Monday, 28 July 2014

The Mirador: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, but available second-hand from Amazon)


Doctrines of Labyrinths: Book III

We're back in the Mirador, two years after the events of The Virtu, and things have settled into a routine for our characters, though to call it a 'comfortable' routine might be pushing things. Felix is thoroughly enjoying being back in the limelight, casually tormenting his old enemies and wallowing in the adoration of the more impressionable members of the court. Behind closed doors, however, he's having a considerably less enjoyable time: his lover Gideon is unable to accept Felix's constitutional inability to be faithful, and Felix himself continues to be haunted by thoughts of his thwarted former master Malkar, as well as tormented by needs that he can't admit to anyone within the Mirador and which keep clawing him back to the Lower City. 

Mildmay silently chafes at his self-inflicted role as Felix's silent, unnoticed, unappreciated shadow, forced to watch his half-brother psychologically disintegrating in front of his eyes. As if that wasn't enough to deal with, Mildmay's own dreams are troubled by memories of his murdered girlfriend Ginevra. His current girlfriend isn't making life any better, and we understand that twice over because, in a departure from the last book in the series, we get to hear from Mehitabel Parr herself as well as Felix and Mildmay. She has found her feet as a successful actress in one of the city's theatre troupes, a job that opens up many more romantic options than Mildmay, despite the latter's undeniable appeal (yes, ladies, it turns out that, as well as being generally awesome, Mildmay is also a selfless lover: how far that can be called characterisation, and how much wishful thinking, I'm not sure). And one of Mehitabel's options in particular is the kind of offer that even an experienced actress can't refuse. But she, like all our characters, has her demons. In her case these take the form of the Bastion's spy Lieutenant Vulpes, who has found her out and is compelling her to stay true to her former profession as an informer. For his own part, Vulpes isn't having the best time of it either. His bosses have ordered him, regardless of his own wishes, to seduce Felix Harrowgate in an effort to find out more about the workings of the Mirador, and exactly how crucial Felix is to its stability, but Vulpes is finding to his cost that Felix is several steps ahead in the game.

It sounds confusing and, to be honest, it is a little. There were so many storylines flying around all over the place that they didn't always seem to fit logically together and what I was expecting to be the main plot - what the Bastion was planning, and how they were going to try to take Felix out, and what was going to come of that - seemed to be half-forgotten until the end. This did mean that we had the luxury of exploring lots of other pathways, such as the rivalries within Mehitabel's acting troupe, or finding out more about what exactly Felix does like (which isn't all that heart-warming), and watching Mildmay's inevitable and much dreaded reunion with his Keeper. For me, though, it meant that the book didn't really grip me in the same way as the first two volumes, when I was completely engaged in the story at hand. Perhaps the sudden proliferation of avenues was making a subtle stylistic comment on the importance of labyrinths in the plot, of course. But, if so, that was a clever idea that didn't quite come off.

Thus, for me, this was a bit of a weak link in the series. Even Mildmay and Felix seemed a bit trapped in repetitive cycles of angst and I never felt quite as engaged with either of them as I did in the first two books, though the frequent feeling of wanting to hit Felix hasn't gone away. Having said that (small spoiler ahead), I did want to give them both a big hug at one point: the prison scene at the end, where Felix's armour finally crumbles and Mildmay is completely adorable in trying to comfort him even though Felix has spent most of the book being a complete swine. I'm quite pleased that we're going to be heading off for further adventures beyond the Mirador in the next book, and hopefully things will settle down again once we get back out on the road. I don't know whether Mehitabel's narration will continue or not; I can't say I'll miss it hugely if it doesn't, but we'll see. 

And so... onto the next. 

