New Genre Library: Graphic Novel (The Metamorphosis)

This series explores genres new or newish to me as part of my 2017 reading challenge

The Metamorphosis: A Graphic Novel
by Franz Kafka
adapted by Peter Kuper

The Metamorphosis in particular is probably the source for our modern descriptive term, Kafkaesque. Denoting the sinister characteristics of Kafka’s fictional world, it has also been used to reference unescapable, surreal control over individual realms. This is, in fact, what Gregor Samsa awakens to one day as he discovers he has somehow been transformed into a dung beetle.

A visual of what Gregor perhaps sees: in black and white,  sudden and disorienting shapes and angles (click image)

Qualification: In a university literature class we used that descriptor, dung beetle, but the reality is scholars have been debating for decades over exactly what Kafka’s word choice of Ungeziefer really translates to. The author hadn’t wanted to give any visual interpretations, either, so we’re left to quibble amongst ourselves and, if we’re lucky, focus on the rest of the story.

And what a story it is! Samsa’s biggest concern, apart from being physically able to heave his unwieldy self over, is to make the train and get to work on time. His family is in debt, you see, and once he has that paid off he wants to send his sister, Grete, to the conservatory in pursuit of violin lessons. However, this is now in the past and the family must find other ways to support themselves. At one time Grete took care of this new Gregor, who couldn’t do it for himself, of course, but grew disgusted and after a number of volatile encounters involving family members, she suggests getting rid of him. He hears and understands, and not long after, retires to his room and dies.

There actually is much, much more to the story than this, detail-wise and pertaining to how it concludes. Perhaps a story of identity or one’s place in the world, it is filled with possible clues Kafka wrote in, and the literary world suffers no shortage of interpretations. For the purposes of this entry, we shall add that it indeed is a dark tale, the events of which enthusiastically exercise the mind as we shape our thought processes in an assortment of styles to accommodate a variety of possibilities. The Metamorphosis is that engaging.

It is no surprise, then, that Peter Kuper has adapted the story to graphic novel form for new and younger readers to encounter all these contemplations and goings-on. The very first detail to strike the viewer is its presentation all in black and white. Transitional pages are solid black, and the gloom of the rest reflects the narrative’s despondency and eventual despair. Like murky lighting in a movie, Kuper leads us from the “absurd darkness of slumberland” as Gregor attempts to shift onto his more comfortable right side. He attributes his present difficulty with moving to his demanding job as a traveling salesman:

Day after day it’s the same story …

All the pressures of worrying about train connections …

Eating miserable food on the run …

A parade of new faces, with no lasting relationships or greater intimacy …

TO HELL WITH IT ALL!

 The graphics in each panel exhibit a rather absurd Gregor Samsa as he goes about his daily duties, comically haphazard panic on his face as he rushes from a stern and disapproving mother in the morning, bumbling to catch the fleeing train as papers spill from his briefcase and, in a nod to modern indigestibility, the visage of an anxious man hurriedly eating from a plastic container as he stands in front of the famous M logo of a national fast food restaurant.

In a medium that by definition contains visual depictions of its subject matter, Kuper naturally has to display the foul creature, contrary to instructions from Kafka himself to his own publisher. However, in what is perhaps the most important stroke of mastery in the novel, the beetle is drawn not only sparingly, but also with rounded features ambiguous enough to avoid a specific character identity being created, while clearly demonstrating something untouchable.

This sense of pariah is depicted with those features that both repel and invite greater examination. The eyes are blank circles, and though readers see their varying emotions—nervous affability, a panicked sprint, apologetic exigence—they lack that “mirror into the soul” that would enable us to see him as human, a sentient creature worthy of consideration. Only the jawline and nose are block like, monstrous, the entire countenance embodiment of the living dead, a disgusting, even frightening nothingness. This perfectly mirrors Samsa’s own pathetic sense of self, as something too unimportant to demand better conditions, more respect. Instead, he contemplates what it would take to make the 7:00 train.

Kuper manages the verbal just as well. Within the panels that proceed toward his departure deadline, his family begs him to open the door, and his voice, distorted by what he believes is an oncoming cold, is represented by the squiggly letters of his dialogue in the speech bubbles above. “Did you understand a word he said? He sounded like an animal!” they cry.

As Gregor’s sad story moves forward, situations become progressively worse as his human tastes and habits change, his family grows more repulsed by him and a wound to his shell, the result of an apple his father threw at him and which remained lodged in his back, festers. Panels depicting his family are majority white, while the dung beetle’s are overcome by darkness until he is seen living literally in the shadow of the life he once had.

Perhaps influenced at an early age by “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend,” a surreal comic strip that appeared shortly before The Metamorphosis and shared with it a “genius for rendering the anxious intersection of reality and dreamscape,” Kuper’s talent is a delightful mix of movie technique and artistic process. With enviable dexterity, he opens with a touch of the “fraction then action” film tantalizes audiences with, and uses his magical lines to create not mere people or characters, but living entities who move and act upon the pages, within the panels that so brilliantly render even what is typically unseen: a gust of wind, emotion, the sounds of a violin—and he does this so often without relying upon the enlarged word in the corner, or predictable music notes floating in the air. He renders visible the unseen.

My own first exposure to graphic novels was reading one in another literature class, a book of a grave matter and subject to great controversy for its medium. Even apart from the outrage many felt for the events in the novel to be depicted in “funnies” form, many viewed it as unserious, not literary. Those with such opinions also tended to reject the argument that graphic novels’ audiences consisted at least in part of those who might not otherwise be reading.

Since then I have been more exposed to them via my own child, who devours books with passage and picture alike. When he showed me that many “grown-up books” are often available in graphic form, I was intrigued. There is a reason images appeal to people, and we’ve been sharing our pictorial perceptions since we were cave dwellers. There is something about drawings that beckon people into the world they represent (also brilliantly acted out in a famous music video), and gifted artists show us a myriad of ways in which this might be done. Moreover, “reading” pictures increases comprehension, and elements such as color, shapes and lines can often tell us as much about mood and what is happening as does the text.

Truth be told, I was very optimistic with my newish venture into this particular genre, and delighted to find that there are indeed many beloved stories now transformed into graphic form. In fact, I had a small struggle as to which of the three I chose to pick from for review, in the end deciding upon this one, for starters, because I love The Metamorphosis. The black and white also caught my attention, not only being different but also because mere use of the two shades often is telling in itself, and I wanted to see where, with it, Kuper would take Samsa’s story. Much like the original tale, Kuper’s graphic novel presents a multi-leveled narrative with as many messages as the original, and one that bears not only repeat return, but also boundless continuity.

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Franz Kafka was born 1883 in Bohemia, part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire (now Czech Republic), the eldest son in a Jewish family. He took a law degree and worked as an insurance adjuster, a situation he saw as “tortuous” because it forced him to write in his spare time. Shortly before his death he instructed a close friend to destroy much of his work, a direction fortunately ignored. Click here for further information on this great writer and his works.

