Oswald: Return of the King by Edoardo Albert

Oswald One of my favourite reads from the first half of this year was Edwin: High King of Britain, the first in Edoardo Albert’s Northumbrian Thrones trilogy which tells the stories of three seventh century kings. On a visit to the library a few weeks ago I was pleased to find a copy of the second book, Oswald: Return of the King – and I was delighted to discover that it was just as good as the first.

It’s not necessary to have read Edwin: High King of Britain before starting this book – the key events of the previous book are given in a summary at the beginning of this one – but those of you who did read Edwin may remember Oswald as the young boy who fled into exile with his family after his father, Æthelfrith, King of Northumbria, was killed in battle.

During the years of Edwin’s reign, Oswald remains in the northern kingdom of Dal Riata, living amongst the monks on the island of Iona, where he is converted to Christianity. When news of Edwin’s death reaches the island, Oswald is reluctant to take action; he has no real desire to claim the throne for himself and would prefer to stay on Iona and enter the monastery. Abbot Ségéne, however, has other ideas – he wants Oswald to become king so that he can spread the new religion to his people – and a sequence of events follows which will leave Oswald with little choice other than to return to Northumbria and regain his father’s throne.

Oswald’s story is as exciting and engrossing as Edwin’s was. If the title, Return of the King, has made you think of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that’s not a coincidence: Tolkien is thought to have taken the historical Oswald as the inspiration for his fictional character, Aragorn. Edoardo Albert lists Tolkien as a favourite author and there is a definite influence here, though it would be difficult to say how much. This tale of treachery and betrayal, stolen thrones and warring kingdoms does sometimes feel like fantasy – but of course, it isn’t; Oswald was a real person and Albert’s novel is based on historical fact (except where some imagination was clearly needed to fill in the gaps).

Oswald himself is a fascinating character and I thought his internal struggle between his desire to become a monk and his duty to become king was very well written. I also loved the portrayal of his relationship with his younger brother, Oswiu, who is going to be the subject of the third book in the trilogy. The brothers have very different temperaments, and while the loyalty and love they have for each other is plain to see, there’s also a tension which is always there below the surface.

Other characters include friends such as the monk, Aidan, who brings Christianity to the island of Lindisfarne, and enemies such as Cadwallon, King of Gwynedd, and Penda, King of Mercia – and I was pleased to see the return of Coifi, the pagan priest whom we first met in Edwin: High King of Britain, now a lost and lonely character having had his faith in the old gods shaken. I should also mention Oswald’s wonderful pet raven, Bran, who seems to have a personality all of his own (I wasn’t aware until after finishing the book that there are stories associating the real Oswald with a raven).

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of Oswald or this period of history, so I found it a very informative novel as well as an entertaining one. Albert includes a lot of useful additional material: there’s a map showing the various kingdoms that made up Britain in the year 635, a character list, a glossary of unfamiliar words and a pronunciation guide – which was very helpful as I would otherwise have had no idea how to pronounce a name like Rhieienmelth!

I’m now looking forward to the third book in the trilogy – and while I await its publication I think I would like to read The King in the North by Max Adams for a non-fiction view of Oswald.

Kit by Marina Fiorato

Kit Marina Fiorato’s latest novel, Kit, tells the story of Kit Kavanagh, a young woman from Ireland who disguises herself as a man and follows her husband to war. Those of you who have never heard of Kit Kavanagh (and I hadn’t until I read this book) may be surprised to know that she was a real person and that this novel is loosely based on a true story.

Kit’s adventures begin one evening in a Dublin inn when her husband, Richard Walsh, is pressed into the British army and disappears overnight. Having only been married for a few weeks, Kit is devastated and can’t stop thinking of her beloved father who was killed in battle several years earlier. Determined to save Richard from the same fate, she decides to dress as a man and enlist in the army herself. Soon Kit finds herself on a ship heading for Italy where she will serve with the Scots Grey Dragoons under the command of the handsome Captain Ross.

It’s 1702 and the death of the last Habsburg king of Spain has sparked conflict across Europe. The heir to the throne is the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, meaning that both Spain and France could potentially be ruled by the same monarch. In an attempt to prevent one man from gaining so much power, England and Scotland have formed an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic in support of a rival claimant, Leopold I. The two opposing armies are battling for control of the north of Italy as Kit arrives in Genova to begin her search for Richard Walsh.

