21 December, 2014

The Gathering Night, by Margaret Elphinstone. Book review

Canongate, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84767-288-9. 368 pages.

The Gathering Night is set in Mesolithic Scotland around 6150 BC, when an underwater landslide off the coast of Norway (the Storegga Slide) caused a tsunami that devastated the east and north-east coast of Scotland. All the characters are fictional.

The Auk people live on the coasts and islands of what is now the western Highlands of Scotland, grouped into individual families who come together once a year at the Gathering in late summer. One autumn, Bakar, a young hunter, disappears without trace from his family’s winter camp. At around the same time, four young men of the Lynx people arrive on the west coast, having crossed all the way from the east coast where their lands have been destroyed by a catastrophic tsunami. Three of the Lynx men stay among the Heron people, south of Auk lands, and one, Kemen, comes on alone to the Auk people. At the Gathering, Kemen is accepted into the Auk people, marries an Auk girl who has just survived a murderous attack by an unknown assailant, and is accepted into the family of the missing Bakar. These events cause some resentment among other Auk families, notably the family of the assaulted girl and the Auk hunter who hoped to marry her himself. When Kemen’s brother Basajaun also turns up in Auk lands, having left the lands of the Heron people, conflict flares. Have these Lynx refugees brought ill fortune to the Auk people? And what are the Auk people going to do about it?

The Gathering Night is an unusual novel. It doesn’t really have a plot as such, although the mystery around Bakar’s disappearance and its eventual resolution provides a loose structure. The narrative is structured as a group of people taking it in turns to speak around a campfire, telling of events that happened several years previously. There is not really a central character, either. This is an egalitarian society in which people think of themselves primarily as part of a group or groups – a family, the Auk people – and only secondarily as individuals. The only one who seems to have something resembling a modern sense of self is Kemen’s brother Basajaun, and when he says to Kemen after the destruction of their lands and tribe, “A man is his own self”, Kemen is fearful and disturbed by this strange attitude. So characterisation in the conventional sense is limited, and the voices of the various narrators all sound very similar. I could sometimes tell who was speaking if I forgot to look at the tag line because of the different roles they play – shaman, hunter, child, young woman, wife, mother – but rarely from the style of speaking, because their society does not work that way.

What makes The Gathering Night stand out is its wonderful portrayal of daily life as it might have been for the Mesolithic people of western Scotland about 8,000 years ago. This period of pre-history, before the coming of agriculture, is so far removed from the modern world that it’s difficult to even begin to imagine what it might have been like to live at that time. Almost nothing is known, as there are no written records and very few physical remains. Archaeology has identified the sites of some camping places, food debris such as shell middens and nutshells provide some information about the diet, and stone tools say something about the technology available. But the cultural, social, artistic and spiritual life of the people who used the tools and ate the food is completely unknown. The author has imagined how it might have been by drawing on the traditions of more recent nomadic and hunter-gatherer societies such as the Sami, Inuit and Native Americans. Language is also completely unknown, so the author chose Basque names for the characters, as Basque is thought to be the only pre-agricultural language surviving in western Europe.

From these sources, together with the author’s own forays into hunter-gatherer skills (such as building a coracle), The Gathering Night creates a Mesolithic society complete with details of the hunting and gathering skills that might have been used, the wide range of foods utilised at different seasons, the reckoning of time and location, travel among the islands and lochs of the west coast, social organisation, conventions and values, spiritual beliefs, rituals, art and storytelling. We cannot possibly know what Mesolithic Scotland was really like (short of time travel), but The Gathering Night imagines it as a richly complex culture and brings it to vivid life on the page.

The Author’s Afterword outlines some of the sources underlying the novel, and hints at some of the places involved. There is no map because, as she says, “my characters imagined their land in other ways.” However, the landscape descriptions are so detailed and appealing that I couldn’t help trying to figure out how they might fit into the modern geography, and after an enjoyable hour or two with maps of Ardnamurchan, the Isle of Mull, Ardgour and Argyll, I reckon I can make a stab at identifying ‘Mother Mountain Island’ and ‘Gathering Loch’ at least, and maybe some of the other locations.

