31 December, 2011

Alexandria, by Lindsey Davis. Book review

Arrow, 2010. ISBN 978-0-099-51562-3. 355 pages.

Set in Alexandria in Egypt in 77 AD, Alexandria is the nineteenth Marcus Didius Falco historical mystery. Heron of Alexandria, inventor of ingenious machines, is a historical figure with a cameo role. All the main characters are fictional.

Marcus Didius Falco, Roman informer and investigator, is on holiday in Alexandria with his wife Helena Justina, their two small children and adopted teenage daughter, intending to see two of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pyramids at Giza and the Pharos (lighthouse) at Alexandria. When the head of the Great Library is found dead in a room locked from the outside, the day after being a dinner guest of Falco’s family, Falco is called on to investigate. Soon Falco finds himself dealing with academic rivalries, fraud, arson and a man-eating crocodile – not quite the relaxing holiday he had in mind.

I’m a long-standing fan of the Falco series (for a review of the first Falco novel, The Silver Pigs, see earlier post). Alexandria seemed to me to fall somewhat short of the standard set by the earlier books. Historical background comes in chunks like excerpts from a travel guide or historical textbook inserted into the text. In a way this is appropriate, since Falco and his family really are tourists in Alexandria and might be expected to read bits out of a tourist guide to the city, and sometimes it has a comic effect, as with Helena’s impromptu lecture on the hydraulic fire pump. However, I mostly found it clumsy. The central mystery is resolved, but I found the solution an anticlimax.

On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable romp through the Great Library and Museion of Alexandria, one of the great centres of learning of the world, in the company of Falco’s eccentric family and a cast of colourful misfits. Falco himself still has the world-weary, cynical humour that was such a feature of the earlier novels, and seeing him as a family man with Helena and their two small daughters shows up his soft side. Helena is a cool, steadying presence, though she has relatively little to do here. She and Falco are plainly as much in love as ever, which is saying something after 19 books’ worth of adventures. Falco’s disreputable father turns up on his usual quest for a dodgy deal, this time in collusion with an equally disreputable uncle, the uncle’s live-in boyfriend and Thalia, the tough snake-charming exotic dancer and businesswoman who first appeared in Venus in Copper.

The secondary characters are at least as much fun. Among the academic staff of the Museion we meet the handsome Zoo Keeper, convinced of his irresistible attractiveness to women, the over-promoted Director who makes the lives of his staff a misery, the taciturn astronomer, the blustering law professor and the soapy Head of Philosophy intent on smarming his way up the greasy pole. All of them are after the now-vacant Librarian’s job, and to complicate matters further, two of them are also after the same woman.

The historical mathematician and inventor Heron of Alexandria, inventor of an early steam engine and the first known vending machine, has a charming cameo role, and a reclusive scholar at the Library turns out to be compiling a book that looks remarkably like a forerunner of the medieval bestiaries. Some splendid set-piece action sequences make full use of the setting, including a man-eating crocodile at the Zoo and a chase up the tower of the Pharos. (In a mystery/adventure novel set in a city with the highest lighthouse in the known world, it would be surprising if the characters didn’t get to the top of it in some dramatic fashion...)

A street plan at the front of the book – conjectural, since earthquakes and coastline change have obliterated most of first-century Alexandria – is helpful for following the action through the streets. A character list at the front, with the trademark irreverent asides, may help readers keep track of the cast. There is no author’s note, which I thought rather a shame as I would have liked to know if there were other historical cameos besides Heron and his experimental steam engine.

Entertaining historical mystery featuring the cynical Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco, set against the exotic backdrop of first-century Alexandria. An enjoyable and amusing read, if not quite up to the earlier Falco novels.

23 December, 2011

Locations: Mam Tor or Shivering Mountain, Derbyshire

Mam Tor is a prominent hill in the Derbyshire Peak District, part of the ridge forming the southern rim of the Edale valley (see earlier post on Edale).

Map link: Mam Tor

Mam Tor is a distinctive dome-shaped hill, standing 517 metres (over 1600 feet) above sea level and about 350 metres (about 1000 feet) above the valley floor, and with an impressively steep south-eastern face (marked with crag symbols on the map, and visible on the right of the picture below).

Mam Tor from the south

Mam Tor is also known locally as ‘Shivering Mountain’, because of the frequent landslips on its unstable south-eastern face. A huge landslide occurred on this slope several thousand years ago, forming the steep scarp just below the summit.

Mam Tor from the east, showing the steep upper part of the south-eastern face

Lower down the slope, the debris from this ancient landslide hasn’t stabilised yet. Several attempts have been made to build a Sheffield to Manchester through-road across the lower slope, and the hill has shrugged off every one of them. In 1979 the highway authority gave up and closed the road permanently. You can see the hairpin line of the road in the photo below, running below the steep section of the face.