The first half of the novel follows Kit as she fights alongside the men of her regiment, hoping that her luck will hold out and her true identity won’t be revealed before she catches up with her husband. To complicate things further, she finds herself falling in love with Captain Ross – but as he believes her to be a man, she is unsure how he really feels about her. The second half of the novel is where Fiorato moves away from reality and further into the realms of fiction, creating a storyline in which Kit is recruited by the scheming Duke of Ormonde to spy on the French.

Kit is the third book I’ve read by Marina Fiorato (the other two are The Glassblower of Murano and Beatrice and Benedick) and this is my favourite so far. I loved Kit as a character and was completely gripped by her story. This is the first time I’ve ever read about the War of the Spanish Succession, but as Kit also knows nothing about it, we have the opportunity to learn along with her. Battle strategies and political intrigue are clearly explained and we meet important historical figures of the period such as the Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy.

I particularly loved the first part of the book – The Sword – which concentrates on Kit’s time in the army, the beginning of her relationship with Captain Ross, her friendships with the other dragoons (whose names Fiorato chose from her local war memorial), and her clashes with the villainous Sergeant Taylor and the sinister army surgeon Atticus Lambe. I was very impressed by the amount of detail Fiorato goes into in showing how thoroughly Kit prepares herself for life as a man, not only by changing the way she dresses, but also by adjusting her speech, her mannerisms and her whole persona. Knowing that the character is based on a woman who really existed just makes Kit’s story even more fascinating!

The second part of the novel – The Fan – in which Kit falls into the hands of the Duke of Ormonde, has a different feel and I didn’t like it as much as the first part, although I did enjoy watching the development of Kit’s friendship with the Italian castrato singer, Lucio Mezzanotte. The various threads of the story came together nicely at the end, and while I didn’t really think the epilogue was necessary it did mean that all the loose ends were tied up.

In Kit I found the combination of history, adventure and romance that I love in historical fiction and I’m now looking forward to reading the rest of Marina Fiorato’s novels. The Madonna of the Almonds, The Botticelli Secret and The Venetian Contract all sound appealing, but I should probably start with Daughter of Siena, which I already have on my shelf.

The Vicomte de Bragelonne by Alexandre Dumas

The Vicomte de Bragelonne This is the third Dumas novel to feature d’Artagnan and his three friends, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Originally published in serial form as part of a much longer book, it is now usually split into three volumes of which The Vicomte de Bragelonne is the first and Louise de la Vallière and The Man in the Iron Mask are the others. As Dumas is one of my favourite authors I was fully expecting to love this book – and I did, although it was not quite as satisfying as the first two d’Artagnan novels – The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.

The first thing to say about The Vicomte de Bragelonne is that it is not really about the Vicomte de Bragelonne! He does appear near the beginning and again near the end, but his role in the story is not really any more significant than any number of other characters. The next thing I should say is that any reader hoping to find the four friends working together again in the spirit of “all for one and one for all” will be disappointed; we do see quite a lot of Athos, but Porthos and Aramis only come into the story very briefly towards the end.

So, what is this book about, then? Well, possibly because this is only one section of a longer work, it’s difficult to give a summary of the plot. The first half of the novel concentrates mainly on d’Artagnan and Athos who are working on two separate schemes both designed to restore Charles II to the throne of England. History tells us that the restoration would be accomplished – though not quite in the way described in this book, which is much more fun than what actually happened!

Later in the book we learn that Aramis and Porthos seem to be helping the Superintendent of Finances, Monsieur Fouquet, to build fortifications on the island of Belle-Île. We don’t find out exactly what they are up to, however, and this part of the story is left shrouded in mystery, presumably to be developed in the next two novels. Finally, there’s the storyline involving the title character, Raoul (the Vicomte), and his love for Louise de la Vallière.

The gaps between these three subplots are filled with lots of chapters detailing the political situation in France in the 1660s (particularly the death of Cardinal Mazarin and the rivalry between Fouquet and Louis XIV’s new Minister of Finance, Colbert) and the romantic intrigues of the French court (revolving around the King’s marriage and also his brother’s marriage to Charles II’s sister, Henrietta). All of this makes The Vicomte de Bragelonne a heavier, slower read than the previous two novels, but I didn’t find it boring at all – I love the way Dumas writes and I love French history, so I didn’t really mind the fact that there was less swashbuckling action and that we don’t see as much of d’Artagnan’s friends.

