Prague Nights by Benjamin Black

I had never heard of Benjamin Black until I spotted his new novel available on NetGalley, but I quickly discovered that it is a pseudonym of the Irish author better known as John Banville. Not having read anything by Banville either, I had no idea what to expect from Prague Nights, but the title was enough to make me interested in reading it (note: the US title is Wolf on a String) – Prague is a beautiful city and one I would recommend visiting, if you haven’t already. To experience Prague as it is in this novel, however, you would need a time machine as the action takes place more than four hundred years ago, at the end of the sixteenth century.

It’s 1599 and Christian Stern, a young doctor from Regensburg, has just arrived in Prague. On his first night in the city he stumbles across the dead body of a young woman half buried in snow. He reports his discovery and expects that to be the end of the matter, so he is shocked when he is accused of killing the girl himself. Her identity is given as Magdalena Kroll, mistress of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II and daughter of his ‘chief wizard’ Ulrich Kroll. Stern knows he is in serious trouble, but fortunately for him, the emperor – a superstitious man with a strong belief in the occult – believes him to be a messenger whose arrival in Prague had been predicted in a prophecy.

Freed of suspicion now, Stern is given the task of discovering who really did kill Magdalena Kroll. It is a mission which will bring him into conflict with some of the most powerful men in Prague, embroil him in a love affair with another of the emperor’s mistresses, Caterina Sardo, and send him to the town of Most in search of the English occultist Edward Kelley, who it is believed may hold the key to the mystery.

Prague Nights is one of those books that sounds as though it should be much better than it actually is. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it at all, because there were some aspects that I enjoyed, which I’ll return to shortly, but it definitely wasn’t the atmospheric, exciting historical mystery novel I had hoped it would be. I was disappointed that it wasn’t really much of a mystery; yes, there is a murder at the beginning and we find out who was responsible for it at the end, but in between, our narrator, Christian Stern, makes very little effort to actually investigate. Things happen around him but he takes no active part and by the time I reached the end of the book, I found that I no longer really cared how Magdalena Kroll had died and why.

The writing style is descriptive and detailed with a formal feel which suits the time period and the descriptions of Prague’s buildings, bridges and cobbled streets and squares are nicely done:

I had often tried to imagine Prague and its glories, but the reality of it was grander and more gracious than anything I could have dreamed of. Past the castle, we stopped on the height there to look out over the city. The sky was white and the air was draped with a freezing mist, pierced by many spires, all of them appearing black in that pervasive icy miasma. Despite the wintry murk, I could see the river and its bridges and, beyond, the clock tower in the Old Town Square.

This wasn’t enough to make me love the book, however. To be able to love a book I need to at least feel something for the characters and unfortunately I felt very little for Christian Stern or any of the other people who play a part in the novel. That’s particularly frustrating because, in real life, Rudolf II and the members of his court sound fascinating, especially his son, Don Julius Caesar. In his author’s note, Benjamin Black talks about the historical figures on which his characters are based, explaining where he sticks to factual information and where he uses his imagination. As I previously knew nothing about 16th century Prague or Rudolf’s court, it was good to have the opportunity to learn something new, even if the story itself didn’t really succeed in holding my attention.

Have you read anything by Benjamin Black/John Banville? And do you have any other books set in Prague to recommend?

Margaret Kennedy Day: Lucy Carmichael

For this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I decided to read Lucy Carmichael, Kennedy’s tenth novel, published in 1951. With so many of her books still unread to choose from – I’ve previously read only The Constant Nymph and Troy Chimneys – I had no real reason for picking this one over the others, but it’s one of Jane’s favourites so I hoped I had made a good choice!

Lucy Carmichael, as you would expect, follows the story of Lucy Carmichael who, as the novel opens, is preparing for her wedding to Patrick Reilly. It should be one of the happiest days of Lucy’s life, but instead it is one of the worst: Patrick doesn’t turn up, the wedding doesn’t take place and Lucy is left devastated. As she tries to come to terms with what has happened, she decides that if she is to move on with her life she needs to get away and start again in a place where nobody knows about her past. And so she jumps at the chance to take a new job at an arts institute in another town, which sounds like just the sort of change she needs.