Mam Tor from the east, showing the line of the defunct A625 road

The British Geological Survey has a brief description of the landslip and some impressive photographs (click on the links to Figures 2-5) of the wrecked A625 road.

The summit of Mam Tor forms a nearly flat plateau, and was the location of what must have been an impressively-sited early Iron Age hill fort. A double line of ramparts encircled the top of the hill (marked as earthworks on the map linked above), still clearly visible today.

Hill fort ramparts on Mam Tor, visible as two near-horizontal parallel lines near the top

‘Mam’ is of course instantly recognisable as a variant of ‘Mum’, Mom’, ‘Mama’, all forms of early infant sounds used to signify ‘mother’. In Scottish Gaelic place names ‘Mam’ also appears as a place name element referring to rounded hills (e.g. the west Highland mountain range called the Mamores); it is sometimes translated as ‘breast-shaped hill’, which has obvious connections with the ‘mother’ meaning.

‘Tor’ means a rocky peak, a steep hill, a prominent rock or a pile of rocks. ‘Tor’ occurs commonly in place names in the south-west of England (Glastonbury Tor being a famous example), predominantly in Devon and Cornwall, and in the Derbyshire Peak District. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it appears in Old English in a charter from 847 and may be one of the few borrowings from Brittonic (ancestor of modern Welsh) into Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it is cognate with modern Welsh ‘twr’, Old Welsh ‘twrr’, meaning ‘heap, pile’, and with Gaelic ‘torr’, meaning a steep or conical hill or a mound. I wonder if it is also related to the Latin ‘turris’, origin of ‘tower’.

So the name ‘Mam Tor’ means something like ‘Hill of the Mother’ (if you take the ‘Mam’ element to mean ‘mother’), or ‘rounded hill’ (if you take the ‘Mam’ element to refer to the shape of the hill), or a bit of both. If the name meant ‘mother’, it is possible to speculate that it may indicate some cultural significance. Possibly the hill was regarded as a central place for the people living in the surrounding areas, perhaps considered to be the ‘mother’ of their lands or fortunes. It may have had connections with a female supernatural force (a sort of ‘Mother Nature’?) or a female deity (a ‘mother goddess’). Kathleen Herbert imagined a Mother Goddess cult centred on the Mam Tor area in the mid-seventh century, in her novel Ghost in the Sunlight. The Iron Age hill fort is consistent with the hill having been regarded as an important place in prehistory.

By the time of Paths of Exile, set in the early seventh century, the Iron Age hill fort on Mam Tor would have long since gone out of use. However, the ramparts may well still have been recognisable, and the hill may still have had some local significance. Although I have not gone as far as Kathleen Herbert’s interpretation of it as a major pagan cult centre, it features in Paths of Exile as the traditional site of a feast held to mark the onset of winter.

Both elements of the name Mam Tor have cognates in Celtic languages*. There are several more ‘Tor’ place names in the Derbyshire Peak District; I can think of Higger Tor near Hathersage, Upper Tor and Nether Tor on Kinder Scout, Dovestone Tor, Back Tor and White Tor on Derwent Edge, and Back Tor on the ridge east of Mam Tor, and that’s not an exhaustive list. The occurrence of ‘Tor’ place names is one of the reasons why I imagined the language spoken in the area in the early seventh century to have been a Brittonic language (an ancestor of modern Welsh and Breton).

*Celtic languages are generally divided into two groups; Q-Celtic (Scottish and Irish Gaelic) and P-Celtic (Welsh, Cornish, Breton).

20 December, 2011

December recipe: Venison in red wine

A robust, richly flavoured casserole is comforting in the dark, cold days of mid-winter. This casserole can be made with venison or beef, according to preference.

Serves 4.

Venison in red wine

12 oz (approx 350 g) stewing venison
4 oz (approx 100 g) smoked streaky bacon
Half an onion
1 garlic clove
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
Approx 4 fl. oz. (approx 100 ml) red wine
0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) redcurrant jelly
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried rosemary


4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour
2 oz (approx 50 g) suet
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) sage, or other herbs of choice

Cut the venison into cubes about half an inch (approx 1.5 cm) in size. Chop the bacon.
Peel and chop the onion.
Fry the venison and bacon in cooking oil in a heatproof casserole over a medium to high heat until browned.
Add the onion and crushed garlic and fry another minute or two until the onion starts to colour.
Stir in the flour and mix well to coat the meat.
Pour in the wine and water. Bring to the boil, stirring all the time.
Stir in the redcurrant jelly and dried rosemary. Season with salt and pepper.
Cover the casserole and cook in a moderate oven about 170 C for about one hour while you make the dumplings.

To make the dumplings, mix the self-raising flour, suet and sage in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper.
Gradually add sufficient cold water to mix to a soft dough. If the mix is floury, add a little more water; if sticky, you have added too much water, so add a bit more flour.
Divide the dough into 8 pieces and roll into balls.
Add the dumplings to the casserole.
Return the casserole to the oven for a further half an hour (one and a half hours in total), by which time the dumplings will have swelled up and cooked through.
Serve with jacket potatoes and vegetables of choice.

