Book Review: Revenge and Retribution

Revenge and Retribution (Book VI in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage

A B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

The first installment of this series, A Rip in the Veil, opens with a frustrated Alexandra Lind hurriedly trying to make her way to an Edinburgh meeting when she encounters a crossroads and a thunderstorm, with inconceivably shocking and perilous consequences. The circumstantial combination creates a rent in the fabric of time, and results in a topological defect, as it were, an unstable vacuum that momentarily lifts the divide between eras and violently pulls her through, landing the frightened woman in 17th century Scotland.

revenge-retribution-coverMany of us have expressed the desire—for the sake of curiosity if nothing else—to travel through time, with the caveat that we make it back, of course. Alex, however, meets up with Matthew Graham, an escaped convict wrongfully imprisoned, making his way home, and later concludes she wants to stay. She isn’t idealistic about the shift; she’s not fond of a number of 1658 ways of life and misses parts of her old existence, but decides this time she has been brought to is where she is meant to be, and Matthew is who she is meant to be with. Interestingly, her son Isaac is a part of her old life she doesn’t seem to miss much; Alex carries emotional baggage related to the boy’s birth and she opens up to Matthew regarding this and other portions of her past.

Or would that be her future? This is a question Alex plays with throughout the series, and when we meet up with her again in Revenge and Retribution we find she has known, despite chronological numbers, where her future really is. Since A Rip in the Veil and four subsequent books in the set, Alex’s family have grown and the religious persecution they escape about mid-series has led them to the colony of Maryland. The lifestyle has been difficult but not without rewards and an alliance of sorts has developed between the Grahams and a local tribe of Natives. Alex fears the cost of this alliance, not only from some settlers out to exact revenge, but also the very group from which she has earned a measure of respect.

As in the series’ other installations, Belfrage is tasked with a precarious balancing act: she must weigh the sensibilities of the day with the reality that Alex carries with her: a consciousness often in defiance of those perceptions. So it is not unfitting for Alex to take some of the steps she does, though sometimes foolhardy, given her past experiences in this new/old time. Equally, it makes sense, historically speaking, to observe people referring to indentured servants and slaves the way we might speak of the weather: it varies but it is. Such competing concepts existing side by side—albeit one very much in the minority and hidden from most others—require careful maintenance to remain in the realm of the feasible, and Belfrage not only pulls it off, but also makes it appear easy.

Following a point in which Alex’s transport is threatened with exposure and she a dreaded accusation of witchcraft, she prepares for a hearing at which she will testify on her own behalf.

“What will they ask me?” Alex asked Matthew as he accompanied her to the meeting house later that same day. “It’s not as if I know the whole bloody Bible by heart, is it?”
“It will help if you don’t refer to the Holy Writ as the ‘bloody Bible’,” he said drily. “They’ll ask you from the catechism, and you know most of it.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t always agree with it.”
“That you must keep to yourself. Concentrate on the questions and on replying to them, not on voicing your opinions as to how Lot treated his daughters, or how unfair some of the laws are to women.”
“Hmm.” Alex wiped her hand surreptitiously against her skirts.
All in all, it wasn’t too bad, Alex thought afterwards, curtseying to one after another of the ministers. Despite being barraged by questions from Minister Macpherson, she had acquitted herself well enough to earn herself a wink from Minister Walker.

Although all the previous novels entail some violence and tragedy, within Revenge and Retribution the Grahams reach a turning point, even if they aren’t quite as aware of it as they ought to be. Several previous events, while not occupying large parts of the stories in which they are contained, foreshadow a system that now seems to be breaking apart, or leading to something much larger than anyone might have ever conceived possible. A darker force is ushered in, its influence silently spread, interestingly enough through the keeping of secrets.

We as readers, however, have all the links that individual characters lack, and see the ominous overtones hovering like a dark cloud, embodied at one point in a Voice:

After death—was the Voice dead?
The Voice laughed. Death was a relative in respect of time. For a person born in the future to fall back and die in this time, how could they be dead if they had as yet not been born? No, the Voice clarified, some people died—the lucky ones.

This is not a contemplation—philosophical or realistic—that has escaped Alex. She has learned to move forward, but is intelligent enough to be afraid of certain conditions, even when—especially when—she doesn’t know exactly what they entail. Belfrage’s treatment of Alex very wisely assigns her vulnerabilities peculiar to her, and her anger becomes more wild as events stack up against her. She finds comfort in her husband, Matthew, even following often bitter arguments that test boundaries: between the pair as a couple as well as over the times each comes from. Belfrage’s masterful, lyrical introspections show us both the strengths and frailties within Alex, and brings us, wherever she may be, to the scene as if we are experiencing the moment ourselves.

They lapsed into a comfortable silence, watching as the sun transformed the frosted trees into prisms of magical colour. It was very quiet, the migrating birds long gone, and the remaining sparrows and thrushes keeping low to the ground, or at least going about their business without expending energy on making noise. A crow cawed, it cawed again, and then it was all absolute stillness.

Within the pages of Revenge and Retribution is when Alex faces what may be her most difficult challenges yet. There is indeed a lot of violence and for this reviewer it was the most difficult to read of all novels in the Saga. Belfrage skillfully shows Alex in the same boat experiencing it all, as well as the manner in which she opens up to faith, finding some comfort within and reaching out to her past. Readers feel for Alex’s entanglements, and perhaps the most enthusiastic nod for Belfrage’s talent is how we respond as if Alex were a close friend, someone we care about who is confused and hurting. The author through the series enables each novel to be stand-alones, but rest assured readers will not be satisfied with that, as the next book will always be eagerly sought.


Read my review for A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for Like Chaff in the Wind (Book II in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for The Prodigal Son (Book III in The Graham Saga) (with author interview)

Read my review for A Newfound Land (Book IV in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for Serpents in the Garden (Book V in The Graham Saga)


Anne Belfrage can be found at her blog, which also maps out the The Graham Saga series for readers. Find her as well at Twitter, Facebook and at her Amazon author page, where you can also learn about her newest novel, In the Shadow of the Storm, first in her new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy. 


This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of Revenge and Retribution  provided in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

Today, October 4, 2015, marks 109 years since the birth of Mr. Norman Campbell, who passed away in 2012.

The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell

by Norman Campbell/compiled by Diana Jackson

25% of proceeds from the sales of this book are donated to the local Kingston on Thames branch of Age Concern and Cancer, UK, Mr. Campbell’s chosen charity

I have a gcampbell book coverreat love for the ordinary, perhaps largely because so often it translates across history or events as extraordinary, rendering otherwise lesser details worthy of great note. Objects become artifacts, experiences awe, and so often people in later eras feel some link to those of times past; connections bond them despite the enormous differences of their environments that they may nevertheless both relate to so closely.

