Good morning and welcome to Second Sleep’s new series, Mythical Monday. Within this series we will explore, as our title implies, the world of myth. Particularly because learning is our objective, we will most often seek topics unfamiliar, and welcome suggestions at any time. On occasion we might dive a bit deeper into myths that seem common, yet harbor a history we aren’t necessarily aware of or perhaps link to new or recent discoveries. Apart from the topic being mythology related, there isn’t a specific formula that governs the series, with the exception perhaps of enjoying ourselves as we explore the world that seeks to explain ours.
In the world of sea creatures, mermaids and sirens seem to get all the attention, and many recall the great lengths Odysseus goes to be able to hear the plaintive song of the sirens. Passing by their island as he attempts to sail home from the Trojan War, the would-be king of Ithaca has himself tied to his ship’s mast and extracts a vow from his men, who all must wear ear plugs, that no matter how he tries to persuade or trick them, they must not let him down until they are well past. In this manner Odysseus is able to hear the sirens’ seductive tune without falling victim to the lure of its enchantment, which would mean destruction amongst the rocky coast of their island.
However, there exists a counterpart to these dangerous beauties. It might be said that selkies get little spotlight, though it could be they prefer it this way. Inhabiting Norse and Celtic mythology, selkies are shape-shifting seal creatures who can, when shedding their skins, walk upon land as humans. Most tales center around female selkies, typically when they are lured away from their skins, leaving them trapped on land. On other occasions, human men happen upon a selkie sans sealskin, perhaps bathing in the sun, and he compels her to wed him. The selkie, though, misses her sea home and after a time simply leaves, sometimes taking her half-human children with her, other times not.
Scottish folklorist Walter Traill Dennison differentiated selkie from the merfolk, though in northern Scotland they are referred to as maighdeann-mhara, or “maiden of the sea” (selkie being the diminutive form of the Orcadian word for “gray seal”). In the traditions of other lands also including such mythical creatures, such as Iceland (marmennlar) and Ireland (murdúch), they also are conflated with the merpeople so common to a collective awareness. Still, going back, it would not be out of line to wonder if at some previous point a similar pathway separated, sending merfolk and sirens into one direction, selkies into another.
Orkneyjar speaks of another legend that adds to this cast of characters, with a history not quite as benign as we may have believed. While the selkie “have come to be regarded as gentle creatures,” their Fin brethren (?) were “dark” and “malevolent.” Orkneyjar credits the split as related to the distinct cultural differences between the Norwegian and Saami cultures, particularly following the Norwegians’ adaptation of Christianity. Though the two influenced each other’s culture and religion, there remained an “otherworldliness” about the Saami, for their neighbors, a perspective that can be traced to Old Norse literature.
Perhaps what we are seeing here also connects to human recognition of their own behavior and attribution of a dual nature. People can be amazingly, beautifully kind and go to great lengths to aid those in distress; sometimes they simply perform small acts of generosity that benefits them not at all. It remains a reality, however, that at other times humans are responsible for unspeakable acts of horror that go far past any sort of defensive explanation, or even retaliatory. The “uncannily human eyes,” not to mention the facial expressions that seem recognizable to us, goes a long way in explaining why seals in particular may have bonded in our ancestors’ minds as a creature who carries a nature much like our own.
It also is not difficult to understand why selkies, then, might prefer to be left alone, despite their apparent inquisitive nature regarding humans. We too, experience moments of preferred solitude, especially when the company of other humans plays out against our best interests, as it so often does with selkie females of the tales referenced above. These and many other legends contain a range of variability we couldn’t begin to cover here, so we encourage you to look into these fascinating folk beyond this blog.
Here are a few great links to intriguing and informative selkie talk:
The Immigrant: One from My Four Legged Stool
by Alfred Woollacott III
About the book:
A historical saga that covers a winter of 1650-1651 journey of John Law, a young Scotsman captured by the English Lord Cromwell’s forces in seventeenth-century Scotland during the Battle of Dunbar. He survives a death march to Durham, England and is eventually sent to Massachusetts Bay Colony as an indentured servant, arriving aboard the ship Unity that was carrying around 150 prisoners of war from different Scottish clans. Now an outcast, and in the sanctuary of the new colony, John starts over as an immigrant in a Puritan theocracy. He is first indentured to the Saugus Iron Works and then to Concord as a public shepherd in West Concord (now Acton). The young man faces obstacles often beyond his control, and his only ally is his faith. After his indenture is served he struggles a near lifetime to obtain title to his promised land. From start to finish The Immigrant is an intoxicating journey that follows the travails of John, his faith in God, his good wife and growing family.
Paperback: 416 pages
Publication Date: January 1, 2015
My Review and Examination:
“We all have unique four legged stools, each leg an outshoot from our grandparents who contributed to our being.”
So begins author Alfred Woollacott III’s introductory remarks to The Immigrant, historical fiction detailing the life of John Law, an unwilling Scottish immigrant—from the stool leg representing the author’s maternal grandmother—whose time co-incides with such historical figures as Mary Rowlandson of the famous captivity narrative and Metacom of King Philip’s War, though his own life is “too insignificant for the historian’s lens.”
Woollacott’s musings on how we are shaped includes consideration of our forebears, the histories they endured and repetitions that occur through time, pulsing along with biological bonds and ancestral recall, a sort of collective memory inhabiting each of us that we receive and pass down, along with our own additions. This is illustrated in The Immigrant’s opening scenes, wherein Reuben Law’s inner essence carries readers from the American Revolution’s opening salvos at Lexington and Concord (1775) back in time to the Battle of Dunbar (1650), part of the third in a series of English civil wars. Doon Hill is where we meet up with Reuben’s—and the author’s—ancestor, John Law, who is captured, sold into indentured servitude and sent off to the colonies.
From the beginning Law harbors negative attitudes toward the English, as they demonstrate much the same, though he aims high for his future while simultaneously mourning the loss of his mother—who probably thinks he has been killed in battle—and any way to communicate with her.
Central to the larger story, however, is a parcel of land he acquires and names “New Scotland,” and which through time he fights for as key within a gift he is building for his future, that being the time ahead within his own life as well as long after. A sense of place runs through the novel, not only as pertains to New Scotland, but also within Law’s focus forward and the land’s role as conduit in his relationships with those yet to come. On one occasion he stands atop a hill on a peninsula near Charlestown and contemplates a foreboding.
“[The hill] sent chills though John’s back muscles to the nape of his neck. The hill wasn’t a windswept brae, it was nothing like Doon Hill, yet, for some reason, it was. He stepped toward it and saw the future. He sensed soldiers storming the hill, and fear-filled men atop the hill, hiding behind breastworks. John was afraid, and an incomprehensible eeriness captivated him. Perhaps his soul knew a descendant, Reuben Law, years later would be behind the breastworks, atop of what would then be known as Bunker Hill.”
It is a bit of a twist for the sense of history when past figures contemplate those not yet born—not merely for what these figures hope to gift descendants, but also what they might experience and the kinship of emotion that reverberates through time. Periodically Woollacott’s narrative reminds readers of the running memory known to the soul, though not necessarily the individual, solidifying a contemplation of the links between generations infused with an essence that survives death.
