30 June, 2014

Crowbone, by Robert Low. Book review



Harper, 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-729856-3. 369 pages

Crowbone is set mainly in Ireland and Scandinavia in 979-981. The central character, Olaf Tryggvason (by-named Crowbone) is a historical figure, as are his arch-enemies Gunnhild Mother of Kings, widow of Eirik Blood-Axe, and her last son Gudrod. Other main characters are fictional. The historical Norse Earls of Orkney and various Irish kings appear as secondary characters.

In 979, Olaf Tryggvason (known as Crowbone) is seventeen and already a veteran fighter and raider. Having quarrelled with his friend Vladimir of Kiev, Crowbone is no longer welcome in the Rus lands and is at something of a loose end when he meets his old friend Orm Bear-Slayer, jarl of the Oathsworn, in Hamburg. Orm has received a message from a monk on the Isle of Man concerning a secret that could help Crowbone make good on his claim to the throne of Norway. Orm gives Crowbone silver to hire a ship and a crew, and sends him off with the trader who brought the message. But Crowbone’s rival and arch-enemy Gunnhild Mother of Kings and her last surviving son Gudrod – who between them were responsible for the death of Crowbone’s parents – have also heard of the secret, and will pursue it and Crowbone to the death. And the monk on the Isle of Man is not all he seems... As the quest unfolds and the searchers converge on their goal, Crowbone faces battle, shipwreck and treachery, and must decide who – if anyone – he is willing to trust.

In theory this is the fifth in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road, The Wolf Sea, The White Raven, and The Prow Beast (links to my previous reviews of each title). However, as the focus is on Crowbone (as implied by the title), rather than on Orm and the Oathsworn, it is much more of a stand-alone. There is no need to have read the others first, although readers who have will pick up lots of references to previous characters and events.

Like the others, Crowbone is a blood-and-thunder adventure full of action and violence. The historical Vikings were part traders and part bloodthirsty raiders, and although both aspects feature here, the bloodthirsty raider aspect is very much to the fore. Crowbone and his followers are fighting men, and fighting is what they do, whether it be a duel to the death on a deserted beach, or a pitched battle among the Irish kings. Political manipulation is another major focus, more so than in the other Oathsworn novels, reflecting Crowbone’s status as a claimant to the kingdom of Norway. The Norse game hnefatafl*, referred to as ‘the game of kings’, is a recurring theme, both as the game itself and as a  metaphor for the political manoeuvring that is as essential to the would-be Norse king as the axe in his hand and the knife in his boot.

Crowbone dominates the novel. Highly intelligent, courageous and a gifted storyteller, he has more than a hint of the uncanny about him (as was foreshadowed when he was a boy in The White Raven). Not surprisingly, given his ambitions and his traumatic early life, he is not a particularly attractive character, manipulative, suspicious and ruthless. Not a man you want to be around, as Orm muses. In this novel, Crowbone is emerging into adulthood and beginning to carve out his place in history. He is often very much alone, even when surrounded by his companions, and this is in large part his own choice, recognised as part of the price he must pay for power, however much he may occasionally hunger for human warmth.

The atmosphere is brooding, with a strong sense of supernatural undercurrents – whether due to gods, Fate or seidr magic – that could erupt at any moment. The religious divisions of the late tenth century are never far away. The Oathsworn are bound by an oath taken before Odin, yet some of Crowbone’s other followers are at least nominally Christians. They encounter Christian kings, priests and monks in Ireland and elsewhere, even as they pursue their quest for a symbol of Odin’s power to a distant land renowned as the domain of a goddess of yet older beliefs. Religious tensions simmer beneath the surface, occasionally erupting into open conflict.

The writing style is dense, liberally sprinkled with Norse words for atmosphere (like hnefatafl, seidr, etc). There is no glossary in the book, but I found no difficulty as most of the Norse terms are translated or were clear from the context (caveat that I’m interested in the Norse world, so they were probably more familiar to me than might be the case for other readers). Scots dialect words and phrases seem to be used to indicate a Norse style of speech; again, I had no difficulty, but they may not be familiar to all readers. There is a map at the front that may help to follow the characters on their far travels, although it does not always give the Norse names used in the text (e.g. Dyfflin for Dublin, Hammaburg for Hamburg) and some places are not shown at all. A helpful Historical Note at the end outlines some of the underlying history.

Gripping, violent action-adventure following Crowbone (Olaf Tryggvason) on his quest for a dark secret that may be his key to claiming the throne of Norway.






*Hnefatafl is a board game of skill, a little like chess except that it is a hunting game rather than a battle game. Readers of Terry Pratchett’s Thud! will recognise it.

28 June, 2014

June recipe: Red berry fool

Red berry fool
Fruit fools involve combining a fruit puree with custard or whipped cream or both, and are some of the easiest desserts to make.  I’ve previously posted a recipe for gooseberry fool. This variant uses red summer berries.  The photo shows a redcurrant fool, but you can use raspberries or strawberries instead, or any combination thereof. Raspberries and strawberries need no cooking.

Red berry fool

8 oz (approx 250 g) red summer berries (redcurrants, raspberries, strawberries or a mixture)
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) sugar
5 fl. oz (approx 140ml) double cream

Wash the fruit.
Hull the strawberries and raspberries. Snip the stalks off the redcurrants.
If using redcurrants, put the fruit in a saucepan with the sugar.
Heat gently, stirring from time to time, until the sugar has dissolved, then cover the pan and simmer for a few minutes until the fruit is soft and starting to break up.
Remove from the heat and crush the fruit with a wooden spoon.  You can puree it in a food processor if you like, but I never do.  If you don’t like pips, you can sieve the puree, but I never do this either.
Leave to cool.
If using strawberries or raspberries, simply mash the fruit and mix the puree with the sugar. Again, if you don’t like pips you can sieve the puree, but I never do.
If using a mixture, mix the mashed strawberries/raspberries with the cooled redcurrant pulp.
Whip the double cream until stiff.
Stir the cooled fruit pulp into the cream.
Divide between four glasses and chill in the fridge for at least an hour or overnight before serving.

