Image of the Week: The Hollow Hills (Book Cover)

This week’s “Image of the Week” entails a mixture of sorts: between a “Cover Crush” and look back in time, as well as my own experience of how an image can lead to something that touches one much more deeply. For it is the cover of Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills that initially beckoned to a teen me, transporting me deeper into the world of Merlin, surrounding me even more with the magic of his time.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my mother told me stories of Arthur and Merlin as I grew up, and was delighted to see The Crystal Cave on the booklist we received the summer before I began high school. We were meant to choose three works and be able to discuss and write about them during the school year—I rejected The Crystal Cave in favor of The Turn of the Screw. Disappointed, she purchased the books I listed, but also, unbeknownst to me, the entire Merlin Trilogy: the aforementioned initial installment as well as The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I rolled my eyes when I saw them, but allowed her to line them up on my night table bookshelf anyway.

As it happens, I was a compulsively clean child and habitually performed such chores as pull my bed away from the wall to wipe down the floorboard or ensure there was no developing mark from the mattress. So it was that one day I pulled the table away from the wall to get at the dust behind it, when the books on the lower level attracted my attention—the shifting probably upset them—and I crouched to pick them off the floor.

(Click page for larger view)
(Click image for larger view)

It was a moment that lasted a couple of hours, for I glanced at the cover of The Hollow Hills—was it providence that I happened to pick that one up first?—and began to look deeply into the image as it motioned, called to me, pulled me toward the dusky swirl of a time I could easily melt into, felt I could become part of.

The figure on the cover was not difficult to take in. Handsome, with tousled red hair and rosy cheeks, he gripped a sword and held himself in a defiant stance, as if he were perceiving enemies in the distance and taking measure of his next actions. He seemed to me immensely strong, somewhat daunting, but still someone I wanted to be in the presence of. As a rather quiet child, my mind instinctively flew to the query of what birthed such potency, and I drew open the leaves.

It was Arthur, of course, and the second book in the series, but I do recall flipping through and reading passages here and there, wondering which one of them might tell me more about the world of such a man and how he came to be.

[B]elow me the grass, grey with rime, was barely distinguishable in the thick mist that held the whole place shrouded, from the invisible sea below the invisible cliffs to the pale blur where the winter sun fought to clear the sky. Below the blanket of mist the sea was quiet, as quiet as it ever was on that raging coast.

 Then, on the third night, the wind came. A small wind from the west, that crept across the battlements and in under the doors and set the flames fluttering blue round the birch logs.

As a reader, I had always been able to close my eyes and envision what the words communicated, as if I were watching a big screen behind my lids—at least most of the time—and the images in my mind on this day, brought forth by words more beloved than ever, were enchanting. The castle Tintagel I had dreamt of, the furious wind on a night portending the greatest event for the future of an empire. Something passed through my very soul on that afternoon, and I felt—in words as close as possible to the experience I lived—as if I had made a discovery of utmost importance, that I had uncovered something from my past and simply could not stop now. I must, I felt then, continue on this path and retrieve what it is I knew I had lost.

As I gazed once more upon the cover, the storm raging behind King Arthur seemed not unlike the one I had just witnessed, with a red sky over the castle, beckoning him to his destiny, the same he was directed to that squally night that the baby he, the one for whom the storm summoned, is carried away from his birthplace to his very purpose, to his future.

Why had I never been this mystified by the tales my mother told me? She was an able storyteller, and a gifted reader: her out-loud recitations of Poe were absolutely ghostly and filled with mysterious meaning. Well, she liked King Arthur—King Arthur—but she absolutely adored Poe, who I never took to quite as she did. Perhaps there was a connection between the darkness of his images and the ghosts she regularly told me about and I shrunk from. Her stories were delicious but frightening, and despite her assurances that the manifestations I frequently encountered couldn’t hurt me, I resented their invasion of my space (though I may not have had those words at the time) and how their almost-constant presence assaulted my very being. Only my room—the smaller one I had longed for years to move into, away from the large one I shared with my sister—offered a haven from them, and perhaps, in addition to natural inclination, was why I took such meticulous care of it.

I invited Merlin to my room. Merlin, protector of the future high king, magical, mysterious, occupant of memories that returned in a flood, present in a dissipating mist and the once invisible internal landscape existing amongst a raging sea.

The mist was lifting, drawing back from a sparkling sky. Faintly, high over the castle promontory, grew a hazy moon of light. Then the last cloud blew clear, billowing before the west wind like a sail blowing towards Brittany, and in its wake, blazing through the sparkle of the lesser stars, grew the great star that had lit the night of Ambrosius’ death, and now burned steady in the east for the birth of the Christmas King.

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An earlier edition of The Hollow Hills, with a smaller, but more complete, view to the castle behind Arthur.
An earlier edition of The Hollow Hills, with a smaller but more complete view to the castle behind Arthur.

“Month of Mary Stewart” concludes next weekend with one more review and a bit more from my own story of meeting with Merlin. 

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Month of Mary Stewart: A Walk in Wolf Wood

A Walk in Wolf Wood: A Tale of Fantasy and Magic

by Mary Stewart

The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child
The cover for the copy of A Walk in Wolf Wood I read as a child

A Walk in Wolf Wood came my way owing to what my mother called “a great pairing”: medieval fantasy and child protagonists matched to my love for the era of Merlin and my then newly-minted Mary Stewart fangirl status. As young adult literature it also suited my age, and I was pleased to see magic wrapped up in the entire package as well. Even for children, Stewart knew how to present intrigue.

Our story opens to the setting of Schwartzwald, Germany’s Black Forest, just outside of which brother and sister John and Margaret are picnicking with their parents, who shortly afterward fall into a post-lunch slumber. As the heat settles around the party, lulling even the afternoon to sleep, the children see a man approach and then pass them, weeping, as his tears “poured down his face and dripped onto the faded red velvet of his coat.” The intuitive pair notice the unusual clothing, naturally, but in discussing it, reject the idea that he is a re-enactor or some other sort of role player. John has difficulty articulating his instinctive understanding that the dancers they’d seen at St. Johann’s were “just dressing up” and that the weeping man seemed to be accustomed to what he wore.

As readers of fantasy are aware, children are intrepid creatures and it doesn’t occur to them to simply watch events pass by—of course these two have to run after the weeping man and see what his story is! It’s practically a requirement—“It’s in the script,” my mother used to say—and the entire experience is better off for of it, especially today when children are much more regulated and corralled than they were in the not-so-distant past. Stewart couldn’t have foreseen the downside of mixing children with Internet, but she presents to them, and all of us for that matter, the magic of imagination and not just where it can take you, but also when.


“It’s not turkey. It’s swan. And that bit’s peacock. Meg, you should just see the way they do them up, all the feathers and tail, the lot! They’re fixing them up now in the kitchens, ready for supper. Just wait till I have time to tell you everything! But we’d better exchange news first. No, no one suspects me. I really came down to get out of joining the boys’ games in the courtyard!” He made a face. You should see them! Black eyes and broken noses are the least of it! It’s all war games, of course, mock fights and tilting at the quintain—that’a sort of tournament practice—and they really do hammer at it. The master-at-arms is in charge, and he’s really tough type. I don’t think I’d have lasted very long there!”