On its face, however, The Immigrant is John Law’s story, told mainly through his point of view, though jaunts into others’ perspectives occur as well. We travel through his days and years as he works for independence, marries, has children and the family rise and fall together. Though the book could do with a more vigorous edit, Woollacott quite finely guides us through individual days or longer periods, deftly gifting us experience of the time, with finer details of what it was like to live in an era many of us cover only briefly in our lessons as we pass through a series of disputes, battles and wars between colonists and Natives. Historical figures make appearances, as do those whose lives we know nothing of but for authors such as Woollacott, whose painstaking research maps out for us a greater structure and narrative to better understand what it is we may be remembering in our biological bonds.
One thing I liked the very best about Woollacott’s style is his ability to tell a simple story that can easily be read as such, while also containing these and other layers and threads of historical reality, contemplation and an almost paranormal tincture that can be explored as little or much as readers wish. He also has a way with foreshadowing that sends little prickles down one’s neck, a response that indicates how much we really are invested not only in the past, but also our past.
Centuries from now, most of us, having occupied the same rungs of society’s ladder John Law did in his own time, will be remembered on various levels, the challenge being the question of which. Woollacott references a quote from British poet and historian Thomas B. Macaulay:
“People who take no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.”
A fascinating glimpse into the history of one family, a colony, region and seventeenth-century society, The Immigrant details the differences through time between its Scottish and English settlers with emphasis on how they see their lives, themselves and each other, not how we do, bringing voice to those who too often do not have one.
About the Author:
Alfred Woollacott III retired after a career spanning 34 years, choosing to reside full time at his summer residence on Martha’s Vineyard. Being “45 minutes from America” and with a 50—60 hour per week void to fill, he began dabbling into his family history. His dabbling grew into an obsession, and he published several genealogical summaries of his ancestors. But certain ones absorbed him such that he could not leave them. So he researched their lives and times further while evolving his writing skills from “just the facts ma’am” to a fascinating narrative style. Thus with imagination anchored in fact and tempered with plausibility, a remote ancestor can achieve a robust life as envisioned by a writer with a few drops of his ancestor’s blood in his veins.
When not writing, Al serves on several boards and keeps physically active with golf, tennis, and hockey. He and his wife of 44 years, Jill, have four children and ten grandchildren.
Need help filling up your shelf? You’ve come to the right place! I think it was last month I started somewhat of a flurry of reviews that came one after the other, many of which have giveaways attached. Typically I hold drawings one to two weeks out, but this time Thanksgiving and upcoming Christmas kind of darted in and out of my schedule and plans, and dates became sort of wonky.
So, for your ease and mine, I decided to post a blog with links to all the drawings in one spot. Simply click on the link (book title) to the review for any book you like the look of and comment there – fancy schmancy not necessary – to get your name in the drawing. (And be sure to leave current contact info in the event you are our winner!) Since some peeps have difficulty commenting at WordPress, I’ve also linked to respective Facebook threads where you can comment instead. You do not need to comment at both; one works perfectly well. Unless otherwise indicated, blurbs are from Amazon and author names link to their websites and/or blog.
There is no limit of books you can enter the drawings for – enter them all if you like!
Drawing to be held December 16
So without further ado, here are the prizes up for grabs:
In ancient Britain, a Lady is living in a stone-walled house on an island in the middle of a river. So far as the people know, she has always been there. They sense her power, they hear her singing, but they never meet her.
At first her life is idyllic. She wakes, she watches, she wanders in her garden, she weaves a complex web of what she sees, and she sleeps again. But as she grows, this pattern becomes narrow and frustrating. She longs to meet those who cherish her, but she cannot. The scenes beyond the walls of her home are different every time she wakes, and everyone she encounters is lost, swallowed up by the past.
But when she finds the courage to break the cycle, there is no going back. Can she bear the cost of finding freedom? And what will her people do, when they finally come face to face with a lady of legend who is not at all what they have imagined?
A retelling – and metamorphosis – of Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott.”
Lars D. H. Hedbor is offering our winner a choice of any one of his books in paperback. In this case, review links are below and blurbs at author website; click author name to access. (He also has a promotion for free e-copy of The Declaration; click book title to get yours straight away.)
Among the first to look at the story of Camelot through Guinevere’s eyes, Woolley sets the traditional tale in the time of its origin, after Britain has shattered into warring fiefdoms. Hampered by neither fantasy nor medieval romance, this young Guinevere is a feisty Celtic tomboy who sees no reason why she must learn to speak Latin, wear dresses, and go south to marry that king. But legends being what they are, the story of Arthur’s rise to power soon intrigues her, and when they finally meet, Guinevere and Arthur form a partnership that has lasted for 1500 years.
This is Arthurian epic at its best-filled with romance, adventure, authentic Dark Ages detail, and wonderfully human people.
‘The second fall of Rome?’ Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk. But 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader. Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy…
And Retalio …
Early 1980s Vienna. Recovering from a near fatal shooting, Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and former foreign minister of Roma Nova, chafes at her enforced exile. She barely escaped from her nemesis, the charming and amoral Caius Tellus who grabbed power in Roma Nova, the only part of the Roman Empire to survive into the twentieth century. Aurelia’s duty and passion fire her determination to take back her homeland and liberate its people. But Caius’s manipulations have isolated her from her fellow exiles, leaving her ostracised, powerless and vulnerable. But without their trust and support Aurelia knows she will never see Roma Nova again.
It is 1692 and the Colony of Maryland is still adapting to the consequences of Coode’s Rebellion some years previously. Religious tolerance in the colony is now a thing of the past, but safe in their home, Alex and Matthew Graham have no reason to suspect they will become embroiled in the ongoing religious conflicts—until one of their sons betrays their friend Carlos Muñoz to the authorities.
Matthew Graham does not leave his friends to rot—not even if they’re papist priests—so soon enough most of the Graham family is involved in a rescue attempt, desperate to save Carlos from a sentence that may well kill him. Meanwhile, in London little Rachel is going through hell. In a matter of months she loses everything, even her surname, as apparently her father is not Master Cooke but one Jacob Graham. Not that her paternity matters when her entire life implodes.
Will Alex and Matthew be able to help their unknown grandchild? More importantly, will Rachel want their help?
Richard III as you have never seen him before! Richard has been King of England and France and Lord of Ireland for over twenty years and he is beginning to question his life. He misses his secret wife, Rose, who had to return to the twenty-first century when she found she was expecting twins, both for her own and the babies’ safety. Everyone around the king seems to be happily in a relationship. The realm is at peace and his son and heir, Richard junior, is of an age to take over the reins of government, so Richard makes a decision…
Good luck to all!!!
Update: Some of the older reviews for the Tales From a Revolution series are unlinked as they were done before the drawing was planned.
Feel free to comment there anyway OR at any other review from that series OR below on this post OR at this post’s Facebook thread, locatedhere.
Whichever is easiest for you; we’ll be checking them all. 🙂
The author so generously has donated a FREE e-copy of
There is Always a Tomorrow for one lucky winner!
Want your name in our contest drawing? Simply comment below OR at this review’s Facebook thread, located here.
