King Arthur’s Bones by The Medieval Murderers

King Arthur’s Bones is a historical mystery written by The Medieval Murderers, a group of five authors, all members of the Crime Writers’ Association. The book consists of five stories with a prologue and epilogue tracing the mystery of Arthur’s remains.

The legend is that King Arthur is not dead, but sleeping with his knights ready to return to defend his country in a time of great danger. So when monks at Glastonbury Abbey find what are thought to be his bones that causes great consternation. If these are his bones then Arthur really did die. The implications are too much for some and the bones mysteriously disappear from the Abbey.

The stories by Philip Gooden, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Michael Jecks and Ian Morson follow the bones from their discovery in 1191 at Glastonbury Abbey through to 2004 when archaeologists at Bermondsey Abbey discover a nineteenth century iron coffin containing an incomplete skeleton of what had been a large man who had probably died after a severe head injury.

Each story involves a murder, as the bones are passed down the centuries. They’re all colourful tales. I particularly liked the story (by Philip Gooden) set in the 17th century involving William Shakespeare’s brother Edmund who discovered a long thigh bone and murder in the Tower of London in one of the compartments of the Lion Tower where the king kept lions and tigers. 

Now that I was here, against my will, I could not see the beasts, but I could smell and hear them. I was in one of the compartments of the Lion Tower meant for animal use. More of a cave or a cell than a chamber it smelled rank. In the next-door cell was a body, not animal but human and supposedly murdered. (page 260)

These are entertaining tales, full of action and surprises. I liked the way the stories interlink around the central theme and the similarities and differences that contribute towards making this such an inventive story. I could believe that one day Arthur will return.

I’ll be looking out for the four earlier books The Medieval Murderers have published and for books by the individual authors as well.

Historical Accuracy in Historical Fiction?

After I finished reading King Arthur’s Bones (a post on this book to follow) I wanted to read more about King Arthur and I remembered I still have Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin to read. This too is about the discovery of the alleged remains of King Arthur.

I hadn’t got very far into it – pages 39-40 – when I came across this sentence that made me pause:

The pilgrims would loyally accompany their new friend, Emma, Lady Wolvercote, on her diversion to the judicial battleground at the Buckinghamshire county town of Aylesbury.

I lived for over 20 years near Aylesbury, which is indeed the county town – now. But in 1176, when this event took place, it wasn’t the county town. Maybe I only know this because I’m interested in the history of places where I’ve lived, or even because I used to work in the Buckinghamshire County Record Office, but it still irks me. How difficult is it to check this fact I wondered? Not difficult at all – Wikipedia has some details – Buckingham was the county town until the 16th century.

How much influence should this have over my reading? Well, it may not be an important part of the story, but it has influenced me enough to make me put the book to one side for a while until I’ve got over it.

The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine: Book Review

Recently, I wanted to read something other than crime fiction, but chose The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine, which just happens to include a couple of rapes, kidnappings and a murder. However, it’s really a time-slip book, switching between the present day and the first century AD in Rome and Britannia, a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance.

It starts dramatically as teacher, Jess is raped in her flat. She has only vague memories of her attacker. She then resigns from teaching and flees to her sister’s house in Wales, which is haunted by a young girl. She becomes interested in discovering more about the girl and her sister, Eigon, the daughters of Caratacus, the king of the Catuvellauni tribe who led the British in their fight against the Romans. He was captured and taken as a prisoner to Rome, together wife his wife and daughter. Actually she becomes obsessed to the point of absurdity, regardless of her own safety, so much so that the past and the present merge in her mind. She travels to Rome to continue her research into Eigon’s life.

There was much I enjoyed in this book – the suspense as Jess gradually begins to remember who her attacker was and the danger she finds herself in both in Wales and Rome were initially gripping.  I also liked the historical references, such as the persecutions of the Christians by Nero, and the Roman and Welsh locations. I remember walking around the Roman Forum imagining what it must have been like so I could identify the picture of ancient Rome that Jess is able to construct.

However, I thought it was too drawn out, and would have been better if the plotting had been tighter. I was also sceptical about the way Jess and Eigon “communicated” through Jess’s dreams and trances. It seemed an artificial way of telling the story. The mix of supernatural and historical however, was quite intriguing even though I had to suspend my disbelief a little too much for my liking and there were too many coincidences and contrivances. Although I thought the ending was rushed and kaleidascoped in comparison with the rest of the book, it did hold my attention to the end.

