Category Archives: Historical Fiction

CITY OF SHADOWS by Ariana Franklin

Berlin, 1922 and 1932

Sometimes you read a historical novel which turns out to be a real eye-opener. It will be set in a period you thought you knew and deal with a situation you’ve been familiar with for years – and you find you were quite mistaken. It is like travelling back in a time-machine: oh, wow – so this is how it really was!

City of Shadows teleported me back to Berlin in 1922, and then, in Part II, 1932. The terrible post-war poverty (exactly the same as in post-war Leningrad – I’ve been reading a biography of Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet and will post a review of that here soon), the black market and the racketeers, the first ominous indications of the rise of Hitler and nazism: then ten years later, the organised brutality as Hitler makes his bid for the Chancellorship while his personal army smashes all opponents and gradually takes over even the police force, meaning that the many murders they commit will never even be investigated.

One such racketeer is “Prince Nick”, a self-styled member of the defunct Russian royal family. In fact, of course, he is just a con-man with a pseudo-elegant veneer and – now – a lot of money. His secretary / personal-assistant, based at the largest of his chain of night clubs, is Esther Solomonova, a multilingual Russian Jew who is extremely beautiful when seen in profile from the right, but the left side of her face is hideous, having been smashed by an axe in one of the two progroms she miraculously survived with no possibility then or later of any kind of cosmetic surgery.

She does not approve of Nick’s activities, but has little choice. It is work for him or starve in the streets.

She is particularly disapproving when Nick decides to take up the cause of a young woman named Anna Anderson, a patient in a mental asylum who claims to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only survivor of the massacre of the Czar and Czarina and their children.

Nick’s only interest, Esther knows, is Anastasia’s claim to the Romanov family fortune deposited in a bank in London. He sees the chance of getting his own hands on a chunk of it.

But Esther comes to feel responsible for Anna when she realises  that it is not just paranoia, a fantasy, that someone actually is hunting the poor woman and that this “big man” who appears regularly once every six weeks will stop at nothing to kill her. Anna claims that it is the Cheka, the Soviet hatchet-men, who have marked her down for assassination because she is the heir to the throne of “all the Russias”.

Esther does not agree.

Neither does Detective Inspector Schmidt, whose task it is to catch the assassin when he starts killing those around Anna in order to get to her. Schmidt is a good man caught up in a terrible situation where everything he believes in – freedom, equality, justice – is being systematically replaced by tyranny, racism and injustice.

In Esther Solomonova, the good man recognises the good woman.

But is Anna Anderson the Grand Duchess Anastasia? Other books have been written about her, arguing the toss one way or the other. And that doubt remains in this book right till the last pages. I have no intention of revealing the stunning ending, though I must say there are clues in the eatlier chapters I should have noticed. Look for those clues, but don’t cheat and go peeping at the back of the book – you will ruin the story for yourself!

I must also say that when I picked up this book I knew it would be well written, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as the wonderful Adelia books. In fact it is even better. It is one of the half-dozen or so best historical novels I have ever read. I only wish the author, Ariana Franklin (pen-name of Diana Morgan) was alive to hear me say so. And to write more books like it. She will be greatly missed.

MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH by Ariana Franklin

Cambridge, 1170

God hates you Jews, Aaron,’ Henry said. ‘You killed His son.’
Aaron closed his eyes, waiting.
‘And God hates me.’
Aaron opened his eyes.
The king’s voice rose in a wail that filled the gallery like a despairing trumpet. ‘Swet God, forgive this remorseful and unhappy king. Thou knowest how Thomas Becket did ippose me in all things so that in my rage I called for his death. Peccavi, peccavi, for certain knights did mistake my anger and ride to kill him, thinking to please me, for which abomination You in Your righteousness have turned your face from me. I am a worm, me culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. I crawl beneath Your anger while Archbishop Thomas is received into Your glory and sitteth on the right hand of Your gracious son, Jesus Christ.’
Faces turned. Quills were poised in mid-account, abacuses stilled.
Henry stopped beating his breast. He said conversationally: ‘And if I am not mistaken, the Lord will find him as big a pain in the arse as I did.’ He leaned over, put a finger gently beneath Aaron of Lincoln’s lower jaw and raised it. ‘The moment that those bastards chopped Becket down, I became vulnerable. The Church seeks revenge: it wants my liver, hot and smoking, it wants recompense and must have it; and one of the things it wants, has always wanted, is the expulsion of you Jews from Christendom.’