So it occurs within The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell, in which we the readers are given a firsthand glimpse into life in the earliest years of the 20th century, on through to the end of that era and into the 21st. Narrated by Campbell in a conversational style, the commentary seems to be directed at readers, and parenthetical laughter occasionally pops up, as it would when people are sitting together remembering.

young norman
Young Norman

Campbell starts with his parents’ marriage, followed by his birth in 1909, then continues on in linear fashion, through two world wars, his adventures to and in Australia, the advent of radio and television, his passion for music and perhaps surprisingly, his interest in surfing the Internet.

His words, so like the spoken words they actually are as recorded by Diana Jackson, revive for us memories of memories, perhaps stories heard from relatives about an era in which ordinary goals are reached by exhausting and extraordinary means. They then transition us with great succinctness to the present. Campbell does this with the fluidity of a born historian who in just a few sweeping words provides a glimpse of something that was and how it became something else.

Under the stairs was the coal cellar in those days. You could still find coal dust down there today but I’ve put a bit of carpet over it now. The coal man used to come in here with the coal on his back and that’s where he used to shoot the coal. All the dust would fly up in the hall. Schewww! You can imagine.

Most people have taken this cupboard out to give more room and maybe have a telephone or something under the stairs. I have filled in the banisters though, and put in a false ceiling because it was far too high up to paper.

Illustrated throughout, the pictures take on a new dimension of fascinating when we recall a passage from the acknowledgements:

This book, Norman’s memoirs, is also illustrated by photos and pictures from his multitude of albums and scrap books, squirreled away over more than a century.

For most people scrap books initiated 100 years prior, even if they ran for only a few seasons and indeed are exhilarating to take in, typically come from an older relative or, in some exciting instances, are discovered in attics or lofts. That these were held in reserve and collected for so long (100 years!) and by the same person, is nothing short of stunning.

sunlight soap labelExamination of the pictures reveals our own past, in people, places or items recognizable or not, and one finds their breath at times drawn in to realize the forebears of some of what we know today. This isn’t just about seeing a quaint-looking label on, say, laundry soap, though that is charming as well, but also to reflect about the conditions under which these products came to be or operated. Sunlight soap, for example, was created in 1884 using palm oils as opposed to the heretofore utilized tallow seen in depictions of early sculleries in which the maid’s hand would dip into a jar, emerging with a palm full of goop used for washing up. Sunlight was manufactured into a bar for the sake of convenience and the product came with a £1,000 guarantee.

Interestingly, such advert artifacts appear only at the start of the autobiography in close proximity to family photos. In fact, the Sunlight ad is the first image not of a family member, and subsequent clippings—one for linoleum, the next from an outraged citizen offering to pay £100 to anyone who can prove true the rumor about his consumption of horse meat—given Campbell’s age (toddler) at the time they are dated, points to a collection, perhaps of his mother, that inspired his own continuity of the habit.

spencer and annie campbell
Spencer and Annie Campbell

Did Annie Campbell have a sense of history that she perhaps passed on to her son, encouraging him by word or deed to preserve his present for the future? While it may seem an extravagant or extraneous question, its exploration makes other inquiries, of the Campbells as well as ourselves. How many of us today clip and retain product adverts? Do many people now see these even as worthy of retention? While the labels were mass produced in Annie Campbell’s day, now they are produced in mind-boggling numbers, awareness of which perhaps makes them truly unspecial in the eyes of many today. Annie Campbell, perhaps aware of the import of the product’s ingredient transition and maybe with a keen sense of the changes occurring in her world, might have kept them for others. “She was a bit of a clairvoyant. She used to dream of the future,” Campbell says, “and tell fortunes with the cards and tea leaves[.]” Perhaps she looked to the future and wondered what we might make of the people of her time, and wished to provide some answers. If so, she must have known there are clues sprinkled throughout her artifacts.

In addition to this glimpse into perspective, we see notation for images in a font resembling handwriting, much like people did when they pasted photos into the black pages of the old-time albums. When we see, then, the placement of some images at angles, rather than always straight and flush with the same sides of the pages, it brings the realization that the entire autobiography is itself the album. Campbell has not only invited us into his world, but also his time, and over the course of his lifetime has gone to great lengths to ensure we get an extended view. The chapters being headed by the years and a title facilitate the album presentation as it allows readers to peruse from beginning to end or to flip through, much the same way we flip through an album, skipping, going backwards for a second look, comparing the people within at the end to how they appeared—or what they did—at the start.

Surrey Comet, 1953

Compiled by Diana Jackson following Campbell’s death, the inclusion of an occasional address to Jackson herself does not take away from this album being meant for others to share in, and in fact shows a greater depth to Campbell’s invitation for us to participate in his life’s experiences, for indeed he must have realized the connection between readers and himself simply by knowing even portions of what he knew, such as television: Most have seen it, and he reaches out to add to our awareness of the space it occupies in our lives. When television is developed in 1953, and Campbell witnesses on one the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (current Queen Elizabeth II) he sees himself as a pioneer, and later contemplates a purchase.

I thought about it and since I was spending so much in the Kinema and so much in the Elite and so much in the Empire, I thought that all of it could go to pay for the television instead and then we didn’t have to go out.

We’d have all our entertainment indoors; magic. But that was the worst thing that could ever happen. All our social life went. I’ve never been out to the pictures since. The other thing is that everyone is scruffy these days. No one ever dresses up anymore. And then many of the picture houses were turned into Bingo halls when television took over.

As it turns out, Campbell’s wary observations were very keen indeed, for like the labels that are nowadays cast off as ordinary and of little importance for the eyes of the future, activities that once were central functions in people’s lives also transitioned into the ordinary. The processes that got people to those events–saving money, planning for, dressing up—were eliminated as something that once was magical sunk into the insignificant.

In this sense Campbell’s compilation might also serve as a cautionary tale as well as a memorabilia that enables us to cherish our own forebears. In displaying to us the charm of the ordinary, he also discreetly advises us—in his way of saying much with so few words—of the danger of the reverse, of becoming nonchalant in the face of the remarkable. It is here we see that he, too, might have been “a bit of a clairvoyant,” drawing from his mother more than he—at least on the surface—lets on, and presents to us this brilliant autobiography that could be read on a number of levels.

This amazing man continues his story, with clarity and dignity even explaining the pattern of his days with carers, not just for physical assistance but also to help him bear the loneliness around him. At 102 years of age, those from his generation are gone, he is widowed and, living in the home he grew up in, is surrounded by their memories. He finds joy in the Internet and reaches out to his extended family who live, literally, all over the globe. His story is written in a simple manner, but it is by no means simplistic and, as mentioned earlier, he presents it to us with many layers to peel back and discover that beneath it all is great complexity, which is, as Campbell himself might say, “as simple as that!”