Drawing December 9
Update: Drawing will be held December 16 (see link here)
Following a flurry of historical fiction and other awards, novelist Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga series drew to its conclusion in 2015—much to the dismay of her extensive fan base. The series has a significant readability factor and, being eight installments long, followers have been drawn time and again back to the books detailing the lives of seventeenth-century native Matthew Graham, his time-travelling wife, Alex, their large family and encounters with the era’s dangers and those who exacerbate them. Readers simply cannot get enough and, looking forward to the possibility of a spinoff story here or there, are periodically wooed back with bonus material.
(As if they need to be wooed.)
Belfrage has now done one better by releasing a delightful secret, her ninth entry, There is Always a Tomorrow. Set against the backdrop of mercurial 1600s Maryland in its anti-Catholic phase, the family encounters trouble when hysteria reaches a boiling point, thanks to one of their own sons, who has betrayed a Catholic priest, their close friend, to authorities. The Grahams are torn between loyalties—their child, a friend in deep trouble and their own Presbyterian background—and creating distance between themselves and danger entails a second thread involving another son, Samuel, adopted by Quachow into a local Native tribe, whose loss Alex continues to mourn.
The tale shifts back and forth between these events and those of two Graham boys in England with their Uncle Luke, and a final storyline with threads on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually making its chaotic and potentially destructive way to Graham’s Garden.
One of the first things we noticed about Tomorrow is that despite the challenges faced by the family, they aren’t uprooted in quite the manner they have been in past tales. This is to the story’s advantage because apart from avoiding risk of a type of overexposure, Belfrage also shows her consideration for the main characters who, ehem, aren’t getting any younger. They are all too aware of this as well, though this reality doesn’t haunt them in any overly dramatic manner, and the result is a very genuine approach to acknowledging the passage of time in the series.
Despite this transition, Alex never forgets where she comes from, even if she doesn’t talk about it all that often, though readers are aware she has on occasion, to a select few people, including her favorite son, Ian. Through their growing up years, Alex has also told fairy tales, old and new—although these terms can deliciously muddy the waters if one ponders on the time travel issue too deeply—to her children, and in this installment readers are treated to a delightful acknowledgement when she asks her grandson, “Did I ever tell you the story of the magic wardrobe?” It provides a link to her native era and by extension to readers, as if to whisper through the winds of time that her fight to remain where a freak thunderstorm brought her was not a rejection of us; she had simply found the place she belonged. This provides foundation for both the romanticism of the books as well as the series’ continuity, and Belfrage’s sprinkling of the novels with such memories, or considerations of the future solidifies the connection. With the dual perception, that of Alex’s remaining twenty-first century attitudes paired with those she has developed in her new/old life, more are crafted, and what exists between readers and the Grahams grows as well, a relationship.
As always, the author’s style is one of seamless flow, and she has a marvelous ability to build so much into circumstance. Rachel, for instance, who comes to Maryland from her dark and troubled life in England, by her very name takes us back to earlier in our journey with Alex, to another little girl who once lived, another Rachel who was loved and was lost, and who also is not forgotten. As Alex remembers her girl, we mourn with her, feeling the hurt she does in her ongoing failure to make a connection with this Rachel, who represents a link not only between lands, but as well within the family, as we learn she is the daughter of another lost child.
Interestingly, her character isn’t as fleshed out as one might expect it to be, and the relaying of her young troubles seems to pass by very quickly, as if almost too easily told. Yet this has meaning as well, for her existence in historical seventeenth-century London would also have been underdeveloped as a marker of her place in society: invisible. The paradox of history being littered with the remains of figures we can’t even name is a tragedy compounded by such realities as illiteracy, a bitter reminder of what is built into human DNA to crave, and what Belfrage provides: relationships. She remains within reality, however, and though the series is a mixture of historical fiction, time slip and fantasy, she doesn’t resort to the unfeasible; relationships between all events indeed are solid and authentic, further explaining our connection and longing for more of these tales. Some of these associations are more developed than others, despite familial bonds, and not all are cherished, as is the case in real life.
“The astounding thing is that she dares voice such an opinion in my home.” Kate’s mouth shaped itself into a little spout. “An intolerable and quite useless little missy is what she is.” She sighed. “There are days when I really miss Lucy.”
“Not me.” Alex shook her head slowly. Simon’s deaf daughter had been extraordinarily beautiful, just as extraordinarily gifted, and somewhat twisted inside. And far too curious for her own good, which was why she was now gone, permanently.
Is it? you might ask. Even those who have read the installment this passage refers to automatically will be pulled back, on the surface wanting to re-experience events of this time. Also, however, they will recognize the cryptic wording and begin to wonder. Did I miss something? Was Alex involved in something untoward? If not, how much does she really know? While this and other passages may or may not lead to something extra, there are many points along the way in which we yearn for the stories again. And, as with so much of the material within Tomorrow, Belfrage’s characters themselves engage in a story about memory and self-identification, what makes them who they are. Old wounds are addressed, sometimes successfully, other times less so, and new questions rise to the surface. It is a testament to Belfrage’s skill as an author that we find no firm conclusions when we ask the universe: Does this mean there is more to come? Or is there simply much we have forgotten, or perhaps not recognized? She also manages satisfactorily to fill in new readers while simultaneously lighting that spark of I have to go back and read the others. Series veterans, perhaps bemused, might say, simply, Don’t expect that to be the only time that happens.
Perhaps the best of The Graham Saga, There is Always a Tomorrow firmly included, is that uncertain familiarity. With biblical references, by way of names, fables and more, we tap into it as much seems almost a replay of the heritage of so many: prodigal sons, feuding brothers, thirty pieces of silver, sacrifice within various contexts. These and other ancient comedies re-enacted in real life and within literature are as familiar to us as our own names, yet often so unrecognized, woven so deeply into the fabric of our beings as they are. At times it seems this is destined to continue into countless tomorrows, with the hope we can be better, make something brighter, next time. And as is the brilliance of Belfrage, this wraps itself within the time warp question and how circular it all might really be. She creates in us a sensation that hopes there is always a sequel, though this has yet to be seen, for as contradictory as it may be, all good things must end.
Or do they? Whether or not Belfrage brings us any more in the series, we sense continuity: perhaps in spinoff stories, linkage in unrelated tales, maybe even fan fiction. There certainly are re-reads, and while the books all have many levels and can be approached from a number of angles, they also may be enjoyed as straightforward stories, not to mention be destined for greatness.
To see other reviews and blogs with Anna Belfrage, click titles below:
Sunken Pie Author Interview (Of Pies, Books and Other Essentials) (Stay tuned)
Author Anna Belfrage in her own words …
I was always going to be a writer – well in between being an Arctic explorer, a crusader or Richard Lionheart’s favourite page (no double entendre intended – I was far too innocent at the time). Anyway, not for me the world of nine to five, of mortgages and salary checks. Oh no; I was going to be a free spirit, an impoverished but happy writer, slaving away in a garret room.
Life happened. (It does, doesn’t it?) I found myself the bemused holder of a degree in Business Admin, and a couple of years later I was juggling a challenging career, four kids, a husband (or was he juggling me?), a jungle of a garden, a dog, a house …. Not much time for writing there, let me tell you. At most, I stole a moment here or there.
Fortunately, kids grow up. My stolen moments became hours, became days, weeks, months … (I still work. I no longer garden – one must prioritize). It is an obsession, this writing thing. It is a joy and a miracle, a constant itch and an inroad to new people, new places, new times.
Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter, on her website and at her fantabulous blog, where you can learn more about the author, the Grahams, other projects and her world.
A courtesy copy of There is Always a Tomorrow was provided to the blogger to facilitate an honest review. Author image courtesy Anna Belfrage.
“The rencontre took place early in the evening under a storm-darkening sky, with just enough daylight remaining to preclude the accidents that plague swordplay at dusk and in darkness. The wind had risen, bringing with it the chill of river and sea; this, along with the approaching sunset, and the location on the outskirts of the city, kept witnesses where they belong, that is to say, away.”
So starts Benerson Little’s debut work of fiction, Fortune’s Whelp, in smooth follow-up to the pirate historian’s previous works of non-fiction. Enclosed by approaching night in a violent scenario, Scotsman Edward MacNaughton plunges fast forward through land and sea adventure and into discovery of an attempt to assassinate King William III. As the Jacobite plot’s date draws nearer, MacNaughton must identify who around him conspires for their own ends or toward political gain, willing to take him down in the process—and this includes the women he finds himself involved with.
From the opening scene through to the conclusion of Fortune’s Whelp, Little’s narrative wraps itself around us as we are glued to the edges of our seats—miss our bus stops, lose track of bedtime, leave dinner to burn—with a tension so thick it preoccupies us even after the fearsome moments have passed.
Perhaps it is MacNaughton’s magnetic draw of intrigue, or the historical details, mundane and enthralling alike, that Little weaves through his tale—the elements of reality that haunt the reading and our tendency to read rapidly, as if fast-flipping pages might get our protagonist more swiftly away from those who track him—that amp up the tension and render this novel one not easily surrendered to the tasks of daily life. This anxiety-provoking is exacerbated by Edward himself, who frequently confirms reader suspicion with acknowledgements of perilous moments, such as when he “sensed dangerous eyes upon him.”
MacNaughton is written as a hybrid of questionable romantic hero and admirably devilish villain, and he does indeed doubt or reprimand himself as he moves about in his world as described by his creator in a fashion that brings us as close as we could get to it: this age is described so in detail, though without relying on detail description. Instead, elements stitch themselves in and around all aspects of MacNaughton’s movements, from an appearance of Spanish brandy to his mockery of a naval officer (“doubtless your mother paid for your commission”) and his progression-via-instinct through a series of streets and alleys when attempting to find while simultaneously avoid an enemy. We are given glimpses and understanding as to how the era operates, with a toss of humor here and there, for relief as well as to show another side of the time.
“I’ve seen that bugger around here before; he talks a lot but won’t pay for anything.”
Edward gave the woman the coin. His reason suggested this was part of a trap; his instinct considered it unlikely. In either case, he was on his guard against two potential enemies.
“Come with me.”
“You’ve just tipped me the wink, and I’ve paid, haven’t I? To Walter Lane, then to a place we’ll be safe from his eyes.”
“If you want to dock, it’ll cost you more.”
“Pardon me, mistress, but you’re pricing your wares a bit high, aren’t you?”
“I’m worth every penny and shilling of a guinea,” she replied indignantly.
“I believe you,” Edward said sincerely.
Little’s narrative is written at such a pace that we seem at times to make haste along with MacNaughton, with a smoothness that carries us along, always wanting to keep going. Transitions are seamless and one scrape or another all are linked by events and associations, so we clearly see the story is much more than a series of adventures in the life of any man: MacNaughton has goals in mind, if only he can safely make his way to them before plots and pitfalls find him first.
MacNaughton is his own man though he is also, as the novel’s title indicates, fortune’s whelp. Bred on adventure and fed with swashbuckling plot twists, our protagonist frequently courts fate even as he faces down his enemies, be they actual persons or probing anxiety in a darkened alley. Daring, energetic and skilled, he is nevertheless written with flaws that could easily brand him as real as the historical figures who make appearances in Fortune’s Whelp.
Any reviewer would be remiss to ignore the fight scenes in this novel: thrilling and of the nail-biting variety because we know MacNaughton isn’t an always-victorious two-dimensional character, Little sets them up so expertly that upon commencement we hear the clash of weapons, smell the salt in the air, gain our footing as we establish purchase within the skirmish, right along with the characters.
Edward watched him warily; the man was surely full of tricks. He might pull a pistol, hurl dirt or snuff in his eyes, or dart his sword at him.
“Behind you, sir! The watch!” the man shouted at Edward.
Edward turned his head just enough to draw the man’s attack, then, as it was dark and difficult to follow a blade with the eyes, made a round parry, found the blade, and thrust swiftly. Sensing his adversary’s counter-parry, he turned his sword hand up, allow it angulate around his adversary’s parry, and, covering with his left hand as he thrust, hit his adversary just below the right collarbone.”
The author not only provides explanations for those unfamiliar with sword fighting terminology, but also does it in a manner in which readers can choose for themselves how often to stem the flow of reading to refer to the notes, or not to at all. Following his conclusion, Little adds several sets of notes, including those on swordplay with an alphabetical listing of particular terms and their meanings (separate from the glossary, which cuts down on all-over-the-map searches). It is great fun to act out the fights, even at a slower pace, to have a greater appreciation of what MacNaughton is up against.
Many books, perhaps even most, reveal to readers more information upon subsequent reads and re-reads, and it is rewarding when we realize these small surprises. Fortune’s Whelp is one in which readers finish, close the book and know ahead of time this is in store for them. With so much history written within a novel of intrigue, and daring revealed within the history, there is an instinctive understanding that this is a book to re-read, and this reviewer answered that summons—interestingly enough even though Jacobite plotting and seventeenth-century history isn’t generally where my interests reside.
For those who love a great tale, written with engaging and realistic characters who call you to their side, for seafaring types and landlubbers alike, Fortune’s Whelp is a compelling and captivating novel whose fate it is to draw readers over and over again.
About the author …
Born in Key West, Florida, Benerson Little grew up variously on all three US coasts. Following his graduation from Tulane University, he entered the US Navy and served as an officer for eight years, most of them as a Navy SEAL. Upon completion of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in 1983 (BUD/S Class 121), he was assigned first to SEAL Team THREE, then to SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE. After leaving the Navy in 1989, he worked as a special operations and intelligence analyst, including for the Naval Special Warfare Strategy and Tactics Group and for a private intelligence collection and analysis firm, among other professions.
He now works as a writer and consultant in several areas, with an emphasis on maritime and naval issues, including maritime threat and security, and especially maritime history. He is considered a leading expert on piracy past and present, and is a recognized expert on pirate tactics and anti-piracy operations throughout history. He has appeared in two television documentaries on piracy, has advised on others, and is the STARZ premium cable network’s historical consultant for its Black Sails series, currently filming its third season. He often advises film-makers, novelists, historians, biographers, genealogists, treasure hunters, journalists, and others.
You can learn more about author Benerson Little’s books, news, writing and more at his informative and fascinating website, Facebook, Twitter and his blog.
Author photo courtesy Benerson Little.
A copy of Fortune’s Whelp was provided to the blogger in order to produce an honest review.
