Posts Tagged ‘Middle Ages’

I thought I’d be tied up today reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults. But I’ve decided to hold off because the early reviews from people I trust have been tepid, plus I’m not in the mood for a dark comedy of manners that also has been called depressing, dreary and dull.  Oh, dear. The magic is apparently missing, and not just the wands and wizards of Harry Potter but that marvelous alchemy of words, character and story that make you regret coming to book’s end. I want something good. Something Red.

Actually, the title of  poet Douglas Nicholas’ first novel refers to some unseen menace stalking travellers in the Pennines Mountains of west England in the Middles Ages. Young Hob glimpses it in a troubling winter’s night dream, “It was something that was, that was white, that gleamed, it was a gleam of white, and something else, something red.”

Molly senses it, too, in the wind, and wants no part of it. An exiled Irish queen with a gift for music and healing who communes with crows, she first leads her small troupe — her fey granddaughter Nemain, her silent companion and former crusader Jack, the apprentice Hob — to a mountain monastery. It’s a place of refuge from roving bandits for all manner of travellers — a group of masons heading south, assorted pilgrims, horse traders, Norman soldiers, an elderly aristocrat and her entourage. But its peace is shattered by the discovery outside the gates of a murdered monk, his broken corpse like an inexpertly butchered deer.

Molly’s party warily moves on to the warm hospitality of a wayfarer’s inn, singing for their supper and a warm bed for the night. Their journey south is thwarted by a rockslide, a blizzard and something that moves in the shadows and leaves blood in the snow. They seek shelter in the heavily fortified walls of Castle Blanchefontaine, whose Norman lord is a master of the hunt. There’s feasting and storytelling, but Hob awakes in the night to frightful noises. Something is inside the castle walls.

Nicholas’ writes with artful assurance, and Something Red vividly evokes a realistic medieval world with hundreds of small, telling details, from a page’s duties at dinner to the pudding-bowl hairstyles of the Normans. That something otherworldly is abroad in the forbidding landscape makes perfect sense in a world that has not yet discarded magic, where Christian beliefs still mingle with pagan tradition. I suppose Something Red is a fantasy, but it reads like historical fiction akin to Robin Hood’s adventures or Tennyson’s tales of King Arthur. Something memorable. Something legendary. Something good.

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Douglas Nicholas’ Something Red (Atria Books via NetGalley), but as soon as it expired, I bought the e-book for my Nook. Rowling can wait.

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