As it turns out, their imaginings and urge to follow the man lead John and Margaret to a house in the forest, where they eventually befriend the one they come to know as Mardian. Though he once had been servant and close friend of Duke Otho, an evil sorcerer called Almeric has placed a spell on him, and he is fated to a shapeshifting existence while the sorcerer has assumed Mardian’s identity at court. The real Mardian helplessly watches Almeric’s takeover plan successfully move from step to step toward its ultimate conclusion, a palace coup that would not only unseat the duke, but also eliminate him and his son, Prince Crispin, entirely. Only John and Margaret can change the course of this wicked plan, though to do so they must enter the castle and place themselves in Almeric’s very path.

While I have never been attracted to werewolf stories, for a reader with my preferences this one nevertheless works well because Stewart focuses on how the spell robs Mardian of his full life and forces him into a destructive existence that eats at his will to overcome it.

“[F]or a year and more I have been as I am now. By day I am still Mardian, but the night, as you have seen, forces the wolf-shape on me, and with it the wolf’s appetite and lust for blood. With sunrise the bloodlust goes, and my man’s shape and mind return, but the memories and the shame remain.”

 Throughout the novel Stewart also weaves an aura of enchantment that occasionally manifests itself in the children’s self-awareness and their conclusion that everything they are experiencing must certainly be a dream. How else could they have walked only a short distance into another time? Moreover, how is it they are able to communicate with Mardian, whose language is different to theirs? For this they conclude they in reality are asleep near to their parents, and they speak a “dream language” that enables communication.

Stewart provides answer for these questions, cleverly inverting the notion that we in the modern era are the sensible, cleverer people, and Mardian’s fourteenth century is populated by the backward and superstitious. Yearning for some explanation for their experiences, the children opt for the ages-old technique of finding an explanation, no matter how illogical, for their experiences and ascribing them to it, whereas Mardian directly faces the truth, counseling them that

“spell it is … and no dream, my dears, as you had hoped. This is real, as your own time is real, and there is suffering to be won or escaped from. It is for you to choose. Choice is man’s right, and for that I leave you free.”

 In this scenario, twentieth-century children seek to escape the possibility of sorcery and imagine an alternate reality to account for it, whereas Mardian explains it quite matter-of-factly, even hinting in rather modern fashion that the choice to remain in the state they have concocted or move away from is their own. It is he, not they, who is unafraid of the idea of mixing time, and he who references their native time without including their own travel within the realm of evil.

A magical cover image: flags flying at the castle, looking a bit Hansl and Gretl-like, getting friendly with the wolf. Stewart is a master at turning the familiar a bit inside out.

As a fantasy tale, A Walk in Wolf Wood more than stands on its own, for it also encompasses time travel and a sense of history, and speaks to the themes of royal life, treasonous activity and the bonds of true friendship. A young adult novel, it attracts grown-up readers as well with its rich descriptions and the storytelling magic fans of Stewart are accustomed to. Simple but not simplistic, it is an engaging read with just the right recipe to charm readers of various ages as they follow John and Margaret and where the enchantment will take all of them.

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

 

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues later today with “Image of the Week” and concludes next week with a new review. Stay tuned to see what each will be!

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Interview with Author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians

I am so very excited to announce: Since last week’s installment of “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen,” it has been announced that Annie Whitehead’s second novel, Alvar the Kingmaker, has been awarded the B.R.A.G. Medallion. Another well-deserved honor for this fantastic author! (And I get to add it to her bio below!)

Congratulations, Annie Whitehead!!!

Interview between author Annie Whitehead and

Ethelred, Lord of the Mercians

The author (Annie) and her character (Ethelred, Lord of the ancient kingdom of Mercia) are seated in the great hall at Worcester. He is nursing a gold cup which we assume is filled with wine, while she, having a 21st century palate, has declined to drink, finding Anglo-Saxon wine too sweet for her taste. They are discussing someone whom they both know very well – Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians.

Annie: I suppose the thing that binds us is that we both love and admire her?

Ethelred: I didn’t know her like you knew her, not in the early days. Where did you find out about her character, where did that come from?

Annie: It wasn’t easy. A great deal has been written about her famous father…

Ethelred: My ally, Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great took back the city with the aid of Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians (Image courtesy Annie Whitehead)

Annie: Yes, except the historians didn’t see you so much as allies, more that you were subservient to him.

Ethelred: I wasn’t a king.

Annie: Exactly. And Alfred was a king who valued literacy. He commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and much was written in them about him and his reign. Less so about his daughter, and even less about her early life. But I pieced it together – In Asser’s Life of Alfred, it is implied that she grew up away from the Wessex court.

Ethelred: In Mercia. At least until the Vikings came banging on our door.

Annie: I never did find out much about your early life, but I guess that you, being older, had your part to play in fighting off those attackers.

Ethelred: I didn’t make that part easy for you, did I? And you know that I don’t like to talk about those years.

Annie: Aethelflaed’s attitude to you changed when she found out, though, didn’t it?

Ethelred: It brought us closer, yes.

Ethelred pauses. He takes a sip of his drink, and twirls the goblet in his fingers before he continues. The author knows that he is a man of few words, and that this episode is painful to recall. He changes the subject, but not to a happier story.

Ethelred: She loved another. When she wed me, her heart was with him still.

Annie: Yes.

Ethelred: You knew? Why didn’t you tell me?

Annie: I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been doing my job as a storyteller if I had revealed everything.

Ethelred: You told the readers.

Annie: Yes, but I couldn’t tell you. Would it have made any difference? Would you still have married her?

Ethelred: Yes, I would have married her, I had to. It was a seal on the alliance. In any case, it didn’t take me long to guess. She did not have the maturity to hide her true feelings, not then. But I felt for her – it was difficult for her, I know, to love one and be wed to another. And to be sent away from her home. I admired her courage.

Annie: You were patient, and you taught her well. Surely you will take some credit for that?

Ethelred: I think that she had an enquiring mind. And she lived with a fear, that drove her actions, always. She knew that she had a duty, to her people, and to do whatever it took to keep the invaders away. How was it for you – writing her from a child to a woman? She changed a lot.

Æthelred is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great
Æthelred is mentioned in the will of Alfred the Great (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

Annie: You’re avoiding the question. Yes, she grew up. I dug deep, researched thoroughly, and put as many obstacles in her way as I could. I like to think I encouraged her to learn from her mistakes. I had a sense that I knew what sort of person she would be, based on her life experiences and her actions as an adult.

Have you heard that advice about how the time comes to put away childish things? No, of course you haven’t, that was written much after your lifetime. But that’s what she did, you know, she put away her childish notions. And she watched you, very intently. Did you ever feel her scrutiny?

Ethelred: Sometimes I caught her looking at me. I thought it would be wise to stand back, to wait for her to settle down to her new life. At times I despaired, but I had a job to do, and that distracted me. Then, when I was ready to give up hope that she could ever care for me, she came to me, offered me her support. And her love. Although, sometimes, there was doubt…

Annie: How was it for you, having to hand over the reins? You had to give a warrior’s worries to a woman.

Ethelred: Strange question. Ah well, I suppose that to you it was unlikely – yes, she was a woman, but it was the obvious choice to us in Mercia. You see, she had already done her share of fighting; she had fought to win over the people, to make them accept her, and they loved her for never giving up on them. We were a team by that point. She was the right person to lead in my stead. And she still came to me for advice, you know. Even after…

It seems like neither the author nor the character wish to think about the end of that sentence. So the author sits forward and smiles.

Annie: It was nice for me to travel with her from her childhood all the way to when she became, frankly, a tired and grumpy woman who began to lose her patience!

Ethelred: You see? You wouldn’t have got that from a man – she had such inventive ways of dealing with the enemy! I bet you had fun researching those stories?

