12 May, 2011

Moon In Leo, by Kathleen Herbert. Book review

Trifolium Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9568104-0-3. 402 pages.

Moon In Leo is set in Furness in northern England in 1678, against the background of the Popish Plot. Historical figures including the Earl of Shaftesbury, Earl of Rochester and Titus Oates play important off-stage roles, and others such as the Quaker Margaret Fox appear as minor characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Highly intelligent and educated by her father as a scholar in alchemy, Rosamund Halistan has expected that she and her beloved twin brother Stephen will carry on their father’s work together, unaffected by the political, social and economic troubles brewing in Restoration England. When an attempt is made on Stephen’s life, Rosamund realises that political turmoil is not some distant irrelevance but a real threat to her and her family. Trying to protect her brother and then in danger of her own life, Rosamund comes into contact with two contrasting men, the gentlemanly scholar and fellow-alchemist Simon Challis, and the notorious rake Henry Ravensworth. Both want to marry her, but Rosamund fears that one or both is an enemy with designs on her brother’s life and her inheritance. As treason and plot turn murderous, Rosamund must decide who – if anyone – she can trust.

Moon In Leo is set almost exclusively in the small area of the Furness peninsula in what is now south Cumbria (then Lancashire-over-sands), south of the main Lake District mountains and jutting out into the vast tidal flats of Morecambe Bay between the estuaries of the Leven and Duddon rivers (see map link here). So powerful is the sense of place in the writing that not only can every step of the action be precisely located, the landscape itself almost seems to be an actor in the drama, from the brooding hills around dark Frith Hall to the sunny farmland at Scales and the wide skies and mercurial tides of the Cartmel sands. (Lest anyone think that the quicksands and rip-tides are a melodramatic invention, Morecambe Bay can and does claim lives even today). Readers who know the area will recognise many of the locations, and readers who don’t will find themselves transported there by the writing. I’m reasonably familiar with the Coniston fells, less so with the plains and the coast, and I had great fun tracing the routes and places on a large-scale topographical map.

Rosamund Halistan is the central character, and most of the novel is told in third person from Rosamund’s viewpoint. So it is through Rosamund’s eyes that the reader sees most of the world, and forms a first impression of most of the other characters. Nothing is as it seems, however, and Rosamund often finds herself having to revise her original assessments – sometimes drastically so – as she learns more about the other people and the complicated relationships between them. Everyone is an individual with their own foibles and motivations, past history, values, hopes and desires. As the story unfolds, hidden connections are revealed, and Rosamund comes to realise that many people are far more complex than she originally assumed. For all her intelligence and learning, Rosamund has been educated for all her 18 years in an academic ivory tower, leaving her ill-equipped to navigate the world outside, especially when she comes into contact with the murky world of politics and plot. Warm-hearted and deeply loyal to her family and the philosophy in which she was raised, she is inclined to leap to conclusions that often turn out to be unfounded and lead her into trouble. Her cleverness and courage go a long way towards extricating her from problems, though she also has to rely on help from other, often unexpected, quarters. Rosamund’s alchemical philosophy is all about the search for truth and perfection, and this is neatly paralleled by her search for the truth about the events and people in her life.

As Rosamund, her father and Simon Challis are all practitioners of the occult, supernatural elements such as demons, visions, out-of-body travel through time and space, and use of a crystal ball to see and control distant events play a large part in the novel, almost tipping into historical fantasy. I say ‘almost’, because although these incidents are all too real to Rosamund and are central to her beliefs and actions, not all the characters believe in the occult and it’s largely left up to the reader to decide which beliefs to share. As one of the characters wryly observes, “He took a sigil [magical symbol used to conjure demons] to Chapel Island, but he also took a loaded gun.” Or “... they had a stroke of luck, as Harry would have put it. Rosamund would have said that the Power guiding the universe was looking kindly on their intentions.” Conjuring tricks and charlatanry feature alongside the alchemy and occult practices, and are just as readily accepted as real by some of the characters. Indeed, one of the most magical episodes in the novel is explicitly shown as an elaborate trick performed with benign intent and happy outcome. I wonder if there is a subtle point there about the nature of magic and belief.

The range of beliefs and cultures in the novel is a particularly attractive feature. As well as alchemy and black magic, there are roles for Puritans, Catholics, gypsies, rational materialism bordering on atheism, and a mother-goddess fertility cult closely tied to the traditional rhythms of the farming year. There is a range of political ideas as well, with Royalist versus Parliamentary rivalries left over from the English Civil War only a generation before, disputes over the royal succession, factions disaffected at corruption in government and licentiousness at court, and the egalitarian ideas of the Society of Friends*. The characters think and believe as well as feel, and there is a real sense of turmoil and political upheaval as competing ideas clash.