Previously having read and enjoyed The Prodigal Son, third in The Graham Saga series, I approached this first book with assurance and excitement. It is, after all, where the adventures begin, where the rip in the veil dividing time(s) occurs, at least in the case of Alex Lind. From my reading of that third in the series I knew she’d gone tail spinning through time back to the 17th century following a freak thunderstorm, though further details, of course, remained unknown to me. Reading the opening sentences of the first in the series, I was very aware of my transition into the beginning, and that enticingly soon these details would be revealed. I am quite sure anyone who has ever read Belfrage’s Saga out of order—which can be done—will understand.
Having now read A Rip in the Veil for a second time it should be noted I didn’t like the book as I did before. I have grown since that reading, come to new awareness and made changes in my own life. I am different to that person who read the book last time. Through all that, I came out at the end of my second go-round with this result: I love it at least ten times more. Some of this could be attributed to a greater understanding I have toward the foreshadowing I hadn’t noticed the first time. It could also be said that having gone on to read—since The Prodigal Son—the rest of the series save its final installation, my affection for the characters has grown. All this would be accurate and surely contributes to my ongoing admiration for Anna Belfrage’s first in her timeslip series.
However, her strength as a novelist carries through more than in the ability to create strong characters with enduring appeal—an accomplishment in of itself not to be to sniffed at. Her words flow off the pages with the sort of enchantment that allows readers to recognize their beauty and rhythm, but also veils the utilitarian duties they pull on the side.
Further, true to the nature of a splendidly written book, one finds something else to adore they might not have taken in at first. In this instance one example would be phrases that capture our attention from where we stand now, not unlike the sun hitting stained glass at just the right angle or time of day. “The bright turmoil of oils,” for example, engages the imagination as it interweaves contemplation of an artist and her emotions; they unify in the moment and stir the sensations. There also is the author’s subtle sense of invitation into the story. We may share an understanding with a select character, or the author might slightly pierce the boundary between events as they occur and the observer holding the book, by acknowledging the observation.
“Jeans; everyone wears them where I come from.”
“Djeens,” he repeated, “well, you must be from very far away.”
“You could say that again,” she mumbled, hunching together.
[F]or an instant Alex thought she could see shame in his eyes. For an instant, mind you, and then his face hardened.
As Belfrage gets her tale going, readers also recognize what Alex herself does not, and her responses artfully contribute to the flow and continuity of the story as the author inserts detail clues for readers’ benefit; we learn ancillary information without being instructed, and the technique is used throughout the book, sparingly and subtly, also economically lending insight into players’ personalities.
The most apparent location these hints appear would be in dialogue, which also informs readers of how much each character knows about various events. In this way and others, Belfrage weaves a complex story, pleasurable and fascinating to follow—and I do mean fascinating: there were a number of occasions that gave me pause as I stopped to consider implications, how something could work, what might it mean in reality, and so on. The author’s prose lends credence to such a possibility, too: described with verbiage so on target and believable, responses and consequences so plausible, not an extra or out-of-place word, it becomes real as readers as well are drawn into the vortex with Alex, mysteriously and frighteningly into another time and, really, another place.
“Are you alright?” Matthew asked Alex.
“Yes,” she said shakily.
“Do you know him?” He cocked his head at the groaning shape.
“Yes you do!” Two penetrating eyes fixed on her.
Alex shook her head, taking in a battered face, a dirty flannel shirt and jeans that seemed to have burnt off at calf length. He looked awful. The skin on what she could see of his legs was blistered and raw, made even worse by a large flesh wound. But he was here, an undoubtedly modern man. . . One person dropping through a time hole she could, with a gigantic stretch of mind, contemplate. Two doing it at the same time was so improbable as to be risable[. . . .]
[The man’s] eyes stuck on Matthew. . . His eyes widened, his mouth fell open, he cleared his throat and gawked some more, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork.
“Where the hell am I?” he said. “Where have I ended up?”
Indeed, sense of place is a strong element in Alex’s story and we see some overlap in time, eliciting more questions that contribute to an urgent sense of need-to-know. I also longed to learn how those Alex leaves behind react; here, Belfrage does not disappoint. Initially alternating with some frequency between her new/old world and the time she has left behind, gradually the narrative settles into Alex’s story within her current surroundings, only periodically bringing readers back to those seeking answers as to her whereabouts. This reflects Alex’s perspective of the experience, as she begins to make a life, her life, in this strange place she has landed. Like Alex, we acclimate to life without frequent news and knowing of her family.
Perhaps the most significant element Belfrage employs throughout the book, this literary reflection of a character’s reality does extra duty as it is simultaneously employed with temporal distortion—texting her father from 1658, muttered comments Alex has to explain away—and a spot of pastiche, whereby her 21st century words, ways, songs, clothing names (e.g. djeens) are imported backward in time. Alex herself often brings this distortion to readers’ attention with her questioning of her new world (which is actually old) and how she could be there, given that at this time, she has not yet been born. Nor have any of her family, so how could they be searching for her? What may be the most satisfying yet, and perhaps a little surprising, is Belfrage’s manner of writing about timeslip—writing mostly in the destination era being the largest contributor to the sense of surprise—utilizing postmodern technique to do it. Moreover, her interweaving of the various strategies is absolutely seamless.
Through the book, we get hints of Alex’s history awareness as she periodically betrays, to readers only, her knowledge of what is to come in this historical era. The temptation for an author to lean on this type of understanding must be great; fortunately for readers and characters alike, Belfrage does not rely on it. In fact, she shies away from it in most instances, as Alex determinedly seeks to make her way in this era with more natural supports—and, of course, to avoid accusations of witchcraft. When readers may expect some historical event to be referenced, Alex moves on; she has learned quickly.
As Alex learns what she needs to in order to survive—including about Matthew’s vengeful younger brother Luke, and the wife once paired with Matthew himself—she also begins to see much in Matthew, joining forces with him to live a life of integrity in the face of religious persecution and inconceivable human cruelty. Alex sees this very quickly after they meet each other, during their journey back to his home, and through their time living there. She also captures the attention of someone who believes there is more to her than she tells, bonding with her and others as she makes her way through newcomer status and the daunting awareness of not knowing what she is doing, including in the presence of those who wish her ill.
Matthew has an ally in Simon, his brother-in-law and attorney, who protects his interests and indeed, his life, counseling the newlyweds in ways small and large. In a sense, as Matthew and Alex get to know each other, their story is timeless—two people with a bond who must learn to integrate their beings into a cohesive and workable whole. On top of their own challenges, ordinary and unique, the pair must also deal with the threats that remain, for despite Matthew having made it home, Luke’s anger has not subsided, and it menaces Matthew and those he loves at every turn. The Grahams do not claim victory over every challenge, and sometimes must learn to compensate, including with each other.
“I didn’t like the ‘obey’ part,” Alex grumbled as they walked back to Simon’s office [following their wedding]. “I mean the love and to hold and all that, fine. But to obey? It makes me feel like a dog. . . . Why should I obey you?”
“Because I’m your husband,” Matthew explained with exaggerated patience. “And you’re but a mindless wife.”
Will they always be so lucky? How do they keep Luke’s hatred at bay and can they continue? What of Alex’s strange circumstances? She was brought here against her will; what if the forces that carried her here reverse themselves? Can she ever go back? How can she stay under the conditions she will be required to live? These are just a few of the top questions that will arise from readers, who certainly will reach eagerly for the next book for answers as well as more of the Grahams, for while the book’s technical brilliance impresses the intellect, its soul captures the heart and imagination.