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Idling in Italy (Florence)

Last week, in a spirit of spontaneity that's entirely uncharacteristic, I went on a last-minute trip to Florence. Work has been very intense this year, and that looks set to continue, so I was in desperate need of sunshine, gelati and the scent of pine, the chatter of cicadas and the quiet grace of frescoed churches. Fortunately I had a marvellous excuse. This summer everyone has been talking about the exhibition on Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, subtitled Diverging Paths of Mannerism, at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Not that I needed much of an excuse to return. Florence has been a very important place for me ever since I first went there with my parents at the age of fifteen, my head full of A Room with a View and the Medici, Leonardo and Michelangelo. I managed to get there three more times in my student days, but it's been eight years since I was last there at the age of twenty-one. It was time to go back.

Although I only had the time to stay for two days - work snapping at my heels again - I'm deeply glad I went. It was hot - never less than about 30°C - but it was a welcome kind of heat: the sort of golden, honeyed warmth that you can feel soaking into your bones and doing you the world of good. If nothing else, I feel more like myself again. In the course of two days I managed to fit in a terrific amount, including the Pontormo and Rosso show and the exhibition on Jacopo Ligozzi at Palazzo Pitti, both of which I hope to write about individually soon. But I also had the chance to revisit some old friends and, rather excitingly, to venture outside of Florence to make my first visit to one of the Medici villas. Here are just a handful of my highlights (as I said, I was only there two days!).

The Villa Medicea at Poggio a Caiano

The Villa Medicea from the entrance. The sweeping staircase is a later addition to the original structure.
Having studied Pontormo's pictures at Palazzo Strozzi and his splendid Deposition at Santa Felicità, I decided to complete the set with a visit to the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. This sleepy little town lies thirty minutes west of Florence, just south of Prato. A bus (bound for Pistoia) runs every half an hour from the CAP office on Largo Fratelli Alinari, and stops right outside the villa itself, so it's very easy to get to. Once there, you feel a world away from Florence itself, with its hordes of tourists, tour groups and queues. Indeed, I walked around most of the villa by myself, and spent an idyllic few minutes killing time before the 10:30am opening by wandering in the gardens, with potted orange and lemon trees flanking the gravel paths, and the sun beating down among the pines.

Although the villa was originally bought and remodelled by Lorenzo de' Medici, construction came to a halt when he died in 1492 and it wasn't completed until Pope Leo X (his son) came to power. Later in the 16th century it became one of the preferred retreats of the Medici Grand Dukes: Francesco I de' Medici and his wife Bianca Cappello apparently died there within days of each other in 1587. Romantic rumour has it that they were poisoned by his ambitious brother Ferdinando, although in reality it's more likely that they died of malaria. (I don't know enough about the later Medici so ended up buying a book on the subject, which I'm looking forward to reading.) Apparently it was one of the first country retreats to discard the defensive fortifications of the medieval period and embrace the concept of the villa as a place of elegant relaxation and calming beauty, and it was decorated to match. 

Jacopo Pontormo, Vertumnus and Pomona, from the salone at Poggio a Caiano
The main draw of the villa nowadays is the salone on the first floor, which runs the depth of the house and was decorated in two phases. First, between 1513 and 1521, Leo X commissioned frescoes from Pontormo, Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio; and then, some fifty years later in 1578-82, Francesco I brought in Alessandro Allori to complete the decorative scheme. I'd come for the vivacious and deservedly famous fresco of Vertumnus and Pomona by Pontormo, which conjures up the lazy informality of a Tuscan summer afternoon. Although that would have been worth the trip in itself, I was delighted to discover the less familiar frescos by Andrea del Sarto and Franciabigio. (Wikipedia's entry on Franciabigio describes his fresco, The Return of Cicero from Exile, as 'turgid', which strikes me as rather unfair. Cicero's face has the individuality of a portrait and the scene combines monumentality and subtle sfumato in a way that I rather liked.) According to the custodian, the frescoes have all been recently restored, which accounts for their remarkably vivid colouring. The general effect, with the coffered and gilded ceiling painted with the Medici device of the palle, is incredibly impressive. To make things even better, I had the room entirely to myself and was able to wander up and down for as long as I liked. 

It's true that there isn't a huge amount to see at the villa besides the salone, but since the bus costs only €4 for a return trip, and the villa itself was completely free, it's definitely worth an outing if you have the time, and if you fancy following the Medici off the beaten track.