A list of characters at the front of the book is very helpful for keeping everyone straight, especially in the early chapters as different groups of people are introduced in quick succession. A hand-drawn map at the front is also useful for following the characters’ movements (and the 1:25,000 topographical map in the link above provides even more detail).

Compelling tale of a young woman’s search for truth and love, set in the romantic landscape of Furness in turbulent post-Restoration England.

*Also known as Quakers


Meghan said...

I always love reading your reviews. They're very detailed and well-written!

Meghan said...

I love reading your reviews! They're always so well-written!

Annis said...

Another excellent review, Carla :) I’m a long-time fan of Kathleen Herbert’s “Northumbria” trilogy, as you know, and was delighted to see that her last novel had finally made it into print after so many trials and tribulations.

I have slightly mixed feelings about “Moon in Leo”, a lively tale set around the aftermath of the English Civil War, the Popish Plot and the genesis of Monmouth's Rebellion. This is a novel I would have adored 20 years ago. Although it’s very readable and I enjoyed it, it’s just a little bit too lushly romantic and melodramatic for my current more astringent tastes, and the heavy reliance on the arcane in the plotline didn’t totally capture me. Rosamund’s frequent determination to take the path which was clearly wrong had me feeling at times as if I was at a pantomime, seeing impending disaster to which the audience is party but the heroine completely oblivious. I kept wanting to shout “No, no, don’t do it, you silly girl!”, so I guess I certainly became involved in her story :) No-one ever said intelligence guarantees commonense, after all, and her resourcefulness, as you point out, saves her bacon more often than not.

“Moon in Leo” will certainly appeal to those who enjoy beautiful, spirited heroines, and a well-written story with plenty of action, intrigue and a touch of the occult. I agree that KH evokes her setting with great skill. She is one of those authors - Rosemary Sutcliff is another who comes to mind - who totally inhabit a landscape and can make it a living, breathing entity for the reader.

Carla said...

Meghan - Thanks! I'm glad you enjoy them!

Annis - thank you. I agree, I liked the three Cumbrian novels very much and was pleased to see Moon In Leo in print. The occult elements are a bit strange, especially at first. I took them as Rosamund's beliefs (in much the same way as I would with a character's religious beliefs) and could accept that she believed them even if I didn't necessarily agree. Very true that intelligence doesn't guarantee common sense - I think that may reflect Rosamund's extremely sheltered upbringing; she seems hardly to have left her home or taken much interest in the outside world all her life, and when she suddenly has to venture out she's hopelessly ill-equipped. The setting was one of the best features for me. I love being able to trace a story on a map and recognise exactly which farm, or which hill, or which hill-tarn appears in the tale :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

This has been on my Amazon wishlist since you mentioned it recently, Carla - I'm so thrilled to see the area where I grew up play such a huge role in a novel!

Connie Jensen said...

I agree Meghan- another detailed and scholarly review.

Annis- thank you for your fresh and slightly critical views. We have had so many very positive comments and reviews of "Moon in Leo" that I was beginning to think that readers would become suspicious, and think we had written them ourselves- it happens!

I would like to post your comments on the trifolium blog, or better still, would you be willing to write a guest post?

I am too close to both the book and the writer to be critical!

Connie Jensen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annis said...

Connie, you are more than welcome to post my comments on the Trifolium blog if you'd like, though a guest blog post is probably a bit beyond me :)

I do think "Moon in Leo" is compelling and beautifully written. As I said, 20 years ago I would have loved it unreservedly. Unfortunately I'm no longer the romantic I once was, having morphed over the years into a crusty old woman :) I'm not surprised that you've had a lot of positive feedback - it's a novel with a lot of appeal.

Annis said...

The landscape as a strong presence in its own right is a notable feature of your own work, Carla. It's one of the striking aspects in "Paths of Exile", and I wasn't surprised to discover that you'd personally covered a lot of the ground you describe so vividly :)

Rick said...

Purely a side point, but what was the relationship of alchemy, at that period, to what would eventually become chemistry?

Reading between the lines I'd guess 'not much,' because you emphasize the occult element without any hint of proto-science.

Connie Jensen said...

This comment was written by Mike Jensen, the editor of Moon in Leo

Rick raises an interesting point.