Beautiful portrayal of Mesolithic Scotland as it might have been about 8,000 years ago.

19 December, 2014

December recipe: Winter chicken hotpot

Winter chicken hotpot

This casserole is warming, easy to make, and a versatile user-up of odds and ends of vegetables. In this version I’ve used chicken pieces, although you could also make it with leftover turkey if you have a lot of turkey to use up after the Big Day. It’s a complete meal cooked in one pan, so the washing up is minimal, and if you use tinned pulses it will take under an hour to make.

You can vary the vegetables as you choose, depending on what you like and what you happen to have available. Carrot, parsnip, turnip, swede* and cooking apple would all be quite at home. Similarly, you could use butter beans or haricot beans instead of chick peas.  It’s the sort of recipe that’s more of a general guide than a set of specific instructions, and will probably be different every time you cook it. Here’s the version I made the other day, in the middle of a busy week.

Winter chicken hotpot (serves 2)

2 oz (approx 50 g) dried chick peas, or twice the weight of tinned chick peas
Two chicken pieces (wings, drumsticks or thighs all work well)
8 oz (approx 250 g) butternut squash
4 oz (approx 125 g) leeks
Half a red pepper
2 oz (approx 50 g) mushrooms
1 small onion
1 clove garlic
Approximately 0.25 pint (approx 150 ml) water
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon medlar jelly** (optional)
1 lb (approx 450 g) potatoes

Soak the chick peas in cold water overnight. Rinse the soaked chick peas three or four times, then put them in a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then simmer for about 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes until tender. If using tinned chick peas, follow the instructions on the tin.

If using chicken wings, halve them at the ‘elbow’ joint. This is quite easy with a sharp and strong cook’s knife. I find it easier to cut just on the lower side of the joint, where the wing has two small bones instead of the single thick bone in the upper part of the wing.

Peel the butternut squash, scoop out the seeds in the core, and cut the rest into chunks about 1.5 - 2 cm (0.5 - 1 inch) cubed.

Trim, wash and slice the leeks.

Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into pieces about 1.5 cm (about 0.5 inch) square.

Peel the mushrooms. Quarter them if small, or slice them if large.

Peel and chop the onion. Peel and crush the garlic.

Peel the potatoes and chop them into dice about 1 cm (about 0.5 inch) cubed.

Brown the chicken pieces in cooking oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat.

Add the chopped onion, squash, leeks, pepper and mushrooms. Fry until the vegetables are starting to colour. Stir in the crushed garlic.

Add the cooked chick peas and diced potatoes, along with the water, paprika and medlar jelly. Season with salt and black pepper.

Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the chicken and vegetables are all cooked. Stir from time to time, especially towards the end of the cooking time, as the potatoes tend to stick to the bottom of the pan when they are nearly cooked. If it starts to get dry, add a bit more water. 

*I believe previous discussions here established that the root vegetable that’s called ‘swede’ in the UK is called ‘rutabaga’ in the US
**Recipe for medlar jelly.  Crab-apple jelly or redcurrant jelly work equally well.

15 November, 2014

Catherine of Lyonesse, by Rick Robinson. Book review

Corgi, 2014. ISBN 978-0-552-57133-3. 488 pages.

Catherine of Lyonesse is set in the invented countries of Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine, which bear a distinct resemblance to sixteenth-century England and France. All events, places and characters are fictional.

I’m acquainted with the author, Rick Robinson, by email, and Rick often comments here on my blog. I read a draft of Catherine of Lyonesse before it was published, and was very pleased to see it in print. Rick did ask me to review the book; however I had already decided to review it and ordered a copy before he asked. I should also say that I have a particular liking for the somewhat unusual genre of invented history (for a definition, see earlier post), which is set in an invented world but has none of the supernatural elements of fantasy. My own Ingeld’s Daughter is similar, although the setting is more medieval than Renaissance.
Now, on with the review.