Ariana Franklin was the pen-name of Diana Norman who, sadly for us readers, died in 2011 at the age of 77,  but left us this wonderful series of novels set in the time of Henry II and one stunning book (City of Shadows) set in 1920s Berlin. I’ll come to that one later. Today, let’s start with the Adelia Aguilar books, of which Mistress of the Art of Death is the first.

From the first page of this marvellous story, I knew I was in the hands of a mistress of the art of the medieval mystery when I found myself in the company of a group of pilgrims returning from the brand new shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. “But,” we are told, “one of them, as exuberant as all the rest, is a murderer of children. God’s grace will not extend to a child-killer,” which brings us directly to the first death, the murder of a little boy called Peter in Cambridge, with rumours flying about that the boy was crucified by the Jews and the Church trying to make a saint out of him and a local prioress already turning his bones into precious relics.

Meanwhile, Adelia Aguilar, a woman physican and pathologist from the great medical school at Salerno, arrives at Dover en route for Cambridge along with her two companions, Simon of Naples, a Jewish investigator and diplomatic fixer working for the King of Sicily, and a muscular “minder” who happens to be both a Saracen and a eunuch . They fall in with that party of pilgrims now returning to Cambridge from  Canterbury, a motley and Chaucerian bunch including an unpleasant and worldly prioress, a couple of knights (ex-Crusaders), and an Augustinian Canon.

Now the Canon cannot, as he puts it, piss. Crisis. He is literally at death’s door. The Prioress urges him to apply the knuckle-bone of “little St Peter” (the murdered child) to the offending organ. Predictably, it does not work. Adelia, the woman from Salerno, takes over – to the consternation of the canon himself and the horror of most of his companions. However, her system does work, and she wins herself an important and influential ally in Cambridge; one she is going to need, for the real reason she and her companions are in England is to discover the murderer of Little Peter of Trumpington and the other two children and prevent a pogrom against the Jews.

A great story, obviously meticulously researched yet narrated with lightness and humour. I particularly liked her Henry II, while the heroine, Adelia, manages to be utterly adorable as well as by far the most intelligent and practical person around. Yet she has no idea who the murderer is, and nor will you, there is no way to guess – unless you cheat. I didn’t. You mustn’t. But if you like medieval mysteries you must read it.

Tracy Chevalier’s BURNING BRIGHT

If, like me, you have always been fascinated and thrilled by the poems and pictures of William Blake, you will be delighted with this book, for it is set in his London and he plays quite a major role in it. His London, yes.

(This and several other poems crop up quite naturally in the course of the story.)

I wander through each chartered street
Near where the chartered Thames does flow

And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every man
In every infant’s cry of fear
In every voice, in every ban
The mind-forged manacles I hear.

How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace walls.

But most through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear
And blights with plagues the marriage hearse.

And what is more, he is credibly depicted – an outspoken radical (he was a friend of Tom Paine’s) at a time when a breath of socialism or support for the revolution in France could cost one one’s life; eccentric to the point of “madness” – in constant communication with his dead brother, and living in fact on two levels, in two worlds, simultaneously; and very, very kind in a society where kindness seems to have been in extremely short supply.

A poor family emigrate from a Devonshire village to London, and the story is of the two village children, Jem and his beautiful but totally naive and innocent sister, Maisie (a source of inspiration to Blake!) and her adorable streetwise counterpart, Maggie, the local London girl who befriends Jem and tries to protect Maisie.

It is perfectly written, as one would expect of the author of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and succeeds on every level. I will never be able to read William Blake again without thinking of him facing a mob who are demanding that he sign an oath of allegiance to the king, and refusing outright; and Jem and Maisie’s father, the local from the Devonshire village, following suit, not because he knows or cares anything about politics but because he objects to being forced to do something by a violent mob.

