26 January, 2013

A Swarming of Bees, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

Acorn Digital Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-909122-22-2. 271 pages

A Swarming of Bees is a historical mystery set in and around the monastery of Streonshalh (modern Whitby) in seventh-century Northumbria. Abbess Hild and the poet Caedmon are historical figures and major characters, and other historical figures including King Oswy of Northumbria, Bishop Wilfrid, Aldfrith of Northumbria and Dagobert II of Merovingian France appear in secondary roles. The central character, Fridgyth, is mentioned by Bede but little more than her name is recorded. Other main characters are fictional.

In 664 AD, as the great Synod held at Streonshalh (Whitby) draws to its close, two young scholars arrive secretly from Ireland, fleeing an unspecified danger and seeking protection from Abbess Hild. Fridgyth, the abbey herb-wife, gives them shelter. When she deduces the identity of one of the boys, she guesses what the danger might be, but soon all her attention is claimed by tending the sick as an epidemic of plague sweeps through the monastery and its surroundings. As the disease rages and the death toll mounts, Fridgyth comes to suspect that not all the deaths are natural. Is there a murderer at work in the monastery?  And can Fridgyth find out who it is in time to prevent further deaths?

Regular readers may remember that some years ago I read and greatly enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s young adult mystery set in Hild’s monastery at Whitby, Wolf Girl (reviewed here earlier).  So I was delighted to hear about this new mystery in the same setting.  A Swarming of Bees takes place a year or so after Wolf Girl and features some of the same characters, but it is a stand-alone novel.  There is no need to have read Wolf Girl first.

I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I think I liked A Swarming of Bees  even better than Wolf Girl. Hild’s seventh-century monastery at Whitby is vividly portrayed as a working community at the hub of a functioning economy. Managing the resources required to maintain a year-round supply of food, clothing and fuel for a sizeable monastery, not to mention the specialist supplies needed for producing illuminated manuscripts, was not a trivial task. Commodities and services could not just be ordered in; for the most part anything the community needed would have to be made or grown locally, and people with a wide range of skills would be needed to keep the monastery working.  Anyone who imagines a seventh-century abbess leading a life of pious contemplation is wide of the mark. In modern terms the role was probably closer to managing director of a sizeable group of companies. Vegetable growing, livestock rearing, weaving and boat-building all form part of the background, and are just as important as prayer, study and manuscript writing.

Abbess Hild, managing all this day-to-day and also overseeing an international centre of learning that was a university of its day, is as capable and forceful as I always imagined her. Fridgyth, the herb-wife, is a similar age to Hild, and the two women are close friends, despite their differences in social rank and religion. Fridgyth was raised as a heathen and has only half-converted to Christianity, still retaining many of the older beliefs and customs. This is entirely plausible, as the Northumbrian aristocracy had officially converted less than 40 years before, and it may have taken some time for Christian beliefs to percolate the whole of early English society. Hild’s tolerance of her friend’s customs, as well as being a sympathetic trait, is also in line with Bishop Aidan’s softly-softly approach to converting Northumbria, and with Pope Gregory’s advice to his Roman missionaries.  Caedmon, who appears in Bede as a shy herdsman who became a great vernacular poet, is another major character, with an intriguing take on Bede’s tale of how his poetic talent was recognised.

The mystery is ingenious – I sort of guessed part of the answer early on (as I recognised one of the symptoms from distant days studying chemistry), but I did not guess how, who or why in advance.  I also liked the presence of historical figures from Ireland and Merovingian France in the tale, cleverly picking up on known connections of the Northumbrian royal house. The description of the plague as it devastates families and communities (a historical event, although the nature of the disease is uncertain) was especially evocative. Life was fragile, even in time of peace.

I particularly liked the character of Fridgyth. With her warmth, humanity, honesty, practical common sense and experience of real life, she is an attractive and sympathetic character. Not without flaws; her forthright approach to investigation and hasty actions precipitate at least one crisis, and she is not immune from professional jealousy. She gives the whole book a warm-hearted feeling; life may be harsh, but it does not have to be miserable.