The Cappella Medici

Balthasar, Melchior and Caspar, and a detail of the fantastical landscape through which they travel
Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi are very much on the beaten track, but they're an established favourite of mine. It was rather wonderful to visit the Palazzo for the first time since reading Linda Proud's Botticelli Trilogy and A Gift for the Magus, and I amused myself by imagining Poliziano, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola walking in the courtyard or in the little garden beyond, with its fountain and statues. Upstairs I was ravished all over again by The Journey of the Magi, which unfurls around three walls of a room that was even tinier than I remembered, but even more exquisitely beautiful: a true feast for the eyes. The subject was primarily inspired by the Medici family's self-identification with the Three Magi, but it also commemorated the events of the Council of Florence, held twenty years previously in 1439. This attempt to reconcile Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Christianity was one of the most ambitious of its time, and it had been financially supported in part by Cosimo de' Medici, which meant that it was an occasion of both civic and dynastic pride. It brought the Florentines face to face with the exoticism of the east - with the Greeks and the Byzantines - and that unfamiliar flavour adds spice to the vividly detailed frescoes which the Medici commissioned to mark the event. (Of course, in the long run the negotiations would come to nothing, but they didn't know that yet.)

A marvellous cavalcade winds through a fairy-tale landscape, framed with abstract rocky bluffs and green hills dotted with cypresses and castles. The three kings - golden-haired Balthasar; stern, olive-skinned Melchior; and elderly, white-bearded Caspar - lead a train of followers which gives the impression of being a veritable who's-who of mid-15th-century Florence. Gozzoli is there in the crowd, staring rather challengingly straight out at the viewer (with his name written on his hat, just in case we risk missing him), and the men clustered about him all have such a lifelike air that they must be portraits. Beyond them, birds dart in the air, huntsmen chase deer and young grooms carry hunting-cats in jewelled collars perched on their saddles. There are even camels. It's a glorious example of a sacred subject in a secular context. Gozzoli was confidently breaking with the spirit of his training: while his master, Fra Angelico, had developed a newly austere artistic vocabulary through his religious frescoes at San Marco, Gozzoli transformed the Biblical story into an courtly extravaganza, like a splendid Book of Hours. I was fortunate enough to be there at a quiet time and it's simply magical: a tantalising glimpse of the world in which the young Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici grew up.

Santa Maria Novella

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Birth of the Virgin, Tornabuoni Chapel (detail)
This beautiful Dominican church contains some of the most wonderful 15th-century frescoes in the city. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge Masaccio's Trinity with its pioneering use of perspective, but my feet always carry me straight to Domenico Ghirlandaio's stories of the Virgin and St John the Baptist in the Tornabuoni Chapel. Ghirlandaio is a great favourite of mine: he is easy to love, because he's a refined, elegant and urbane painter, and his pictures offer a beguiling snapshot of Renaissance Florence in the 1480s. His sacred scenes take place in a thinly-veiled facsimile of his city, witnessed by polite crowds of well-dressed onlookers who can be identified as Ghirlandaio's friends, contemporaries and patrons. Ludovica Tornabuoni, the patron's daughter, attends The Birth of the Virgin decked out in gold brocade; another member of the family, dressed in pink and gold, advances into the Birth of St John the Baptist. There's more gold brocade in The Visitation, where Giovanna Albizzi-Tornabuoni elegantly witnesses the Virgin and St Elizabeth greeting one another in the grounds of a Renaissance palace. The angel who appears to Zacharias isn't even noticed by the little knot of men who are deep in discussion at lower left: Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino and Angelo Poliziano, the dazzling elite of Renaissance humanism.