Peter Kuper teaches comic courses at The School of Visual Arts and is a visiting professor at Harvard University. Author of a number of works, he has also transformed Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle into graphic novel form. Click cover image above for website, and here to see the animated trailer for his graphic novel, The Metamorphosis.

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

The Importance of Covers (Book Bloggers Group Chat)

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

Upcoming:

New Genre Library (Science fiction): Title TBA

And a couple of other fun entries to round out the year!

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

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Book Browsing: Excerpt Edition (The Refugee)

Today’s book browsing leads us to an excerpt for The Refugee by S.A. Tameez, who reflected a bit a few weeks before publication.

S.A.Tameez writes … 

With my novel, The Refugee, only four weeks away [at this writing] from its official release, one of the most frequent questions I have been asked is: Why did I choose the refugee topic to base my novel on?

To answer this, I must first tell you about the day I first got the inspiration for the story.

Almost a year ago, on a sultry summer’s night, as I sat in front of my computer writing a science fiction fantasy story called The Seventh Echo, I suddenly found myself unable to type another word. Not another darn word!

“Writer’s block?” I hear you ask. Not at all! The truth is, I have never wrestled with writer’s block in my life. I have more stories in my head than I have time left on this earth, I have no doubt. And those who know me can attest that I am never short of words. I couldn’t write any more of The Seventh Echo, a story that required me to explore the enthralling realms of quantum mechanics, because of something that I heard about earlier that day. Something so disturbing and heart wrenching that I could think of nothing else.

By this point, the media had maximised their newspaper sales, at the expense of washed up, dead bodies of refugee children. The refugee crisis was common knowledge around the globe – successfully turned from tragedy to a circus.

What sparked my interest was a story of a family that came to the refugee camp, escaping from war, only to have their son kidnapped from the camp, in the dead of night. Thankfully, this innocent 10-year-old boy was found alive the next day. He had, however, been savagely raped and then dumped.

Aside from this making me feel physically sick, it made me question what was going on with the thousands of children that were seeking refuge? Who was responsible for them? And the more I dug, the more questions arose, unearthing some distressing facts, like 10,000 unaccounted refugee children disappearing.

The fact that this was not of any huge concern made me realise that people had become desensitised to the catastrophic loss of life and “mysterious” vanishings of children. Refugees seemed almost less human than everyone else.

With this, I was unable to continue writing Seventh Echo. I stopped at 15,000 words and began writing The Refugee. A story inspired by the atrocious circumstances that the refugees are facing. Although no words can justly describe the horror that they are facing and there simply isn’t enough ink in this world to produce published accounts of all their tribulations, I hope the story’s message is clear.

The Refugee – Excerpt
by S.A. Tameez

“There!” Ahmed quietly cheered as he saw a ghostly silhouette of a large boat in the distance. “Come on…” They could see a few men with guns surrounding the boat. The guns raised higher as they got closer. “Please…we don’t want any trouble,” Ahmed said, his arms high.

“Paperwork!” one of the men demanded. His face was covered, except his menacing eyes, which sent chills running through Ahmed, forcing him to shiver as he handed over the papers that were in the black leather bag.

The man looked through the papers, then looked at Ahmed, then at Malik and Maryam. A second man now had the paperwork, he nodded, as if to say that they check out ok. The first man looked down at Maryam’s foot and noticed the blood. “Wait here…” He went back, and the men started murmuring among themselves in a language that Ahmed didn’t recognise.

“What is going on?” Maryam asked. Ahmed was getting paranoid, worried that paperwork was not okay. He began to question that everything was all right.

The first man strolled back. “You and boy go, but woman stay.”

“What?” Ahmed said, looking perplexed. “What do you mean? We have the correct paperwork for all of us, right?”

“You have paperwork…but woman cannot travel because of foot.”

“Why? She is fine. It’s just a cut…please, we need to get on that boat, all of us,” Ahmed pleaded.

“She not getting on. You have two minutes, or you stay, too,” the man said robotically.

Maryam began to cry as the man walked away. “Just go…take our son and save his life, I can’t bear to see him live like this,” she sobbed. Ahmed’s head began to spin.

“Ahmed…please, you don’t have much time, you have to go now. Think of our son.” She hugged Malik tightly, and her tears began to soak his shirt, triggering his own tears.

“I love you,” she whispered to Ahmed. His watery eyes filled with anger.

“I am not leaving you here!” He grabbed the leather bag and ran towards the men.

“Please…help us…I have money.” Money, a language that everyone understood. Ahmed reached into the bag and grabbed a handful of the euros, “Here!” He held out the notes. “Please let us all on that boat…please.” The man looked at Ahmed and then at Malik and Maryam. He pushed Ahmed’s hand back, “She will not make it. You have more chance if you leave her.” The man looked at them with a hint of compassion in his machine-like eyes.

“I’ll take my chances…please.” Ahmed begged, “please…let us all on.” Ahmed offered the money again. “Keep money…you will need it.” The man nodded. “Get on – all of you.”

“Thank you…thank you.” Ahmed ran back to Maryam and Malik.

“Come on, let’s go.”

They rushed onto the boat as fast as they could, Ahmed hoping, praying, that the man didn’t change his mind.

Maryam was, as usual, as paranoid as ever, any minute now…any minute, he is going to say stop, and they would all stand there laughing – this was a cruel joke that they were playing. Her legs were wobbly, or maybe it will be worse, perhaps they will just open fire and compete against each other on who had the most accurate shot…

“Stop!” one of the men with guns yelled. I knew it Maryam thought. She closed her eyes and shielded Malik with her body.

S.A. Tameez will appear for book signing at
High Wycombe Library
on November 25, 2017  from 2:00 – 3:00 (p.m.)

About the author ….

Sajjad Tameez was born in Buckinghamshire, England. He gained a profound interest in writing from a young age, particularly in the field of science fiction fantasy. After completing his BA honours degree in network security and management, and also artificial intelligence, he began work on his first novel, Lehthra

After successfully publishing his sci-fi novel and promoting it in Waterstones, he went on to write many short stories.

You can keep up with Sajjad Tameez on Facebook, Twitter or his Amazon author page.

The Refugee may be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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Book Review: The Path (Tales From a Revolution: Rhode-Island) (Brand Spanking New Release)

Tales From a Revolution: Rhode-Island
The Path
by Lars D.H. Hedbor

While American awareness of the French role played in the Revolution that won us our freedom is generally high, few encounter an opportunity to meet up with individual stories from the French perspective. With The Path, eighth in Lars D. H. Hedbor’s Tales From a Revolution series, we encounter Yves de Bourganes as he sets out to earn his widowed mother some much-needed money—and a little adventure wouldn’t hurt.