A helpful Author’s Note at the back outlines the underlying history and the fiction woven in the gaps, and a list of historical characters may also be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the period.  There is a useful map at the front showing the layout of Streonshalh monastery as imagined in the novel.

Beautifully written, gentle historical mystery set in Hild’s seventh-century monastery at Whitby, with strong characterisation and a clear sense of time and place.


Constance Brewer said...

Now that is a neat idea for a historical - set in a seventh-century monastery. And a mystery to boot. It sounds interesting enough that I might have to go search it out. Thanks, Carla. :)

Carla said...

Constance - I enjoyed it very much. Highly recommended, especially if you also enjoyed Wolf Girl (also a mystery set in a seventh-century monastery)

Gabriele Campbell said...

I caught an evil plotbunny - the events culminating in the battle of Brunanburh (and the German variant with the battles of Riade and Haithabu, since King AEthelstan's sister married King Heinrich the Fowler's son Otto). That's pretty much outside my time range and now I can read up on 10th century England. Germany is a bit easier since I already got a bunch of books about the Ottonian emperors. A pest upon those plotbunnies. ;-)

Rick said...

First of all, what a wonderful title!

Is Fridgyth a lay 'employee' of the abbey, rather than a nun? Other than that (possible) detail, I'm inevitably reminded a bit of Cadfael, given her specialized skills and monastic setting.

And now after all these years I learn that the Synod of Whitby was really - at the time, and for however long after, the Synod of Streonshalh. Or was the presumably nearby town already Whitby?

Nicola Griffith said...

Okay. It's going on my list...

Beth said...

I particularly like the idea of Chritianity coexisiting with older beliefs even in the monastery. Will have to look this one up; thanks for reviewing! :)

Carla said...

Gabriele - good luck with your research.

Rick - I like the title too. Its significance becomes apparent as the plot unfolds. Yes, Fridgyth is a lay member at this point in her career. She also reminds me a little of Brother Cadfael in her humanity and curiosity - both are attractive and sympathetic characters. I'd be very happy if Fridgyth solves as many cases as Cadfael (and, given the date of her appearance in Bede, there's plenty of time available).

Whitby is a Norse name (-by, farm or settlement; either Hviti, personal name or hvitr, white, so either White Farm or Hviti's Farm), so it most likely dates from Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria in the tenth and eleventh centuries (unless Norse languages were already spoken in the area earlier, which given the geography is possible). Even if a nearby settlement had a different name, though, the Synod would surely have been called after the monastry where it was held, so yes, it would presumably have been the Synod of Streonshalh at the time.

Nicola - Hope you enjoy it! I'll be interested in your thoughts.

Beth - Yes, I liked that aspect. Bede clearly knew something about English pre-Christian beliefs and customs when he mentioned them in On the Reckoning of Time, and Bede had been brought up in an orthodox Christian monastery from the age of about seven. So if pre-Christian beliefs had filtered through to him, it's likely that they were widely known a couple of generations earlier. Hild herself would also have been brought up in the same religious tradition as Fridgyth, as Hild was baptised at the age of 12 or 13. So she would have been familiar with Fridgyth's beliefs from her own experience.

Rosie55 said...

You've tempted me - I have ordered the Kindle version, as I have a couple of long flights coming up shortly and will be able to lose myself in this. Reading the first few pages online (in the Look inside facility for the Kindle version, the electronic equivalent of picking up the book and skimming the first page or so!) has convinced me to go for it. Thanks for drawing this to my attention.
I don't know whether Kindles and such are frowned upon here - is it a faux pas to admit to using one?

Carla said...

Rosie - I'm glad the review caught your interest, and I hope you enjoy A Swarming of Bees! I'll be interested in your thoughts.

I often look for an extract if I'm considering a book. I find it's the most effective way of telling whether I'm likely to enjoy the book or not. The Look Inside feature is very handy in that respect :-)

No, Kindles et al aren't frowned on here, at least not by me. My own books are available on Kindle, after all :-) I happen not to have an e-reader and to read books mostly as paperbacks or occasional PDFs, but I can see the appeal of e-readers, especially for taking a lot of books on a long journey. Hope your long flights go well and you have lots of good reading material!