Settling into her new home and new job in Ravonsbridge, Lucy makes new friends, forms new relationships and becomes a valued member of the community. Eventually she will even have the chance to love again, although it will take her a while to get to that point as she now has different priorities and more experience, and wants to get things right this time. Apart from the drama of the opening scenes this is not a very dramatic story, but there is still a lot going on in Lucy’s life and I won’t delve into the plot in any more detail as I wouldn’t want to spoil any little surprises for future readers.

Margaret Kennedy shows a lot of understanding and sympathy for Lucy’s situation; being jilted at the altar is, thankfully, not something I have experienced myself but if it did happen I hope that I would have the strength to react the way Lucy does, with dignity and resilience, rather than allowing her heartbreak and humiliation to destroy the rest of her life. Lucy is also lucky that she has a close and loyal friend – Melissa – who keeps in touch with her after she leaves home, and although the story of their friendship is told mainly in the form of letters, it was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

But although I did enjoy this book – very much so – I couldn’t quite love it. I thought the story lost its way a little bit during the second half of the book and while Lucy’s work in the community was still interesting to read about, I wasn’t as absorbed as I was at the beginning. Last year for Margaret Kennedy Day I read Troy Chimneys, which turned out to be one of my books of the year; of all Kennedy’s novels, I suspect that was the perfect one for me and that I can’t expect the others to satisfy all of my personal reading tastes in quite the same way. Still, it was lovely to meet and get to know Lucy!

Have you read Lucy Carmichael or anything else by Margaret Kennedy? Are you taking part in this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day?

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

After finishing Robin Hobb’s wonderful Farseer trilogy in November 2014 I knew I wanted to read more of her books. I was desperate to find out what would happen next to the Farseer characters so it was tempting to go straight to her Tawny Man trilogy, but after looking at some recommended reading orders, I decided it would be better to read her other series, The Liveship Traders, first. If none of this means anything to you because you’re unfamiliar with Robin Hobb, rest assured that reading Ship of Magic does not require any knowledge of previous Hobb novels and I’ve avoided spoiling them in the rest of this post!

Ship of Magic is set in the same world as the Farseer books, but the action this time centres around Bingtown, a coastal community of traders and merchants governed by the highly respected Bingtown Trader families, descendants of the original settlers of those shores who came from the mysterious Rain Wilds. The Bingtown Traders have maintained their connections with those who remained in the Rain Wilds and as part of this alliance the Rain Wild Traders provide the Bingtown Traders with the means to build a liveship – a debt so large that it can take generations to be paid off. Why is a liveship so important? Well, it is built from wizardwood – a magical wood with a mind of its own – and is the only type of vessel which can travel safely up the hazardous Rain Wild River to trade in the magnificent, enchanted goods that are available there.

At the beginning of the novel, the Vestrit family’s liveship, the Vivacia, is about to ‘quicken’ – the term given to the process by which a wizardwood ship comes to life after three generations of the family have died on board. Althea Vestrit is devastated by her father’s death, but excited at the thought of taking over the captaincy of the ship. After all, she has spent her childhood accompanying her father on his voyages and, as a blood-member of the family, she is the one who could be expected to share a close bond with the newly quickened Vivacia. She is bitterly disappointed, then, when it emerges that her father has actually left the ship to Kyle Haven, her elder sister’s husband, a man who has no understanding of what is involved in commanding a liveship. Furious and heartbroken, Althea decides to leave home and go out into the world where she can prove herself as a sailor and one day regain control of the Vivacia.

The edition of Ship of Magic I read is over 800 pages long, so you won’t be surprised to hear that there is a lot more to the plot than I have talked about so far. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I would like to briefly mention some of the other storylines and characters. First there’s Wintrow, Kyle’s son, who is taken from the monastery where he was studying to be a priest and not at all happy about being forced to serve with his father on board the Vivacia. Then there’s Wintrow’s sister Malta, left at home with her mother and grandmother. Malta longs for excitement in her life – to be allowed to go to balls, to wear grown-up dresses and be courted by young men – and she can’t understand why her family are so determined to stop her. Finally, there’s Kennit, a pirate captain who dreams of becoming a pirate king and is sailing up and down the coast waiting for the chance to capture a liveship of his own.

