead in the long term. However, it also means that she is largely oblivious to the darker undercurrents of court life. Indeed, the older and wiser Bebba tries to warn Acha that Athelfrid is not nicknamed ‘The Trickster’ for nothing and that Acha should be wary of his intentions, but Acha does not understand the warning until it is too late. Even when the worst has happened, Acha’s determination to make the best of things probably contributes a lot to making the consequences of Athelfrid’s actions much less adverse than they might otherwise have been.

Peaceweaver brides like Acha, married to their families’ rivals and enemies, must have had to do a lot of smoothing down of conflicts if they were to be successful. This perhaps explains why The Tribute Bride was so much more placid than I had expected for a novel set at the heart of early medieval court life; the whole focus of the book is about defusing and preventing conflict.

Athelfrid’s historical nickname Flesaurs, usually translated as ‘The Twister’ or ‘The Artful’ is here rendered as ‘The Trickster’ and cleverly linked with the deceitful thief-god Loki. Whether the early English had an equivalent of the Norse god Loki is unknown, but equivalents of some of the Norse gods are recorded in Old English place names, so it seems not implausible that other characters from the Norse pantheon may also have had early English counterparts.

The main characters are all women – Acha herself, Bebba, the elderly midwife, Acha’s maids. I particularly liked the relationship between Acha and Bebba, which develops in an unexpected direction. The male characters tend to be secondary, even Athelfrid (perhaps because Acha at first does not know him very well and then later does not wish to). The preponderance of strong female characters was similar in Wolf Girl and A Swarming of Bees. It makes for a domestic focus, with plenty of detail of buildings, travel, food and textile crafts. The variety of languages, cultures and religions among the plethora of small kingdoms is well captured.

A map and glossary of place names at the front are useful to follow the geography, and a character list at the front may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. An Author’s Note and reference list at the back outlines the underlying history and source material (I am flattered to see that I get a mention).

Gentle tale of kindness and friendships found in unexpected places, set against the background of early seventh-century Northumbria.

07 September, 2014

September recipe: Plum chutney

Plum chutney ingredients

Plums are abundant in August and September in most years.  They can be preserved in jam (recipe for plum jam here).  Plums also make an excellent chutney.  This recipe uses plums and windfall apples, and makes two large jars.

Plum chutney

1.5 lb (approx 700 g) plums, after removing the stones
12 oz (approx 350 g) apples, after preparing
8 oz (approx 250 g) onions
4 oz (approx 100 g) raisins
8 oz (approx 250 g) demerara sugar
0.5 pint (approx 300 ml) malt vinegar
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground cinnamon
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground ginger
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice
0.5 teaspoon (0.5 x 5 ml spoon) salt

Wash the plums.  Remove the stones, and chop the plums into pieces of the size you would like to find in the finished chutney. I aim for pieces roughly 0.5 – 1 cm (0.25 – 0.5 inch) cubed.

Peel and core the apples.  If using windfalls, cut out any bruised areas.  Chop into pieces of the size you would like to find in the finished chutney.

Peel and chop the onions.

Put the chopped fruit and vegetables into a large saucepan, along with the raisins, sugar, vinegar, salt and spices.

Bring to the boil.

Simmer, stirring from time to time, until the fruit and vegetables are soft and the chutney has thickened.  I test for this by drawing a wooden spoon through the chutney. If the bottom of the pan is visible before the chutney flows back into the gap, I consider the chutney done.  This stage normally takes about 45 minutes for me; it may vary depending on your pan and cooker.

Remove the pan from the heat.

Pour the chutney into clean glass jars. I find the easiest way to do this is to pour the chutney into a heatproof jug first, then use the jug to fill the jars.

Seal the jars immediately. I use cling film and a screw-top lid, preferably a plastic lid as chutney will eventually corrode a metal lid.

Store in a cupboard for three months or so to allow the flavour to develop before eating.  The chutney will store for several years provided the seal stays intact.

31 July, 2014

Capital, by John Lanchester. Book review

Faber and Faber 2013. ISBN 978-0-571-23462-2. 577 pages.

Set mainly in London in 2007-2008. All the main characters are fictional.

Capital follows a group of people who live or work in Pepys Road, an unexceptional (fictional) street in south London. The residents include a City banker and his wife, a Pakistani family who run the corner shop, a young African football star and his father, and an elderly widow. Those who work there include a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny and a Zimbabwean traffic warden. All the residents start receiving mysterious postcards with a photograph of their house and the words ‘We Want What You Have’ printed on the back. Who is sending the postcards and what do they mean?

From the title, I expected this would be a book about the City of London and the finance world. It turned out to be much more varied and engaging than that, because although it does feature a City casino bank and some of the traders who work there, they are only a component of a large and varied cast. Each character or group of characters has their own plot. Some happen to cross each other’s paths as they encounter each other in Pepys Road, others never meet at all. So the book reads rather like a collection of interweaving short stories. The big plus of this approach is that there are lots of tales and characters to choose from; if one narrative doesn’t catch a particular reader’s imagination, another probably will. For me, I found Zbigniew the Polish builder, Matya the Hungarian nanny, the Kamal family, and Petunia the elderly widow and her daughter Mary the most appealing characters. Smug, complacent banker Roger and his shallow acquisitive wife Arabella deserve each other, and the football sub-plot largely passed me by (although I did sympathise with the homesick father). Other readers will no doubt have their own favourites.

Capital doesn’t have an overall plot as such. The ‘We Want What You Have’ postcards form a sort of loose thread on which to hang the individual plots, but the ‘mystery’ and its eventual resolution seemed a bit incidental. This didn’t matter for me, because the individual plots were engaging enough in their own right to keep me turning the pages to find out what happened next. I did find I tended to skim the chapters about the characters I found less interesting and to hurry forward until the book came back to someone I was more interested in, but that always happens in a book with multiple sub-plots.

The writing style is warm and humane, easy to read and often wryly funny. The characters may occupy stereotypical roles – the public-school banker, the Polish builder, the Asian shopkeepers – but they are all distinct individuals, with their own relationships, dilemmas and human foibles. Even the ghastly characters have some good points.

Entertaining, easy read about a diverse group of people living and working in London just before and after the 2008 financial crash.