As if this portrait gallery wasn't enough, Ghirlandaio also had a playful penchant for self-portraits: in the Tornabuoni Chapel he stands at the right-hand side of Joachim's Expulsion from the Temple, one hand casually propped on his hip, the other nonchalantly pointing to himself. (He appears in a similar pose, looking rather younger, in the Resurrection of the Boy in the Sassetti Chapel at Santa Trinità; and again as one of the shepherds in the altarpiece of The Adoration of the Shepherds in the same chapel.) I can't help feeling that Ghirlandaio's sheer delight in the glories of the natural world - beautiful women, fluttering draperies, architectural vistas - slightly overpowers the religious elements of his paintings; but I don't mind that at all, and it gives the frescoes a wonderful sense of liveliness. 

If you have time for a Ghirlandaio tour, you must go to Santa Trinità as well (I tried this time but got there just after Mass and was chased out as the church was closing), where in the Sassetti Chapel you can find portraits of Lorenzo de' Medici and his children, who are led into the scene by Poliziano (another must-see for those who've read Linda Proud's Botticelli Trilogy). Don't miss The Last Supper in the refectory at San Marco; and there's also an absolutely gorgeous Adoration of the Magi in the Ospedale degli Innocenti, although when I tried to get in there last week I found that the museum is currently closed for renovation. 

Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide watch Joachim being expelled from the Temple (detail, rather oversaturated)
And some more earthly recommendations...

I stayed at the Albergo Firenze in Piazza Donati, which really is in the most fabulous location. It's tucked away through a little archway on the Corso, opposite the church of Santa Maria dei Ricci (where there are free concerts of organ music every day at 7pm and 9pm). The Piazza del Duomo is a five minute stroll to the north; the Piazza della Signoria is two minutes away via the side streets; and the Casa di Dante is literally around the corner. The staff are polite and welcoming, and my room was just what I wanted in Florence: a cool red-tiled floor, plain white walls and shutters latched against the blazing sun. For those, like me, who just need somewhere to lay their heads, this is ideal, but it probably won't suit those who like more self-indulgent travelling: the best that can be said about the breakfast is that it's functional. One other problem I faced was that the first floor (and perhaps the second too) seemed to be given over to a residential summer school, and that meant quite a lot of students rushing around shouting and banging doors at rather inconvenient hours of the night. So do beware. But if, like me, location is the most important thing for you, and if you possess a pair of earplugs, this is a pretty fine base.

On two of my three evenings, I went to a little restaurant a couple of streets away from my hotel on the via della Condotta (at number 7-9): Il Cantastorie. As you know, I'm the kind of person who does judge a book by its cover and I also judge restaurants by their names, which seems to be as good a way as any to assess places that you don't know. I wandered in the first time just because I couldn't resist a place called 'the Ballad-Singer'. It turned out that their tagliata di manzo with rocket and parmesan was absolutely divine; and their spaghetti oglio e aglio on my second visit was also very good. It doesn't have outside tables but the large window had been completely opened, and so eating in the front dining room felt slightly like being in a loggia. As a single traveller, and a girl at that, my most important criterion is feeling comfortable in a restaurant, and this place was welcoming and friendly, but not to the point of making me self-conscious. Indeed, when I went back the following evening they recognised me, gave me the same table near the window and presented me with a glass of grappa at the end, which was nice of them. (Clearly they don't get many solo freckled girls who spend all evening with their noses in books.)

Peaceful cloisters at San Lorenzo  |  The Duomo and facade  |  A quiet cell at San Marco

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Virtu: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, but available as an e-book from Amazon)

««« ½

Doctrines of Labyrinths: Book II

If you're going to entrust your life and well-being to the care of another human being, would Felix Harrowgate really be your first choice?

Well, there's no accounting for taste. Picking up from the end of Mélusine, we rejoin Mildmay and Felix in the Gardens of Nephele. Felix has been healed of his madness and Mildmay has been freed of his own death-curse, but is stuck with the pain of his lamed and twisted leg. Although Felix seems happy enough, studying dream-magic, working his way through the library, and winning admirers left, right and centre, Mildmay feels increasingly isolated and out of place. He's perfectly aware that these elevated philosophers only tolerate him because he happens to be the half-brother of the new toast of the town. For once, Felix rises above his own selfishness just long enough to see Mildmay's unhappiness; and he decides it's time for them to go home.

