27 May, 2012

The Prow Beast, by Robert Low. Book review

Fourth in the Oathsworn series, following The Whale Road (reviewed here earlier), The Wolf Sea (reviewed here earlier) and The White Raven (reviewed here earlier), The Prow Beast is set in Scandinavia and what is now Poland in 975-976. Olaf Tryggvason (Crowbone), later King of Norway, Queen Sigrith of Sweden and Styrbjorn, nephew of King Erik of Sweden, are historical (or at least, saga) figures. All the main characters are fictional.

After their quest for the cursed treasure of Attila’s tomb (recounted in the first three books, particularly The Whale Road and The White Raven), Orm and the Oathsworn have achieved fame across the Norse world. Orm has married and is now a man of consequence, presiding over his jarl’s hall and lands at Hestreng in newly unified Sweden. Orm is entrusted with fostering Koll, the young son of Jarl Brand, and also with escorting Queen Sigrith, wife of King Erik the Victorious of Sweden, home to Uppsala. But although fame is the dream of every Norse warrior, it is the gift of Odin and carries a characteristically bitter price. When old enemies come to Hestreng with fire and sword, Orm and the Oathsworn must take ship again, following the ‘prow beast’ to revenge, violence and heartbreak.

Like its three predecessors, The Prow Beast is a larger-than-life tale, “a saga to be told around the fire against the closing dark”, as the author puts it. Like the others, it captures some of the grim grandeur of the Norse sagas (not an easy feat), with men who recognise their harsh fate and go out to meet it with courage and black humour. The series has been getting steadily darker in tone since the first book, no doubt reflecting Orm’s development from youth to battle-hardened jarl, and The Prow Beast is darker yet. The Oathsworn have always been hard and ruthless men; in The Prow Beast their savagery reaches a new depth. Orm himself has become a doom-laden, brooding figure, reminiscent of the fearsome Einar the Black in The Whale Road (and reminding me of Skarp-Hedin as his fate closes around him in Njal’s Saga). There is a tremendous sense of authenticity about the pagan Norse culture, not just the gods and rituals but also the world-view of inescapable fate and ‘fair fame’, that gives the Oathsworn series a feeling of depth underlying the adventures. The writing style reinforces this, with some of the laconic style of the sagas and liberally sprinkled with vivid imagery reminiscent of Norse kennings.

Characterisation is as vivid as ever, and readers will be pleased to see the return of old friends from the previous books, such as Finn Horsehead from Skane who fears nothing (in The Prow Beast the reader finds out why), giant Botolf who can be alternately genial and ferocious, Red Njal with his granny’s endless store of proverbial wisdom (I can’t help thinking that Red Njal’s granny could have written most of the Havamal [‘Sayings of the High One’]), and young Olaf Crowbone with his uncanny insights and fund of sharp stories. Not everyone will make it to the end (though any reader familiar with the previous three books will already have guessed this). The ending itself has a satisfying bleakness that fits well with what has gone before. Whether this really is the end or whether there is scope for further adventures for the remaining Oathsworn is hard to tell – certainly Olaf Crowbone’s story has much further to run to catch up with his historical career.

A useful map at the front helps readers unfamiliar with the geography of the Baltic and eastern Europe to follow the Oathsworn’s journey, and a historical note at the back sets out some of the underlying history. I have a nagging feeling that I have read something very similar to the episode of Queen Sigrith and Botolf somewhere before, so maybe that also occurs in one of the sagas, although it isn’t explicitly identified as such in the historical note.

Dark, gripping adventure with a strong sense of pagan Norse culture, following the adventures of a Norse warrior band in the tenth century.

23 May, 2012

May recipe: Victoria sandwich cake

This classic sponge cake is simple to make and ideal for sunny spring days. You can fill it with any jam of your choice, together with whipped cream or buttercream if liked. This variant uses jam and vanilla buttercream.

Victoria sandwich cake

For the sponge cake:
4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
4 oz (approx 100 g) light brown soft sugar
2 eggs
4 oz (approx 100 g) self-raising flour

For the vanilla buttercream:
1.5 oz (approx 40 g) butter
3 oz (approx 80 g) icing sugar
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) vanilla essence

To make the sponge cakes:
Grease two sandwich cake tins about 7” (approx 18 cm) diameter and line with greaseproof paper.
Cream the butter and sugar for the sponge cake until light and fluffy.
Beat in the eggs.
Stir in the self-raising flour and mix until smooth.
Divide the mixture between the two sandwich cake tins and level the surface.
Bake at about 180 C for about 20 minutes. The cakes are done when they are light golden brown, shrinking away from the sides of the tins, and spring back when pressed lightly with a finger.
Turn out and cool on a wire rack.

To make the buttercream:
Sieve the icing sugar into a mixing bowl.
Cream the icing sugar and butter together until smooth.
Beat in the vanilla essence.

To assemble the cake:
Spread one sponge cake with the vanilla buttercream.
Spread the other with 3-4 large spoonfuls of jam of your choice.
Sandwich the cakes together with the buttercream and jam as filling.
Serve cut in slices. I expect to get about 12 slices out of this quantity, but it depends how big a slice you like.