And the depiction of the two girls, Maisie and Maggie, as they grow up, become women, is completely unforgettable.

A must for all Blake-lovers as well, of course, as all lovers of top quality Historical Fiction.

KINGDOM OF THE GRAIL by Judith Tarr

This book is set in post-Arthurian times when Merlin was still bound by Nimuë’s enchantments and the Grail still something a knight might reasonably set out in quest of. It is a period of which I am very fond, but the only other time I had tried to read a Judith Tarr novel, I gave up after a few pages! I expected the same thing to happen here.

It did not.

Far from it. After the first few pages, I could not put Kingdom of the Grail down.

It is the story of Roland, hero of the epic poem La Chanson de Roland in which Roland dies when he is ambushed by Saracens in the pass of Roncesvalles in the high Pyrenees. Only here he does not die: the story goes on, made wonderful, made mythical, by Judith Tarr’s own brand of magic. Roland, a descendant of Merlin, is both enchanter and shape-shifter – it is in his blood – and warrior – he is Count of the Breton Marches and one of the King’s Companions of Charles the Great of France.

A beautiful woman, Sarissa, appears at the court in France, bearing a magical sword, Durandel, and offers it as a prize. Roland wins it and becomes both her champion and her lover.  But what does she represent? What force, what kingdom, is he now champion of?

As the story moved on, I noticed how much Tarr has been influenced by such writers as Tolkein and Lewis. Everything leads up to a final battle between the forces of Good and Evil that is the best I have come across since the closing chapters of Lord of the Rings and The Last Battle which brings the Narnia books to a close. And her wizard (Merlin = Gandalf) and wicked sorcerer (Ganelon, tool of the Dark Lord) are the real thing, as is her man born to be king (Roland) of the enchanted land whose ancient king (Parsifal) is dying, waiting only for his successor to take up the sword and fight the great war that he himself no longer can – though before that can happen, Roland, not fully trusted yet by Sarissa and blaming her for the nassacre of his friends at Roncesvalles, flees in the form of a hawk and is for a while lost to mankind, his home the wilderness, the wasteland. “He had been human once. He had no particular desire to wear that shape again …”

But this is not mere imitation. It is great writing of the same genre. It has everything, and I cannot recommend it too highly.

OPHELIA’S REVENGE

Looking back, I blame my disgraceful behaviour in part on my hunger to make sense of the lives of Prince Hamlet and his family. If we’re to stay sane, our world must make sense, and to my thirteen-year-old self there was too much in the lives of the queen and king that made no sense at all. In part I blame my bad behaviour on my boredom. Yes, it was glorious to live as a lady in the castle, but I hadn’t realised how tedious such a life would be. Servants did all the work, and except for a few hours schooling each day, I had nothing but sleeping and eating and grooming myself to fill my time. The gentle-born boys of my age had hawking and hunting and riding and training in the arts of war, but girls were expected to wait patiently until they were given in marriage as brood mares for their husbands. […] At about thirteen the blood begins to boil and a dark sap in us begins to rise. I suspect even the most chaste among us begin to be haunted with lewd thought and dreams. I do know that in the beginning, my fantasies of Prince Hamlet centred around acting in plays together, but now I began to have fantasies of a baser nature … 

This follows on from the same author’s The Third Witch not a sequel, but another novel written in the same vein. Take a Shakespeare play and rewrite it from the viewpoint of a teenage girl.

It worked well in The Third Witch. At first, I didn’t think it was working so well here. Like Gilly (in The Third Witch), Ophelia is of gentle birth but when the story opens is being brought up in poverty by strangers. Like Gilly, she is full of romantic dreams and crazy schemes. Like Gilly, she is wild, she is totally ruthless, and she will make use of anyone to gain her ends.

They are both obsessed. Gilly was obsessed with revenge. Ophelia is obsessed with her love for the beautiful, mad prince who spoke to her one day in an idle moment as he passed through the village, and does not even recognise her when, years later, she has been reinstated at the castle as Polonius’ daughter.