Not unlike the manner in which he approaches The Wind, wherein we see post-division Florida from the Spaniard Gabriel’s point of view, Hedbor again widens the scope as the novel opens to the young Frenchman contemplating possible duty near American shores, trouncing the English and the prospect of his nation and the Americans as allies, after having fought bitterly only several years before.

To his mother, this would be no surprise; she well understands the fickle ways of war. Her greatest fear is with his station in such a distant theater, and the likelihood of seeing her child again. He shares her concern, but works to remain optimistic, soon after engaging in that time-tested military routine of “hurry up and wait.”

The transition between opening scenes, in which Yves breaks the news to his mother and later, camps out and then anchors in Brest, is well chosen and executed. Hedbor’s choice of allowing Yves’s home scenes to remain preliminary is spot on: while important to help round out the boy’s character and background, it wouldn’t have been necessary to tell or even show readers, including the young adult audience the novel is aimed at, a departing scene between a frightened mother and her son. They already know this will happen, and her dialogue and actions—

… she wiped [the tears] away angrily …

She gave him a grudging smile.

She fixed him with a piercing glare. “Mind that you do, Yves.”

She nodded crisply.

—reveal her character, humor and strength in a degree commensurate with her role in the narrative.

When his mother and all her sons share one last meal together and the next chapter opens with Yves already in camp, at table with his friend Luc, Hedbor again cannily utilizes food, once more playing a central role in the passage, to correlate the scenes. The boys’ conversation also focuses on food, a uniter of people as well as common concern onboard any ship. Their exchange is so smooth, natural and authentic one might be forgiven for wondering if Hedbor had transcribed a previous recording he’d gathered.

In Newport, Rhode Island, Yves comes into contact with a merchant, via their mutual equestrian interest, and a female slave, Amalie, under the horse seller’s charge. It is the Frenchman’s first personal encounter with the vile institution, and he has a difficult time letting the meeting pass. Soon, the path Yves has chosen, already entangled by his involvement in someone else’s war, becomes even less clear, and brings unexpected circumstance and choices into his life.

As has been his habit, Hedbor writes a superb tale, wonderfully examining events via the perspectives of ordinary people, those who most definitely preceded us, but whose voice is either buried deep in time or completely lost. While fictional, the novel paints absolutely realistic portraits of our counterparts, with words creating marvelous brushstrokes that capture the feel, nuance, attitudes, occupations, sights and scents—and so much more—of the day. The thrill of a dice game; rustle of dry, waist-high grass; the tidy streets of a town even after warfare and meeting with Quakers in the colony (linking us also to another Hedbor tale, The Light), as well as Natives in the area (a special link to The Smoke).

I also love reading Hedbor’s historical notes, and those in The Path were no exception. While not difficult to guess that Yves’s place in travel was based on Rochambeau’s journey with his Expedition Particulalière, codename for the French forces sent to take part in the American Revolution, I had no idea of journals kept by French military personnel. Therefore I knew not of their opinions, apart from that they must not have been very affectionate regarding the practice of slavery. It had existed in France’s overseas colonies by this time, but that didn’t mean anyone had to like it. Hedbor candidly portrays this attitude on the part of the French and Americans opposed to it, while judiciously shunning the ill-informed broad brush so prevalent today, an important consideration especially given the target audience.

The author generally is tasked with coördinating a fair amount of real-life and fictional colors, details, and this seems extra true in the case of The Path. Moreover, any narrative dealing with slavery walks a fine line in light of current hypersensitivity closely related to historical events being examined under the lens of contemporary values. This cliché is not articulated to insinuate that slavery enjoyed a 100% approval rating in eighteenth-century America, but rather that the tolerance level was not then what it is today (zero), and there still can be good qualities to find in people of the time. Hedbor is aware that no population is that one dimensional.

This also touches upon the appearance of an historical figure of the era, Moses Brown, of whom Hedbor also speaks in his notes. As I read them, it occurred to me how much historical and fiction “color coördination” was so skillfully brushed into his portrait, what with the added mixture of English and French speakers, Quaker business practices, and Brown’s involvement in a family-run slave trade.

Then the author dabs here, dabs there as he pieces together images, and recognition is our reward.

He got a faraway look in his eye, and added, “It may be, though, that history records the burning of the Gaspee, and the shot fired at Duddington as being the opening salvo of this revolution against England. People in Boston and Williamsburg were so alarmed at the prospect that they began coordinating their efforts against the Stamp Act and other Parliamentary actions across the colonies … and that led to the formation of the Continental Congress, and that to the Declaration of Independence and our present war against England.”

 An intricate, thoughtfully told tale, The Path bears witness to one man’s struggle to choose and then move forward within the results of his election. Of all Hedbor’s works, it is perhaps one of his most technically perfect, while at the same time sacrificing nothing in creative beauty. It contains mad fear, anger, sorrow, betrayal and terror. However, the resiliency of the human spirit battles all these elements, with the theme of sharing running throughout, paving the way to change in the newborn nation. The characters are drawn with sensitivity, and some brutal truth, based as they are on real people, whose suffering and victories would be degraded and affronted were we to tell their tale in a manner that suits us, rather than how they actually lived these events. Hedbor honors their lives with this magnificently told story.

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The Break – upcoming review and more from Lars Hedbor!

Keep an eye out in these pages for more from Lars Hedbor, including an upcoming giveaway of a signed and personalized paperback copy of any Hedbor novel of the reader’s choice, and my review of The Break. 

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In addition to the above-linked reviews, click here to see my review for The Prize, and here for The Darkness.

 

About the author …

What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.

I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and will be a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

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You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook.  The Path will be released tomorrow, October 19 (or pre-order now).

For those in or close to Aloha, Oregon, come have some fun! Release party for The Path will be October 28, between 1:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, at Jan’s Paperbacks

Photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

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An advance reader’s copy of The Path was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Fair Weather

Fair Weather by Barbara Gaskell Denvil
A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

I absolutely adore time travel, and for that reason alone was fairly certain I would enjoy Barbara Gaskell Denvil’s Fair Weather. All right, there’s the medieval setting, which played a sizeable role in persuading me as well. Set partly in King John’s England, it also contains a murder mystery, which I haven’t read a lot of, though have found I tend to be fond of the furtive element.

As it turns out, enjoy is rather an understatement. I sped through this book of over 500 pages in four days, and though a quicker read is not always indicative of its worth, my online log shows the bulk of the reading done in the final 48 hours, and I remember these hours well: staying up appallingly late, the sense of urgency as I devoured pages with avaricious hunger until, finally, as I observed the bulk on the right side of my copy thinning out, the occasional warning to my inner self that it would soon be over.