The finished cake will keep in an airtight tin for about a week. The plain sponge cakes can be frozen; when you want to use them, thaw them out and sandwich together with jam and/or buttercream as above. I’ve never tried freezing the finished cake.

10 May, 2012

Dissolution, by CJ Sansom. Book review

Pan, 2007. ISBN 978-0-330-45079-9. 443 pages.

Dissolution is a murder mystery set in London and the fictional monastery of Scarnsea on the south coast of England in 1537-1538, against the background of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Thomas Cromwell is an important secondary character, and historical figures including Anne Boleyn and her supposed lover Mark Smeaton are important in the background. All the main characters are fictional.

Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer who occasionally undertakes commissions for Thomas Cromwell, the powerful and ruthless chief minister of Henry VIII. A keen reformer, Shardlake believes the monasteries are corrupt and supports Cromwell’s attempts to force the large monasteries into ‘voluntary’ surrender. When one of Cromwell’s commissioners, a brutal thug called Robin Singleton, is violently murdered while investigating the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate. Snowbound in the isolated monastery, Shardlake finds that nothing is what it seems, and the threads of murder extend far beyond the monastery to encompass some of the highest in the land.

Dissolution is both a clever murder mystery and a vivid portrayal of the upheavals of the English Reformation. Inevitably, a murder set in an enclosed monastery is going to evoke The Name of the Rose – and unless I am much mistaken there’s a sly Name of the Rose joke in the text – but Dissolution is much more of a classic whodunit. Clues and red herrings abound to keep the reader guessing, and the solution is not obvious in advance, or at least it was not to me.

As well as the mystery puzzle, the sequence of subsequent events combine to produce a steadily building sense of menace, echoed by Shardlake’s increasing disquiet about the worth of the cause he is serving. This for me was one of the best features of the novel, its strong period sense. The upheavals in English society resulting from Henry VIII’s break with Rome and his marital entanglements are more than just a dramatic background, they are intrinsic to solving the mystery. Furthermore, the intellectual and social background is more than just atmosphere. Conflicts arise between the reformers’ view of the Catholic church as corrupt and the role of the Church as an international institution, a custodian of knowledge, a provider of education, a route of social mobility for intelligent men from modest backgrounds, and a social institution providing a degree of help for the destitute. Class conflicts also play a part, as far-reaching changes in the social order resulting in part from the Reformation bring a new type of opportunist to the fore. The overall tone is dark, derived not just from the violent events inherent in a murder mystery but also from a pervasive sense of fear and insecurity. If Cromwell and the King are ruthless enough and powerful enough to bring down the monasteries, with hundreds of years of accumulated tradition and wealth behind them, what hope for anyone?

Shardlake is a fully realised character, a very human mix of good and bad, attractive and unattractive qualities. He is intelligent and humane, a rational thinker, a follower of Erasmus and a keen reformer, believing that religious reform will improve the human condition. Yet he also unquestioningly accepts the class distinctions of his time and defends the resulting injustices, he is quick to take offence at any real or imagined reference to his disability (Shardlake has a hunchback), and it seems his zeal for reforming the monasteries may owe something to unpleasant childhood experiences in a cathedral school as well as to Erasmus’ ideals. Nevertheless, Shardlake is driven mainly by a search for truth and justice, and his disillusion as he is forced to recognise that many ‘reformers’ are more concerned with ego, greed, vanity and abuse of power, is both convincing and poignant. The other characters are clearly portrayed as individuals, though none has the depth of Shardlake. I will be interested to see how (if?) Shardlake and his principles manage to navigate the rest of Henry VIII’s increasingly tyrannical reign as it unfolds.

The novel is narrated throughout in first person by Shardlake, in straightforward modern prose (with a refreshing absence of expletives). It has something of a lawyer’s measured tones, and the pace is best described as stately. The tale is more of an intellectual puzzle against a menacing background than an action-packed thriller, and indeed Shardlake’s disability rather limits his opportunity to play the action hero (though I have to admire the author’s nerve for the Quasimodo scene!).

A map at the front of the book explains the layout of the monastery at Scarnsea, and will be helpful for readers who like to work out how the buildings connect to each other and who could have got to where. The senior monks are also listed at the front of the book, which may help readers keep track of the names as they are introduced, although I found I did not need to refer to it. A short and helpful Historical Note at the back summarises some of the underlying history.

Intelligent, dark murder mystery set against the well-realised historical background of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

06 May, 2012

Red deer stags

Never let anyone tell you a mountain is ‘dull’ or ‘boring’. The big south-east corrie of Slioch may not be the most photogenic of areas, being short on dramatic crags and long on tussocks and bog. But as we were crossing the corrie on the way down from Slioch and Sgurr an Tuill Bhan on an early evening in spring, a red deer stag trotted up over the lip of the corrie...

... soon followed by a friend...

They took a good look at us ...

... then evidently decided we were harmless, and settled down in a sheltered hollow among the rocks and heather to chew cud and admire the view.

I’ve seen deer come quite close like this before, having obviously seen us and presumably decided there was no need to be alarmed. Either deer know the shooting season doesn’t extend to the spring, or they can tell that certain sorts of humans are unlikely to be dangerous.