The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

What an absolute joy it was to return to the magical and terrible world (at least one of them) that Philip Pullman created in his Dark Materials Trilogy. With La Belle Sauvage, Volume One of The Book of Dust, Pullman has written a gripping and utterly bewitching prequel to his earlier works. Set 10 years before the events in The Northern Lights, it nonetheless includes characters and tropes familiar to readers, which makes starting this novel all the more joyous, exciting and comforting… only, as readers of Pullman would know, the latter feeling is always temporary.

In this book, we’re introduced to the delightful Malcolm Polstead, the eleven-year-old son of publicans who own an Oxford ale-house called The Trout. Malcolm is kind, inquisitive and clever, and thoroughly enjoys his life which includes school, helping his parents and the sisters at the local priory, and listening to the many varied and interesting conversations that visitors and regulars to The Trout engage in. It’s at this time Malcolm learns not only of the prospect of a terrible flood, but of the existence of a baby named Lyra Belacqua and finds he’s not only compelled to meet her but that when he does, all his protective instincts are aroused.

When, over a few nights, groups of visitors appear who both discuss and directly question Malcolm about certain events, the baby and other people, his curiosity and desire to render aid is piqued. That their appearance also heralds some dark changes in the familiar patterns of the everyday and sinister intruders with nefarious intentions appear, suggests to Malcolm, and others around him, that dark forces are stirring.

When Malcolm and a young, contrary assistant at the pub are called upon to show courage and tenacity in the face of both natural disaster and human politicking and resistance to injustice, they are stretched to the very limits of their imagination, strength and abilities.

I found it so hard to put this book down. Beautifully written, the opening pages of the book set a slow-burning, bucolic scene that you just know will soon be disrupted. Once more, the Magesterium and those who resist its dogma are present. Likewise, the deadly Mrs Coulter, Lord Asriel and others make and appearance. Malcolm is strongly drawn and you can’t help but love and champion his every move, all the time aware he is only a child, and will not only make mistakes, but lacking experience, will also judge poorly at times. Sinking hearts as well as leaping ones are par for the course with this book as Malcolm, the accidental hero, undertakes a dangerous and all-important journey to deliver a precious package to the only person that can keep it safe.

Encountering mystical and real enemies as well as making friends in the most surprising places, the thing about Pullman’s adventures is you can’t take anything for granted. He doesn’t steer away from placing his child protagonists in terrible situations, nor having them suffer and it just makes the world more real, more frightening and something, as a reader, you heavily invest in. That the wonderful daemons (and the scenes with the children’s ever-changing daemons and Lyra’s little itty-bitty Pantalimon are glorious) are also part and parcel of this makes the investment both more worthwhile and heart-achingly difficult, as every character you encounter, love, trust, loathe, is a two-for-one deal.

A fantastic addition to a series of books that I treasure, I cannot wait for the next instalment.

 

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An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

12142746An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears is a book I resisted reading for a while for the simple reason I thought it a tad too long. There were other books I wanted and needed to read, so it kept being moved to the bottom of a very big pile. Even owning a Kindle was not reason enough to embark on such a journey. Well, more fool me.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (which is taken from a larger quote by Francis Bacon) refers to the way in which a fingerpost points in only one direction and how, when presented with “facts” and “truths” in relation to a situation, humans tend to only see one solution/suspect. So it is with this simply marvellous tale of murder and intrigue set in 1663, during the reign of Charles II, who was restored to the throne on the back of the Interregnum after the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son, Richard, to hold power.

Set in Oxford, it basically tells the story about the murder of a university don, a Dr Grove, who appears to have been poisoned. Told in four parts from four different points of view (a Venetian medical student and traveler, Marco Da Cola; a passionate and angry young man, John Prescott who is trying desperately to prove his father isn’t the traitor to the crown he was believed to be; Dr Wallis, a stern and unbending cryptographer and, finally, Anthony Wood, an archivist and historian), the tale unfolds slowly, in detail, allowing time for the reader to understand not only the incredible narrative being told, but the person telling it. Rich in detail, philosophical insights and human observation, other characters become significant, such as the bold and assertive Sarah Blundy who earns the enmity and admiration of people in equal measure, and her injured mother, the so-called witch, Anne. Then, there are also the genuine historical figures who pepper the book such as the Earl of Clarendon, Cromwell’s former spymaster, John Thurloe, scientist Robert Boyle, architect Christopher Wren, Mr Lower, Bennett, the king, and other well-known names from a heady, culturally progressive and violent period.

When Dr Grove is found murdered, all sorts of reasons are given for his death and various suspects and their motives come to light, but without spoiling the story, it’s when someone the reader least suspects confesses, and shocking events follow, that the narrative (and the reader’s heart) quickens.

But Grove’s murder is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bubbling away beneath the brutal death of this pompous man are plots and secrets aplenty as well as those who fear what the discovery of these might do to a kingdom fractured by religion, potential wars and the lascivious desires of a once deprived and exiled king.

Hidden documents, unfair accusations, half-truths, outright lies, deceptions, decoys, murder and betrayal all feature in this incredibly plotted, wonderfully detailed book that brings an era of suspicion, intrigue, distrust but also wonder to life. The accuracy of the portrayals of real and fictitious figures (though even the fictitious ones are based on real people and events) is breath-taking. I was filled with admiration and so much respect (as well as a healthy does of lexical envy) for Pears who has written a tour de force with this book. When I finally finished, I was tempted to start again so as to really appreciate the way traps were laid, truths and evasions set into place before the big and ultimate reveal.