From the very first page I was invested in the book, as Molly opens by confiding in the reader about her secret place. The very first large paragraph draws us into her existence, one in which even the pervasive smells of her other world—as we are to learn of—beckon from the streets of thirteenth-century London. Here is Tilda, an orphaned street waif, and Vespasian Fairweather, who has taken the little girl under his wing and taught her and others how to steal for survival.

As Molly’s visits to this time become more frequent, and grisly murders splinter her life and state of mind, she realizes she must find answers, quickly, before both worlds are destroyed. Encountering Vespasian, she senses he holds much of the information she seeks while necessarily protective of her own. What has he done? How much power does he really contain? Is he aware she is not native to his era? Seeking these and many other answers, Molly comes to understand that she must get much closer to the dangerous Vespasian in order to free herself of him and the menace looming all around.

Gaskell Denvil is an extremely talented writer. The murders do occasion some rather descriptive images, though I was able to make a clean break from the physical element each time as I moved forward in my reading. Many readers find this a troublesome proposition, given their horror at such acts as the author describes, or toward what they sometimes fear is their own severance from compassion. In other words: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Molly, however, agonizes over the crimes, though via the deft hand of a creator whose perfect balance keeps it all from becoming overly melodramatic or without substance. Simultaneously, as the author leads us in, we feel right along with Molly, whose self-awareness works to keep us all in check. This in turn ties in with another deliciously mysterious and captivating element of the book I shall leave for readers to discover. Suffice to say the author handles the enigma that is identity exceedingly well—readers will notice certain passages that reveal her expertise.

Other techniques she engages are the sprinkling throughout Fair Weather of enchanting personification—

Shops shut early as winter dark still slunk in by mid to late afternoon.

—along with passages of graceful and shimmering imagery:

The electricity lightens my room in gaudy detail, but my eyes see only the spasmodic sputtering of lemon shadows from candle stubs.

Expressive in its striking eloquence, possessing perfect rhythm within each and every sentence, Gaskell Denvil’s poetic words convey so vividly what she points out for us to see. The ordinary isn’t simply transformed into magical, for this meanders throughout the world of the novel, recognized by characters and their observers; simple words are strung together like pearls until we are presented with a glorious necklace that transforms, as a whole, an entire sentence and, in turn, each scene.

This is not all: the author creates a world in which many complicated events and perspectives intertwine, and links within their history connect to larger figures and implications. In the hands of a lesser writer this could spell doom, and indeed a complaint of mine regarding some other fantasy novels is that they often tend to involve an overabundance of characters amongst unorganized events and too much deus ex machina. However, Gaskell Denvil’s management of her characters is in perfect balance: she allows them to be who they are, but they don’t run amok. They make sense in relation to each other, have limitations, sometimes can offer quick solutions and at others meet the consequences of when they cannot.


I tumbled into the pupils of his endless eyes. He was utterly in command of my mind.


Interestingly, characters’ comments occasionally seem to deliberately reach out to readers: “Time travel is more common than you think.” (“Yes! Yes!” I shout from within.) At other moments they engage in this while simultaneously reminding us that they, too, have a sense of history while we delight in the recall of figures we’d forgotten amidst our overloaded modern society, or in recognition of religious reservation, not a recent invention. “Purgatory,” said Vespasian softly from his high chair in the shadows, “is a dubious invention of the church.”

As Fair Weather progresses, its plot widens and we come to know more of the ancient demon Lilith and other mythological figures than before as we witness the rise of the battle between good and evil, acted out by individuals whose lust for power is so great, no act, vessel or other is sacred enough to be spared their malevolence. Gaskell Denvil—or is it Vaspasian himself?—does a superb job of revealing only what she wants to be known. Mystery, however, is not retained for its own sake, as we gradually are brought to understanding of the methodology of revelations and the harsh lessons and consequences of choosing to ignore events that do not seem to directly affect us. Not that the author wags any fingers—simply that her scenes are so vibrant, powerful and comprehensively created, it is easy to envision ourselves within the environment as we encounter surprises and questions are answered.

I also loved that these people defy easy characterization. While good and evil battle it out, there typically is an element of both within any entity, and their dimensions don’t always allow readers to determine so quickly whether one is to be trusted, liked, avoided and so on, placing us that much more into the mind of Molly. We observe the world through the eyes she herself sees it—and even that changes, given the times she inhabits, events that occur and her growing understanding of the nature of all matters, such as the spirituality of alchemy, what good really is and the nature of control.

I sat beside him. He didn’t move or seem surprised … I looked down at my own reflection in the water at his feet, my face partially obscured by floating weed and summery green algae. It was deliciously balmy … [b]eside me, still watching me[, h]is cotta was crumpled as a cushion, his hands clasped beneath his head. He cast no reflection in the pool at all.

“If you are who I believe you are, you know about that already. I have no intention of explaining myself further—even in dreams. Come back into my own world if you dare … and find out for yourself.”

“I shall, though not at your command ….” I lowered my gaze, knowing his eyes could read me. Cross and frustrated by his answers, I pointed to the pool. “Look,” I said. “Like the devil, you cast no reflection.” But when I looked up for his reaction, he had gone.

Despite its hefty bulk—oh and this becomes a great boon soon enough!—Fair Weather is a novel one will definitely return to, for its language is accessible, the story captivating and those who populate it will reach out to readers. It is commonly understood that great works reveal to us more each time we approach them, and this will certainly be so with Fair Weather, for we grow with its reading as does Molly, and getting to know Tilda, Vespasian and others is an enchanting maze into which we will want to re-enter repeatedly.

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About the author …

Having been born into a literary family where book shelves filled every room, Barbara Gaskell Denvil grew up assuming that writing would be her career. She began writing when she was extremely young and then went to work in the British Museum Library, with ancient folios and manuscripts.  This cemented her love of both literature and history. Moving on to work in traditional publishing, scripting, reviewing, editing and publishing many articles and short stories.

Her books now alternate between fantasy and historical fiction, drama, mystery, adventure and romance, with a passion for medieval settings and historical accuracy.

Miss Gaskell Denvil’s work has been traditionally published by Simon & Schuster, but she now favours self-publishing as it gives the huge satisfaction of individual control. And personal choice of genre and artistic inspiration.

… with a few extra words:

Bannister’s Muster is my new project. This is a children’s series (for age group 8 to 14) based partially in the medieval shadows of old London, and partially in a fantasy world. Book 1 – Snap – is already out and Book 2 – Snakes and Ladders – will be published in late November.

The launch will be held in the Eltham Library, Melbourne, Australia, on 2nd December. Everyone is invited.

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Sign up or follow Barbara Gaskell Denvil for news, review, historical, writing and research articles and more at her website or Facebook and Amazon author pages. Fair Weather and her other books are available for purchase at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Barbara loves to hear from readers, so do please get in touch

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A free copy of Fair Weather was provided in exchange for an honest review. 