To the end, Campbell displays that bright spark, a telling humor that makes us want to dig deeper to understand what else it is he knows, what is he trying to tell us, or even just share with us. Diana Jackson:

I saw Norman in hospital three days before he passed away and he said[,] ‘I’ve got it Diana! The name of my book. The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell!’

‘You can’t call it that,’ I spluttered. ‘You’re still with us.’

Indeed he is.

same house

Norman at 102 years of age He passed away just two months later
Norman at 102 years of age
He passed away just two months later


(All images from The Life and Demise of Norman Campbell.)

Thank you to Mr. Norman Campbell, for sharing your remarkable life with us!

For more from Diana Jackson, see her blog, where you can also read more about Mr. Norman Campbell.

To purchase this fantastic book, please go to Amazon or Amazon UK.


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location


Book Review: A Newfound Land

A Newfound Land (Book IV in The Graham Saga)
by Anna Belfrage

Winner of the B.R.A.G. Medallion

The fourth novel in Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series opens with promise: the sun on the eastern rim and Alex awake before anyone else, moving forward towards her morning refreshing, seeing the “stands of grasses to her right sparkle with dew, and just by the door her precious rose was setting buds.” By this time the Grahams had been here, in their Maryland homestead, since four years, long enough for Alex to derive a sense of comfort from the permanence of the building. Alex likes roots.

newfound landThat yearning would be understandable, given her circumstances: Thrown through a severed veil separating time from her native 2002 back into the Scotland of 1658, Alex has had to endure a great deal of building in order to create and maintain the life she has acquired. Now married to Matthew Graham, whose familial history entails bitter feuding, questionable circumstances of birth and death, and the attempted destruction of his life and marital family, she has also suffered with him the religious persecution that finally drove them out of Scotland and to the early Colonies.

By this time Alex has been in her adopted era since fourteen years, and the narrative shifts between her current here and now and the world she left behind, particularly with her father, Magnus, who later connects with Alex. In one scene between the pair Belfrage addresses the issue of how Alex manages to reconcile her previous lack of belief with her current faith in God, even if that faith isn’t exactly in line with Matthew’s. The exchange is painful but realistic in its provision of explanation, not despite but because of its passion as well as shortcomings.

“Your faith?” Magnus broke out in loud laughter. “Come off it, Alex,” he said once he had calmed down. “You’re not sitting here telling me that you’ve developed a belief in God, are you? What happened to my super-rational daughter?”

She gave him a cold look, stood up and moved away from him, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Alex, you can’t believe all that stuff.”

“I can’t? How would you know? You have no idea what my life has been like these last fourteen years or what events have shaped me, do you?” She looked out into the yard where Ruth and Sarah were playing a game of tag, and then turned to face her father. “In this life, God is a constant. Sometimes He’s all we have. So when I say our faith, that’s exactly what I mean: our faith. I may not be quite as much of a Bible reader as Matthew, and there are aspects of his belief I don’t agree with, but I’ve learnt the hard way to put my trust in God and hope He’ll keep me and mine safe. And so far He has.”

The Grahams need this protection because this installment introduces them to the Burleys, a set of brothers so corrupted and foul that nothing seems too extreme for them. They also encounter an unwelcome ghost from their past, lies intended to trap them, Indians with whom they fortunately get on, even if it is an uneasy alliance, and a host of ordinary events that pepper the lives of people over the years and ones part of a foundling community.

One of the larger challenges Belfrage herself encounters in portraying the relationship between Alex and Matthew is the bringing together of their two worlds. Like Magnus, readers may question not only how she adapts but also why she accepts some of the circumstances she does. Alex speaks well for herself on many occasions, not only to us but also her husband, who, while adamant in his determination to retain the patriarchal status as provided by the coverture system, also listens to and thoughtfully contemplates where his wife is from and what she says. The pair don’t always agree, but his serious deliberation exists, and the author maintains a balance not just for balance’s sake: she makes a considered approach to what is believable not only to us, but also to Matthew.

What works for Matthew might strike some modern readers as anachronistic, given the reputation 17th century men have for keeping women in their place. But Belfrage doesn’t deviate or follow a disingenuous path; Matthew is a strong enough personality that he would never allow this. He does come to “absorb” some of Alex’s perceptions or at least appreciate them, and though he makes himself heard, he also listens, forcing us to question our assumptions about his people’s humanity and sense of compassion.

Following an especially bitter and ongoing row over a minister tasked to educate their children in religious studies, the methods of which Alex objects, Matthew forces his wife to apologise for her rude behavior. Her refusal and subsequent avoidance of him—she is deeply hurt and angry at being humiliated via the minister’s relentless misogyny and Matthew’s failure to check it—in turn causing him despair at the “walls of impenetrable ice she was putting up around herself.”

When the pair at last arrive at a place where they can exchange words, he speaks his own hurt:

“Do you recollect, once, very many years ago, when you told me I was all you had?”

Of course she did; a dark night in Scotland when she’d pleaded with him to put her and her children first—before his religious convictions.

“It’s the same for me. You’re all I have, Alex. All I want and all I need, and when you choose to close me out as you’ve been doing these last few weeks, you leave me standing very alone in a cold and unwelcoming world.” He rested his forehead against hers. “I don’t like it out there on my own.”

As stated, however, Matthew is very much his own man, despite the control Belfrage holds over him.

“Another one?” Magnus sounded disgusted. “But David’s just seven months old!”

“As I said, it isn’t always easy to avoid.”

But, of course, in this specific case there’d been no question of attempting to avoid it. Matthew had set out to make her pregnant and she had silently acquiesced without really knowing why. That was a lie. She knew exactly why: because the loving had been spectacular, a reconfirmation that it was she and Matthew against he world—and because he’d demanded her submission.

Addressed in this installment as well are relations between the colonists and local Indian tribes, and Belfrage does an impressive job of bringing Alex’s 21st century sensibility into the mix without falling prey to what so many authors do: the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle anti-Americanism that has more to do with sneering than valuable critical commentary. With this formidable skill she enables readers to continue stepping through time closer to what it really looks like as opposed to a whitewashed version of events.

Indeed these are times when alliances could mean the difference between life and death, and with the Burleys on the rampage, warring Indian factions spilling over borders—unrecognised by them, of course—and the ghostly past inhabiting, indeed invading, his present, a friend is never unwelcome. The Grahams are provided with a uneasy glimpse, however, of what such partnerships might cost, as well as the fearful understanding that paying it may be their only option.