It is understood that certain factors affect any given reading, including order of books read. Did my awareness of Alex’s future, so to speak, with Matthew affect my perspective of the first in the series? Undoubtedly. Would I have enjoyed it as much had I not read the third book first? The only truthful answer I can give is that I do not know, though I am certain I still would be clamoring for the rest, as I had been. It has not escaped me, however, that like Alex, I myself have done a bit of time travelling by learning of a future portion of her life in the 17th century before being brought to the first part of her time there. While many of my questions arising from the third are answered in the first, the readings of both remain magnificent. When first I published this review in its original form, I had added, “and I will not be satisfied until I have read them all—and even then I may still want more.”
I assure you, even after having now read them all (except the most recent), I very much still want more. I will be reading this book again and again with the knowledge that Belfrage has created the Grahams and a tale vigorous enough to journey with us through time and all of our own changes.
Update: I have read them all by now, and I want more.
Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter, on her website and at her fantabulous blog, where you can learn more about the author, the Grahams, her sew series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, other projects and her world.
Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.
Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers. She likes to color, cook, practices calligraphy and is learning to sew.
As the eighth and final installment in Anna Belfrage’s The Graham Saga series, To Catch a Falling Star found me reluctant to read as well as hungry to devour it. I’d accidentally fallen in with Alex Lind, who beckoned me into her world—both of them, time traveler that she is—when I reviewed number three, The Prodigal Son. It transported me and, knowing I simply had to read all from the start, I set out, smugly comfortable with my fat stack of books, assured of a brilliant journey that would last for some time to come. Reading Falling Star’s opening lines began the end of this long journey.
Isaac Lind should not have drunk quite as much as he did that evening, but flushed by the success of his latest exhibition, he allowed himself to be dragged along, to be toasted in pint after pint of lager.
He caressed the wooden frame of the picture, a depiction of a somnolent courtyard[…] In the middle a fountain, a constant welling of water[…] In olive greens and muted browns, with the odd dash of whites and startling blues, the water spilled over the fountain’s edge to fall in transparent drops towards the ground[…] He tried to break eye contact with the falling water, but now he heard it as well, the pitter-patter of drops on wet stone, the trickling sound of water running through a narrow channel, and there, just where he had painted it, a minute point of white beckoned and promised, entrapping his eyes in a shaft of dazzling light.
Isaac’s mother, Alex, had fallen through a rip in the veil of time when he was just a toddler, and apart from one short encounter, he has not seen her since. His grandmother’s paintings having played a role in these events, this opening then serves as foreboding. Now 32, a veteran time traveler at it again, certainly he may be able to see his mother once more. Apart from the vagaries of shifting through eras, the relationship is complicated by mother and son’s personal history, pertaining both to Isaac’s birth as well as his perception of Alex’s “abandonment” of him. Indeed, she chose to remain in the seventeenth century where she landed, and by the time Isaac falls through once more, she has raised a family, homesteaded in the colonies and seen too much in the passage of her “adopted” time.
Initially, Isaac’s appearance is welcome to those familiar with the saga, for he has not played much of a role in the previous installments, apart from his one “visit,” although Alex does guiltily think of him from time to time. But even new readers fall in quickly, given Belfrage’s masterful shaping of dialogue and events that fill in pertinent bits of information. Isaac is a sympathetic character and from the get-go, readers follow him hopefully.
As these events play out, Alex is experiencing a separation of her own. After years of feuding between her husband, Matthew, and his younger brother, Luke—often with terrible consequences—a truce of sorts has been called and the couple prepare to leave their colonial home, taking only a portion of their family back to Scotland. Having been forced out of their country in the wake of religious persecution, she now had grown roots in her new land and leaving it, and her children, is devastating.
Meeting up with Isaac once more, as well as returning to Scotland, produces mixed feelings within Alex. She must face her guilt and work through the confrontations with her confused and unhappy son, as well as the long-ago losses and compounded homesickness when she sees how far they have grown from Hillview, Matthew’s ancestral home. Her husband begins to bond more closely with Luke, who appears to be trying to sort out their past, and Belfrage give us greater glimpses into Luke’s life as well as his changing perceptions of his world and the individuals who populate it. Her treatment of the younger Graham brother is especially skillfully woven because we are kept in a questioning state: “Exactly how hard do old habits die?” Just when we think things have changed, something else occurs, bringing our assumptions into question, though knowing answers could come from any direction.
The author deals with historical reality with the skillful dexterity she utilizes in the preceding seven books. Religious persecution—in the colonies as well as Scotland—battles and factual historical figures all play a role she does not whitewash, even to the detriment of Alex’s relationship with Matthew. Belfrage moves us between eras and places with a hand so adroit we not only fall into the story, but also follow along with baited breath, around every obstacle and with an eye out for anything that might come between our players and their goals.
Life being what it is in seventeenth-century Scotland, adversity and heartbreak are constant companions. Even here, what characters see and how they see it, wraps us into their destinies, makes us care about them all the more. At times they make the best of it, while on other occasions, not so much: “The night was bitterly cold, the stars strewn like shards of crushed glass on a velvet background.” But so often even the bitter language of their love rises within a bouquet of poetry, reminding us, and perhaps them, that life is too precious not to move forward.
While the story opens with Isaac and moves at one point for a long spell back to Maryland, it really is Alex and Matthew’s tale, with the degrees of separation surrounding them: they are the nucleus, and they move forward with heartbreak and laughter, sharing the story of their loves and their losses, accepting some realities, while left wondering about others. At their now-advanced ages, Matthew and Alex begin to wonder about future Grahams. “Was there anything left of them in the twenty-first century? Would there be someone living here, in their place, and would that person’s name be Graham?” Given the strange way they came together, how exactly would this work? Even this element of the story unites characters with readers, as Belfrage weaves time together in such a fashion that we recognize ourselves in those who came before, and how their choices affect the lives we live today.
Having completed this last of the eight novels of The Graham Saga, it is perhaps easy to overlook—this is how seamlessly Belfrage writes us all together—that the re-reading of the series sets us all upon a circular sort of journey, much like the one Alex possibly faces, when her seventeenth-century self passes on and time marches forward until her original era dawns, and she is born again. Will she re-live it all in the same way we will when we go back to the beginning?
To Catch a Falling Star ties together some loose ends, answers some questions as its creator draws the Grahams’ story to a close. Alex recalls her first night with Matthew on a Scottish moor, and Jacob, her young son, gone too soon. She caresses a carved wooden infant, much as she did the one Matthew had made for her on that moor, as she agonized over her feelings for the baby Isaac. As we—reader and Alex alike—recall the start of her journey, she and Matthew are passing into a new phase of life. “Colour was returning to their world, greys morphing back to greens and browns, reds and blues.” One can’t help but recall the colors Isaac sees just before his second passage, as one world spills into another, both then and now.
It is a difficult moment, for all the remembering, and new questions, about future as well as past, and knowing this is the end of the long journey once embarked upon with such pleasure, aware there was so much more ahead. Alex herself used to say she would make the same choice—to stay—if she were to do it all over again. For all the heartbreak, grief and terror, there is also immense joy, love and bonding of souls in these tales, these “desert island books,” as another author refers to them, and like Alex, we would do it all over again as well. And we will. We will.