950: 1066 Remembered, Secrets Through a Tapestry of Time

And so another year has passed. In October 2016, we began our commemorative observation marking the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It has been a year of sifting through details, lamenting in poetry and song, pondering memories, tossing about the what ifs, beholding the heartache of knowledge, of this ending in 1066 certainly, but also the converging roads that led to this day, and the days and years after. Picking up the pieces and then looking back upon those shards of memory … surely even ordinary people, non-combatants, recalled this day soon and years later as life continued to move forward. Could an average person have predicted that their land and people would so rapidly and overwhelmingly be stolen by foreign invaders, so thoroughly transformed?

 

October 14, 1066: At the Battle of Hastings, Normans charge toward the Saxons’ shield wall as the defenders chant, “Out! Out!” By Dan Koehl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
That their language, for starters, be unrecognizable to someone who lived nearly a thousand years in the future? That to later people—us—common names, the markers of individual identity, would come across as foreign and unpronounceable? Or worse, we might catch glimpses of people through the tapestry of time and perceive only that they come from some generic, long-ago past too distant to be embraced?

And it all would have started with their own children, especially those extremely young or not yet born when the battle occurred. They never had the memories, and those of their parents died with them. Their own lives were to play out in a markedly different fashion to those their parents had known, not only owing to generational differences, but also because an entirely new framework was forcibly re-defining who they were.

I wonder if William the Bastard contemplated this result as he set out to supplant an entire class of elites with new ones from his own land. His victory lap in the form of castle building began straight away and signaled without a doubt his conquest, the subjugation of England’s people and cruelly sought to end, once and for all, the stubborn pockets of resistance that kept popping up. Did he aim to be the boss of everybody, or more, to completely re-make them? As a non-historian still within the beginning phases of serious study of the Anglo-Saxon era and its end, some of my questions may already have definitive answers, or be ones scholars still debate. One thing I do know for sure is that as long as people keep making these queries, even if the inquiries re-produce themselves into scores more, this invader hasn’t completely won.

Here William gives arms to Harold, by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons

Now that would have been even less than cold comfort for the people who suffered under his rule, and I’m not sure it even satisfies me. Nevertheless, I believe we owe it to the people who lived in this time and after to continually seek answers and ensure they aren’t forgotten.

Someone else felt something along those lines, and for centuries it was believed he came at the ideal from a Norman perspective. No one knows for sure who designed, commissioned or created the Bayeux Tapestry, a pictorial version of events stitched out on a nearly seventy-meter long strip of linen measuring less than half a meter wide. It appears to tell the story of the Norman Conquest as a way to glorify the achievement. A magnificent piece of work, its story of survival is in itself breathtaking, as Andrew Bridgeford briefly discusses at the start of his 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Hidden history, you say? Well, yes, very possibly. Bridgeford sets out to examine the tapestry and comes across some previously undetected threads, so to speak, in the story. He begins by re-iterating the now-discarded legend surrounding the tapestry’s French name—la Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde—and elaborates on that frankly astounding history of the piece’s survival, including its narrow avoidance of serving during the French Revolutionary Wars as protective covering for an equipment wagon.

Given these hints at secrets within the tapestry, and the mystery surrounding from whence it originated, it perhaps is fitting that its identity as tapestry is not exactly spot on, either. Created from wool yarn sewn into the cloth, it nevertheless remains the tapestry. Searching keenly into what it holds, as Bridgeford does, what reveals itself is the really important part, and his stunning account gives us a glimpse of someone else who may have contemplated what William was thinking, and sought to set the record straight, albeit in a “dangerously many-layered masterpiece.” The Normans had their castles and fought from horseback, but even in French country and beyond, Anglo-Saxon needlework was prized in its time, and it makes sense that the artist who designed the images was not, in fact, a Norman paying homage to his land and people’s supremacy—or to the man who was now his king.

That alone sends us whispers through the winds to our time, that Anglo-Saxons were not the products of a dark age many today still see them as, but rather a society with an art, a textile, people who could tell a story that, as it turns out, has enchanted us for many lifetimes. Even if the story is secretly told, it is done on Saxon terms, on their framework, held in a sort of trust until we could once again speak safely about these events.

Here Harold sailed by sea. Note the singing crow on bottom border, near middle, as he sings, thus tricked into dropping his cheese. Norman apologists liked to believe Harold was the wily fox, unfaithful to the oath he swore to William, portrayed here, so they believed, as the crow. By image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of them often originates in the written word, Bridgeford writes, “[y]et when you close these books and pass to the Bayeux Tapestry your imagination still feels as if it has emerged out of the darkness of a cave into a world of sunlit colours.” Perhaps, if our artist could hear these words on a wind that passes him by, he might smile that his age is characterized thus.

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“Seemingly irrelevant.” A small illustration of a fox, a crow and a piece of cheese is depicted in a lower corner on the tapestry in reference to a fable that dates to Aesop. Three times it appears to warn of the consequences of treacherous flattery, once in close proximity to the scene in which Harold, having journeyed across the sea to the duke, finds himself first a prisoner of Count Guy, and then William, who presents himself as having rescued the English earl. Then we are shown HIC WILLELM DEDIT HAROLDO ARMA. Here William gives arms to Harold. William’s weighty gesture at the Breton war precedes the moments in which William demands Harold swear a sacred oath to support his bid for the throne. Here the duke sits, pointing at Harold in front of him, significantly standing, his eyes “narrowed to the width of a stitch … [t]he very atmosphere seems to have been pulled taut.” Harold understands that William had planned this all out, agonizing over the gravity of a sacred oath and that if he breaks it, he will have to answer to God. If he doesn’t, the brother and nephew he seeks to release from the duke’s imprisonment, will surely not be leaving with him. Wulfnoth and Hakon may die in captivity.

Harold swears the oath.

Straight away the Englishmen are shown on a boat and Bridgeford examines the scene, remarking that the artist’s reversal of the order in which these events actually took place “accentuate[s] the impression of duress,” that secreted within the images is the statement that Harold is permitted to return to England only because he swore the oath.

Here sits King Harold II, by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons

Upon his homecoming, Eadmer tells us, the Confessor reacts angrily: “Did I not tell you that I knew William well and that your going there might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?” This and Bridgeford’s observation of a repentant Earl Harold are in stark contrast to the Norman claim that Edward sent the earl to Normandy to seal the deal regarding William as successor to the king. Why would Harold appear to be begging forgiveness of Edward, arms outstretched, if he had returned from doing as instructed?

Bridgeford believes this to be a covert English version of events, though so often passed over because Norman propaganda tells us of a perfidious Harold Godwinson, and those of the land who conquered his were unlikely to see anything else. After all, did he not break a sacred oath? Did he not later steal a throne that rightfully belonged to William? However, as we see, William flatters Harold with a sort of knighthood; it is he who surreptitiously effects the Englishman’s presence in his household and places him in an impossible position.