Of course, where history (or even geography) is concerned it can’t always be assumed that everything in a Dumas novel is completely accurate. I was amazed to find that in Dumas’ world the city of Newcastle had suddenly been transported from the River Tyne to the banks of the River Tweed sixty miles to the north! Dumas also tends to change dates or rearrange the sequence of events whenever the story calls for it as well, though I’m sure I wouldn’t have even noticed most of these alterations if I hadn’t been referring to the notes at the back of the book. I’m pleased to say, by the way, that the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition didn’t spoil any of the story – although I avoided the introduction just in case.

As The Vicomte de Bragelonne doesn’t stand alone as a complete novel and wasn’t originally intended to, there are a lot of things left unresolved at the end of the book, as you would expect. I’m looking forward to continuing the story soon with Louise de la Vallière!

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest This is the second play I’ve read this month as part of my personal challenge to read the three on my Classics Club list during June. I’m really regretting my previous reluctance to read plays because it has meant that until now I’ve been missing out on some great ones like The Importance of Being Earnest. It was silly of me to keep avoiding this particular play, because I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost, A House of Pomegranates and two more of his short stories); why did I assume I wouldn’t enjoy this one too?

At the beginning of the play, Algernon Moncrieff is being visited at his London home by his friend, Jack Worthing, whom he has always known as Ernest. Jack is from Hertfordshire, where he is guardian to eighteen-year-old Cecily Cardew, whose grandfather found and adopted Jack as a boy. When Algernon finds a cigarette case inscribed to ‘Uncle Jack’ from ‘Little Cecily’, Jack is forced to admit that his name isn’t really Ernest – Ernest is a fictional brother he has invented so that he can escape from Hertfordshire from time to time with the excuse that his brother is in trouble and needs his help.

Algernon then confesses that he has also created an imaginary friend – an invalid called Bunbury who conveniently summons Algernon to his deathbed whenever he needs to get away from his responsibilities in London for a while. Leading double lives (which Algernon refers to as ‘Bunburying’) has so far been very successful for both men, but this is about to change when Algernon falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and Jack falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen – two women who are each determined to marry a man called Ernest.

Things quickly become very complicated from now on, with the action moving to Jack’s country estate where a series of misunderstandings, deceptions and mistaken identities follow. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than I already have because I’m sure there are other people out there who still haven’t read or seen this play and I would hate to spoil the fun for you. And this is a fun play to read. I think Oscar Wilde’s famous humour and wit come across particularly well in the play format; even when reading it on the page it’s easy to imagine the lines being spoken aloud.

Some of the best lines go to Lady Bracknell, one of the ‘formidable aunt’ type characters you so often find in fiction. Although this is the first time I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest in its entirety, I do remember reading the famous handbag scene at school. I was looking forward to reaching that part and fortunately it is in the first Act so I didn’t have too long to wait; it was lovely to finally be able to read it in its proper context!

There’s obviously a lot more I could have said about this wonderful play, about its themes, its characters and its use of language, but I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping this post short. I have another play to go and read!

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted Naomi Novik is best known for her Temeraire series set during an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons are used in aerial combat. After reading the first Temeraire book in March I was delighted when I unexpectedly received a review copy of Novik’s new novel. While Uprooted is not a Temeraire story, it does have a Dragon…but not of the winged, fire-breathing variety. The Dragon in Uprooted is a wizard – the most powerful wizard in the kingdom. Which kingdom? Well, we aren’t really told, but it does resemble Poland in the 16th century.

Our narrator, Agnieszka, lives in Dvernik, a village on the edge of a dark and sinister forest known only as the Wood. The villagers rely on the Dragon to defend them from the horrors that lurk in the Wood, but his protection comes at a price: every ten years the Dragon selects a seventeen-year-old girl from the village and takes her away to live with him in his tower. Nobody knows what happens to the girls during their time with the Dragon, but when they return ten years later they have changed and are unwilling to go back to their old lives in the village.

The year Agnieszka turns seventeen is a Dragon-year and she waits anxiously with the other girls her age while he makes his choice. Everyone thinks it will be the beautiful Kasia, Agnieszka’s best friend, but the Dragon has other ideas and it is Agnieszka herself who ends up in his tower. At first she has no idea what the Dragon wants from her and spends most of her time trying to avoid him, but it’s not long before she discovers why she was chosen. As Agnieszka learns more about the wizard and his magic, the evil forces within the Wood continue to grow stronger and soon she and the Dragon must work together to save the kingdom.