I really enjoyed this book; although I certainly hadn’t intended to wait three years before reading it, I’m glad I didn’t pick it up immediately after finishing the last Farseer book when I would undoubtedly have just wanted more of the same story. There were times when I felt there was a little bit too much going on in this novel and too many characters to get to know – but for the most part, I thought they were worth knowing! The only characters I actively disliked were Kyle, Malta and one of Kyle’s crew members, Torg. The rest were interesting, nuanced and well written. I was particularly intrigued by Kennit, who in many ways is one of the villains of the book, but who does seem to have a conscience in the form of a wizardwood charm worn on his wrist. I’m also hoping to learn more about the wood-carver Amber and the abandoned liveship Paragon in the next book.

The title of that next novel is The Mad Ship and I have included it on my 20 Books of Summer list, so expect to hear all about it soon!

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Despite enjoying two of Emma Donoghue’s previous books – Room and Frog Music – this latest novel about a girl in 19th century Ireland who stops eating didn’t appeal to me when it was published last year. It was only when I picked it up in the library a few weeks ago that I thought ‘actually, this does sound good’ – and with such a beautiful cover, how could I resist? And as it turned out, this is my favourite of the three Donoghue books I’ve read so far.

The Wonder is set in a small community in rural Ireland during just two weeks in 1859. Lib Wright, an English nurse who worked with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, arrives in the village to start a new job, knowing nothing about the position she has accepted except that her services will only be required for fourteen days. She is surprised to discover that her patient is an eleven-year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, and that her task is not to nurse but to watch and observe.

Anna’s parents insist that their daughter has eaten nothing at all since her birthday four months ago and exists purely on prayer and faith. Lib is sceptical, but it seems that most people in the O’Donnells’ village – including the local priest and Anna’s elderly doctor – are happy to believe the claims. News of the girl’s amazing achievement has spread far and wide and visitors are arriving from all over Ireland to see ‘the Wonder’ for themselves. To prove whether or not Anna is a fraud, Lib and another woman – Sister Michael, a nun – have been appointed by a committee to take turns watching over Anna all day and night for the next two weeks.

Lib expects to get to the bottom of this mystery very quickly. Anna looks so healthy and full of life, it seems obvious that someone must be providing her with secret supplies of food – all Lib needs to do is keep her wits about her and ensure that she and Sister Michael never let the girl out of their sight. After a few days, however, she’s not so sure. Is Anna really the saint the villagers believe her to be? Is it all an elaborate hoax? Or could something more sinister be going on – and if Lib decides Anna is in danger, at what point should she try to intervene?

Like The Good People by Hannah Kent, another book set in 19th century Ireland, this is a fascinating exploration of the harm that can be done, often unintentionally, by superstition and a lack of understanding and the basic knowledge we take for granted today. In addition to this, there’s the hugely influential role of the Catholic Church, such a large part of everyday life for many Irish people in the 1850s, which Lib Wright – as an Englishwoman who has had her own faith driven out of her by her experiences in the Crimea – finds very frustrating; it seems incomprehensible to her that so many people are ready to accept that Anna O’Donnell is a living miracle when science suggests that there must be a more logical explanation. Anna’s situation is often quite sad and harrowing to read about and I desperately hoped her story would have a happy ending.

I was curious to know whether The Wonder was based on a true story, as the other Emma Donoghue books I’ve read were, but on reading the author’s note at the end it seems that although it is inspired by tales of Victorian ‘fasting girls’, it is not based on one particular case and is a fictional story.

The mystery element of the novel is very strong and at first the reader is as confused as Lib. Anna doesn’t appear to be a starving child, so she must be getting food from somewhere – but who is giving it to her and how? As the novel progresses and we learn more about the O’Donnell family and the community in which they live, other questions are raised. I was able to put enough of the clues and hints together to form a theory as to what was happening, but I was still completely gripped, waiting for Lib to uncover the truth. I thought The Wonder was…well, wonderful. Highly recommended!

This is Book 1/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

When I decided, a few years ago, to include I, Claudius on my list of books to read for the Classics Club I didn’t really expect to enjoy it. It was a book that I felt I should read, due to its status as a work of classic historical fiction, rather than one that I actually wanted to read. The reason I didn’t particularly want to read it was because Ancient Rome was not a setting I found very appealing. That has slowly begun to change since reading Robert Harris’ excellent Cicero trilogy in 2015 and then Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero earlier this year. It’s probably a good thing, then, that I, Claudius has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end – it meant that when I did finally pick it up last month, I was much more receptive to it than I would have been a while ago.

