The essence of good storytelling

Philip Reeve Here Lies Arthur Scholastic 2007

glastonbury_crossMy expectations for a historical-fiction Arthur-type character are rather specific. I don’t rate at all highly any back-projections of Malory, Tennyson or even Geoffrey of Monmouth into a sub-Roman context, with medieval concepts of round tables, grails and swords embedded in stones appearing anachronistically in Late Antiquity. And so my heart sank when I began reading a scenario involving a Lady in a Lake in this young adult fiction book.

But, dedicated Arthurian that I am, I persisted, and am very glad to have done so. For the essence of every good story-teller (and Philip Reeve is one of these) includes the gift of using such motifs sensitively. What we have presented here is a tale within a tale, where Reeve weaves a story of how Myrddin embroiders narratives around the exploits of a minor warlord, so that we almost believe that this was the way the Arthurian legends could have come about: with pagan mythology and imagination hijacked by a bard to boost the reputation of a barbarian chieftain.

In a note the author reminds us Continue reading “The essence of good storytelling”

Not outstanding but vivid

tunnel

David Hancocks Cunval’s Mission
Lolfa 2004

David Hancocks studied Architecture and Building, and so it may have been inevitable that his historical interests have manifested themselves in reports and articles in archaeological journals. This, his first novel, is set in the Age of the Saints, that period which overlapped the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, and it may also be no coincidence that he was involved with landscaping several acres of woodland by the river Monnow where much of the novel is set.

A young priest called Cunval is sent to begin a mission in the territory of a pagan chief north of Abermenei (a precursor of the later medieval Monmouth). You can trace his journey from post-Roman Caerleon, where he has been trained, along rivers like the Usk, the Trothi and the Wye to the Monnow, where he sets up his llan or ecclesiastical enclosure. As you might expect, life is not easy for the new priest, what with bandits, local opposition, taboo violations and Saxon threats, but he persists and wins over the local population. But tragedy is never far away in such volatile times.

Continue reading “Not outstanding but vivid”

Historical whodunit not for the po-faced

Templecombe
Templar Head of Christ displayed in Templecombe church, Somerset

 

Michael Clynes The Grail Murders Headline Books 1993

It is 1522 and Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham has just been beheaded for treason. Soon afterwards Cardinal Wolsey’s spies start to be bumped off one by one, apparently in revenge for Buckingham’s execution. Buckingham himself was searching for two objects in darkest Somerset and seems to have been in cahoots with a powerful secret society, supposedly disbanded for two centuries. Under pain of execution two investigators, Benjamin Daunbey and Roger Shallot, are ordered by Henry VIII to find these two missing relics — the Grail, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, and Excalibur, the fabled sword of King Arthur — and foil the Templar plot against the Tudors. Along the way there is a lot of intrigue and action before matters are finally resolved. Or not.

First, the good news. Continue reading “Historical whodunit not for the po-faced”

Memorable female characters

Helen Hollick The Kingmaking
Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner trilogy
Heinemann 1994

Why does the Arthurian legend attract so many women writers? Rosemary Sutcliff, Catherine Christian, Marian Zimmer Bradley, Mary Stewart, André Norton, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken and Jane Curry (to name but a few) have all mined that rich seam, producing gems in various genres including fantasy, historical fiction and children’s literature. Does the work of another exponent, Helen Hollick, provide an answer? Continue reading “Memorable female characters”

Not living up to its promise

The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) The possible model for the hero's family home
The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) — the possible model for the family home of Inigo Bright (Brightstow was one early spelling of Bristol)

Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011

Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.

The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, Continue reading “Not living up to its promise”

A complete possession

Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)
Execution of émigrés, 1793 (Wikipedia Commons)

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities
Collins Classics 2010 (1859)

History repeats itself, and too often repeats itself in terrible ways. The downtrodden masses of 18th-century France had genuine grievances but when the inevitable reaction came moderation soon gave way to the Reign of Terror between September 1793 and July 1794. So it also was in 20th-century Russia and later in China, and recent years have seen too many other risings with hopes for natural justice being perverted by cruelty, bloody mayhem and corruption.

Dickens’ early years just overlapped the close of the Napoleonic Wars: he was born in the year of the failed French invasion of Russia, commemorated by Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The French Revolution had begun not even a quarter of a century before and so its events were not at all dry-as-dust history for Dickens and his generation, but he does acknowledge a debt to Thomas Carlyle’s “wonderful book” detailing this turbulent period when preparing for his novel, published seventy years after the start of the conflagration. Dickens 1859 preface also tells us that

“A strong desire was upon me then to embody [the main idea of this story]  in my own person … Throughout  its execution, it has had complete possession of me; I have so far verified what is done and suffered in these pages, as I have certainly done and suffered it all myself.”

This rather veiled personal admission also furnishes further clues on what motivated Dickens to write this novel, clues which, thanks to the sands of time and Claire Tomalin’s 1991 study The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (now a feature film also called The Invisible Woman) we are better able to unravel from the text. Continue reading “A complete possession”

Two enthusiasms combined

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House

P D James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Faber and Faber 2012 (2011)

In a piece she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (included in the paperback edition of Death Comes to Pemberley)  P D James explained the genesis of the novel in her desire ‘to combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen’. In evaluating this sequel to Pride and Prejudice consideration must be given to the degree of success she’s achieved with that combination of enthusiasms as well as all those other touchstones for masterful writing. The imminent screening of a BBC serial based on the novel  proves that the public appetite for such a combination is certainly still there  — though from the trailer clearly a lot of dramatic licence has been taken.

The trigger for the action is easily adumbrated… Continue reading “Two enthusiasms combined”