Her friend and mentor at the castle, the one who transforms her from village hoyden to young lady, is the queen, Gertrude, a rather pathetic figure who is abused by her brutal first husband, King Hamlet.

Yorick shook his head. ‘She doesn’t say him nay, even when he beats her. What can she do now?’
‘She can run away,’
‘And go where?’
‘Anywhere.’
‘She has no family, no money. What can she live on?’
I was sick of his objections. ‘She can learn a trade and take to weaving.’
Amusement flickered in Yorick’s eyes. ‘I don’t think a queen can give over being a queen and take to a trade.’
‘Better that than to stay here and let one of the king’s loyal soldiers toss her over a parapet to her death in the sea.’
‘In the eyes of the law and the church, she’s the king’s property, like his hounds or his boots. She cannot leave him.’

True, but to Ophelia, unacceptable. And it is this that leads to her first murder. For yes, it is Ophelia who puts the poison in Claudius’ hand and thus rids the court of its murderous king and saves the queen’s life.

But one thing leads to another. One death, one murder …

Although I have no reservations about the novel, finally, I have to admit that I am not sure about the title. The one motive Ophelia never has is revenge – though others around her are indeed intent on just that.

Well written, though, and if you enjoyed Rebecca Reisert’s first novel based on a Shakespeare girl, you will enjoy this one.

Will the next be Juliet, I wonder? And will Juliet, like Ophelia, only seem to die?

I wrote this review a long time ago. There has still been no sequel, no Juliet. A great shame.

THE THIRD WITCH

Some years ago, Rebecca Reisert wrote two novels set in medieval times, each a retelling of a Shakespeare play – then nothing more, so far as I know. Which is a great pity.

Anyway, at the time, I reviewed them both for the late lamented MedievalMysteries.com, and am now reposting those reviews here in the hope that I can interest new people in her work.

This is the first, The Third Witch, based on Macbeth. The second, Ophelia’s Revenge, based obviously on Hamlet, follows in the next post.

******

Impatience rises in me like a bloody tide. ‘Should I seek Him out on the battlefield? Or must I go to His castle?’

Mad Helga only chuckles. With one thick fingernail she flicks a bone into its place.

‘You daft old bat,’ I say, ‘speak plainly!’

Mad Helga holds up a tiny bone. The lower part dangles, broken. ‘See what your impatience has wrought? Once broken, never fully mended.’

‘I shall break your bones, old woman, if you do not answer me.’

Mad helga’s eye continues to twinkle. With the dangling end of the bone she draws a faint pattern in the ashes on the hearth.

‘Heed well, Gilly. These curls here, this is our own wood, Birnam.’ Her voice is suddenly as sane as a tax collector’s. ‘For two days you will travel through it. Until midday on the first day, travel due north. Then turn west for a day and a half. Partway through the morning of the third day, you must leave the wood and take to the road that folk call Old Grapius Road. Follow that road through the hills and mountains. ‘Twill not be an easy journey through the mountains, girl, but the road will lead you through the best passes. Finally you will come to a long silver loch. Travel north past its northernmost shore till you come at last to the castle of Inverness, his northern castle, perched high on a ridge above the firth where he can guard against attack from the loch, river or sea.’

I study the map of ashes, tracing its outlines onto my heart and searing its curves into my memory. Finally I look up. ‘Helga, I do not remember much of castles and their ways.How shall I gain admittance to the castle?’

Mad Helga’s hands thrust out suddenly, spilling the bones into the ashes. Her fingers flash about till the map is erased and the bones soiled and buried in the ashes. ‘Tis your revenge, not mine, lass. I neither know nor care whether you be admitted to his  castle or no.’ She begins to rock back and forth, singing, ‘Greymalkin shall not stalk your rest, nor Ulfling seize your – ‘

I close my fingers around her wrists. ‘Stay with me, Mad Helga, just a moment more. Tell me, I beg you, once I gain admittance to the castle, what must I take to bring to you?’