Uprooted is a wonderfully imaginative fantasy novel. When I first began to read, I thought it felt like a fairy tale retelling – there were definitely some elements of Beauty and the Beast as well as some references to Eastern European folklore – but very soon it started to develop into something original and different. There was a lot to love about the book and although it wasn’t as flawlessly brilliant as it seemed to be at first, I would highly recommend it both to fantasy fans and to those like me who only dip into fantasy occasionally.

I found the ways in which magic is used in the novel particularly interesting, as there are so many different types performed by the Dragon and various other characters. These range from the Dragon’s meticulous, almost scientific methods to the more natural, instinctive magic found in the old spellbooks of the great witch, Jaga. Agnieszka learns a lot about magic while living in the Dragon’s tower; it was fascinating and I was slightly disappointed when the scope of the story broadened and the action moved first to court and then to other parts of the kingdom.

The relationship between Agnieszka and the Dragon is well written, particularly in the first half of the book, but a lot of time is also spent on exploring the strong female friendship between Agnieska and her best friend, Kasia. There’s also a romantic thread to the story but this does not form a big part of the plot, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about romance. Personally I would have liked this aspect of the novel to have been developed in a little bit more depth as it seemed to be neglected halfway through as a very long and drawn out magical battle took centre stage instead.

The most memorable thing about Uprooted, though, was the role played by the Wood. When people talk about books, they often say that the setting felt almost like a character. With this book, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the setting really is a character. The Wood is portrayed as not just a collection of trees, but as a strong evil presence – an intelligent living entity with thoughts, feelings and desires. I found it genuinely creepy and menacing and the fact that it isn’t human makes it an unforgettable fantasy villain.

I’m not sure whether Naomi Novik is going to write more books set in this world. There is the potential for more, but the way Uprooted ended suggests that it will remain a standalone. Either way I’m happy – and I still have the rest of the Temeraire series to read!

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov

A Country Doctors Notebook A Country Doctor’s Notebook is the book that was selected for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I was happy when I discovered that I would be reading this one, not only because it’s much shorter than most of the others on my Classics Club list, but also because I loved Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita which I read four years ago in 2011. I knew this book was going to be very different from The Master and Margarita, but I hoped I would still enjoy it…and I did.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook is a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories originally written in Russian in the 1920s (the edition I read uses Michael Glenny’s English translation from 1975). Like the protagonist of this book, Mikhail Bulgakov was a ‘country doctor’. After graduating from Kiev University he became a physician and from 1916-1918 he worked at a small hospital near a remote village in the province of Smolensk.

The fictional doctor in the book, Vladimir Bomgard, is clearly based on Bulgakov himself and in the first story we see him as a young, newly-qualified doctor of twenty-four arriving at Muryovo Hospital, a full day’s drive from the nearest town. He is pleased to find that the hospital is clean and well equipped, but with no practical experience and nobody to turn to for advice (apart from a feldsher, or partly-qualified assistant, and two midwives) the thought of bearing sole responsibility for the lives of his patients terrifies him.

During his first weeks and months at Muryovo, the country doctor faces all sorts of problems for which his university education had completely failed to prepare him. With no electricity, no telephones, poor roads, the risk of being cut off from the world during snowstorms, and the ignorance of peasants regarding simple medical matters, life at Muryovo is primitive and isolated. Most of all, the young doctor lives in fear of encountering a strangulated hernia, a case of peritonitis or a difficult birth and he comes to dread hearing a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

“It’s not my fault,” I repeated to myself stubbornly and unhappily. “I’ve got my degree and a first class one at that. Didn’t I warn them back in town that I wanted to start off as a junior partner in a practice? But no, they just smiled and said, ‘You’ll get your bearings.’ So now I’ve got to find my bearings. Suppose they bring me a hernia? Just tell me how I’ll find my bearings with that?”

As the book progresses the doctor slowly begins to gain confidence and discovers that true knowledge comes with experience.

It was fascinating to read about conditions in a remote Russian hospital at the start of the twentieth century and the medical procedures and treatments that were used. I had a lot of sympathy for the doctor, being thrown in at the deep end with so little experience and being expected to operate on patients with no supervision and no advice other than illustrations in his textbooks. If you’re squeamish I should probably warn you that some of the operations he performs are described in full, gory detail (the tracheotomy particularly sticks in my mind). But this is also a book with a lot of humour and there are some very funny moments as the doctor panics, guesses and muddles his way through each crisis.

As I mentioned above, I read the Michael Glenny translation which I was quite happy with and found perfectly readable. I enjoyed all of the stories in A Country Doctor’s Notebook and I’m so pleased the Classics Spin motivated me to pick up this book at last.