Of course, this being Felix, the return to Mélusine is as much for his own benefit as Mildmay's. Felix has realised that, with his power restored, he has the ability to mend the Virtu and thwart Malkar's plans to weaken the Mirador. What better way for Felix to waltz back into the good books of the court? As far as Mildmay is concerned, simply getting out of the Gardens is a start. Returning to Mélusine itself, if they ever get that far, would actually be something of an issue for him. His life in the Lower City is effectively over: there's a reason no one has ever heard of a lame cat-burglar. His beloved Ginevra is dead; and his future, such as it is, lies in the hands of his charismatic but fickle brother. For now, Mildmay just focuses on getting back to the mainland, but they've scarcely boarded their ship before he realises with a jolt that he's once again going to be sidelined. Felix charms his way into the company of their elegant fellow passengers - among them the Gauthy family, and the enigmatic young man Phaëthon (who turns out to be a no-less enigmatic girl named Arakhne, travelling in disguise - I suspect we'll see her again). Mildmay, however, finds that the only person who seems to want his company is the over-imaginative young Florian Gauthy, with his taste for wild stories of Lower City life. And then, when the travellers reach the Gauthys' home town, Florian goes missing; and Felix and Mildmay find themselves descending into yet another labyrinth in the hope of finding him.

As I said of the last book, the two main characters and their relationship continue to be the driving force of this series. The plot is fast-paced and engaging, and thankfully less grim than in the first novel, with some marvellously eerie moments, such as the scene where Felix discovers the way to lay to rest the wandering ghosts in the Mirador. But the most gripping aspect of the story, for me, is the way our two narrators relate to one another, and that starts to get very... interesting here. In fact the whole series seems to be an exploration of different forms of love, whether that's friendship, fraternal love, admiration, desire and so forth, and the various ways that these can intertwine. As I hinted in the last book, Felix has what can only be described as thoroughly inappropriate feelings and, in inadvertently revealing these, he provides one of the dramatic turning points of the book. However, I rather liked the fact that Felix was grown-up enough to accept that nothing more was on the cards (for now?), and that Mildmay could face up to the unexpected, and see that the bigger picture was more important. The latter is actually one of the key themes of this book: Mildmay is constantly prepared to sacrifice his own welfare for the greater good, which he invariably (in an endearingly misguided fashion) associates with helping Felix achieve his aim with the Virtu. Unfortunately Felix isn't the noble hero his half-brother loyally believes him to be, deep down. For all his professions of love, he doesn't even appreciate the degree of danger he's putting Mildmay into, until it's too late. After all, their return to the Mirador doesn't just bring Mildmay's life into danger from the Curia, but also accidentally places him directly in Malkar's path.

Delving deeper into the theory of labyrinths and magic and the unquiet dead, this was a satisfying sequel and, once again, formidably readable. In fact I think I got through the entire book in the course of the journey from Gatwick Airport to Florence. As soon as I got back to London I ordered the final two books in the series and I'm now waiting very impatiently for them to arrive so that I can read more. As before, it's not so much what happens next that matters to me, so much as being able to read more of Mildmay's narration. If anything, I found his voice even more infectious this time round. It's probably because I read the two books in one extended sitting, but by the end of it I was actually thinking in Mildmay's voice and found it terrifically hard to shake off.

And isn't that a marvellous cover? Young man perched in dramatic pose on roof. Check. Blade in hand. Check. Implausibly white billowing shirt. Check. Swashbuckling perfection, as I said.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Mélusine: Sarah Monette

(published by Ace, out of print, available as an ebook from Amazon)

««« ½

Doctrines of Labyrinths: Book I

Having enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, I thought it would be fun to read some other books by the same author, and that meant going back to her popular Doctrines of Labyrinths series. Needless to say, I hadn't read much of the first book, Mélusine, before realising that this was a very different kind of novel. So much for heart-warming cosiness! By contrast, something happens in the early chapters of Mélusine which very nearly made me decide not to carry on - those who've read the novel will know what I'm talking about. While I don't mind reading about violence in battle situations, torture and sexual violation is another matter entirely. But I decided to give it a chance and ploughed on (things settle down a bit after that early, shocking scene); and, to my surprise, I was completely and utterly gripped. I still can't decide whether or not I actually liked the book as a whole, but that's immaterial in view of the fact that I was hooked.