For larger portions, divide the mixture between two or three glasses instead of four.


01 June, 2014

Dipper



The dipper is one of my favourite birds. Something about their neat, plump shape and the way they bob up and down as if on springs always makes me smile.

Dipper
Dippers live by the swift, clear, rocky streams and rivers of the uplands in northern Britain. You don’t necessarily have to go far into the wilds to see them; one of the best views I ever had of a dipper was in early spring along the River Brathay on the edge of Ambleside, right beside the pavement and the busy A593 main road. This dipper was not far from the shore of Ullswater.

 
Classic dipper habitat: a rocky upland stream
The dipper is a round, chunky-looking bird about six or seven inches from beak to tail, mainly dark brown and black with a pure white throat and breast, rather like a smart shirt front. It typically perches on a rock in or beside a stream, bobbing constantly up and down as if its legs were made out of springs.

Dipper perched on rock in a stream
Dippers eat aquatic insects and larvae, which they find by plunging into the water and walking along the stream bed or using their short strong wings to swim. You can see that the dipper in the first photograph has a bright yellow grub in its beak; evidently it had just had a successful foray. It flew off shortly afterwards, perhaps to take the grub to feed chicks.

16 May, 2014

The Course of Honour, by Lindsey Davis. Book review



Arrow, 1998. ISBN 978-0-099-22742-7. 341 pages.

Set mainly in Rome in AD 31-69, The Course of Honour tells the remarkable story of the lifelong love affair between Titus Flavius Vespasian (later Emperor Vespasian) and the slave and later freedwoman Antonia Caenis. Both main characters are historical figures, and their relationship is (briefly) documented in historical sources.

Caenis is a slave owned by Antonia, an important Roman noblewoman (daughter of Mark Antony and niece of Emperor Augustus). Trained in the imperial school, Caenis is a scribe and routine copyist, until Antonia needs someone to write a highly confidential and dangerous letter in a hurry and Caenis is the only scribe available. This incident sets Caenis on her path to becoming Antonia’s trusted secretary, and later a career in the Imperial administration. Titus Flavius Vespasianus is the younger son of an undistinguished noble family from a rural backwater, without much in the way of money or political influence. Both will have to make their own lives as best they can within the constraints of Roman society, Vespasian by following the cursus honorum (the ‘course of honour’) of successive military and political offices, Caenis in the Imperial bureaucracy. As their love for each other grows, both know that marriage is impossible – Roman law forbids anyone of senatorial rank from marrying a slave or ex-slave – and both know that Vespasian will have to make a suitable political marriage to someone else. Through separation and heartbreak, not to mention the perils of life under a succession of mad Emperors, the love between Caenis and Vespasian holds true – until chaos and civil war bring Vespasian within reach of the ultimate prize...

The lifelong love between Vespasian and Caenis is real, and is briefly mentioned in Roman chronicles (e.g. Suetonius) but, as usual, details are scarce. In The Course of Honour, Lindsey Davis has imagined the character of Caenis and the relationship between Caenis and Vespasian over the course of their lives. Caenis’ position in the Imperial service places her close to the heart of the political turmoil of the early Empire, and readers of I, Claudius by Robert Graves will recognise many of the events. Details of life in classical Rome are vividly portrayed, from the Imperial palace staff to renting a shabby apartment in a jerry-built tenement.

Most of the story is told from Caenis’ perspective. She is a wonderful central character, excellent company for the book’s 341 pages. Fiercely intelligent, cynical (although not quite as cynical as her racy friend Veronica), honest and realistic, the experience of life as a slave has taught her that life is unreliable and good fortune liable to be fleeting. When Vespasian has to marry for political reasons, Caenis ends their relationship and builds her own life without him, surviving the erratic Emperor Caligula and then using her contacts with the freedman Narcissus to get herself an appointment to the administration under Emperor Claudius – not forgetting to persuade Narcissus of the merits of appointing Vespasian to a senior military command for the invasion of Britain. Caenis is resolved as far as possible to rely on no-one but herself, and determined not to be dependent on anybody, not even Vespasian. Throughout the ups and downs of her life she sticks to her principles. Despite the disparity in their social status, the relationship between Caenis and Vespasian is one of equals, with respect and (sometimes painful) honesty on both sides, as well as love.

Caenis’ life story is particularly appealing because, in a society where women were expected to be invisible and valued only for political alliances and as producers of children, Caenis is a single woman without children, making her way as best she can. It’s interesting to see the familiar politics of the early Empire from the perspective of someone close to but not directly involved in events. Caenis and her friend Veronica take a wry view of the unedifying antics of the Imperial family, sometimes cynically amusing, as when Caenis remarks of Claudius’ treacherous empress Messalina that Roman men are always divorcing their wives and at least Messalina had returned the compliment, and sometimes heartbreaking, as when Caenis reflects of Claudius’ children that in their family tradition they will either have to become monsters or life will deal monstrously with them.

The writing style has the same fluency and immediacy as Lindsey Davis’ Falco novels (e.g. The Silver Pigs, reviewed here earlier) but with a more serious tone and less modern slang. I think The Course of Honour is my favourite of Lindsey Davis’ Roman novels.

A brief Author’s Note at the back outlines some of the underlying history, and a detailed map at the front shows the layout of first-century Rome and is useful for getting one’s bearings.

Remarkable story of the lifelong love between Emperor Vespasian and the freedwoman Antonia Caenis, against the background of the chaotic politics of the first-century Roman Empire.