The casserole can be frozen without the dumplings

10 December, 2011

Winterbirth, by Brian Ruckley. Book review

Orbit, 2006, ISBN 978-1-84149-423-4. 537 pages.

Winterbirth is the first of a fantasy trilogy set in the invented ‘Godless World’, an imaginary location on the north-western edge of a continent. It is inhabited by two main races each subdivided into separate, often warring, clans, tribes and kingdoms. The Kyrinin live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in forests and mountains, and their two main clans in Winterbirth, Fox and White Owl, are implacable hereditary enemies. The Huanin, humans with approximately medieval technology, are divided into Bloods (clans) grouped on religious lines into two broad alliances, the Black Road in the north and Haig in the south. Kyrinin and Huanin can interbreed to produce na’kyrim, who cannot have children but who can access a supernatural power called the Shared.

Orisian, nephew of the Thane of Lannis-Haig, is just entering adulthood. Inexperienced and with no great talent as a warrior, he is still mourning the deaths of his mother and elder brother and is anxious for his father who suffers periodic severe depression. All these concerns are swept aside when the Lannis lands are attacked and overrun by the Horin-Gyre Blood of the Black Road, bent on exacting revenge for their defeat and exile many years earlier, and acting in alliance with the White Owl Kyrinin. Orisian is wounded in the attack and is saved only by his faithful shieldman Rothe and the unexpected help of two Kyrinin from the Fox clan. With his lands in ruins, most of his family dead and the Horin-Gyre warriors determined to slaughter every last member of the Lannis ruling family, Orisian faces a desperate journey south to the precarious safety of the allied Kilkry Blood. But as well as the pursuing Horin-Gyre warriors and the sinister Inkallim, a more deadly power is at large – the na’kyrim Aeglyss who wields a terrible and destructive power in the Shared that may plunge the whole world into war and darkness.

Winterbirth is a dark tale focused on destruction, despair, battle and blood. The tagline on the front cover says “The greatest tales are written in blood...”, which gives the reader a fair idea of what to expect. I found the first 90 pages rather slow, as the rival political factions and the existing order are introduced and the back-story of the enmity between Haig and Black Road is filled in. Although it may seem slow, the build-up is necessary to establish the various factions and characters, because when events do start to move, they move fast as Orisian has to run for his life. I found the list of characters at the back and the two maps at the front invaluable for keeping my bearings.

Although a fantasy novel, Winterbirth does not involve a great deal of explicit magic (a plus point for me). The Kyrinin are not human – a sort of cross between elves and aboriginal hunter-gatherers – and have skills that humans do not have, such as keener senses and greater healing abilities, but this could be read as technology rather than magic as such. The major supernatural element is the ‘Shared’, which seems to permit such things as telepathy and a form of mind control. I suspect from the ending of Winterbirth that the Shared is going to play a much greater role in the rest of the trilogy, as Aeglyss’ sinister powers become more developed.

Much of the plot in Winterbirth itself is driven by political rivalries, both between the major human groupings (Black Road versus Haig) and within them. The various kingdoms have a complex and well-realised history of political and religious conflicts, and for me this was a strong point of the novel. The Black Road clans believe in predestination and were exiled for their creed a century or so before the events of Winterbirth. They want revenge on the Haig clans who defeated and exiled them, they want their old lands back, and they want to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of the world. Cutting across this major conflict, there are many internal conflicts within both Haig and Black Road, and the internal politicking between rival factions seems as significant as the main struggle.

Another feature I liked very much was the landscape, particularly the mountain and moorland descriptions. The topography is reminiscent of the western Highlands of Scotland, with long mountain ridges dividing glens and sea lochs, and the rugged Car Criagar with its crags, biting winds and treeless uplands reminded me of the Cairngorm plateau (minus the ruined city, of course!).

Winterbirth is a hefty book at over 500 pages, yet it reads more as the first part of a larger story than as the first book in a sequence. The ‘end’ is more of a temporary pause with most of the plot threads still open, and is clearly setting up for Books 2 and 3. For readers who like a story to reach a definite end, it may be a good idea to have the remaining two books lined up. This ‘setting up’ function may account for why Orisian, the central character, seems to be rather a passive figure for much of the novel, being chased from place to place by his enemies and with little opportunity to influence events, let alone to take control and take the fight to the opposition. There is a coming-of-age element to the narrative as Orisian has to grow into the new role so unexpectedly and unwillingly thrust upon him, so I hope he may take on a more active role in the later books. If I’m correct that Aeglyss’ sinister supernatural powers will come more to the fore, it will be interesting to see how Orisian’s role plays out.

First book in a dark fantasy trilogy set in a well-realised imaginary world, with political, religious and clan conflicts and a sinister undercurrent of magic.