Annie: I did, as a matter of fact. Those who did write about her furnished me with a lot of anecdotes.

Ethelred: I watched her grow, too. From quite a petulant girl, albeit with justification, to a loving and courageous woman. I can’t believe though that at first you had intended to write my story, rather than hers.

Annie: It’s true though. You were a hard one to track down. Where did you even come from? I think I should leave you to your wine – you probably have an evening of feasting and riddle-solving to look forward to – and I’ll tell the tale of how I met you and your wife in the next part of this series.

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with author Annie Whitehead’s discussion on how she became acquainted with the Mercians and their world. 

Upcoming: My review of Alvar the Kingmaker

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready. Alvar the Kingmaker is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, Twitter, Facebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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Month of Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave

September 17, 1916

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mary Stewart, beloved author of such blockbusters as Madam, Will You Talk? and Nine Coaches Waiting. With the “Month of Mary Stewart” series we honor the novelist and mark her fantastic presence in our lives, noting some of the special gifts she has presented to us over the years.

Today I take a look at what is my absolute favorite of all her works, possibly not fully articulating how it has translated into a lifelong gift for me, one whose rewards have been immeasurable. My effort is small, though I hope this month’s presentations are worthy of being but a small token, or gift, back to this wonderful storyteller whose tales live on.

Lady Mary Stewart, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

The Crystal Cave (Book I in The Arthurian Saga)

by Mary Stewart

It’s a little strange to imagine that The Crystal Cave, Mary Stewart’s mega-bestselling Arthurian novel, made her publishers nervous. She’d been on a best-selling run with her romance-mysteries and they didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. But she took her cue from Geoffrey of Monmouth (admitting in her afterward that his name is mud), re-positioned the Arthurian tales within the fifth century and zoomed the focus in on Merlin, as opposed to Arthur.

merlin-as-a-boyAs the novel opens we meet Merlin, an old man, then, not long after, return via first-person narrative to his sixth year when his uncle returns to court. His grandfather, the king, has for years been trying to learn who Merlin’s father is but Niniane, his mother,  isn’t telling. The boy’s small stature and uncanny ability to know too much, along with the circumstances of his birth, mark him as a “devil’s whelp,” and his name, Myrddin Emrys, is a source of wry amusement, as Emrys means “child of light.”

Much of Merlin’s information comes from overhearing conversation while crawling under the floors of what was once a Roman country house, the heating system not being used by the palace’s current inhabitants. But he also is in the habit of visiting the cave of an old hermit, Galapas, whose education of the boy includes helping him develop his psychic gifts, some of which are demonstrated when we encounter the aged Merlin in the first pages, performing “one of the simplest of magics, the most easily learned, the last forgotten.” Galapas also teaches him to more clearly see events within the crystal cave that lies just beyond his own.

The king’s accidental death leads to a series of chaotic events that set Merlin on his path away from his native Maridunum and eventually to the court of Ambrosius Aurealianus, whom he assists in his preparation to defeat the Saxon Vortigern and unite Britain. In the course of these events he is captured by Vortigern and readers encounter what is perhaps one of the best-known episodes in Arthurian legend, that of the warlord’s collapsing fortress.

Every day, Vortigern’s builders and engineers construct their citadel, but each night it collapses. His priests tell him the only way to end the cycle is to sprinkle across it the blood of a boy with no father. The legends have various settings and circumstance of Merlin’s capture, though all involve the Saxon soldiers overhearing a companion of Merlin commenting on his fatherless status and swiftly taking custody. Stewart’s version, too, involves such a scenario, and it is worked into the narrative so seamlessly it comes as much of a surprise to readers as to Merlin himself; the idea of a writer working it into the storyline seems like another author’s task, because here it seems to simply happen.

Merlin is quick to understand that the caves below Vortigern’s fortress upset its foundation, but pretends to use the Sight to see two battling dragons and, utilizing “no power beyond his human wits,” advises as to the solution.

I pointed downwards. Below the surface something—a rock, perhaps—glimmered faintly, shaped like a dragon. I began to speak slowly, as if testing the air between us.

Merlin transitions into a frenzy even he doesn’t quite understand at the moment, and awakens to Cadal, his servant, who reiterates events.

“It was all dressed up, like poets’ stuff, red dragons and white dragons fighting and laying the place waste, showers of blood, all that kind of thing. But it seems you gave them chapter and verse for everything that’s going to happen: the white dragon of the Saxons and the red dragon of Ambrosius fighting it out, the red dragon looking not so clever to begin with, but winning in the end. Yes. Then a bear coming out of Cornwall to sweep the field clear….Artos…Arthur…some name like that.”

This passage demonstrates one of Stewart’s most skilled approaches to writing her Merlin, and a major reason why hers is the favorite interpretation of millions. Her Merlin is self-effacing, scoffs at the idea that he uses magic, even claiming at times that what men believe to be magic is mere disguise. We don’t necessarily believe him, and he seems to understand this, and accept it, if somewhat begrudgingly.

Later Merlin uses his same engineering skills, savvy understanding—and a bit of magic—to rebuild Stonehenge and bring Uther Pendragon to assignation with the Lady Ygraine, subject of the monarch’s obsession.

Merlin tells Vortigern of the two dragons fighting beneath his fortress, causing them to collapse after being built (Wikimedia Commons) (Click image)
Merlin reveals to Vortigern the two dragons fighting beneath his fortress, causing them to collapse after being built (Wikimedia Commons) (Click image)

Remaining events of the legend are left yet to be told because there are two more books in the series, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I can recall approaching the end of The Crystal Cave the first time I read it, without a care about a fabulous book about to end, because I had two more still ahead of me, and I’ve heard told time and again of similar experience of others having read this novel.

Even today, reading years after I first dipped into it, Stewart’s descriptive powers remain as potent as ever and the legend fresh and captivating. Unlike so many other portraits of the wizard, this one depicts a Merlin who reaches out from the ages to put paid to the talk questioning his actual existence. His narrative recounts historical events and his part of them as if we are reading actual history (minus the dry parts), and Stewart welcomes us in, as we become one with events and the people who played their roles within them.

Especially for those keen on filling in some of the blanks in their knowledge of Arthurian legend pertaining to Merlin, The Crystal Cave offers a fantastically well laid out plot that also brings life to Merlin’s origins and how he came to be. Stewart’s choice of first-person is perfect as well, as we are able to really get into the heart of who Merlin is, how his perceptions and talents were shaped and what drives him. Though I’d been told stories of Merlin my whole life until I first read The Crystal Cave, and indeed had great regard for him already, Mary Stewart gave much more of Merlin, and I have dearly loved him ever since.

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“Month of Mary Stewart” continues next week with a review for A Walk in Wolf Wood.

Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries.

The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen, Book Review: To Be A Queen

To Be A Queen: The Lady of the Mercians

by Annie Whitehead

Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice Award Spring Quarter 2015

Long listed for Historical Novel Society Indie Book of the Year 2016

and

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

Daughter of Alfred the Great. Sister to Edward the Elder. Joined in marriage with Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Æthelflæd was many things to many people, though today she is little known even by any status she held solely by being related to someone in power, including her much-revered father, who defeated the Vikings in the 878 Battle of Edington and began the drive to unify England into one country. With To Be A Queen, Annie Whitehead tells Æthelflæd’s story—how she distinguishes herself by winning the loyalty of her adopted homeland as Lady of the Mercians and the only woman to lead an Anglo-Saxon army and kingdom—restoring her to the annals of those who fiercely defended freedom for herself and her people.

to-be-a-queenBorn to the West Saxon King Alfred and Ealhswith, daughter of a Mercian nobleman, Æthelflæd spent her childhood on the run from Vikings, whose invasions at that time had reached their peak. Her parents were likely married as part of an alliance between the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, as she later would be when wed to Æthelred. In childhood, though, she had been sent to be fostered at the Mercian court, where her auntie, Alfred’s sister, had been married to Burgred, also as part of an alliance.