A Newfound Land, while part of a series, is readable as a stand-alone novel. While the past is a large part of the events occurring in this installment, Belfrage takes care of that by skillfully and effortlessly weaving necessary details throughout the story via dialogue and other means, which readers don’t at first realise are for their benefit because the author does not rely on formulaic fillers.

Having said that, prepare yourself for the need to go back to the beginning—not owing to any lacking of the current book, but rather because Belfrage’s storytelling, melodic, detailed, filled with the passion and hunger for life and historical understanding, will make you wish to experience all that as you peel away the layers of events that brought Alex and Matthew together in the first place.


Read my review for A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for Like Chaff in the Wind (Book II in The Graham Saga)

Read my review for The Prodigal Son (Book III in The Graham Saga) (with author interview)


Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter and Facebook. You can also learn more about Belfrage, her characters and her world at her website and blog, which also contain details about her upcoming series.


This post previously appeared in 2015 on the blog’s alternative location.


Book Review: The Dragon’s Harp

Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar
Book One: The Dragon’s Harp
By Rachael Pruitt

Growing up, Arthurian legends were practically part of who I was, having been told them at my mother’s knees; later she began to expose me to written accounts, which I greedily consumed. I’ve lost track of how many or even which versions of the various tales I have read, but one thing is certain: there wasn’t much heard from the perspective of one very central character: Guinevere. So it was with great interest I learned of Rachael Pruitt’s novel of Gwenhwyfar—the Welsh spelling of this queen’s given name—where she came from and what made her the person she became.

Dragons Harp Cover SmallIt is fitting that Pruitt opens the novel not only from Gwenhwyfar’s point of view, but also beginning in the twilight of her life, when she has much to look back upon: this is no naïve girl telling her story as it begins and moves forward, but rather a mature woman utilizing hindsight and the wisdom gained over many years to simultaneously examine her own (and others’) behavior. Now, however, her husband murdered and children gone, Gwenhwyfar shares a moment on the sands with a gull, an encounter reminiscent of the many cultures, such as hers, in which the spiritual wisdom of animals is revered and incorporated into tradition and cultural habit.

Born into fifth century Wales, the young Gwenhwyfar, presented to us by her older self, is at this time eight “sunturns”; she reveres her parents but still recognizes the divisions existing between them as her mother has embraced the new religion. Occasionally Ceridwen acts upon outrages from her new perspective, her own mother somewhat of a go-between in the moments when she oversteps her bounds.

Gwenhwyfar has known war her entire life, and though she still retains some of the innocence of youth, her perspective clearly incorporates the reality set around her:

I tiptoed, even though there was no one to hear me, only the oppressive stillness of damp watching stone, its grey gloom penetrated by a faint haze of light from arrow slits rock-cut at each outward turning of the stairs. The worn steps felt like carved bowls beneath my summer-bare feet.

Nevertheless, Gwenhwyfar is, as she reminds herself, a Battle Chief’s daughter, “not to be bested by shadows.” So it is she wills herself to investigate mysteries that present themselves to her, including by listening in on conversations, one scene drawing me back to Stewart’s Merlin crawling through the unused furnace to eavesdrop on conversations in the palace rooms above him. Gwenhwyfar has inherited her father’s tough stance, even if she does on occasion duck behind her mother’s skirts.

[Remains of the keep at Dinas Emrys image to be replaced]

As the young girl comes of age at Dinas Emyrs, she certainly faces her share of trials, told to us in language filled to the wondrous brim with poetry and magic. Pruitt’s sentences are so fluid readers not only move from one scene to another many pages away without realizing how far they’d travelled, but also do so as part of the story itself, indeed, as part of their surroundings. “I dug into my soul,” Gwenhwyfar confides, “resisting his pull, as if I were digging my toes into sand so as not to get swept out with the tide.”

This, indeed, is how both author and protagonist set it out: the latter by commencing her story at a fireside to a young girl, the former with a “storytelling hearth” aura, the flickers of which can periodically be felt as the pages turn. While the mark of a great “wayback” story tends to be that readers are so immersed in it they forget it is being told from an older or other vantage point—while that is a strength, Pruitt manages to defy the dichotomous nature of that method and still keep us mesmerized within the flow of the tale: Gwen’s metaphorical digging in of her toes is reminiscent of the beach she surveys before she begins her story, and the gull who gifts her a shell, a raven who leaves a feather.

Readers are drawn into the events, warlike and magical—and the two are not always exclusive of one another. Indeed “magic and bloodshed went hand in hand,” as Gwen discovers at a turning point in which her whole world changes in a way that even death had not done. Merlin, her uncle in this telling, reminds her that greatness is typically found in the midst of ordinariness. The merging of elements with dual nature is a theme carried through the story within personalities, relationships, worship, beauty, even to the outcome of how it affects those involved: to their benefit or detriment. The “soft breath of dawn” might awaken to a cruel day; the presence of one with evil in her heart might walk through a night in which “the stars themselves grew tired.” Even the novel’s cover might speak to naked brutality or beauty, most likely both.

There is violence portrayed in The Dragon’s Harp; truth be told, it could not be any other way. Gwenhwyfar’s sixth-century Wales was a violent place where vacuums never existed for very long, a condition which surely also must have influenced the girl to grow into the woman, queen and wife she later became. It was exceedingly breathtaking a tale, a glimpse of sorts, into a world and time of her life many previous storytellers have skipped or ignored in terms of its influence on later history, as if Gwenhwyfar didn’t exist until she became a queen.

Fans of Merlin will also find a treasure within, as the mage appears, as mentioned earlier, as Gwenhwyfar’s uncle and, later, tutor. A seminal moment, one those familiar with the legends will recognize, involves Merlin as pertains to his meeting with Vortigern, who tradition says demanded the blood of a youth without a father to be sprinkled upon the foundations of his constantly collapsing fortress. The boy Merlin is dragged off to be sacrificed, but instead tells the engineers of a pool beneath the foundation, within which two dragons, one red and the other white, nightly battle it out, thus causing the destruction.

twodragonsPruitt’s telling is rather different and the duel between red dragon and, in this case white serpent, is not instigated by a superstitious and desperate king, though a young person in peril is present. The author stays true to the legend, however, and her imagery is punctuated by thunderous music from the skies as magic and community work together to ensure the defeat of red over white, leading to Merlin foretelling the freeing of this sacred land from their enemies and the coming of Arthur.

There are trying times ahead in the novel for Gwenhwyfar and Pruitt’s insight into the girl’s character as well as her times indicates a studied approach to an era in which magic reigned, as well as love and respect for those who lived within it. The detail of characters and perspective is impressive, and it is difficult to overstate Pruitt’s mastery with words, the more so given it is of a world that has all but disappeared to those of the modern world. Rachael Pruitt brings it back for us, a gift from our past sweeping us through time to reach the telling. Along the way readers will find this book exceedingly difficult to put down, and late nights are surely in the stars.