Perusing the tapestry once more, we see the fox and the crow again, accompanying Harold and his men back to England, and remember the ancient fable. Harold has imprudently traveled to Normandy and been tricked into a terrible dilemma, one in which his tormenter could easily wriggle away from by pointing out that Harold had a choice. Woven within all this is the disaster of which Edward speaks, that the nation must suffer owing to Harold’s improvidence, increasing the spoils of William’s duplicity. “Can there be any doubt that William is the greedy fox and that Harold is the naïve and foolish crow?”

There is, of course, more to the chapter (“The Fox and the Crow”) than presented here, and it is but one example Bridgeford presents. In some spots the detail can be intense, but it is never dense and the narrative nature of the book makes it read at times like a novel. The author also includes extensive notes to support this fascinating and impressive medieval detective work.

Part of me winces when wondering if, apart from the partial exile of the tapestry, our technological “superiority,” relieving us of so much brainwork, has played a role in why nearly one thousand years have passed before someone recognized what our artist set out so long ago? As I think more on it, I don’t believe so, for he must have been confident that even those in his own time wouldn’t recognize his coded messages so easily; with his production he might even have been betting his life on it. If he is who Bridgeford believes him to be, then he certainly had a lot to lose. He needed to shield his statements; they were for us to decipher correctly, not his contemporaries.

Wasting no time creating his strongholds. He [William] ordered that a motte should be built at Hastings, the camp, by image on web site of Ulrich Harsh via Wikimedia Commons
Whoever created this tapestry: did he even dare to hope it would last as long as it has? Did he believe the Normanization of England would falter, and that would be the time to speak openly of what his treasure spoke? Or did he know well William’s terrible determination? Was he even an Anglo-Saxon? Or was he a non-Norman French who selected this medium, perhaps as a nod to the famous Saxon skill, to weave his report?

One thing is certain: he reaches through time, gifting us who yearn to know of our past a legacy, a concrete marker of where we came from, to spare us the more complete loss of our collective memory. Something that once actually breathed in some of the same dust that today blows about in the wind, nearly one thousand years later. As physical representation of their time it may be small, but given the risk he likely took in setting out to perform the task, it is much larger than any of us.

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I’ve written before of the Russian ideal that no one ever really dies if there is someone to remember them. It’s a tenet I hold very close to my heart, because to be forgotten, for any memory of someone to be so scattered, unseen, amongst the winds, is a horrible fate. It renders them as not having mattered, one reason why names are so significant. Many people know this. William knew this.

Fortunately, we do have at least some names, even if their sounds don’t quite conform to our ears (or vice versa), and we have some identities. We also know of an unidentified someone willing to take a huge risk with his life, understanding that it mattered whether we who came next knew about events in his era. Perhaps he even understood it might take us quite some time to pick apart the threads, satisfied that once we began to sort through, there was much more to uncover, even than what initially was discovered, that William might be denied his absolute victory, even this far out. While understandably unsatisfying to many, it is at least some small justice, perhaps, as one 1066 writer recently commented, perhaps the only justice those who suffered will get. Even if so, we know much more about events leading up to and of this day, and many of the interwoven threads depicting lives, each with so much relevance.

And so today, one year after 950, and for many more to come, we see the people laid into flax, their whispers on the winds of time as we strain to hear what they say.

These busy little figures are not just eleventh-century cartoon characters stitched onto linen. They stand for real people, real people whose lives were changed, and in some cases ended, by the greatest of all events in English history. More than that, recorded in these threads are forgotten stories yet to be retold.

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With love and gratitude to those who suffered and were lost, and others through the ages,

descendants of Saxon, Viking and Norman alike, who toil to tell their stories.

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Thank you for joining us for this final installment of our year-long commemoration

of the Battle of Hastings. For a complete list of entry hyperlinks, please click here

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Book Review: Assassins of Alamut

Assassins of Alamut:
A Novel of Persia and Palestine in the Time of the Crusades
The First Book of Talon
by James Boschert

Having previously penned novels about pirating in the turbulent North Sea shipping lanes (Force 12 in German Bight), and escaping the jungle theater of 1960s Malaysia (When the Jungle is Silent), author James Boschert’s seemingly boundless imagination turns to twelfth-century Persia with the first entry in his Talon series, Assassins of Alamut. A gloriously fat volume of over 500 pages, Assassins wastes no time getting the action going—in the very first paragraph—and readers rapidly hop on for the ride.

Thirteen-year-old Talon, son of a French knight and nobleman, is abducted in Palestine following a Saracen assault on his family’s caravan. Saracen originally denoting non-Arabs dwelling near the Arabian Peninsula, is by Talon’s time generally used in reference to all the Arabian tribes. However, these attackers indeed are Persians and not merely enemies of the Sunnis; they are of the feared Ismaili Hashshashin, splintered as well from their own branch of Shia Islam. Known today for their association with the acts that may have given us our modern word assassin, they also engage psy-ops to enable submission in their captives. This they employ with Talon as they herd the hapless boy and others to their stronghold in northern Persia (modern-day Iran), planning to assimilate rather than kill him, training the lad to become one of their own dreaded and elite feda-i (Fedayân).

As Talon’s education commences and continues, he proves himself worthy of their choice and does indeed begin to absorb the group’s philosophy and perspectives. This is evident in such passages that betray his newly acquired attitudes toward his own people: “Since he had been in Samiran, he had learned the elements of hygiene from his instructors, all quite new to one from a castle in the Frankish world.”

Life and learning in his new existence is grueling, and his surroundings at the group’s mountain fortress are, by nature and necessity, equally arduous. As ever, Boschert is expert in describing natural elements as well as weaving its harsh reality into the narrative. This is a pointy, precipitous place deliberately chosen as stronghold for its ease in repelling or compelling those who would come and go without permission. Even the light of the sun is met with harsh rebuff, until its master’s might finally drives on the shadows of the mountain niches, asserting its domination over the day:

[The light] swept over the hills in a silent rush, bathing the sides of the [majestic Alborz] mountains on either side of the valley in a sharp glow. Every feature was thrown into sharp, clear relief, leaving great gashes of black shadow where the ravines refused it and the overhangs turned it away. It would try for every recess in a while when the sun followed its advance guard. Over the razor-sharp eastern peaks it came, a great fiery ball in the sky, driving the shadows and phantoms of the night far up the western reaches of the gorge to make them disappear altogether over the rims of the farthest peaks to the west.