Whitehead opens the novel with a haunting passage depicting the five-year-old Æthelflæd woken by a nightmare, only to realize her serving-woman is stowing all her belongings. She seeks out her auntie, also engaged in frenzied nocturnal packing, and learns she is being sent back to her native Wessex to escape the approaching Vikings, while her uncle and auntie prepare to flee over the sea.

Here Whitehead engages Catheresque symbolism within the child’s understanding of the north, where she once ran through the delicate carpet of bluebells, now being violently ground down by serpent-dragons, once again becoming part of the earth’s design. It is also significant that Burgred’s wife remains nameless, as she herself acknowledges when she presents a hypothetical to the little girl: “What can I tell a five-year-old who will grow up to forget that I ever lived?” Here is born within Æthelflæd’s being the understanding of what it is to be a queen, a legally unattainable or politically unsustainable status, and the ache of lost memory that her auntie has already realized, in all senses of the word.

England at the time of Æthelred (Wikimedia Creative Commons, courtesy philg88) (click image)

Following this our story skips ahead a few years when Æthelflæd is dubbed “Teasel” by her Uncle Wulf, after the plant of the same name. There is more flight from and armed conflict with Vikings, but the narrative settles down significantly, and as the girl grows, we witness her infatuation with a man to whom marriage becomes a lost dream when Alfred marries Teasel to Æthelred (Ethelred), the much older and somewhat distant Lord of the Mercians. Despite her maternal connection to Ethelred’s homeland, the people do not take to Teasel and for quite a while she remains stuck in a cycle of self-pity and determination to bear her misery in order to please her husband and win the affection for her she believes might flower within him.

I was intrigued to read through their first and subsequent evenings together, written without any of the “typical” love scenes readers have come to expect—for better or worse—in historical fiction. Avoiding potential pitfalls of the union between the self-assured man considerately teaching his timid new wife how to engage—and even that of the progressive royal husband immediately spilling state information to his bride, facilitating reader response to include the notion that medieval men aren’t so bad after all—Whitehead chooses instead to develop their relationship over time and via dialogue that reveals her mastery in writing complex characters.

Medieval miniature of Æthelflæd in Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England, 14th century (Provided by author, Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

In one of Whitehead’s finest passages—and this is a difficult choice, given the immense dexterity she wields with words—her characters’ actions, contemplations and dialogue illuminate identity and misunderstanding of it, along with the struggle to communicate effectively. At Ethelred and Teasel’s wedding banquet, the pair are next to each other, but Teasel elects to play “the game” as she sees it, whereby she is “but one of the prizes, a token to be held up and admired … [therefore] she was not surprised to find herself virtually ignored[.]” She asks her husband’s permission to donate leftover food to the poor, admires his responding smile as he acquiesces, and then turns to her mother, a few moments later hearing Ethelred resume his conversation with Alfred. As this is a marriage of alliance, she believes her husband uninterested in affection, thus “free to journey with her thoughts and speak only when spoken to.”

The author then moves readers to observe circumstances from the eyes of Ethelred, a spot where, as a novelist the opposite sex to the character, things could get tricky. However, Whitehead shows once more her ingenuity in being an observer of people as she brilliantly speaks for a man and pulls it off, not only with the amusement of a joke about an ugly princess and gratitude that his own wife is attractive, but also revealing in plausible fashion that he too longs for more than mere beauty: a connection, “[a] warm presence by the fire on a cold night and a companion to talk with was no less than any man’s basic desire.” Ethelred encounters Wulf, who seems to read his mind.

“So, you will take her back to Gloucester and hope she warms to your ways, eh?”

 Ethelred grunted. “It does not seem likely. It was a fitting name that you gave her, for she is, indeed, prickly.” He nodded back towards the hall. “She spoke to me but once in there and that was only to tell me that she was not hungry.”

 Wulf stroked his beard and frowned. “Prickly? I do not …” He slapped his forehead and laughed. “I see, I see. No, you have it wrong. I named her Little Teasel for she would always come to sit upon my lap, and there she would comb my beard for me. And what is another name for a teasel? Wolf’s comb.” Now he was laughing so violently at his own joke that he had to lean forward and rest his hands on his knees. “My friend, you will have to find another reason for her lack of warmth towards you.”

Not long after, Teasel speaks with Alhelm, the man she had loved and hoped to marry, revealing her great unhappiness in all she has lost to make the move to Mercia for her arranged marriage. “It is not what you have lost,[”] he counsels her,”] but what you will not give up which might hinder you in the days to come.”

While admittedly a longer than usual review space given to one segment in a novel, this juxtaposition of perspectives, more deeply demonstrating distinctive awareness and how it affects each individual, bears telling and (hopefully) does justice to what it aims to reflect: Whitehead’s patient combing through of the knotted threads of relationships and illumination of the psychology of communication. That she does it so seamlessly is the first marvel, the next is how she winds the smoothed-out threads in and amongst documented historical reality, what is likely to have been the case, and her own imagination, in itself far reaching and brilliantly colored. Moreover, there are many more marvels to encounter as Teasel’s story continues.

One such is Whitehead’s charming and exquisite application of words: to tell a story, certainly, though it goes far beyond mere employment. We learn of Teasel’s growth and begin to trace the threads of her childhood as they tie together into the adult she becomes. Having spent her childhood running, with the Vikings—as her brother Edward will later complain—defining their lives, she recalls the nightmares and flight of her auntie, who, indeed, she barely remembers. Is this to be her fate, and that of her people? To be overrun by serpentine invaders who mingle with her kin until they are wiped out not only by bloodlines, but also from memory? She contemplates once more the status of queen: her auntie once occupied the spot she now does, as queen, though Teasel herself is a queen in all but name. She thoughtfully considers what it means to be a queen and the importance of the duties, not only the title that goes with it.

Charter S 221, dated 901, of Æthelred and Ætheflæd, rulers of the Mercians (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)
Charter S 221, dated 901, of Æthelred and Ætheflæd, rulers of the Mercians (Wikimedia Commons) (click image)

Whitehead’s battle scenes are often drawn for readers by the characters themselves: in discussion and questioning their own and others’ ideas; direct hits and grotesque mistakes; action depicted in a manner that facilitates reader visualization of events as they occur; and her word choice—I remembered once more how it was I fell in love with the art of battle as I lived these scenes, dodging harrowing moments and contemplating “the sparkling clash of metal meeting its own kind.” I heard the ting ting, felt the swoosh of air to the side and my heart raced, as did my eyes, across the pages, in part to escape heated combat and also in my anxiety to see how it all plays out.

The effect of many passages within To Be A Queen also mirrors that one experiences when reading poetry—an awe at how an emotion is expressed or event depicted: few words, often subtle, paired with prose that may seem unlikely yet reverberate. There were many times within when I stopped to re-read passages, even instances of grief, owing to the manner of presentation. It truly is magnificent when a writer can elicit in readers the desire to experience the passage again, especially if it depicts the grievous:

[His] withered chest rose up with a struggle one final time, gasping the air in, rasping it out. The silence that followed was an unwelcome peace for those still breathing and they all gave expression to their grief, filling the air with the sounds of the living.

