21 February, 2009

The Whispering Bell, by Brian Sellars. Book review

Quaestor2000, 2009. ISBN 978-1-906836-01-6. 208 pages.

Disclaimer: The Whispering Bell is published by Quaestor2000, who are also publishing my novel Paths of Exile. However, I read The Whispering Bell before Quaestor2000 expressed interest in Paths of Exile.

The Whispering Bell is set in seventh-century ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Mercia, mainly in what is now the Derbyshire Peak District and the area around modern Sheffield. The main narrative spans the period from 633 to about 644, with a prologue in 620. All the main characters are fictional.

Orphaned by famine and war and raised as the ward of her father’s friend, a wealthy warrior, Wynflaed grows into a beautiful and accomplished woman, never knowing that she had a younger sister left behind by accident. When Mercia goes to war against Northumbria, Mercia’s king sends men to attack Wynflaed’s foster-father, who belongs to a rival faction. Only the kindness of the attackers’ leader, a young warrior called Wulfric, saves Wynflaed and her family from death. When Wulfric asks for Wynflaed as his wife, she is delighted to accept, and his father grants her lands and mining rights in the hills of the Peak District as her morning gift*. Wynflaed’s intelligence develops the near-defunct lead mine into a valuable asset, and with a loving husband and two healthy children it seems she has everything she could wish for. But her husband’s avaricious brother has designs on Wynflaed’s property, and news of Wulfric’s supposed death in battle gives him his chance. Outlawed and enslaved, if Wynflaed is to survive and regain what is rightfully hers she will need all her courage – and help from some unexpected quarters.

The novel is slow to start, and requires concentration to keep track of the large number of characters in different locations. I also found the prologue confusing because it took me several chapters to see how it linked to the main story. Once it gets going, however, it develops into a complex tale of love, friendship, loyalty and betrayal, with some unexpected turns.

The story focuses on the lives of relatively ordinary people, the middle-ranking warrior-farmers or people further down the social pecking order such as a mule-driver, a miner and a widow who takes in lodgers. Kings and aristocrats and their wars form the background to the story, but are not its main players. Details of daily life, such as buildings, food, farming, jewellery and possessions, are beautifully described, including a central role for the technology of mining and smelting lead. It’s known that the Romans exploited the lead ores of the Peak District, and the monks of Repton Abbey owned a lead mine at Wirksworth in the ninth century (when the Danes took it from them). A lead mine at Bakewell is also recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. What happened in between is – as usual – a mystery. The Whispering Bell takes the premise that the lead resources were mined in the seventh century, on a rather smaller scale than the earlier Roman workings, which I think is highly plausible. I was delighted to see it play a key role in the story.

Wynflaed, the central character, is beautiful, intelligent, sweet-natured and thoroughly good, almost to the point of being too perfect, and the villain is pretty much unadulterated evil (though he is given a reason for his actions). For me, the large cast of secondary characters were the most vivid and memorable, from the none-too-bright but faithful young mule-driver Eadwin to the bawdy Widow Guthrum (Terry Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg would get on famously with her), the embittered miner Eofar, the kindly outlaw Rabbian (a sort of prototype Robin Hood) and the viper-tongued, fiercely independent Emma. There is a strong sense of a real, complex, changing world full of unexpected opportunities and setbacks, populated by real people busy getting on with their own lives.

The way the paths of Wynflaed and her (unrecognised) sister cross and re-cross in the novel has to be understood as the working of implacable Fate (Wyrd, an important concept in Old English), otherwise it might feel like rather too many coincidences. A good many things are left for the reader to work out from hints and clues in the text (e.g. the identity of Wynflaed’s lost sister), so this is a novel that rewards close attention. Sometimes I’d have welcomed a little more spelling out. Although the ending of Wynflaed and Wulfric’s story is pretty clearly resolved, I felt I wanted to know what happened to some of the other characters, especially Emma and Rabbian.

Landscape descriptions capture the narrow valleys, sparkling brooks and limestone uplands of the White Peak, and convey a sense of the wonder and mystery of its great natural caverns. A helpful map at the front of the book shows the location of the main places and allows the reader to follow the various characters’ journeys. I should perhaps mention that the dialogue is liberally sprinkled with those four-letter words traditionally considered ‘Anglo-Saxon’. For the most part they are used straightforwardly to describe the, ahem, body parts and activities in question, rather than as expletives, but readers who find words like c--- and f--- offensive may like to take note. The language uses a large number of archaic terms, so readers who aren’t familiar with Old English will be glad to know that a glossary at the back provides translations.

A complex tale of greed, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal and love set in the turbulent world of seventh-century England.

*Morning gift (Old English: morgengifu). A gift of money or property made by the bridegroom’s family to the bride the morning after consummation of the marriage. It was solely hers by right, remained her property even if she was widowed, and she could manage it or dispose of it without consulting her husband.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Hm, a more battle scenes (yes, I'm shallow that way, I want action in my books) and less f-words would be more to my taste, but it still sounds like something for the TBR pile.

Carla said...

If you don't mind, say, Simon Scarrow, you won't have any problems with the number of f-words, though there aren't may battle scenes :-) Amazon.de has all Quaestor's current books listed as 1-3 week delivery now.

Rick said...

Is this just Quaestor, or is there a little boomlet of interest in this period?

Sheer speculation follows, but I've read that devolution has brought more English awareness of their Englishness than in the fairly recent past, when people could say 'England stands alone' as though Scotland and Wales were neutrals.

(Not that you ever didn't know that you aren't merely 'British!')

But if people are thinking more about Englishness, it would naturally promote interest in the earliest English people we can really say anything about.

Carla said...

Rick - I think it's just a coincidence. Two books at a small publisher do not a trend make.