Boschert’s usage of personification is deployed here with carefully-chosen verbiage (“silent rush”; “bathing the sides”; “side of the valley”) to at first convey the impression of gazing upward to a benign, lovely alpine view, much as it might deceive the invader attempting to breach the fort. Quite rapidly, however, any would–be intruder recognizes his folly, even while still in the valley, for view of him is as clear as the day driving its heat into all it touches. As if to hammer the point home, the words sharp and over are repeated with an air of surgical strikes, and he recognizes gashes and overhangs, spotting the phantoms disappearing over the rims as the blazing heat of the sun provides him one of two choices: Follow them down or be as scorched as the rocks I now dominate.

Thus is the world into which Talon has been thrust, one in which men defend or die, a lesson the boy quickly learns and carries with him as he develops an infatuation with the Agha Khan’s sister, the princess Rav’an, and becomes aware of treachery afoot. As their knowledge is suspected and later uncovered, Talon and his companions must make their way to safety, where they can warn the Khan, through a myriad of blockades over great distances that test their perseverance and abilities to the last moment.

Hassan-i-Sabbah, founder of the Assassins

There is nothing repetitive in Assassins of Alamut, even when the small group has to make their way past different bands of people again and again, and Boschert’s impeccable manner of storytelling engages readers in the events and, indeed, action, for we are swept breathlessly into the scenes. Loss is embedded into this life and our protagonist as well as others around him suffer it, and though we accept, knowing the dangers of life in these times, we are still surprised and sorrowful, for the characters have grown on us, and our affection is unfeigned.

That said, the novel is sprinkled with comic relief, even if it sometimes is not the sort some characters would necessarily find amusing.

The men of the caravan shouted abuse at the prisoners. “May you be visited by the fleas from a thousand camels that invade your private parts!” one yelled. “And may your arms be too short to scratch them!”

 Unsurprisingly, the novel also includes a fairly sizeable inventory of food, which both draws readers into the era and events as well as tantalizes the senses. Boschert revels in the sensory as he creates moments in which we read certain passages in whispers, hear the clink of iron horse shoes, feel the wind in its wraithlike cold as “ghosts of lost souls [search] for ways to get into the room.” We clearly see how a natural setting might conceal or betray fugitives, as Boschert describes what might be scenes from a movie.

As a storyteller, Boschert is top notch: he integrates himself into the tale, from historical as well as personal points of view and in so doing, the novel contains the feel of memoir, despite its third-person narrative. Recollection of details, precise movements in battle, the sense of an inner eye that observes pictorial memories within, enabling telling of the tale. The only element that moves away from this impression are occasional segments told from another point of view. Still, Talon’s journey is an odyssey of vivid, gripping, informative, entertaining and fascinating proportions, headed on each chapter with snippets of poetry from those such as Khayyam:

And if the Cup you drink, the Lip you press.
End in what All begins and ends in Yes;
Imagine, then, you are what heretofore
You were—hereafter you shall not be less.

 Though there has been some reservation as to the origin of some quatrains (rubaiyat) attributed to Khayyam, the poetic inquiries posed throughout Assassins of Alamut not only pertain to Talon’s battles within as much as without, but also to the universal struggle to understand, as asked even by Khayyam, who each of us are, and why we have been put on this earth. Given Talon’s situation of having a foot in each world, living a bewildering, hybrid existence, it is fitting and perhaps even comforting to him one should be amongst a society that engages in life as philosophy, even if, or perhaps because, a portion of this comes from the commentary of one whose own philosophical identity remains uncertain.

Given the Persian history of chahar bagh (“four gardens”), with its connection to paradise and the importance of the legacy even today, it is also significant that Talon first meets with Rav’an in a secluded garden, where their affections for each other, unknown to both, initially find seed. Boschert is acutely aware of the role of these scenes’ setting, and states such with his choice of quatrain opening the chapter.

When you and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh but the long, long while the World will last
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As much if Ocean as a pebble-cast.

Devastating siege of Alamut by Français: Abdullâh Sultân [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Where all this will lead Talon remains to be seen, and readers will be glad to know his story continues in Assassins‘ sequel, Knight Assassin, and beyond.

Masterfully written, Assassins of Alamut contains not only evidence of great amounts of background knowledge and research, but also urges readers to carry on. This might come in the form of pursuing the sequels (which indeed are written and we shall be seeking) or look into more within the history. Many of us are very enamored of medieval history, and here Boschert gives us the opportunity to view the time not only in a completely different region to what many of us study, but also from a perspective most are unused to. To top it off, the author acknowledgements contains a list of further recommended reading, some of which Talon himself may have been perusing in the garden.

In every way possible this novel is a gift, and whether bestowed upon oneself or others, it simply is a must-read tale whose only flaw is that eventually it comes to its end.

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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 Assassins of Alamut in exchange for an honest review

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Author photo courtesy James Boschert

Book Review: Half Sick of Shadows (With Giveaway)

Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy
by Richard Abbott

See below for details about winning a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows

In the first half of the twentieth century, Victorian poetry began to be marginalized by the developing field of scholarly literary criticism, which focused on works fitting complex parameters requiring a rather esoteric body of knowledge for successful interpretation. Earlier poets such as Tennyson, whose works were written for and appealed to a broader readership, fell out of favor.

Perhaps post-war audiences “re-discovered” Victorian poetry once it was realized that it often actually integrated and entailed some of the elements it had been criticized for lacking. Given its enduring Arthurian theme, it is no surprise then, that amongst Tennyson’s work, “The Lady of Shalott” should be one of the first rising to resurgence in popularity: countlessly anthologized and appearing in numerous cultural contexts (video, music, theater, art, literature and more) even into our own time nearly 200 years after publication, it provokes wider analysis and re-interpretation than much modernist poetry, whose seemingly impenetrable nature often contributes to its own dismissal, despite its aim of getting people to culture up. While this is a worthy goal and there certainly is no shortage of study for early twentieth-century poetry, it disregards the lesson Tennyson already understood: holding something out of people’s reach won’t allow them to grasp it any easier.

Contemporary author Richard Abbott takes this one step further by incorporating his own already popular literary bents—historical and science fiction—into a highly accessible re-interpretation of Tennyson’s masterpiece, itself based on the life of Elaine of Astolat, a tragic figure within the Arthurian catalogue. Written in prose and sectioned off a few more times than “The Lady of Shalott,” Abbott’s Half Sick of Shadows takes us into a world of beauty and cruelty, loving and longing, a world of isolation in which the Lady yearns for her own voice and must choose which sacrifice to perform.

Significantly, Abbott opens Half Sick of Shadows with an awakening, though it is veiled by a “kindly darkness” and marked as the Lady’s birth. It is as smooth and relaxed as Tennyson’s own lead-in, “On either side of the river lie/Long fields of barley and rye,” as it initiates the creation and, later, upbringing, so to speak, of an infant and then adolescent who will be the Lady villagers come to know by way of her song. She, in turn, learns about them via her second-hand observations of the people in a mirror housed with her, and to which she eventually begins to talk and, later, question. Their communication is of the telepathic sort, at least the expressive language is on the part of the mirror, which the Lady silently receives.