Knowing how few records still exist regarding Æthelflæd and her time, Whitehead’s dexterity with the smoothing of historical facts, the reconciliation of imagined motives, events, responses and alliances is impressive indeed, and readers drink up the richness of the period detail with a thirst created by the very narrative that quenches it. I do not tend to employ phrases praising authors’ historical research, typically because as a non-historian I cannot verify its veracity. However, upon doing a bit of reading and research of my own on Æthelflæd, it certainly comes out winning. Everything I could find matches all of Whitehead’s possibilities, and that I was moved to do this in itself is a testament to her ability to write characters readers care about. In the end it matters to us that Æthelflæd be brought from the shadows of time, and her rightful place established.

For a very few it was never lost. The historical figure of Æthelflæd is remembered today, though on a more local level, a reality Teasel herself might find stinging as she recalls a long-ago comment made by a woman she has largely forgotten, even while the statement may have instigated her drive to become who she is. As the historian in the author tells Teasel’s story, the artist in her sprinkles imagery through the novel in the form of bluebells, which speak of everlasting love, found in Teasel’s dedication to her people and their future.

These people remember her with gratitude, as did others before them, as a queen, even though the historical Æthelflæd was never officially styled as such. Nevertheless, her devotion to and defense of the Mercians, before and after Æthelred’s death, including up against her own brother, earned it for her. Moreover, even the Irish and Welsh annals refer to her as a “renowned Saxon queen.” And, as the author points out, Æthelred and Æthelflæd also signed charters in their own right. Monarch Æthelflæd may not officially have been but, as Whiteheads’s title points to, her entire life was driven by the strictures and responsibilities of what it means to be a queen.

Thoroughly accessible, To Be A Queen is entertaining, poignant, masterful and a work of art about a remarkable woman readers will never forget, from an author we’ll long to hear from again.

Gold finger ring that belonged to Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia and 's auntie. (Courtesy British Museum) (click image for further details))
Gold finger ring that belonged to Æthelswith, Queen of Mercia and Æthelflæd’s auntie. (Courtesy British Museum) (click image for further details)

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Stay tuned as “The Age of Æthelflæd: Anglo-Saxon Warrior Queen” continues next week with an interview between the author Annie Whitehead and Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians

Upcoming: My review of Alvar the Kingmaker

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About the author …

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and it has just been awarded a B.R.A.G. Gold Medallion.

Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, is a tale of intrigue, deceit, politics, love, and murder in tenth-century Mercia, and is available now. It charts the career of the earl who sacrificed personal happiness to secure the throne of England for King Edgar, and, later, Æthelred the Unready.

She has completed a third novel, also set in Mercia, and scheduled for publication in 2017. She has twice been a prizewinner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing competition, she won first prize for nonfiction in the new Writing Magazine Poetry and Prose competition, and she has had articles published in various magazines, on a wide range of topics. She is also an editor for the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) blog.

Most recently, she has contributed to the anthology of short stories, 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagine the events of 1066, and which has just been awarded HNS Editors’ choice and long-listed for Book of the Year 2017. She lives in the English Lake District with her husband and has three grown-up ‘children’.

You can learn more about and follow author Annie Whitehead and her work at her website, blog, TwitterFacebook and her Amazon author page. Click titles to purchase To Be A Queen, Alvar the Kingmaker and 1066: Turned Upside Down.

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The blogger was supplied with a copy of To Be A Queen in order to provide an honest review. 

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin

Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

“Then she saw me watching her. For perhaps two seconds our eyes met and held. I knew then why the ancients armed the cruellest god with arrows; I felt the shock of it right through my body.”—Merlin, The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

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Vivian (Nimue) reads from a book of spells as she enchants Merlin into a deep sleep. (Wikimedia Commons)

O, Merlin, who moved the great Dance of the Giants

You, who brought Uther to beget the son of the earth

Enchanter, who, with the stars had an alliance

To be Arthur’s counsel, to bring meaning to his birth

O, bard, ensconced in the absence of Time

By the Lady of the Lake

But whilst, for you, the bluebells chime

Are you nevermore to wake?

Excerpted from “Whither Merlin” by Lisl Zlitni ©2016

Month of Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)
Original cover art for first publication in 1958 of Nine Coaches Waiting (Wikimedia Foundation) (click image)

I have never encountered any reader who did not adore Mary Stewart’s gothic mystery, Nine Coaches Waiting. From the author who invented the suspense-romance, this universally admired classic is often referenced as the favorite of all Stewart novels. Literary allusions seamlessly sewn into the narrative, each chapter is headed by an epigraph bringing deeper meaning and connection to events within.

It is not long into the tale when Linda Martin, just arrived in Paris to serve as governess to the young and newly-orphaned heir to Château Valmy, reflects on the draw to her assignment, simultaneously embedding observers in a close read and unwittingly receiving a glimpse into events ahead. Though she dismisses her remembered poetic reference as inappropriate to the moment, her insight into significance behind the novel’s title is telling.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace:

Securèd ease and state, the stirring meats,

Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now

Quicken when they’re eaten. . . .

Banquets abroad by torch-light! music! sports!

Nine coaches waiting — hurry, hurry, hurry —

Ay, to the devil. . . .

Having also lost her parents at an early age, Linda is returning to her mother’s homeland, where she herself was raised until taking up residence in an English orphanage. As an adult she is recruited to the governess position, contingent upon her Englishness, for Léon and Héloïse de Valmy want young Phillipe to perfect his English language skills. She conceals her French fluency from the uncle and aunt, later chalking up her tension at their first meeting to her keeping a secret from them.

Her wariness, however, persists as she is unable to shake a feeling of menace. Léon comports himself with a strange brand of arrogance and soundlessly rolls through the estate in his wheelchair. Héloïse is aloof, with a “chilly elegance” that sets Linda into an inexorable state of second guessing herself. Thankfully she and her charge, the nine-year-old Comte de Valmy, develop a good rapport and, in fact, we see his growing attachment to and somewhat dependence upon Linda, for he is not only a lonely little boy but also one deeply disattached from his uncle and aunt. Linda reasons that his bereavement surely plays a role in this, until an accidental shot fired at Phillipe during a walk in the forest results in a near miss that Linda begins to contemplate might not have been so accidental.

Through the novel Stewart’s trademark descriptive powers are in full evidence, leading us from one occurrence to the next on a narrative as flowing and verbally picturesque as the settings she describes. When Linda is invited to the Easter Ball and gathers the courage to attend, she admires the dress she has sewn; the natural world is threaded through Stewart’s portrait of her gaze, fractal light references indicating Linda’s spirits, the mood, possibilities.

The long window curtains mirrored behind me were of rose-colored brocade. The lighting was lovely. As I moved I saw the gleam of the cobwebbed silver thread shift and glimmer through the white cloud of the skirt the way sunlight flies along blown gossamer.

Stewart also engages her protagonist in a budding romance, albeit one that defers to the central mystery as the novel’s primary focus. We see Linda initially becoming attached and the relationship develops, though as events play out we can never be sure where Raoul’s motives position him, or of his explanations for his actions. The suspense becomes wound so tightly that by the end, no matter what readers may have suspected regarding this character, the end results nevertheless come as a twist because it always could have gone either way. Being the consummate master that she is, Stewart utilizes character self-reflection as technique to turn the screw.