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland: Book Review

company-of-liarsCompany of Liars: a novel of the plague by Karen Maitland is a great yarn. Set in England in 1348 it tells the tale of a group of people fleeing across the country as the plague moves inland from the ports. The narrator is Camelot, a pedlar. A “camelot” in medieval times was a person who also carried news and had a reputation for trading in goods that were not always genuine. This Camelot is no exception, scarred and with only one eye, pedalling relics such as skeins of Mary Magdalene’s hair, “white milk of the Virgin Mary in tiny ampoules no bigger than her nipples” and “hair from the very ass that bore our blessed Lord into Jerusalem”.  Camelot is an unreliable narrator.

As you would expect from the title the members of the group, a conjuror, a one-armed storyteller, a musician and his apprentice, a young couple on the run, a mid-wife and a strange child who can read the runes are all liars, with secrets that gradually exposed as they journey on.  Some secrets are not that well hidden and I’d guessed them all before the end of the book.

They make their way from Kilmington on the south coast through Thornfalcon in Somerset (where incidentally we stayed last year in an old farmhouse) heading north to North Marston in Buckinghamshire seeking the shrine of Sir John Schorne. He was the rector of North Marston and had discovered a well, the waters of which were reputed to have miraculous healing powers. The shrine  had become a popular place of pilgrimage after Sir John Schorne’s death in 1313. Camelot thought they would be safe there as the pestilence would not reach it before the winter frosts came killing off the plague. However, they are thrown out of the pub where they were staying and forced to move on after trouble with the locals.

I also liked the storytelling in the novel – it’s not only Cygnus, the storyteller but each character has a tale to tell, some obviously tall stories, mingling magic and myth. Cygnus is a strange character with his left arm that wasn’t an arm but the pure white wing of  a swan. A sense of menace develops as it is not just the plague they are fleeing from – there is a hue and cry out for Cygnus believed to be the killer of a little girl and they are being followed by a wolf, howling in the night. Their safety is also threatened when Jofre, the young apprentice musician gets drunk  and is then found dead, presumably killed by a pack of wolves. But strangest of all is the white-haired child Narigorm who seems to be controlling events.

This is a memorable story, with a colourful cast of characters. It’s a long book (over 550 pages) and there are many other characters than the group of nine. Yet I had no difficulty keeping track of who was who and it was actually a quick read as I was keen to know what would happen next. It is full of suspense and drama.

I liked the fact that the places in this novel are real places and that the details of the plague, its causes and ways of dealing with it are based on fact. Thornfalcon is not the only location in this book that is familar to me. North Marston is not far from where we live and so we went to have a look at the shrine. It was renovated in 2005.

sir-john-schornes-well

Also in the shrine is a boot representing the boot in which the rector whilst exorcising a man suffering from gout is said to have captured the devil. Apparently the devil made himself as small as a beetle and flew away through one of the lace-holes.

sir-john-schornes-shrine-boot

This is how the well looked before it was renovated in 2005. For more photos see here.

sir-john-schornes-well-history1

The shrine is near to the parish church, which dates back to the 12th century. The inner part of the tower is from the 15th century, whereas the stone in the outer walls were all replaced between 2002  and 2004.

north-marston-church

The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn

In my last Sunday Salon post I wrote that I was glad I’d got round to reading The Sixth Wife by Suzannah Dunn and was having difficulty  putting it down.  However, on reading further on my enthusiasm for this book waned and then crashed down almost to zero.  I should know better than to write about a book before I’ve finished reading it. But people often say you can tell if you’re going to like a book after about 50 pages and the first part of this book did grab my attention, so it was all very promising.

My problem with it is that the dialogue is too modern, too colloquial. It’s not that I want ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and ‘prithree’ this and that, but the conversations in this book come from the 21st century, not the 16th. And although I was fore warned from the description on the back cover that Catherine, the Duchess of Suffolk, Katherine Parr’s “best friend” has her own tale to tell I didn’t expect it to be the main part of the book. The Sixth Wife is not really about Katherine Parr, but about Catherine’s relationship with Thomas Seymour – which Dunn explains in the epilogue is from her own imagination.  I don’t expect historical fiction to be a mere recounting of facts,  but I do expect it to have some basis in fact, and not be mainly a story of a woman sleeping with her best friend’s husband. This book is more fiction than history and for me it doesn’t compare with, say Phillippa Gregory’s historical fiction for example.