Fortunately for us, Pruitt has plans for four more installments in the Era of Dragons: The Lost Tales of Gwenhwyfar series, the title of which perhaps will lead us to clues as to how the tales finally, thankfully, come back us after so long.


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.


“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”

“Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament”

[Willa Cather image to be replaced]

Willa Cather took me by surprise.

As a voracious reader in high school I was fortunate to have an English teacher–unlike Paul, whose story is discussed below–who shared with me the fruits of her twenty-plus year collection of literature and its study: medieval, classic, contemporary, literary fiction, essays on Baroque art and passion plays, luxurious reference books with rich, bold paintings and images to help me envision the worlds I studied in my free time. I immersed myself in private study and thought life was grand.

Hence my surprise when the world I inhabited was taken by storm following the reading of a short story introduced in class–“Paul’s Case” or, as I have also seen it titled, “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” Paul is a dissatisfied high school student living in early-twentieth-century Pittsburgh, a boy with great passion but little direction, who sneers at his teachers and loathes his neighborhood. His father wishes for him to aspire to the life of a family man and a respectable job, but Paul longs for music, art, the culture he was born to live. He ushers at the symphony, longing to live the life of luxury experienced by the German singer but “trapped” in a week-long suspension and meant to answer for it as the story opens. Leaving school for the working world, Paul soon after makes off to New York City–a glamorous town and the height of culture–financed by stolen money and lives for several days the life he feels he is meant to live.

Cather weaves words through Paul’s experiences with such finesse that at some moments I was taken aback with the sudden realization I had somewhere transitioned to another scene or moment; and mused at how the author used this ability to reflect the manner in which persons sometimes exist from one moment to the next until the understanding dawns that an entire lifetime has gone by. She also writes with a nostalgia overflowing with deft observations of human inclinations–especially impressive for an adult female as she portrays a teenage boy discontented with his life and the failures he already sees in his father’s aspirations for him.

“Paul Case” is perhaps the first I’d read up until then in which his story–or “case,” as the teachers reference his attitude–simultaneously depicts the examination of an individual temperament. Indeed, the entire work is a literary case study wrapped in layers of guise, motifs and escape, perpetrated by protagonist and author alike, each playing their respective parts in the world’s immense design. Through our shared love of art (albeit in different forms) and dedication to its continuity in our lives (though a different means of expression), I saw how we were a bit alike, that having been a very solitary year for me. But we were also so very different and the manner in which Paul’s art influences him and winds its way through the story awed me into a number of further readings following another realization that I had acquired a new favorite author. I was later moved to put to paper my own analysis of Paul, so fascinated and disturbed as I was by this boy who in life might be quite unlikeable, but under Cather’s direction bestowed with a quality rendering him unforgettable.

Willa Cather is also the author of My Antonia and Death Comes to the Archbishop. She grew up in Nebraska, an environment that was to have a great influence upon her outlook and writing. Initially working as a journalist, she later won the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours. “Paul’s Case” was published in 1905 as part of The Troll Garden.

[Carnation image to be replaced]

“Paul’s Case”

Paul had his secret temple. . .his bit of blue-and-white Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine.

It perhaps would be easy to sympathize with a boy such as Paul, who is moved by “starry apple orchards” and who feels a zest come into his life at first sight of the instruments that set free his inner spirit. However, those intoxicants with which Paul is able to forget his dreadful English teacher are the same that enable him to dismiss the inconsistencies, the contradictions of both his resentments and desires.

Upon first encountering Paul, we recognize the duality of his nature: rebellious, yet sensitive to the criticisms of others. He is somehow able, at least to a certain degree, to hold the teachers under his sway; his behavior unsettles them. One instructor feels that he senses a boy who is haunted, not strong. Perhaps the teacher—significantly, the drawing-master—sees him as somewhat of an adolescent Keats, burdened with an image of “feminine” sensitivity and weakness. Another likens him to a helpless cat, tormented by a group as vindictive as their own gathering.

The flip side is, of course, that of a Paul who seemingly bounces back without exerting much effort. He runs, after all, with a light-heartedness he hopes will enrage his teachers. So self-sure is he that it takes being sat upon to calm him of his glee. The boy seems to possess a glee that might take him to the fine places he desires to be in if he applies himself. He by no means is lacking in some artistic gift, for he only needs a spark, a thrill “that ma[kes] his imagination master of his own senses, and he could make plots and pictures enough of his own.” Perhaps he misapplies himself; he denies the drive toward acting and music, yet nothing is made of writing, to which his natural abilities seem to point.

Unfortunately, Paul fails to progress beyond this stage of rebelliousness, as he is far too undisciplined and lacks the drive with which to challenge himself. Although his teachers believe him to be perverted by racy books, Paul’s sensitivity is not a result of absorbing fanciful stories, for he rarely reads at all. He is dissatisfied with his life, but his preferred alternative is to exist in a world of “glistening surfaces and basking ease.” He has the desire to partake of such a fine existence, but has “no mind for the cash-boy stage.” He would like the status of “Saint” Andrew but, as we see, desires not the martyrdom of the twelve-hour toilers.

Paul therefore escapes into the romantic world of the symphony—at least as he views this world to be. For him it is not a world that includes indolent husbands and the necessity for skillfully stretching a Mark or a dollar. Nor is it a world where limited season subscriptions or an ordinary sore throat might send one spiraling downward. Indeed, this universe is one of endless champagne bottles and mysterious dishes (brought to him, naturally) in warm, lighted buildings. This is Paul’s temple, the wishing-carpet in which will lead him to all these grandly decorated concert halls peopled only by individuals of superior taste—no English teachers—and succulent dishes to soothe his palate.

For all of its grandness, however, Paul fails to reside on his “Mediterranean shore bathed in perpetual sunshine” for the black motif running through the story, invading his world. A secreted temple with subterranean halls shades his sunbath, and we see him attempting to elude this reality throughout. It is perhaps his pretentiousness, which fools even himself, if at least, for a time: a red carnation in his buttonhole, violet water tucked away in his drawer, his self-consciousness and contrived gestures. Later these will be replaced by a parching dryness, dying flowers and the succumbing to the lurking blackness.

For the time being, however, Paul lives his days (in consolation?) with hysteria and lies. His wild eyes are suggestive, but not indicative, of drug addiction, and he utilizes his facial expressions for shock value. His gestures are also used in this manner, as we see when he bows to the assembled teachers in farewell. Given his self-consciousness we may also wonder whether his latest face-pulling and evil gestures at artwork are designed for this purpose as well.