Wikimedia Commons (click image)
Wikimedia Commons (click image)

The characters of Nine Coaches Waiting are drawn to the era of the then-contemporary novel, set in the 1950s, and as a result readers will find some interaction that dates the work. At one point Linda refers to herself as “only a woman,” though it is set in a passage in which she remonstrates herself and may be employing a bit of sarcastic self-reflection.

Curiously, however, Stewart periodically engages postmodernist technique within character interaction, such as by noting Mrs. Seddon’s accent in her pronunciation of Rowl—in a manner noted only by readers and Linda; she herself is unaware. Linda, in concealing her ability to speak French, places her awareness in the minds of others in order to perceive herself as they do, and remember not to acknowledge what she has heard.

As Linda’s initially guarded response to the de Valmy clan transitions into distrust, suspicious behavior elevates and unexplained accidents continue. The young governess must face the terrifying consequences of remaining at the isolated château with her charge or find a way out, and work out if the man she loves is who she should be running from.

As with Thunder on the Right, Nine Coaches Waiting is a blast from my past, and the thrill I felt as events began to heat up was no less enthusiastic this time round. Perhaps more than any other of her many novels, Stewart’s background in literature is quite evident in this one: the literary snippets throughout foreshadow events and reflect the young woman’s thought processes. Linda is compared to Jane Eyre and Cinderella, and she hearkens back to her earlier ruminations on The Revenger’s Tragedy when she inwardly contemplates Léon de Valmy as the Demon King (and hears him refer to himself as the fallen Lucifer). That the author can effectively manage a sweep through centuries of poetry and prose while remaining true her plot strengthens the story and is a testament to the mastery that even today continues to mesmerize and gain new readers as they discover the magic that is Mary Stewart.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with the “Image of the Week: The Beguiling of Merlin” and a review for The Crystal Cave.

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This post has been updated to include links to related entries. 

Book Review: When the Jungle is Silent

When the Jungle is Silent by James Boschert

“To the British, Australian, New Zealand and Gurkha soldiers, sailors and airman, some of whom died in the service of their countries, who went into the jungle to confront an enemy of far greater numbers and faced him down.

In particular this book is dedicated to the extraordinary men of the Special Air Service who give new meaning to the words dedication, courage and determination. Their skill at survival was legend in a jungle that, while itself neutral, harbored an enemy that was cruel and unmerciful to its victims.”

perf6.000x9.000.indd

In the 1960s, when the world’s attention was focused on Vietnam, another war, stemming from the creation of Malaysia and given far less attention, was in progress as the British army sought to end Indonesian incursions into the Malay jungles of Borneo. Known as the Konfrontasi, or Confrontation, the war played out mainly along the border between Indonesia and eastern Malaysia in a theater with few roads and a great deal of wild land.

Now, James Boschert, author of the magnificent Force 12 in German Bight, writes of the Borneo Confrontation utilizing not only solid research, but also personal experience. While the assault on Sapit in When the Jungle is Silent is fictionalized, Boschert draws from personal understanding and relationships to write the story of Jason, a young Welsh light infantry soldier whose unit, at the outset, is undergoing more rigorous training than they are perhaps used to.

To Jason and the other lads in the Pioneer section, who were also called Riflemen, although they rarely did front-end work, [jungle exercises were] an endless waste of time.

 “Bloody ‘ell,” grumbled Andy. “I need a lie-in, not more of this bullshit!”

 Jason nodded. He could not see much benefit for himself doing this kind of thing. “The Company Riflemen are the ones supposed to go out an’ get manky and sweaty. They can play at being soldiers for fuck’s sake! Our job is bein’ Pioneers! That means to support and … well, encourage them’s to be good soldiers!”

 Soon after Jason returns to Penang, where he is stationed, living a somewhat (and relatively) carefree life on the island with Megan, an American Peace Corps volunteer he meets via The Moon and Sixpence. Boschert’s depiction of the pair’s growing involvement, while not the largest part of the story, nevertheless plays a vital role in that it is a crucial part of Jason’s growth and presents a view to what it might be like, while on a tour of duty, to be part of a relationship separate from the military.

Malaysia (political)--Penang is labeled off the west of the Malay Peninsula, just below Thailand (Wikipedia creative Commons)
Malaysia (political)–Penang is labeled off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, just below Thailand (Wikipedia Creative Commons) (Click image)

While still in the novel’s first third, Boschert introduces Major Johnson, whose story runs parallel to that of Jason, placing them both on a trajectory more likely than not to end badly. Johnson, in charge and responsible for making a decision regarding a situation in which there are no good options, must answer for the terrible consequences, and at one point “had no doubt that he was flying towards his court martial[.]” Especially in this segment, the author’s dialogue is so direct that it reflects the incredulousness Johnson and other characters must feel, the slowly dawning understanding of what they are up against. As a technique, the effect is brilliant, and an unbelieving review of certain passages brings the realization that as readers, we have been drawn solidly into the story. Along with the soldiers, we scan the carnage, the remains, read the reports, trying to make ourselves imagine that it really didn’t happen.

As Jason makes his way to the jungle following the attack on his fort, he has no such luxury. To say time is of the essence is an understatement, and to that end Boschert utilizes verbiage that tells all we want to know—and more—about being on the run in the jungle. Pithy and straightforward, the author’s prose wastes no words—Jason simply doesn’t have that kind of time—but from here on out, they contain images written as prose, impressions so sharp they light up the movie reels in our minds as we cannot help but urge him on: mudding his face, cleaning his gun, keeping watch for every leaf or blade of grass that might be an Indonesian soldier. The tension eases and flares, and is so unpredictable readers find they are so intent on keeping watch that every blade does become an Indonesian, even when it isn’t.

Through the novel Jason is written as a sympathetic character: likeable in his ordinariness, despite his sometimes-too-cavalier attitude toward soldiering, or perhaps because of it, many readers could relate. We recall his own earlier memories, of seeing no future on a Welsh farm, of his father giving him a hard time for spending all his spare money on books. Now the larger and smaller question of How did I end up here? results in a wave of emotion as

[s]elf-pity overtook him and tears began to course down his sweating face. He wanted to howl and cry out, but a sense of self-preservation was still there. He buried his head in his arms and sobbed quietly. Where was he? No compass and no food. The Indons would surely find him and kill him—or perhaps worse, take him prisoner. The barracks rumor of what they did to prisoners was foremost in his mind.

As Jason recoils from thoughts of Megan, and engages in one task at a time, Boschert takes us through the initial shock of landing in the jungle with very little ammunition (200 rounds) and two chocolate bars, and gives us a sense of progress, a way forward. Each task eases a little bit of the next burden in the jungle that even when silent, seems to carry some sort of life. As Jason monitors his surroundings, the jungle too “seem[s] to be holding its breath and listening.”

Closeup--Penang. (Wikimedia Commons, used with permission of Torty3) (Click image)
Closeup—Penang (Wikimedia Commons, used with permission of Torty3) (Click image)

In alternate chapters we see Major Johnson and Jason on different paths, though slowly coming closer to one another, even though neither knows it. The novel is paced smoothly and quickly, and the story is its own “teasing it out”—Boschert need add no extraneous storyline to keep us on the edge of our seats, skillfully providing us with answers, though often ones that trigger a host of new questions. And, as Jason comes face to face with others in the jungle, he must draw strength from deep within to navigate an escape.