I, Claudius, as you would expect, is narrated by Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor. It takes the form of a fictional autobiography:

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Claudius doesn’t actually tell us about his time as emperor in this novel – that will come later, in the sequel Claudius the God – but instead he gives us a very detailed account of his family background, his childhood and what it was like to live through the reigns of his three predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, who seemed to become progressively more corrupt, unstable and dangerous. However, it is obvious that the real power in Rome is wielded by Livia, the wife of Augustus (and Claudius’ grandmother) who systematically removes various rivals to the throne to ensure the succession of her own line. The ambitious, manipulative Livia is a great character and a constant presence throughout the novel as she works to control and shape the future of the Empire.

Of course, life for someone part of the imperial family as Claudius is comes with its own set of dangers. With his stammering, his twitching and his limp, he is regarded as an embarrassment, kept in the background and not taken seriously as a possible contender for the throne. There are hints and omens from the beginning – including one memorable scene which takes place early in the novel involving a poetic prophecy spoken by a Sibyl – but otherwise the very qualities that appear to make Claudius unsuitable as an emperor seem to keep him safe as those around him are methodically poisoned, exiled or assassinated. This might not be entirely down to luck, though, as Graves has the historian Asinius Pollio advising Claudius to exaggerate these qualities as they could be his only means of survival.

Although I did enjoy I, Claudius, it was a bit of a challenging read for me at times – but that was mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read a lot of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) about the Roman Empire so I only have a basic familiarity with the important events and people of the period. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to have any prior knowledge before starting this book, but it would certainly help! A piece of advice for future readers: you may find it useful to draw a family tree as you read, if your edition doesn’t already include one. The relationships between the characters quickly become very complicated, especially as so many of them marry and divorce several times, with children from each marriage (as well as adopted children) – but with a little bit of effort and attention, keeping track of the major players in the story isn’t too difficult.

If I have a criticism of this book it would be that as Claudius spends most of his time telling us about events that happened before his birth, elsewhere in the Empire or in which he had no personal involvement, this occasionally takes away the sense of drama and immediacy that there could have been had our narrator always been at the heart of the action. It’s still quite gripping in places – such as the sequence of events leading up to the death of his cousin Postumus, or the ‘haunting’ of his brother Germanicus (two of the few people to actually show Claudius any kindness) – but it’s probably worth being aware that this is not just a book about Claudius himself but also the history of the Roman Empire in general (the real Claudius was a writer and historian so Graves’ decision to have him tell the story in this way feels authentic).

I can’t comment on the accuracy of this novel, the sources Graves has used or the way he has chosen to interpret the characters, because I simply don’t know enough about the subject, but I do know that I found it much more enjoyable than I’d exected – and that I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my ambiguous feelings about Roman history. I’ll look forward to continuing the story soon with Claudius the God.

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

Having had such a good experience with my first Rebecca Mascull book, The Wild Air, I knew I would have to read her previous two novels as well – and I was delighted to see Song of the Sea Maid on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. I hoped I would love it as much as The Wild Air…and I did. In fact, I thought this one was even better.

Song of the Sea Maid begins with a little girl living on the streets of London with only one aim in life: to do whatever it takes to survive from one day to the next. When her sole friend and companion, an older boy who may or may not be her brother, is taken by a press gang, she finds herself all alone. Caught attempting to commit a desperate act – stealing from a gentleman – she expects to be punished, but instead she is taken to an orphanage where she is given food, shelter and the name Dawnay Price.

Dawnay is an intelligent child with a natural curiosity for the world around her. As she grows older and teaches herself to read and write, her thirst for knowledge becomes apparent and she is chosen by a generous benefactor to receive a full education. It is not at all common at this time for a girl to be educated beyond the absolute basics, so Dawnay is determined to make the most of the opportunities she has been given. Eager for new experiences and the chance to use her skills, she travels to Portugal and the Berlengas islands where her studies of the flora and fauna lead her to come up with some very controversial theories. It seems the 18th century world is not quite ready for Dawnay and her ideas!