For a long time, Mad Helga is silent. She sits so still that I snake my thumb to the underside of her wrist and press to feel the throb of her pulse to make certain she is still alive.

Then she says, ‘Bring me three pieces of His heart.’ 

We are in the north of Scotland again, and this is the story of the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth – who are, it turns out, Nettle, Mad Helga and Gillyflower. Nettle is middle-aged, a herbalist, and blessed with the Sight; and not only that, but on occasion the “Old Ones” speak through her:

Suddenly, […] the room fills with a wave of smell, an odour both sweet and foul, like the stench of a body six days dead. I cover my nose with my hand but the smell is just as strong. I have to fight against gagging. What is happening? I don’t understand it. I look to Nettle and I see that her lips are moving. Then I hear a voice coming out of her mouth, but it is not her voice. It is a voice I have never heard before, a voice that is gnarled and twisted and dry like the root of an ancient oak.

‘You will find what you seek two leagues from Forres.

Mad Helga is the crone of the trio, old, and “as bald as a new-laid egg”. She is also, as her name implies, quite mad (or is that only when the wind blows from the north-north-west?); frequently she speaks in verse (“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come”), but when she does so the words she speaks are words of power: they take effect – or at least, come true.

And finally, with them in their hut on the edge of the great forest lives Gillyflower, known as Gilly. She was taken in by them seven years ago when she was – what? seven? – and her home was destroyed and her father killed by Macbeth. Now, “grown up” at fourteen, and, though dressed in rags and living in a hovel, remembering still what her life had once been like (“I had forgotten how free and glorious it feels to fly across the countryside when you’re perched atop a horse”), she seeks to avenge her father and herself: this book is the tale of that revenge.

When you have read it you will know all three of them as well as (better than, in most cases) you know your family and friends. In a good, a positive, sense, the play will never be the same again: it adds to the play.

MAGNUS (review)

Magnus coverThis is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a superb short story writer and, like his wonderful first novel, “Greenvoe“, and the Booker-shortlisted “Beside the Ocean of Time“, this book reads like a series of short stories. Yet the same characters appear and reappear throughout, some (like the tinker couple, Jock and Mary, and Magnus’ boyhood companions) growing older along with Magnus, others (like the peasants Mans and Hild, and Bishop William) archetypes who are always there unchanging like a chorus in the background.

One of its most unconventional features (considered as Historical Fiction) is that it occasionally slips out of its twelfth-century setting. During the war between the two earls, we are suddenly presented with a news bulletin in modern radio idiom. Then Magnus foresees how it might be, how “in an evil time, when all the furrows are disordered, a chosen man might have to mingle himself with the dust […] Two images came unbidden into his mind. He saw himself in the mask of a beast being dragged to a primitive stone. A more desolate image followed, from some far reach of time: he saw a man walking the length of a bare white ringing corridor to a small cube-shaped interior full of hard light; in that hideous clarity the man would die.”

And in the end it is not the death of Magnus at the primitive sacrificial stone that we witness at all, it is death at the end of the white corridor, the death of the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the hands of the Nazis. And Hakon Paulson’s foreign cook, whom he orders to ‘perform the sacrifice’ is called Lifolf – as is the officers’ chef at Flossenberg, who is called upon to hang Bonhoeffer in a special ceremony on April 9th 1945, one of the last executions of the war and performed at the express orders of Hitler himself.

Unconventional yes, and in fact one of the best examples I know of the novel as an all-encompassing work of art, but not a difficult read. On the contrary, it is easy reading, and at times un-put-downable. There are moments and scenes which engrave themselves on your memory (like when Hild tells Mans to give the tinkers food and drink, and says “We’re only as rich as the poorest one among us”) and when you finish the book you feel you understand a little more of the nature of religion and of sacrifice, and of man’s place on the earth – and indeed in the universe.

George Mackay Brown returned to Earl Magnus in the short story The Feast at Papay, which, for those – like me – left thirsting for more, forms a delightful postscript to the novel. It is included in his short story collection Andrina, and is also highly recommended.