Like Jason, all of Jungle’s other characters are drawn imperfectly: we have no swaggering heroes here. They do not inhabit a formula of “imperfect person performs great act” either—these are flawed human beings who sometimes make poor choices, leading to disastrous results, or hilarious. Boschert shows them to us in their gallantry, bravery, in their stink, drunkenness, foolishness, for some their last horrible moments, others, in varying ways, fighting for the future, even amongst fear and degradation. The battle scenes are riveting and Boschert’s descriptive prose is such that even those unfamiliar with theater terminology can follow events without being bogged down.

Written and drawn out—I feel compelled to use this visual descriptor because down to every illusory plant and human appearance, the words rise off the page to be seen as clearly as if Boschert had indeed drawn or shown actual pictures—written and drawn by someone who himself patrolled this very terrain, When the Jungle is Silent will prove challenging to separate from, as readers will want to see Jason and Johnson through to the very end, no matter the outcome.

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About the author …

Jjamesboschertsmalliconames Boschert’s unique biography has provided him with an in-depth knowledge of his novels’ subjects. He grew up in the colony of Malaya in the early fifties during the turmoil of a Chinese Communist insurgency. He joined the British Army at fifteen, and from eighteen to twenty-two fought in the jungle wars in Borneo and Malaysia. Afterwards, Boschert lived in the Middle East, serving in countries such as Oman, Lebanon, Israel, and finally Iran where he worked with the Shah Pahlavi’s army. When the 1978 revolution overturned the Shah, Boschert negotiated a perilous escape from Iran, returning safely to the United Kingdom.

As a civilian, Boschert has worked as an engineer on a tanker in the North Sea and as optical engineer involved in the development of laser telescopes at the National Ignition Facility in Lawrence Livermore, California.

James Boschert is the author of the popular Talon Series. Set in twelfth-century Palestine, Talon’s adventures include: Assassins of Alamut; Knight Assassin; Assassination in Al-Qahirah; Greek Fire; and A Falcon Flies. Boschert has also written When the Jungle is Silent, a novel about the 1960s jungle wars in Malaysia.

You can learn more about Boschert and his books at his website or Facebook. When the Jungle is Silent and all of the author’s books are available for purchase at Penmore Press.

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The reviewer received a gratis copy of When the Jungle is Silent in exchange for an honest review.

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Month of Mary Stewart: Thunder on the Right

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

I first read Thunder on the Right at a fairly early age (11) and recall enjoying the book quite a lot. Shortly before my recent re-read, however, I had to confess I remembered very little of the plot. As I settled in for my re-visitation I wondered how much would catch my attention in “drifts of memory” beckoning from the pages.

thunder on the rightI was surprised to learn that the one utterance I thought I recalled, on the part of the protagonist, did not actually occur—although I could pinpoint the spot I must have been thinking of and which settled into my brain erroneously. Apart from that, none of it seemed familiar, actually a positive circumstance because it enabled me to approach the novel from an almost-first-time reader’s perspective with very little bias.

The caveat I will throw out here, though, is that while I deliberately avoid reviews of books I plan to write about, I hadn’t planned or avoided in this case—not last year when I had been wading through books read in the past and threads regarding what others made of them. Lucky for me, I read reviews with a grain of salt, given how utterly opposite so many predictions have been as regard actual outcomes.

As it turns out, I enjoyed Thunder on the Right as much or more than I did as an eleven-year-old child. In truth, likely more, owing to greater understanding of certain references—“Velasquez getup” and “Roland’s great sword Durandel,” e.g.—and ways of the world. As our story begins to roll, within the “Academic Overture” Stewart utilizes to position the acting out of a dramatic performance, readers are given to understand that protagonist Jennifer Silver’s mother embodies the traits of a parent who today might be labeled “helicopter.” “[W]ith [an] unswerving devotion to the standards of a fading age,” she restricts her only child from much life has to offer under the guise of speaking what she believes Jennifer is too timid to do. For her own part, Jennifer is easygoing and quietly reserved. Together “[m]other and daughter got on very well indeed, with a deep affection founded on almost complete misunderstanding.”

At 22, the well-educated but inexperienced Jennifer makes a sojourn to post-war France, where she plans to meet up with her cousin Gillian, who for a time lived with the Silvers following the deaths of her parents in one of the first air raids. She meets up with Stephen, a suitor rejected by her mother just before a two-year study stint, now come to “claim” her, a circumstance Jennifer is unaware of, though not Professor Silver, her father.

Jennifer finds herself enlisting Stephen’s aid subsequent to her first visit to the convent in the Pyrenees, where the widowed Gillian had been staying—and possibly planning to join. Having met with one of the resident orphans and the convent’s bursar, Doña Francisca, the young visitor learns that Gillian had indeed been there, though as a patient following a motor vehicle accident and pneumonia, and had died two weeks earlier. The strangeness of the place, Doña Francisca’s odd demeanor and dodgy response to Jennifer’s appearance, and the sum of reported events not adding up all combine to spur the suspicious Jennifer to investigate.

Initially skeptical, Stephen plays along until events wind up and the fate of poor Gillian is at last confirmed. In Stewart’s groundbreaking style, mystery is joined by romance as the pair become close, noted even by our protagonist, who chides herself for repeatedly “running into Stephen’s arms.” Nevertheless, strong and determined, Jennifer performs her sleuthing as she follows, eavesdrops, noses around and pays attention, eventually drawing a conclusion that now requires the hardest part: follow up. As danger intensifies, so too does the thematic thunder of the title, initially present but aloof. The tension rises as the self-aware nature of the two main characters sparks fears that this play will ultimately end as a tragedy.

One critique of Thunder on the Right is that it has adjective overload and that at least portions of its plot are predictable. In truth, Stewart probably could have made her prose less descriptive heavy and it still would have come out a marvelous story. However, I wouldn’t agree the adjectives add too much weight, and in fact find her descriptive prose stirring and sometimes magical. At her first visit to the convent, Jennifer waits in the unmoving heat of a silent moment:

A grasshopper, leaping across her shadow, spread parasol wings of palest powder-blue and the tiny lizard that flicked across the baked stone seemed part of the same enchantment that hung around her in the stillness.

thunderI would concede the possibility of a predictable reveal, though Stewart did keep me guessing as there was at least one other eventuality to consider. Moreover, there are many more instances of intrigue, action and circumstance that potentially throw up roadblocks to assumptions, and the shifting nature of the thunder’s presence, with characters seeking its location on the right—nod to an ancient omen and the eastward positioning of a tempest now past—leaves readers wondering, with perhaps not a few jitters, what danger it might really be signaling.

As Stewart moves her narrative along readers get a sense of musical accompaniment to pair with “Tragic Overture: stringendo,” or “Danse Macabre” and other chapter titles reflecting events within. As murder becomes a tool to enable continued criminal activity, the thunder is mirrored in betrayals, facial expressions, dangerous waters … a memento mori for all involved, no matter how, in the chilling underworld of the darkly ambitious.

One of my favorite passages in the book serves as part of this linkage, in many instances so subtly placed:

It was a swift beat, accelerando, that thudded behind her, up the turf of the valley track, bringing with it that faint crawling sense of excitement, that slow apprehensive prickling of the skin that is our inheritance from countless long-dead men to whom the sudden sound of galloping hooves spelled danger.

Here Stewart brilliantly captures an involved, collective response sharply, concisely, the rhythm of our own blood beating in time with the musical pieces she summons as we “watch” this story play out, simultaneously becoming part of it. She masterfully manages the multiple threads running throughout, all the while keeping the suspense element dominant over a developing romance. An end result is a thrilling race against time as Jennifer searches for the questions to ask and the answers to lead her forward.