Running throughout “Paul’s Case” also is a flower motif. Following the surface assumption that the youngster, in his fancies, equates flowers perhaps with his romantic bent, we are given to realise that these delicate beings are very much Paul himself. As his bow is a repetition of the carnation cheekily perched upon his coat, the various flowers are symbolic of Paul in separate stages, and not only of his frailty.

Like the flowers in the shop window bravely defying fierce winter, Paul looks out from his eighth-floor window into a raging snowstorm. As he resides in the hotel by way of stolen funds, by artificial means, so too do the flowers in the park. Violets, roses, carnations, lilies-of-the-valley, all behind the glass, “blossom thus unnaturally in the snow.” Later, dressed for supper, the floral images are reflected: actual flowers, many-colored wine glasses, the rosy tinge of his champagne.

Although Paul attempts to balance himself equally in the opposing elements of his world, the sunbath of the Mediterranean blinds him, as did the lovely German soloist, to any possible defects. On the other hand, perhaps he spends too much time in the dankness of his secret temple, his subterranean paradise, the darkness of which is not conducive to the growth of a delicate flower. Even memories of the sunny sands were, after a time, of no use. These become overtaken by memories he wishes to be rid of, memories that repulse him and “f[all] upon him like a weight of black water.” Like the black thing in the corner, which threatens him at every turn, the memories come rushing at him as a tidal wave, crushing him with their blackness and superior strength.

“The thing was winding itself up. . . .” The whole world is the street he hates so, containing the cooking smells, and horrible yellow wallpaper; there seems no escaping it, and to only this “reality” has Paul now resigned himself. As he makes his way to his final destination, the scenery reflects Paul’s own inner landscape: dead grass and dried weeds are scattered about, and even the once-lively, gleefully scandalous red carnation in the boy’s coat clings to the button with what little life it has left.

Once more, the beautiful array of flowers in the park is as Paul. From the safety of their respective protective devices do Paul and the arrangement of flowers mock the world that threatened each of them. Now he subjects the carnations a black fate; by covering them with snow, he smothers them with the darkness he himself has feared for so long. As they have parallel existences in life, so too will flowers in death, again reclaiming their space in the earth, once more becoming part of “the immense design of things.”


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.


TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Cobweb

OK, it’s that time again, a roundup from a fun group who challenge themselves, with prompts from the household, to write haiku based on those objects/items, etc.

[Cute spider image to be replaced]

I had a whole lot of fun with this one: cobweb. Strictly speaking, I’m supposed to write only about the webby little things you see at times in your house, behind doors and in out-of-reach corners and so on. But spiders are indeed often found in those cobwebs, are they not? For those who prefer more tightly-knit parameters, a haiku appears at the end that I think you can relate to. But in the meantime, do accompany me for a spot of reminiscing and a few things about spiders and cobwebs.

Long ago I thought I really liked spiders, that they were so cute and fun. That was when I envisioned them in a cartoonish sort of way. Of course I knew some spiders were quite dangerous–my fondness was more an abstract thing. And I had even once written a short poem about a spider I’d watched as she crawled up my bedroom wall. She appeared to be dragging something, and that put ideas into my mind.

Later after I saw many closeup images of what spiders really looked like, with their veiny legs and buggy eyes, and ikky-looking moist bodies–they kind of remind me of a fellow sixth grader lifting the brush from the can of industrial glue in art class and crying out, “Mucus membranes!”–well, after that I was no longer so enamored. But it was fun while it lasted…I suppose. Shudder.

Below is the aforementioned poem, re-worked into haiku form. The original  will appear in my book Winter Islands, which I hope to have ready for Christmas.

Unlike her cousin

Who simply marries her prey

This one hunts him down


Desperate, he backs

Against the wall, revealing

Aptly frightened frown


And then she cooks him

Frying in the pan until

Deep and saucy brown


I see her hiking

up my wall, a long-legged

fat cousin in tow


I wouldn’t take off

my shoe and beat the wall like

others that I know


I realize she’s got

to do all that she does, so

she can live and grow

[Fancy spider image to be replaced]

But there were other spiders in my life as well. For example, one who wore quite a bit of kohl around her eyes and jingled a lot because she habitually donned ankle bracelets. These are very fashionable to have and wear, you see, and handy to be given upon marriage (they’re worth a lot). If you are a spider who eats her partner after mating, well, then you’ll make a lot of noise, I suppose.


a3ankaboota labsa khulkhaal

(she-spider with an ankle bracelet)

As she moves swiftly

the market parts when it hears

her tinkling ankles


Why not be stylish?

So many ways to sound fine

with jingle jangle

[Elegant spider image–Charlotte– to be replaced]

Another was a hitchhiker. Once I drove all the way to the East Coast, and early in the trip, somewhere about Tok, I realized I had company, who not only was clinging onto my passenger side rearview for dear life, she’d also built herself a little home…for comfort I suppose. I couldn’t bring myself to wipe her off, and that tenacious girl clung on all the way to Sault Ste. Marie–the Canadian one. She also sort of reminded me of a spider story I’d been told my whole life, one many of you may also know, about perseverance.

She weaves and falls but

never gives up. The lesson:

try and try again

Some spiders appear in my life via the distance (thankfully) of a magazine article. In one I read years ago, it talked about poisonous spiders in Australia that have been known to lurk in toilets or their underlying pipes. One unfortunate consequence of this is that on occasion, people who need to use the facilities in the middle of the night, received stinging surprises on their bottoms because they’d not been able to see the bathroom crashers in the dark. I think there was something in there about how, after word got around, people were wise to turn the lights on.

To be honest, I could be remembering incorrect details, or the most sensational ones, so if you are planning a trip to Oz, don’t let it turn you off. Several people I know who grew up in Australia have said they never in their entire lives came across any of the fabled dangerous animals of the continent.

Down under spiders:

Do they really sneak up pipes?

Bite you from behind?

[A Wolf spider, Lycosa bicolor from Coober Pedy, South Australia image to be replaced]

And then of course there are the more ordinary critters, those we encounter with a sputter and a bunch of spitting following meeting up in a close up manner.

Outside the greenhouse

post rain, and walk right into

her silky smoothness

[Pinterest running into a spider web image to be replaced]


My Tottering TBR: Mindfulness and Magazines

When we go to the bookstore, my son and I, we kind of camp out. Sometimes I bring the laptop and my writing notebook, or I may carry along a few books and a notepad. He brings very little (“Mom, we’re going to a bookstore”). We find a spot to settle in—café or sofas—and take turns wandering, then go back to browse our finds and make our selections. This can take hours.