Song of the Sea Maid is a wonderful exploration of what it was like to be a woman trying to forge a career in science in a period when it was not considered normal or socially acceptable to do so. Dawnay has a lot of good luck which enables her to indulge her passion for study and travel, but she also faces many obstacles in both carrying out her work and in making her findings known, and by the end of the novel it becomes clear that she really is, as Rebecca Mascull states in her author’s note, just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. It made me wonder about all the other people – women in particular, but men as well – throughout history who may have had innovative ideas or developed advanced theories but were dismissed and silenced so that their names and their views have been entirely forgotten today.

I also enjoyed reading about the various places Dawnay visits on her travels; her time spent alone on the Berlengas Islands is particularly interesting – I think I would have felt too isolated and lonely, but Dawnay finds peace and harmony there, coming to think of the rocks and caves as her own. Still, she is unable to completely escape from world events; she is in Lisbon for the Great Earthquake of 1755 (which I have previously read about in Linda Holeman’s The Devil on Her Tongue) and in Minorca a year later when the island is captured by the French. The Seven Years’ War forms an important backdrop to the novel and from time to time Dawnay is brought into contact with the crew of a Royal Navy ship, initially during her voyage to Portugal. I found all the ship-based scenes surprisingly enjoyable – I think my recent forays into Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series have really helped me in this respect!

I haven’t mentioned yet that Dawnay also falls in love; I found it quite predictable – as soon as one particular character appeared in Dawnay’s life I knew that they were going to be the love interest – but it was still a beautifully written romance which developed slowly throughout the novel. There’s really nothing negative I can say about Song of the Sea Maid; even the use of first person present tense, which I often dislike, didn’t bother me – in fact, I barely noticed it because I found Dawnay’s voice so strong and real.

This is a lovely novel and now I really must read Rebecca Mascull’s first book, The Visitors!

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

After talking recently about my desire to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Colm Tóibín’s new novel House of Names. It retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus, described in Aeschylus’ famous trilogy, the Oresteia. Not being very familiar with this story, I had no problem following the plot of the novel, but couldn’t help wondering how different my experience would have been if I was already more well-versed in the Greek classics.

House of Names begins in dramatic style with Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In return the gods will bring about a change in the wind which will allow his army to sail to Troy. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is forced to witness the terrible scene – made even worse by the fact that she had believed she was coming to watch her daughter’s wedding, not her murder. The first section of the novel is narrated by Clytemnestra and I thought it was wonderful, vividly describing the moment of the sacrifice and perfectly capturing the agony and heartbreak of a mother at the loss of her child and the bitter fury of a wife at the treachery of her husband. Angry and grieving, Clytemnestra returns to Mycenae to await her husband’s return from Troy and her chance to take revenge:

Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

But what effect will Clytemnestra’s next actions have on her two remaining children, Orestes and Electra? We don’t have to wait long to find out as sections written from the perspective of each of those characters follow. Orestes’ is told in the third person and describes his kidnapping from the palace of Mycenae and his later escape with the help of two other boys, Leander and Mitros. Together, far from home and away from their families, Orestes and his friends must find a way to survive into adulthood. His sister Electra, meanwhile, pushed aside after Iphigenia’s death, watches Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and begins to plot a revenge of her own…

This has been a difficult review for me to write as I still can’t quite decide what I thought of House of Names! I loved the powerful opening section of this novel but, two weeks after finishing the book, that’s the only part that has really stayed with me. The Orestes and Electra sections, although I found them interesting at the time, felt strangely detached and emotionless. The writing style helped to create an eerie, otherworldly feel at times, but it came at the expense of the passion and intensity I would have preferred from a story like this.

I do think that my lack of knowledge of the Oresteia and the fate of the House of Atreus could have been an advantage rather than a disadvantage as far as this book is concerned. I’ve read several other reviews that mention being confused by Tóibín’s decision to change so many details of the story, such as the use of the character of Leander to fill the role of Pylades, but not being familiar with the original I didn’t even notice things like this. Maybe I should have an attempt at reading the Oresteia itself one day. Does anyone know of a good translation to read?

As for Colm Tóibín, I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Brooklyn is the only other one of his novels that I’ve read and the two couldn’t be more different. Which of his books do you think I should try next?

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.