While not the most well-received of Stewart’s novels, I still find this one drew me in and consider it an overlooked gem in Mary Stewart’s legacy. For those new to the author or who haven’t picked up her work in some time, Thunder on the Right is a spectacular choice with the twists, surprises and intrigue that will keep readers up far past bedtime.

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A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

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Click title to see the series intro, “The World of Mary Stewart.”

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for Nine Coaches Waiting.

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Update: This post has been corrected to reflect its series title and add links to related entries.

Friday Night Flashback: The World of Mary Stewart

Readers of this blog know of my lifelong love affair with Merlin, in particular the version of him presented in Mary Stewart’s best-selling novel The Crystal Cave. However, I haven’t really mentioned Stewart’s other works so much—perhaps not at all— and this month is a wonderful time to rectify that, as it marks the 100-year anniversary of the novelist’s birth.  Stewart’s bestselling novels were renowned for merging romance with mystery and suspense, and presented determined and capable heroines who didn’t shy away from dangerous situations.

madamWhile Stewart herself never endured any of the experiences her heroines did, she didn’t shy away from keeping on through adversity, adjusting when needed, but also grabbing life by the reins, taking chances on what she believed in.

Born September 17, 1916 to parents who cherished the spirit of adventure—her father was a vicar who sailed around Cape Horn and brought a New Zealand bride back home with him—Mary Florence Elinor Rainbow was a reader and writer from very early on, publishing her first poem at age five.

Following the end of World War II, she met the future Sir Frederick Stewart and distinguished geologist at a war victory celebration. The pair were married within three months, though it was not until 1953 that Frederick Stewart persuaded his wife to submit her first novel, Madam Will You Talk?, which was an immediate success.

A lover of Roman history, Stewart took full advantage of her husband’s travels to pursue observations of her settings, the details and research informing her novels, rich with descriptive landscape and natural environment. Despite its outdated use of semi-colons substituting for commas, the strength of her prose is such that it remains eloquent and mesmerizing. From My Brother Michael, set in Greece and on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time:

All along the Pleistus—at this season a dry white serpent of shingle beds that glittered in the sun—all along its course, filling the valley bottom with the tumbling, whispering green-silver of water, flowed the olive woods; themselves a river, a green-and-silver flood of plumy branches as soft as sea spray, over which the ever-present breezes slid, not as they do over corn, in flying shadows, but in whitening breaths, little gasps that lift and toss the olive crests for all the world like breaking spray.

Thunder on the Right, set in the French Pyrenees—the first Stewart novel I ever read, at age eleven—is one she “detested and [was] ashamed of.” A criticism of the novel is its adjectives, though one reader counters this with her defense, remarking that she “always wonder[s] what people have against adjectives. To me they represent the difference between colour and black and white television.” It is also of note that certain activities in her books, such as smoking, a character often tossing the butt down and grinding it into the ground, frequently dates or diminishes the appeal of various works. However, Mary Stewart has invested so many other timeless and intriguing angles to reel readers in, that these images become more like time capsules into a world that was.

MyBrotherMichaelThe author went on to publish a catalogue of other mystery romance novels and it is curious to note that her publisher didn’t even want anything to do with Merlin, when she broached the topic. “Publishers never want you to change; if one horse is doing well, they don’t want you to change horses.” Stewart herself confesses medieval times never appealed to her, though she had always wanted to write an historical novel. Upon reading through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain one day—she had no idea why she would be doing that—she found her story. Setting the medieval knight Arthur back in Roman Britain, and re-inventing Merlin—given his full name of Merlin Ambrosius, she wrote Ambrosius in to be the wizard’s father—she invented nearly all the series’ details, though writing the books one at a time. That is to say, she never set out to create a trilogy. In the end she felt Mordred had “been given a jolly hard deal as a character,” a perspective resulting in The Wicked Day, capping off the quintet.

Given the time in which Stewart wrote all her books, it is unsurprising she would have used a typewriter, though many fans likely don’t know the agony she endured to get it all done. Dictating and sending to a typist’s was the easy part—as were subsequent revisions, four in all. An ordinary portable “wrecked” her wrist, and at first she was terrified of a new electric. Later she developed spinal arthritis, but wrote through the agony, maintaining her sense of humor, quipping with a thematic link back to her war era mechanic qualification that “All this makes me sound like a proper old wreck. The chassis may be, but the engine is fine.”

airsStewart also maintained a humility about her craft, stating that “You can learn much about the craft of writing, but you either have the story teller’s flair or you don’t. It’s no virtue of mine. It’s just there.” Also not one for labels, she perhaps brushed off her status as a groundbreaker in the same way she did the stylization she acquired after her husband was knighted: Lady Stewart never used the title. However her work may have been categorized, she maintained, “To my mind there are really only two kinds of novels, badly written and well written.”

It’s clear to me which one of these Mary Stewart’s books are, though she herself would likely just have repeated a previous plea: “Can’t I say I just write stories?”

Yes, dear lady, you certainly may. You wrote stories that captured the imagination of readers the world over and in subsequent generations who continue to drink up your words and hope you don’t mind that we kind of adore you. You are a writer’s writer, not threatened by an admission that you hadn’t the energy to pursue a particular idea, gracious in response to those inspired in their own work by yours, secure enough to have a chuckle at your own expense. It is in human DNA to want to hear a story, and you answered this call, thrilling us, keeping us on edge, making us guess. We have lost you in this world now, but you are there for all time.

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Mary Stewart’s last book was Rose Cottage in 1997, and her beloved husband, Fred,  passed away in 2001, after which she stopped writing, for he had always been her first reader.

Continuing the journey, I’d like to play my small bit by reviewing Mary Stewart through the month, which also will be a bit of reminiscing for myself. Each week I will revisit a novel with a brief review and commentary about how I remember reading them the first time. Tomorrow’s installment, for example, brings me back to a book that, when I picked it up recently, I knew I barely remembered. Re-reading it reminded me how our memories can play tricks, for I recalled a musing, on the part of the protagonist, that I seem to have invented! There is one scene that could be what stuck in my mind, however flawed the settling in was. Nevertheless the journey continues in earnest and I hope I can persuade you to re-visit or acquaint yourself with the world of Mary Stewart, which is sure to enchant yours.

 

A lovely blog in honor of the late Mary Stewart.

10 Reasons To Love: Mary Stewart

“Month of Mary Stewart” continues with a review for

Thunder on the Right.

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Works Consulted

Hauptfuhrer, Fred. “Novelist Mary Stewart’s a Lady, Like Antonia Fraser—by Title; and That Ends the Similarity.” People. September 6, 1976. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Hutchinson, Chris. “Lady Mary Florence Elinor Stewart: Doctor of Letters.” Durham University Honorary Degrees Speech. July 3, 2009. http://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/ceremonies/congregation/stewart_mary.pdf. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Page, Katherine Hall. “Mary Stewart: Teller of Tales.” Mystery Scene. mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2354:mary-stewart-teller-of-tales&catid=38:profile&Itemid=191. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Thompson, Raymond H. “The Camelot Project: Interview with Mary Stewart.” Robbins Library Digital Projects. April 14, 1989. d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-mary-stewart. Accessed August 31, 2016.

Von Behren, Diana Faillace. “Stormy Locale Packs a Wollop.”  Review of Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart. Amazon.  amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R326X91CN955C9/ref=cm_cr_getr_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0060747463. Accessed August 31, 2016. Accessed August 10, 2002.

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Note: This post was updated to include a link to the next installment in the “Month of Mary Stewart” series.