I meandered along the walls filled with periodicals. I wasn’t terrifically interested in roaming on this night, but wanted movement and thought that taking in some magazine elements—easy browsing was my rationale—might satisfy this as well as settle down the activity in my brain. Flipping through brightly colored pages and examining images might settle me down a bit.

What I found actually did settle my mind a bit, though activated it in another direction.

Flow: Mindfulness (English Edition)

All about mindfulness for beginners, the advanced and the curious.

Printed in the Netherlands, this journal is both a sensory delight as well as an exercise for the mind. It’s chunky, owing to the inclusion of “paper goodies”: this time a small one-thought-a-day diary; picture cards to record insights gained while reading the book; perforated notecards “for your beautiful moments jar”; a fold-out page for use in creating a collage; and a “Joy of One Thing at a Time” notebook. The magazine dedicates itself to the discussion and spread of ideas for thoughtful, creative living, slowing down the pace and living right now as opposed to speedily looking ahead at what you have to hurriedly do next. Astrid and Irene lay it out in their editors’ note and it reminds me greatly of a book I read years ago, In Praise of Slow, about a movement that began with food (what else!) and extended to other realms of life.

[Flow Mindfulness cover image to be replaced]

I love the concept, though I wonder at times if my multiple abandoned efforts to live this sort of lifestyle count toward real experience of it. It’s hypothetical, really, I don’t need an answer because either way, I still aspire to it. About two years ago I made a conscious effort to take things such as to-do lists slow and steady, and for a number of months it flowed quite nicely. I no longer recall what made me go off track, but won’t dwell on it. I have another chance, and in fact, a few weeks ago stepped down from a position I enjoyed but that took way too much time from my family. I was gobsmacked to find how little I was on the computer since then, and the greater amount of time I spend with my son actually carries the reward of an increased feeling of joy at being able to do things together–together.

The magazine feels great in my hands, contains articles and recipes, beautiful colors, designs and fonts and validates anybody who longs for and/or has taken steps to simplify and slow down their lives. It’s also rather expensive, and I struggled with whether to buy it. As I sat at the café table I could hear pessimistic voices admonishing me for financial support of overpriced periodicals filled with images created to draw me in just to grab my money. Indeed, I’ve never spent $24.99 for a magazine before in my whole life, and to me that’s a lot. I don’t even love to shell out that much on a book.

On the flip side, it is imported, is translated into English and probably costs a tidy sum to produce. I haven’t yet found anything resembling a masthead, so am unable to get much information about it along those lines. (However, I did find they have a fantastic website with some of that, plus much more.) Moreover, I believe in capitalism and the freedom to create one’s own success, and would like to support that, especially as it can have such a positive impact on others.

Ultimately I chose to see it as an investment because if I can stick with the endeavor, the guidance not only can validate my own already-in-progress efforts, but also positively affect the rest of my life, and in turn at least portions of others’. Moreover, knowing there are others who share some of my ideals—

Flow is all about positive psychology, mindfulness, creativity and the beauty of imperfection.

—is more likely to help keep me on track. That baby came home with me.

Here are another couple of journals I saw that really intrigued me:

Willow and Sage: Homemade Bath & Body

[Willow and Sage cover image to be replaced]

Unlike the previous magazine, I was able to determine that it is current (Autumn 2015), plus it hails from California so though it’s also a tad pricey ($14.99), not quite as much. And while there are some similarities, it’s a completely different journal, one dedicated to, as its title suggests, bed and bath products you can make at home.

My son laughed a bit, asking if I am becoming “almost Amish” (after a book I’ve been reading with similar endeavors) or a hippie. The answer is: nope. These are along the lines of projects we’ve done before, such as making our own paper or re-purposing/re-designing books, and ones I’ve mentioned many times that I’ve wanted to try, but never did (lacked discipline, time, energy, etc.). I reminded him that the food we create together is not much different: rather than buying noodles, for example, when preparing for winter I make a jar full of hlalems. My fascination with the Middle Ages also plays into this interest.

This magazine is perfect for, amongst others, people who collect odd bits of twine, material, containers and so on. You can use some food items to make your goodies and wrap it in a way that conjures up olden times or still in some countries or areas—I so loved when books were wrapped up in the Prag bookshop I visited, rather than put in a bag. Some boxes or containers practically beg you to re-purpose them, such as one of the magazine’s recipes for body balm does for an empty Altoids tin. I’ve always enjoyed a lovely presentation and maintain a habit of hanging onto beautiful ribbons or fancy jars, even if I’m not exactly sure what to do with them at the moment. I just know I so often can’t bear to throw certain pieces away.

I also love it that many of the recipes are accompanied by websites with more that might interest, and the directions are laid out in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. The projects range from the utterly simple (mint leaves inside ice cubes) to more complicated (“birthday bouquet candles”—oversized homemade candles in a circular tin). Also: I’ve seen so many items at garage sales (for pennies, literally) that can be used to create such gorgeous gifts or items to contribute to a beautiful, tranquil home, and many are simply bits and bobs that can be saved in a small area for projects such as these.

[Daphne’s Diary cover image to be replaced]

Daphne’s Diary

This one didn’t leave with me, largely because I had to limit my costs, plus it didn’t come as close to home—my personal interests and favorites—as the others, but it remains on my mind.

Interior * Garden * Vintage* Workshops * Recipes * Outings & Trips * Shopping

Most of these are topics that likely would contain projects or endeavors to inspire me to do them or give me ideas for my take on what they’ve accomplished. There were a couple of articles for projects I’m not terribly interested in, such as shabby chic and converting two chairs into a bench. I’m currently working on transitioning a girl’s bureau to a buffet and it’s taken a lot more time and effort (not to mention patience) than I ever dreamed. In the end that may turn out to be good for me, but in the meantime, I’ve got my hands full. However, this is just one issue and it has made its way to my TBR, to where I can return and check it out again.

My TBR is rather happy.


TJ’s Household Haiku Challenge: Windows

Windows. What I can see from mine, and what that leads me to think about:

Chugach in my sight

Ungulates not fond of snow

Will soon join us here

[Anchorage moonlight image to be replaced]


For some reason I also thought about the homes where I live, many of which have gigantic windows unadorned by curtains, something that perplexes me, as I could never tolerate such openness. With some sort of treatment, perhaps; then I could open and close at will. But to be so vulnerable to prying eyes at all times–that would be invasive and my skin would crawl.

What I see through those windows would, of course, be very different to what others, looking from the opposite direction, would. But what about eyes–mine and others’–focused on the interior? Anyone’s interior. Perhaps what makes this most unsettling is not only that outsiders looking into the homes of others become privy to the most intimate moments occupants experience, but also that the windows provide a camouflage we rarely consider.