What a magnificent tome this is. I highly recommend it for lovers of history, mystery and just damn fine writing and stories.

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Book Review: An Air of Treason by P.F. Chisolm

At first, I didn’t think I was going to enjoy this book and I blamed that feeling on the fact I’d picked up the sixth book in a series. However, after a few chapters, I fell into the story – paAn Air of Treason (Sir Robert Carey, #6)rtly helped because many of the characters are based on actual historical figures, so I already had a sense of who they were and the real-life roles they had, but also because the tale itself is so engaging.

Chisolm does a marvellous job of bringing to life the latter years of Elizabeth the First’s reign and the rise of her favourite, the Earl of Essex, and the various politicking that went on. Her lead character is Sir Robert Carey, a courtier and cousin of the queen who, in this instalment is in Oxford where the queen is on progress. Determined to wrest from her Majesty’s tight fingers wages he’s owed for being Deputy Warden of the West march with Scotland, Carey converges on Oxford as well. Instead of getting his fee, Carey is given a task – to find out what really happened to the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley’s first wife, Amy Robsart, thirty years earlier.

The death of Amy has always been considered mysterious and cast aspersions not only on the queen but her favourite, Leicester, and is long read (and hotly debated) as one of the reasons Queen Elizabeth didn’t marry him. Effectively a cold case, Carey begins his investigation, but all too quickly discovers there are those who don’t want the truth to come out. Soon, Carey is in as much danger as it seems young Amy was as well…

Parallel to this story is that of Carey’s trusted man, Sergeant Dodd, who coming to join his master, is waylaid in violent circumstances and held captive. It’s not only the mystery of Amy’s death Carey has to solve, but of Dodd’s disappearance too. Carey must find his man before it’s too late – for Dodd, Carey and the queen.

This ended up being a rollicking good read. Historically accurate with lovely fictive embellishes, it should please lovers of history and those after a page-turning murder-mystery. I liked this so much, I went and bought the first few Carey adventures and cannot wait to read them

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Book Review: A Trail of Ink by Melvin R Starr

The third book in the Hugh de Singleton series by Melvin R Starr is, thus far, my favourite. Commencing from where Book Two, A Corpse at St Andrew’s Chapel leaves off, it focuses on Hugh’s hunt for his former master, John Wyclif of Oxford’s missing books.

Thrown into life in medieval Oxford, a university town where the schism between “townies” and “gownies” is very real, Hugh must cope with the prejudices of those accorded the privileges that come with titles, even if it means remaining silent while one of these titled men steps out with the young woman to whom Hugh is fast losing his heart, the intelligent and sparkling Kate CA Trail of Ink (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #3)axton.

Filled to the brim with characters of the villainous and noble kind (not of blood, but personality), trips to academic halls, taverns, castles and medieval roadways, murders, medicines and mayhem, the novel is also peppered with the hopeless attempts at romance and the flirting of Hugh. These clumsy efforts further endear him to the reader, but not to his rival for Kate’s affections, Sir Simon.

Soon, it’s not the missing books that Hugh has to worry about so much as himself.

Once again, Starr throws the reader into the violent, heady and slower pace of medieval life, describing clothes, meals, rites and faith with a deft but subtle touch that never detracts from the pace or story. Whether Hugh is being a surgeon, bailiff, detective or lover, he’s at all times believable and complete lovable.

A terrific addition to the series.

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Book Review: A Corpse at St Andrew’s Chapel by Melvin R Starr

 

A Corpse at St Andrews Chapel (Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon Chronicles #2)

The second book in Starr’s series about Hugh de Singleton, surgeon and bailiff for Lord Gilbert Talbot, centres on solving the murder of the beadle of Bampton, Alan. Found outside St Andrew’s Chapel, Alan has had his throat ripped out and mysterious marks on his body. The coroner decides it was a wolf that killed him. Hugh, of course, isn’t convinced and so sets out to discover just who or what took the beadle’s life. Only, his investigations put his own at risk and, when he’s attacked late one night, he understands that the killer may be closer than he thinks…

In Hugh de Singleton, Starr has created the most unlikely of heroes. By his own admission, he’s not very handsome, athletic or even brave. Hugh nonetheless manages to be incredibly endearing, loyal and even, occasionally, funny (eg. He longs (in each book) to be able to arch his brow like his lord and fails). More than capable of negotiating with belligerent villagers or extracting what he wants from a lord who’s obviously glad to have his capable services, Hugh is also highly intelligent and patient. So is the story. Bringing the period (1365) to life with fabulous detail – but details that don’t detract from the story – and ambience, the daily life of a surgeon and bailiff and all the characters that make up local towns and villages and the laws, hierarchy and faith that bind them together are brought to life.

What are of particular interest with these books as well are the medical procedures, which are unpacked for the reader, sometimes in wince-worthy ways. Likewise, the food, the rituals and the expectations placed upon an individual due to their sex or roles are beautifully explored.

This is an easy and engaging read that should keep lovers of good historical fiction and mysteries more than satisfied.

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