The metamorphosis of this re-telling gifts readers the feeling that they are receiving the Lady’s story for the very first time. For those familiar with Abbott’s previous work, the historical may be an expected element, but the speculative angle is a definitive bonus, and done with a subtly that enhances rather than reduces the Arthurian and historical within Tennyson’s version. There is a machination about the mirror, in its gathering of data as the Lady sleeps between instars, or growth states, and during her acquisition of knowledge, and periodically we hear a word or phrase (e.g. gibbous) that injects the story with a small flavor of the author’s previous forays into a galactical colony. Indeed, the Lady travels through time and space as “[s]he ate, and she slept, and she changed[,]” as “[t]he world outside, with its fleeting years, took no notice of her sleep, and changed even more rapidly than she did.” These centuries of growth bring her from a time before people existed and “[n]obody was watching” through the eras until settling into the Arthurian, widening the form of science fiction the book engages.

For me, this speaks volumes about Abbott’s ability to transition from genre to genre: he clearly is comfortable writing in a variety, and with Half Sick of Shadows we see this taken to another level as he combines it into one: history, mythology, fantasy and speculative. Perhaps some might even add mystery and/or romance, for the Lady catches a glimpse of Lancelot in her mirror, and from then on everything she acts upon, whether in pragmatic caution or foolish abandon, is in response to the spell she knows she is under, a magic that will destroy her should she try to look directly at the world outside. The manner in which Abbott expands upon the Lady’s life and events within, simultaneously breaking ground while remaining true to Tennyson as he retains the spiritual within the legends of Camelot, is inspiring and captivating. The imagery and descriptive language is economic yet rich.

As she grows, so too do the Lady’s awareness, needs, questions, demands and reaching out to the larger world. She observes and bonds, solitary as the association is, with a prehistoric family whose habits she admires and thrills to. It is this family whose actions first lend her an unarticulated awareness of herself as a shadow, only half existing, a theme that permeates the novella along with the idea of voice in its physical form and as metaphor. Upon re-awakening from one of her sleep phases, she comes to realize that the nature of the world’s growth and movement forward necessitates forfeiture, though awareness make it no less difficult. She laments her loss and fate within her existence, and one of Abbott’s most poignant passages gives new voice, as it were, to the idea of futility of life within isolation. Having already questioned the purpose of knowing how to speak if there was no one to listen,

[s]he noticed the Mirror’s stream of information falter and then, almost immediately, restart when she spoke of her beginnings. This, then, was the source of the deception. A little tingle of anxiety pattered inside her … Outside of these walls neither person, nor bird, nor animal could properly see her. Perhaps in truth she was no more than a fiction, an incorporeal figment, no more than someone else’s projection. Her fretful feet rattled on the floor, until she seized on a memory of song, a memory of the last time around.

 Surely I am like them? Surely I am as real as they are? I am not just a shadow. I am not.

 She felt a tentative acceptance from the Mirror, but knew that it was still holding something back. The truth she was given was always partial, always qualified. She flung herself full-length on the couch and … screamed at the unresponsive face in front of her.

 “I’m half sick of shadows.”

It is significant that the author utilizes this most famous of all “Lady of Shalott” lines to so masterfully illustrate the power of powerlessness, which might at times contain a wealth of talented, gorgeous magnificence waiting for the freedom to flourish, or the explosive consequences of destruction felt by some in history forced into idleness as a way of life (women), or blocked from society (poets), a lifetime of being thwarted by doubt and questioning by individuals of how real they actually are. The inscrutable, vexing shadows may eventually drive the Lady to one rupture or the other—determined productivity or her own end—and the growth of Abbott’s protagonist as well as the narrative itself as it progresses, contains an additional message within as to the value of any given circumstance and whose purpose it serves.

One easily noticeable trait about Half Sick of Shadows is that there is very little dialogue. It is only recently that this reviewer  discovered how much stronger this can render a well-told tale, and in this case such a possibility rings absolutely true. Abbott’s technique of utilizing the omnipotent observer—in some stories a gamble that may not always pay—works perfectly, and contains a silence and mystery to the feel of the tale as we move through, lending substance and support to the Lady’s feelings of loneliness and anguish following her efforts to oblige the mirror to answer her and later, access others to interact with her.

“I am Half Sick of Shadows,” Said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse via Wikimedia Commons (Click image)

While quite different to such a work as The Metamorphosis, which also experiences very little dialogue and involves a character cut off from others but remaining cognizant of life and events around him, Abbott throughout expertly utilizes allusion in form and narrative, including when the Lady “become[s] desperate with the need to speak and be spoken to.” As in Kafka’s great classic, the theme of voice is part of how the author explores the meaning of being alive and aware as psychological and physical change occurs.

She knew that her voice was high, reed-like compared to any of his own people, and that she could not form the words properly. The parts of her mouth and throat would not allow anything closer. But it was better than nothing[.]

One needn’t be familiar at all with Tennyson or Kafka to appreciate, understand and thoroughly enjoy Half Sick of Shadows, an amazing study as much as it is pleasing story. Whether re-visiting or new to the legend, readers will cherish Abbott’s novella, an original and enthralling re-telling suitable to current sensibilities, with a blend of Victorian sensory and critical, and the Modernist aim to further pique cultural curiosity. It is a merger in which Abbott splendidly succeeds.

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Would you like to win a free paperback copy of Half Sick of Shadows? Simply comment below – even a quickie hello works! – and you are automatically entered into the drawing, which will occur in mid November. (This would also make a great gift!!!)

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Click titles to read our reviews for Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports or Timing

For more on “The Lady of Shalott,” please click here.

About the author…

Richard Abbott writes fiction of several varieties, including both historical and speculative fiction. His historical is set in the Middle East at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. It explores events in the Egyptian province of Canaan, following events in the life of a priest in the small hill town of Kephrath during a time of considerable change throughout the region.

His heretofore speculative writing is set in a near-future solar system exploring issues of high-tech crime and human-machine relationships.

Far from the Spaceports introduces Mitnash Thakur and his virtual partner Slate as they investigate financial crime in the asteroid belt. Its sequel, Timing, was released in the second half of 2016.

His latest publication, Half Sick of Shadows, a retelling and metamorphosis of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” is now available for purchase, along with his other works, on Amazon and Amazon UK.

Richard lives in London, England and works professionally in IT quality assurance.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District.

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You can follow and learn more about Richard Abbott and his books at Facebook and Google–and be sure to check out his brilliant collection of images! The author also has some amazing content at his blog, In a Milk and Honeyed Land, including Polly and Alexa, with space-related and not, his own reviews and reading list, information about his other books, and much more.

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A copy of Half Sick of Shadows: A Historical Fantasy was provided by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

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Author photo courtesy Richard Abbott