Catherine is the elder daughter of Prince Henry of Lyonesse, heir to the old and sickly King Edmund. When her father is killed in a supposed hunting accident, seven-year old Catherine and her three-year-old sister Anne are hurried into exile in l’Aquitaine by their mother, a princess of the Aquitanian royal family. After her mother’s death, Catherine is brought up in exile at the Aquitanian court by Madame Corisande d’Abregon, ex-mistress of the King of Aquitaine and now married to the chief minister, Antoine de Chirac. Catherine is heiress to the throne of Lyonesse, which she should rightfully inherit when her grandfather King Edmund dies. The King of Aquitaine recognises her as a valuable political prize, but he is uncertain how best to make use of her. By the age of fourteen, when the main story opens, Catherine is old enough to know that she does not want to be used by anybody – she wants to reclaim her kingdom and rule it in her own right. But in Lyonesse, ambitious nobles plot a usurpation, and in Aquitaine she has enemies who would gladly see her dead, either for Court factional politics or to replace her with her more pliant sister Anne. In her support, Catherine has only her own intelligence, the education in statecraft she has received from Corisande, and two bright and beautiful young ladies-in-waiting. Can she even survive, let alone claim her throne?

Catherine of Lyonesse is a rollicking adventure yarn. Being set in an invented world, it is not constrained by real events and the story is free to take any turn the author pleases. So, unlike historical fiction, no reader can know in advance the outcome of Catherine’s dramatic – and sometimes ill-advised – escapades. Catherine is a delightful central character, warm, courageous and intelligent, but also impulsive and prone to hasty judgements that do not always work out well. The two ladies-in-waiting, brave and athletic Madeleine du Lac and voluptuous and cunning Solange de Charleville, are as vivid as Catherine herself. The court of l’Aquitaine has a believably poisonous atmosphere of in-fighting and back-stabbing, as rival factions jostle for political power and the influential position of mistress to the King. Long-standing military antagonism between Lyonesse and l’Aquitaine periodically flares into open warfare. Not least when a young nobleman of Lyonesse, William de Havilland, decides to put his experience as a mercenary ship’s captain to use as a privateer, attacking Aquitanian targets and provoking a backlash that puts Catherine in significant personal danger. The web of dynastic and political tensions surrounding Catherine creates a convincing sense of real peril.

As well as the political side to Catherine’s story, she also has an adolescent girl’s natural hopes for romantic love – though her position as heiress to a throne complicates matters – and this provides material for an intertwining sub-plot.

The different countries, cultures and languages in the novel are cleverly portrayed using variations in titles, personal and place names. In l’Aquitaine the language is Gallic, represented by French phrases, French titles (Altesse, instead of Highness), French personal names such as Catherine, Louis and Guillaume, and French spellings of place names such as Kellouique and Richebourg. In Lyonesse the language is Saxon, and the names become Kateryn or Katrin, Lewis, William, Kelliwick and Richborough. In the Republic of Ravenna, a mercantile and maritime city-state bearing a resemblance to Italian city-states such as Venice, the names become Caterina and Guglielmo. Readers familiar with sixteenth-century Europe will have great fun spotting parallels between the fictional world and real European history – almost as much fun, I suspect, as the author had in creating them. There were some that I only noticed on a second reading, and I expect there are more that I haven’t yet spotted. Catherine of Lyonesse is much more interesting than an allegory, though. Catherine has some aspects reminiscent of the young Elizabeth I and the young Mary Queen of Scots, but her actions, situation and personality are entirely her own.**

Rattling adventure yarn set in an invented world bearing a distinct resemblance to Renaissance Europe, with a cracking plot and a most attractive heroine.

**In a comment here once, Rick described Catherine as ‘a sort of improved Mary Queen of Scots’, which I think is a very apt description.

10 September, 2014

The Tribute Bride, by Theresa Tomlinson. Book review

Acorn Digital Press, 2014. ISBN 978-1-909122-63-5. 261 pages.

The Tribute Bride is set at the beginning of the seventh century AD in Deira and Bernicia, the two kingdoms that later became Northumbria in what is now north-east England. The central character, Acha, is a historical figure, as are her husband Athelfrid, her father Aelle and brother Edwin, the Deiran chief priest Coifi and Athelfrid’s queen Bebba. Other main characters are fictional.