About the Author ….
Anna Belfrage can be found at her blog, which also maps out 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 series, The King’s Greatest Enemy.
See my review for In the Shadow of the Storm, book one in The King’s Greatest Enemy series, here.
This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of To Catch a Falling Star provided in exchange for an honest review.
Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.
Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers. She likes to color, cook and is learning to sew.
People who populate today’s societies—ehem, us—have a tendency to believe our world is superior to that of the past: more conveniences, broader rights for women and minorities, better medicine. While these advantages have indeed developed, they come with trade offs and in the realization of these gains we’ve lost bits of our selves and relationships. In Whither Thou Goest, the seventh installment of Anna Belfrage’s Graham Saga, this theme comes closer to the fore as time-traveling Alex Lind and her 17th century husband, Matthew, make their way to the West Indies to rescue their unknown nephew from the horrors of indentured servitude—in reality, brutal slavery.
Matthew himself once suffered this fate and it is largely his history that decides for the Grahams they should heed the plea of Matthew’s brother Luke to rescue his son, a youngster persuaded into the Monmouth rebels now facing a terrible future as the consequence of his misguided involvement. There is no love lost between Mr. and Mrs. Graham and Luke, but they also conclude that young Charlie should not be left to such a terrible fate as a result of the animosity between his father and uncle and events not of his doing. Their decision reflects the book’s title as well as their own bond forged, a bond that, like that of Ruth and Naomi, was not “supposed” to be:
“What do we do?” she said, coming over to hug Matthew from behind. She rubbed her face up and down between his shoulder blades, feeling him relax.
“There isn’t much choice, is there?” he said. “I have to go down there and attempt to find him.”
“Wrong pronoun,” Alex told him. “It’s ‘we’, Matthew, not ‘I’.” No way did she intend to let him face the ghosts of his past alone.
“We,” he said, and twisted round in her arms to hold her close.
So they go, and readers follow along, though with the added advantage of seeing events occurring in other family members’ lives. There also are small delights throughout as readers recognize events from the Grahams’ past that led to these moments, links bringing on the awareness of Belfrage’s genius for tying it all together, and from and through such a distance as thirty years. The book’s pace is swift, but not quite as whirlwind as its predecessor, and the author engages in language realistic for the period yet also a comfortable fit for us. So comfortable it is, one never wants to take it off. The only disappointment in this series is that eventually each book comes to an end.
It is a testament to Belfrage’s prowess as a writer of historical fiction that she can manage to get so far into a complicated series of events and a seventh novel, and still maintain reader attention as raptly as in the first book. But more than that, just as history is never static, neither are people, and the author brings us along as Matthew and Alex progress through the years: readers never grow out of the series, but rather the characters grow with them.
Therein lies the ability for Alex to accept—even in many instances relish—the hand she has been dealt. A freak thunderstorm painfully threw her past where a veil customarily divides time and in meeting with Matthew Graham she recognized something so special she fought powerful forces attempting to yank her back. There definitely was a fair share of life in 1658 Scotland unfamiliar and not terribly attractive to Alex—by law and religious tradition loss of voice and stature, for one—so why did she opt to stay? While there were pros to life in 2002, her personal assessment of where she stood may have brought a realization that there, too, the voice she had was also suffocated by circumstance.
Now, in Whither Thou Goest, Matthew and Alex are engaged in welcoming 1686—they have been together for nearly thirty years. The opening passages introduce us to one of the contradictions Alex has grown with all this time:
The shrubs were beginning to show buds; here and there startling greens adorned the wintry ground[. . .].Winter was waning, and soon it would be brisk winds, leaves on the trees and weeks of toiling in the fields or the vegetable garden.
The beauty of the new life of coming spring is paired with the awareness of the backbreaking labor it brings, with only brief opportunities to savor it around an immediate need to work for survival. In Alex’s 21st century life she wouldn’t have had to do this; instead she would have faced other perils connected to food supply. The lifestyles are so different, but Alex recognizes the similarities as well, here and in many other elements, such as religion. She is content with her choice, a promise towards Matthew that “thy people shall be my people,” and Belfrage’s treatment of Alex’s attitudes towards various aspects of her life strikes a balance, much like the one Alex maintains as she adjusts and carries on.
A complex personality, Alex may differ with us on various perceptions of 2002 as well as 1658 and on, but the author gives Alex’s voice life in a way that even those most opposed could admit that she makes a good argument.
Like Alex, Matthew is a strong enough man not only to survive, but also thrive because he is willing to grow in a similar way. While Alex certainly caught him off guard that day when they both were on the run and she literally landed at his feet, the intervening years have led him down the road he shares with her. The pair do not always agree, but he has grown secure enough to speak of Alex’s mother—the woman whose hand initiated her daughter’s passage through time—as someone deserving of compassion, even if she was a witch as he always feared she may have been. In discussing her horrific death, Matthew speaks of her dying “well,” that she forgave her tormentors not only because they needed it, but also because she did.
There is a welcome peace about and within this installment—for reader as well as protagonists, especially given recent events in the Grahams’ lives. Not that Belfrage gives anybody too much of a break—the 1600s in Scotland as well as the Colonies, to where the Grahams have repaired, is a perilous time for all, and getting hold of Charlie is the easy part. Finding their way back to Maryland is the real challenge. Moreover, Alex comes face to face with an old nemesis only to learn painful truths about the world and her place in it.
Nevertheless a softening shift can be felt, and Belfrage winds the threads of this aura through her narrative like a subtle breeze come to cool a painfully hot day. Acceptance occurs a lot, between Matthew and Alex as well as each of them with others, and the bond they have, one that has been growing over the years to reach this point, is tangible to another. It is significant that Belfrage has this insight coming from a relative of the Burleys, dangerous and destructive men once driven to destroy the Grahams, as she shows us again through this contradiction how life often blooms from the seeds of destruction.
Tilting his head, he studied Matthew Graham and his wife, fascinated by how they automatically fell in step, a slight leaning towards each other. Her skirts brushed against his leg, her profile turned towards him, and she said something that made him laugh, bending his head close to hers. Her hand touched his, fingers widened and braided tight together as they continued down the dusty road.
He had never seen anything like it, never seen two bodies come together so effortlessly, so obviously halves of a perfect whole. Welded together, it seemed, and Michael stood where he was, his eyes glued thoughtfully to their backs until they dropped out of sight.
Here as in many passages, Belfrage utilizes ordinary yet such poetic language, painting a moving picture in which readers can easily see what she describes: the tender closeness of a man taking in the words of his wife, the curl of her swinging skirts’ material, the wide, deliberate yet instinctive opening and joining of fingers as they move in time to each other’s steps. What’s more, she does this undetected: the words and rhythm are so natural it is as if they are a part of ourselves; we only understand how much these characters have “over the years” come to mean to us. Like the paintings of Mercedes, Belfrage’s draw us in and bring us to another time.