The plus side, however is that reading this book has spurred me on to read more in the period. This list is taken from Wikipedia:

  • My Lady Suffolk: A Portrait of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk by Evelyn Read (1963) ASIN B000JE85OK
  • Queen Katherine Parr by Anthony Martienssen, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York 1973
  • Women, Reform and Community in Early Modern England: Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk, and Lincolnshire’s Godly Aristocracy, 1519-1580: 19 (Studies in Modern British Religious History) by Melissa Franklin Harkrider
  • Catherine Parr: Henry VII’s Last Love by Susan James (2008). Gloucestershire: The History Press. ISBN o75244591X

Sunday Salon – Reading The Sixth Wife

tssbadge1Yesterday I started reading The English by Jeremy Paxman. It’s entertaining but I felt I wanted a story – something to get lost in. So I picked up  The Sixth Wife by Suzannah  Dunn. I’ve had this book for a long time and I decided it was now time to read it. I’m so glad I did because I have difficulty putting it down. It’s the story of Katherine Parr as told by her friend Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk after the death of Henry VIII, when Katherine had married Thomas Seymour.

Reading one book often leads me on to reading others. I was sure I had a copy of David Starkey’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII but I can’t find it – I wanted to read what he had to say about Katherine, so I must have just borrowed it from the library. I know I’ve read it.

I find this period of English history so fascinating and most of what I know has come from reading novels or books like Starkey’s because we only touched on it at school and my later historical study was all a lot later. I’d like to visit Sudeley Castle where Katherine lived with Thomas – he renovated it in 1547/8. And I’d also like to read more about both Katherine and her friend, Catherine. So much from one book.

sixth-wife

Note: See my final thoughts here. My enthusiasm for this book waned.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

This was one of the best books I read in 2007. Philip Reeve is a new author to me and I first read about him on Ann’s blog. Here Lies Arthur is an adventure story, set in Britain in AD 500. I have always been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and this book tells his story, casting a new and original slant on the ‘facts’. Very little historical evidence has survived to give concrete information about life in Britain from the fifth to the sixth centuries. The picture Reeve paints is of a turbulent and harsh world, with Arthur as a war-leader in a land where opposing war-bands fight for supremacy. Arthur is not the romantic hero of legend but a dangerous, quick-tempered man, ‘solid, big-boned with a thick neck and a fleshy face. ‘A bear of a man.’

Merlin is in this story too, not the magician of legend but Myrddin, a singer of songs and a story-teller par excellence, whose tales convince people of Arthur’s supremacy and power – the King That Was and Will Be. With the help of Gwyna, a young girl whose home has been ransacked and burnt, Myrddin works his own kind of magic on people, eager to believe in miracles, the old gods and spirits, the Lady of the Lake and the significance of the sword, Excalibur called Caliburn in this book.

Gwyna, disguised as a boy acts as Myrddin’s servant as they travel with the war-band. Then as it becomes difficult to continue with the disguise Myrddin sends her to Gwenhwhfar’s household to act as a spy. As in the legend Gwenhwhfar is not faithful to Arthur. Other characters in the legends are interwoven into the story, most memorable is Peredur, Sir Perceval of Round Table fame and the hero of one of the stories in the Mabinogion.

As Gwyna matures she takes on the role played by Myrddin, spinning tales of her own, giving meaning to his life and death. It’s the stories that matter, with their magical enchantment. We can still hope that Myrddin’s Arthur will one day return, ‘the wisest and best king they had ever heard of. You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there’d been a man like that once, and might be again.’

Gwyna ends the story with the tale of the ship carrying Arthur to ‘an island in the west’ where ‘he lies sleeping, healed of all his wounds. And he’ll wake one day, when our need of him is bad enough, and he’ll come back to us. And the name of that ship is called, Hope.’

The stories of course are made up of words and what a spell Reeve has woven with his words. The names and place names conjure up such memories and visions of the time when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and there is a list at the back of the book with a guide to how they might have been pronounced. I kept referring to the guide as I read along, saying the names out loud and letting the sounds resonate within my head.

It may be sentimental, but this is what I found irresistible in this book, the mixture of fact and fantasy, realism and enchantment, and the importance of story to encourage and inspire people. It brings the legends to life.