Disclosure: Seventh-century Britain is an area of particular interest to me, and my own novel Paths of Exile has the same setting and includes some of the same characters as The Tribute Bride. Theresa and I had several email discussions about the possible life and career of the historical Acha, who is recorded in just one line in Bede’s History. 

Acha is the daughter of Aelle, the ageing king of Deira, and has just reached marriageable age when severe flooding destroys most of the harvest. Aelle cannot pay the tribute of grain to his overlord, the fearsome Athelfrid of Bernicia, so he sends Acha instead. Athelfrid already has a queen, the magnificent Bebba of the Picts, but they have no living child and Athelfrid wants an heir for his ever-expanding empire. He accepts Acha as a secondary wife – officially married to Athelfrid, but not his queen – and soon she is pregnant with his child. But how will Bebba react to a younger, fertile rival? And does the ruthless and cunning Athelfrid plan to obtain more from Acha than a child?

I very much enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s mystery novels, Wolf Girl (for young adult readers) and A Swarming of Bees (for adults), both set in the Northumbrian royal abbey at Whitby. The Tribute Bride is set half a century earlier, when the later kingdom of Northumbria was still two separate kingdoms, each with its own dynasty. Acha’s life bridged both dynasties. What role she played in combining the two kingdoms (if any), is not known – which is what historical fiction is for. I summarised what is known about the historical Acha (not very much), in an earlier article Acha of Deira and Bernicia: daughter, sister, wife and mother of kings. So I was very pleased to see a novel devoted to her.

Considering that The Tribute Bride features murder, betrayal, war and massacre, it is a surprisingly gentle read. Most of it is told through the eyes of Acha, who is still only a girl at the beginning of the novel – mid-teens, I would guess – and has a sunny-natured tendency to think the best of people and to make the best of any situation. Her generous and open-hearted character helps her to find unexpected friendships in Bernicia, friendships that stand her in good stead in the long term. However, it also means that she is largely oblivious to the darker undercurrents of court life. Indeed, the older and wiser Bebba tries to warn Acha that Athelfrid is not nicknamed ‘The Trickster’ for nothing and that Acha should be wary of his intentions, but Acha does not understand the warning until it is too late. Even when the worst has happened, Acha’s determination to make the best of things probably contributes a lot to making the consequences of Athelfrid’s actions much less adverse than they might otherwise have been.

Peaceweaver brides like Acha, married to their families’ rivals and enemies, must have had to do a lot of smoothing down of conflicts if they were to be successful. This perhaps explains why The Tribute Bride was so much more placid than I had expected for a novel set at the heart of early medieval court life; the whole focus of the book is about defusing and preventing conflict.

Athelfrid’s historical nickname Flesaurs, usually translated as ‘The Twister’ or ‘The Artful’ is here rendered as ‘The Trickster’ and cleverly linked with the deceitful thief-god Loki. Whether the early English had an equivalent of the Norse god Loki is unknown, but equivalents of some of the Norse gods are recorded in Old English place names, so it seems not implausible that other characters from the Norse pantheon may also have had early English counterparts.

The main characters are all women – Acha herself, Bebba, the elderly midwife, Acha’s maids. I particularly liked the relationship between Acha and Bebba, which develops in an unexpected direction. The male characters tend to be secondary, even Athelfrid (perhaps because Acha at first does not know him very well and then later does not wish to). The preponderance of strong female characters was similar in Wolf Girl and A Swarming of Bees. It makes for a domestic focus, with plenty of detail of buildings, travel, food and textile crafts. The variety of languages, cultures and religions among the plethora of small kingdoms is well captured.

A map and glossary of place names at the front are useful to follow the geography, and a character list at the front may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. An Author’s Note and reference list at the back outlines the underlying history and source material (I am flattered to see that I get a mention).

Gentle tale of kindness and friendships found in unexpected places, set against the background of early seventh-century Northumbria.