There are, of course, no easy conclusions, and the novel ends with a few questions unanswered, a lead-in to the next—sadly the last—installment in the series. There are continued contradictions with which the Grahams find acceptance: an event Alex has painfully yearned for occurs, but at a price; Matthew helps his son build a bridge between his own two worlds; a cherished piece of his past is re-imbursed, though he may never be able to claim it; and, as in the opening passages, fragile life makes an appearance, life that will bloom, but only with perseverance.
Whither Thou Goest, to be sure, contains scenes of heartbreak and sadness, with painful reminders for some characters of a past and connections they will never completely be able to escape. But it also is a love story of sorts, in which promises and commitments are made, solace is taken from unexpected quarters, and individuals experience awakening, a blooming of new life amidst ruins to be cleared as futures are built. It is a story only Anna Belfrage could tell of a family readers will never forget and often wish to re-visit.
About the author …
Anna Belfrage can be found at her blog, which also maps out 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 series, The King’s Greatest Enemy.
This review previously appeared at the blog’s alternate location and a copy of Whither Thou Goest provided in exchange for an honest review.
Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.
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.
Many 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.
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.
Alexandra Lind in 2002 was living an ordinary Edinburgh life—well, as ordinary as could be with her family background and recent experiences. On her way through a freak thunderstorm and driving rain, Alex hits a crossroads, cursing the luxury car that would no longer work. Shortly thereafter she is catapulted into another world or, more accurately, another era, having been driven through a rip in the veil dividing time. She is now in 1658 Scotland and meets up with Matthew Graham, whom she inexplicably falls in love with, and decides to spend her eternity with him. Her decision is so firm she fights tooth and nail to stay when the frightening passageway between the worlds once again yawns open.
Since A Rip in the Veil Alex and Matthew have birthed and raised—and lost—children, created and nurtured a home, resisted religious bigotry and official persecution, and eventually settled in the Maryland colony with an aim towards a free and meaningful future for themselves and their children. There are haunting memories of this place, too, and Belfrage adds more historical detail via interaction between the Grahams and local Natives, particularly their chief, Qaachow, whose wife and infant son Alex had once saved, resulting in a shield of protection for their homestead.
This guardianship is sorely necessary, unfortunately, given the visits from the militia and frighteningly close and frequent contact with the band of Burley brothers, who themselves are a study in unflagging determination. They frequently raid for slaves, have absconded with Native and settler women alike and are bent upon revenge for Matthew’s role in their youngest brother’s death.
True to real life, the Grahams always seem to move from one set of complicated circumstances to the next, and Serpents in the Garden opens with their son Jacob’s abandonment of his apprenticeship as well as his handfasted wife. It doesn’t take long for Belfrage’s succinct manner and way with words to make itself known. As the parents discuss their son’s foolishness and rationale, a short exchange links the two eras—for the Grahams as well as readers—in understanding how teenagers can be so imprudent.
“The day I get hold of Jacob Graham I’m going to chew his ear off,” Alex said as she went about the room, hanging up [Matthew’s] clothes. “What was he thinking of?”
“You mean thinking with, and you know the answer to that as well as I do.”
“Do you really think that’s all it was?”
“He’s not yet sixteen and aye, he’s a lad of much heart – we both know that[….] Jacob has known for several months that he and Betty were to wed eventually, and there’s a fondness between them. He wouldn’t have done it unless he cared for her. Unfortunately, he didn’t care enough for her not to.”
“Or he was too young to understand that.”
“Aye, not quite sixteen is a wee bit too young.”
As the tile and opening suggest, betrayal is a theme throughout this particular installment, and it and its “promises” come in various waves and formats. Jacob’s naïve actions have consequences for the girl he has left behind, and as his parents scramble to right the situation as best they can, they both dip into an old betrayal involving Matthew’s brother Luke, and experience smaller ones between themselves and within their community. Amidst all this treachery large and small is the threat of duplicity that hangs over the family, a menace made all the more confusing to Alex given its presentation as well as the manner in which it weaves in and out of the fabric of her family’s life, threatening to destroy them.
Qaachow, the Indian chief, comes to remind the Grahams of his dedication to repaying the blessing he has received from them by bringing their own boy, Samuel, into his camp when the child comes of a certain age. Alex sees no way in which this could possibly represent gratitude, for it separates mother and child, but by its nature would also force the impressionable young boy to unwillingly and unwittingly betray his own family by bonding with another, as well as their way of life. The actual serpents Alex had been battling in her garden come to life in the form of Qaachow, because unlike other betrayals, which to her are clear and discernable, this one works by stealth, cunning in its deception, promoting what she sees as evil as good, rationalizing his future deed with words she tries to dismiss as ideas that will be forgotten.
The Grahams, however, do have extremely solid bonds of their own, amongst which lives a love that surpasses old treacheries, insecurities and uncertainties. Alex loves her oldest child—technically her stepson—with a fierceness he has been aware of since he was very young, and returns it in equal measure. Even Ian’s paternal line can technically be questioned, given his biological mother’s marriage to Luke directly after her divorce from Matthew—an old betrayal that might have caused the young man to question his loyalties had he not loved Matthew and Alex so much.
The intensity of this love and understanding amongst the family because of it—in truth they also all love each other fiercely—leads Matthew to divulge some identity secrets to Ian about Alex and when Belfrage brings another Graham brother home, he references an event that would have killed Ian had Alex not saved his life:
“Does it hurt much?” Daniel asked as they made their way back down.
“Aye.” Ian turned to face him and in his unshielded gaze Daniel saw just how much it hurt, and what effort went into concealing it. “But I could have been dead[.]”
“That would have killed her.”
“Who? Betty?” Ian gave a little smile.
Daniel gave his head an irritated shake. “Mama, of course.”
“Mama?” Ian sounded very surprised.
“She loves you best. We all know that.” Daniel smiled at the dumbfounded expression on his brother’s face. “We don’t mind, aye? And she can’t help it, can she?”
Ian cleared his throat, looking like quite the daftie with his mouth hanging open.
Daniel grinned and went to find Ruth.
Through all this Belfrage continues to portray the family as the real people readers will see and identify with. Their time is not our own, though some struggles can be understood and all the historical events appreciated, both from having learned about them on a broader scale and now for reading how they affected an individual—albeit fictional—family. She enables us to travel history with Alex as she lives a 17th century life with 20th century memories. The author then widens the spectrum—pointing towards the next in the series—and the cast of characters naturally expands as their lives grow bigger and the children move into adulthood and circles of their own. Belfrage handles it all seamlessly, creating stories within the story that will leave readers hungry for more.
There also are a number of seductions here and for readers new to The Graham Saga, Serpents in the Garden will present a complicated story they can sink their teeth into, for it certainly can be read as a stand-alone novel. Belfrage provides enough action and development in each of the series’ books that such satisfaction can occur, and always provides background information. Having said that, readers should know that as they come to this fifth in the series, they are very likely to end it having experienced their own seduction, one that will lead them back to A Rip in the Veil. Alex is a sympathetic character and brings her own identity into the mix, and her creator deftly weaves us into the story, us wanting to carry on as she prepares to tell us more in this award-winning series.
“I love you, too,” she breathed against his skin. “I always have, and always will.”
“Always?” His fingers brushed through her hair.
“Since before I was born,” she replied, giggling at her own jest.
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 just-launched series, beginning with In the Shadow of the Storm. (And watch for more mention of Belfrage’s newest novel here at Before the Second Sleep!)