Windows. What they reveal.

Unaware of eyes

gazing into their retreat

laughter; unfeigned joy

What they might mask.

Through windows are seen

lovely rooms, rich decor, not

the thunder within

Do windows serve as a conduit between people? Or are we subject to the pathways they set out, not really knowing where a journey might begin or end?

[Mud mirror work window Gujurat, India image to be replaced]

Mirrors of time, they

decorate our lives, cooling

the desert passions

[Gujurat window* image to be replaced]

Memories of what

we see, through time we drive to

final destiny


*See Gujurat window and mud mirror work for more details


Book Review: The Emperor’s American

The Emperor’s American
by Art McGrath

emperor's amiThe adventures of Baltimorean Pierre Burns, in his telling of them in The Emperor’s American, start out with a bang—literally. The first words of the opening chapter are, “The ship was ablaze” and author Art McGrath keeps us on the edge of our seats until the very end. The book is divided into chapters, not all necessarily ending with cliffhangers, but infused nonetheless with a tincture of sorts, leaving readers reluctant to let go at natural stopping points. Perhaps Burns’s circumstances—unusual to say the least—play into that, or it could be where they lead him.

Written as a letter from Burns to Napoleon’s surviving brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who has beseeched Burns to set to paper his experiences as an American in the emperor’s army, the novel takes readers through a bit over one year of life as a French soldier.

Pierre Burns, whose French mother raised him modeling a hatred for the English, never knew his French-born Scottish father, whose brutal murder during the American Revolution also informs Pierre’s perceptions. So it is that when his merchant ship is attacked by the British and sinks off the coast of northwestern France, he is recruited into what history later knows as the Grande Armée, a force preparing to invade England.

At the start, I didn’t know what to expect of Burns, whose strong personality in the hands of a lesser author might have endangered his likeability. However, he is equipped with a balanced self awareness that enables him often to recognize the effect his words may have on others, and an ability to evaluate himself with a fair amount of honesty.

In retrospect, I can’t really blame Monge for his attitude. The open officer’s slot should have allowed him to move up to the number two slot in the company. Instead, a foreigner who became an officer that very morning was to usurp his place, at least until I permanently assumed my duties as Ney’s aide-de-camp, which might not be for some time, unless the invasion commenced sooner than everyone thought.

McGrath’s dialogue, which is not only strong and succinct, but also punctuated with perfect expressive indicators, also adds to reader experience:

I gasped. “Would they be so foolish?”

Jomini nodded. “If they think they can catch the Emperor, yes….”

Ledoyen, who had listened to this explanation, jumped back in where he left off with Jomini.

Jomini shook his head patiently, like an indulgent schoolteacher.

Throughout the novel, as Burns tells us his story, we are actually able to see how characters respond, as if we were also watching rather than only reading about them. His words bring to life their actions, via McGrath’s ability to put same into simplified words that create a repertoire of complex actions, not unlike watching a skilled actor utilizing true-to-life gesticulations that match the words he hears or speaks, or the emotions he feels.

As events unfold and readers are more and more drawn into Burns’s narrative, we forget it is a letter being written and the story becomes ours. Burns shares with us his mortifications, such as when he is rebuked in front of the entire company; his infatuation with a young woman at first inaccessible to him; the methods of war he learns and his growth within that knowledge; and details of encounters that terrify as well as contribute to his expertise as a soldier and swordsman. Periodically we are given a reminder, though within methods that embrace us, rather than reveal our reading of the attachment to a letter to someone else. “How,” he asks at one point, “do I draw this scene for you[?]”

In an unexpected combat experience, following the explosion of a saboteur ship, Burns and others chase an escaped killer into a nearby warehouse.

Long shadows danced ahead of us and on the walls from the light. The dirt and pebble floor crunched under our feet as we walked . . . For some reason I felt more fear there in the dark hunting one man than fighting dozens in that house months before. Possibly the darkness cast shadows on the mind and the silence gave us time to dwell on what could be waiting for us, the same fate that met that infantryman outside with his head bashed in.

It is this access to Burns’s vulnerability as well as his strength of character, his willingness to reveal his fear but determination to stand tall that contributes to readers being able to relate to him and thus, develop a rooted interest in how he fares. McGrath pulls off the first-person flawlessly; it is truly as if he is transcribing the actual words as Burns speaks them. In so doing, he develops a sympathetic character, neither arrogant nor overly self-effacing, who speaks to our own experiences, as contrasting as they may be to his.

As the year progresses and Burns is involved in a number of activities, all the characters continually look forward to the invasion they so fervently train for. For better or worse, life goes on and Burns participates in it, even engaging in some illegal dueling, which to me were the amongst the best scenes in descriptive and action terms, not to mention the emotive fury for all parties. Burns, like McGrath, is a watcher of people and the patterns they engage in, using them to his advantage and eventual victory.

As the overall tension builds, Burns utilizes this method in the broadest of ways, also using intuition in his judgment calls. Not everyone trusts his judgment, however, and some are outright hostile to it. These are men with a great many more years experience than he, and they know the conflict in ways he, a newbie to the country and fighting forces, will ever do. As the framework of the larger story enclosing all the inner pieces grows more apparent, the question remains as to whether Burns can reconcile the outcome with an outlook held onto for a lifetime. What if the French lose? Perhaps more importantly, what if they win?

While the Napoleonic era isn’t one I have studied extensively or, truth be told, ever really had great interest in, it is worth noting again how much this book held me. The idea of post-revolutionary Americans fighting in Napoleon’s army is an intriguing one, though McGrath has much more at his disposal than an initial fabulous idea to keep it all going. I am a great admirer of saying a lot with a little, and for this book that means two things: one, the depth of many of the characters is established artfully even with only a few appearances; and two: the longer passages, especially battlefield scenes, some of which really are quite long, kept my attention and interest as Burns analyses for us his perceptions and what they mean to events taking place. Burns—or McGrath, I’m not entirely sure which—has a way of explanation that fascinates as it reveals facets non-combatants never had cause to consider, linking them in significance one to another. While the end is satisfying for the momentary ramifications, there is more to Pierre’s story on its way, and you will want to read it.

McGrath has truly used his skills to his own advantage, to his eventual victory.


Historical Note:

The Emperor’s American sees Burns and the rest of the Grande Armée VI Corps marching out from their  position beginning August 27, 1805. While not every unit left on the same day, they did proceed forward in time to their next engagement. Stay tuned for March to Destruction and events of the War of the Third Coalition.


art mcgrath

Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne–the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. The Emperor’s American is the first in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns.

Learn more about Art McGrath and The Emperor’s American at his author page.


This post previously appeared in 2014 at the blog’s alternative location.