In The Alchemist (1610), Ben Jonson portrays a pair of confidence tricksters, Subtle and Face, who cheat gullible and greedy "investors" out of their money, and their metal goods. This was a play that remained in performance right through the 17th century, obviously presenting a popular view of alchemists.

But many scholars we think of as the earliest scientists also practised alchemy. Isaac Newton, for instance, produced more writing on the study of alchemy than he did on either optics or physics. At the time of his death, he had 169 books on the topic of alchemy in his personal library.

During the 17th century, practical alchemy started to evolve into chemistry, as it was renamed by Robert Boyle in his book, The Sceptical Chemist.

In Moon in Leo, Kathleen Herbert represents Adam Halistan as both a mystical scholar and a practical experimental scientist.
There is a purpose built and fully equipped laboratory in his house at Park.
"My father is a respected scholar, known to the Royal Society. He corresponds with Mr Evelyn and Mr Boyle, both of them the King's friends," claims Rosamund.

Rosamund is amused when Lady Elizabeth refers to him as "a man of learning, a great chemist."
"She guessed that 'chemist' stood for 'alchemist' on Lady Elizabeth's lips, with all that meant of vulgar misconceptions about turning lumps of iron into gold." (my italics)

However, earlier in the story, Stephen has ridiculed Rosamund's use of occult names for chemicals as old-fashioned:

""O Rose, must you use these fantastic names? I'm tired of hearing about Green Lions and Hidden Kings! If you're going to work with mercury and antimony, or extract iron from a thunderstone, why can't you say so in plain English?"
"You know very well why."
"My poor girl, are you afraid Sir John Westby will have you swung for a witch?"
"Have you forgotten how many of our family died horribly for other men's fear or greed?"
He laughed impatiently.
"Those days are long past. You can put anything you like down on paper and read it to the Royal Society, provided you make it scientifically accurate - and clear."

Kathleen has in mind that, for all his efforts to follow the developments of London based scientists, Adam and his daughter are rather behind the times in the backwater of Furness.

Rosamund has been brought up in an ethos of secrecy and coded language, fuelled by memories of persecution.

(Possible Spoiler)
Maybe that is why she is drawn to Simon, the occult mage, rather than someone more transparent.

Annis said...

I see that a useful answer to Rick's question about the relationship of alchemy to chemistry has been posted on the Trifolium website, along with other points readers have raised about "The Moon in Leo".

Carla said...

Annis - what a nice thing to say! Thank you, and I am delighted you enjoyed the landscape descriptions in Exile.

Rick - Good question. Historically, this is the period of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, who studied alchemy and who were also the founders of large parts of modern chemistry and physics. So alchemy was part of the body of knowledge that at this time was being developed into the foundations of modern science. This science aspect is part of the background of the novel, and Robert Boyle actually gets a mention, though he doesn't appear. Some of the characters - generally the ones who have seen more of the world than Rosamund! - have something of this view. Rosamund's brother Stephen, who has been travelling and studying at universities in Europe, ticks her off gently on his return home for using occult names and tells her she could present her experiments to the Royal Society as long as they are accurate and clear. Harry Ravensworth, who doesn't believe in the supernatural, regards alchemy as interchangeable with chemistry, "an interesting and intelligent pastime, a subject for papers to the Royal Society".

However, for Rosamund alchemy is more of a religion (there's a line somewhere that refers to it as "her own secretive faith"). Because Rosamund is the central character and most of the story is seen through her eyes, Rosamund's view of alchemy as occult/ religion/ magic is the aspect that dominates. Possibly if Harry Ravensworth had been the central character the science aspect would have been dominant! Both are there in the background environment of the novel, but it's Rosamund's beliefs that come front and centre in the story because she's the central character. Hence the emphasis in the review.

Carla said...

I see that Mike and Connie Jensen and Annis have answered the question about alchemy!

Annis said...

How funny- Connie and I must have posted at the same time :)

Carla said...

Annis - I think you posted at slightly different times, but I happened to moderate both comments together (after having written my reply to Rick's question!) so they appeared at the same time.

Rick said...

Connie, thanks for passing along Mike Jensen's reply!

The situation sounds very much like the relationship of astronomy and astrology slightly earlier.

For novelistic purposes I can imagine that the occult element was of more direct interest. (Might be different in a mystery, but for novels in general ...)

Carla said...

Rick - astrology is bound up with Rosamund's alchemy, reflected in the title. There are a couple of coded prophecies in the novel that Rosamund tries to decode with reference to astrology and alchemy.