The story is set in the city of Mélusine, in a world where the calendar is based on the French revolutionary system and the names are a blend of French, Greek and English influences. The town itself is a seething jumble of streets inhabited by hired muscle, vagrants and bands of feral child-thieves, who owe allegiance to no one but their 'Keeper'. Above the different districts and territories rises the Mirador, the upper city, a labyrinthine complex of passages, halls and towers where the court resides. You would imagine that the governor, Stephen Teverius, is at the heart of the Mirador; but this isn't quite true. In fact the Mirador centres on a blue sphere of pulsing energy, called the Virtu, which regulates and controls the various magical forces in the realm. Among Stephen's courtiers are his wizards - the Curia - who are devoted to both serving and preserving the Virtu and preventing darker powers from seeping in. This is a world, after all, where magic can be very dark indeed. Ghouls and necromancers haunt the cemeteries in the Lower City, and renegade wizards circle the Mirador's defences like wolves.

This is where Felix Harrowgate comes in. Saying that Felix has issues is like saying that the Marquis de Sade was occasionally intemperate. He's one of the most powerful wizards in the Curia: a brilliant, handsome and obnoxiously arrogant redhead, making enemies at the same rate he scythes his way through the hearts of the Mirador's nobles. But Felix has a secret. His past is a pretence, cobbled together to hide his grim beginnings as a child prostitute in the slums of Mélusine. 'Rescued' by a man who can see Felix's magical talent, he's been groomed to act and think as a nobleman, given a plausible back-story, and manoeuvred into the Curia. And now the time has come to repay the favour. Confronted by his former master and lover, Felix is forced into service as the conduit for a spell of unprecedented power which aims to dismantle the very foundations of the Mirador's power. It works. With the Virtu shattered, the Mirador's protective influence crumbles away and all manner of dark magic begins to rise. Felix's signature on the spell is plain, but he is unable to defend himself. Compelled to silence, he plummets into a terrifying world of madness, where emotions manifest themselves as colours and those around him bear the shape-shifting heads of animals. Tormented and broken, he's barely conscious of being stripped of his honours and cast into the city's madhouse, where even more horrors await him. The only thing Felix knows is that he has to get out: he's seen some gardens in a dream, where he knows he could be healed. The only problem is how to get there.

And then there's Mildmay, and this is where the book leaps into gloriously exuberant life. A cat-burglar and hired blade, who is something of a legend despite his youth, Mildmay is a familiar sight in the Lower City in Mélusine - not least because of the striking scar across his face. He has freed himself from his Keeper, struck out on his own and is doing rather well for himself; but things are about to take a very unexpected turn. First, a young woman hires him to help her retrieve some jewellery, which takes him precisely to the one place in Mélusine he doesn't want to be. Shortly afterwards, in the process of running for his life, he stumbles across a foreign wizard and his taciturn servant who offer him a commission: find Felix Harrowgate. All Mildmay knows about this man is that he's just destroyed the Virtu and that he seems to be a key to this foreigner's own quest. But, when he finally does track Felix down, he is faced with a stupefying revelation (Mildmay, incidentally, is also a natural redhead: I've never read a book whose plot hinged so closely on a question of hair dye). And so this world-weary thief finds himself saddled with a task that seems more impossible than any he's faced so far: somehow getting an insane, emotionally scarred wizard halfway across the world on the off-chance that the gardens he keeps seeing in his dreams might be real.

The real key to the book is the characterisation. Felix and Mildmay take alternating chapters for their narration, so you get to know both of them extremely well and, through Felix's chapters, Monette conveys a convincingly visceral kind of madness. While the two men are very different from each other, they've both suffered abuse at the hands of those who should have protected them and you really get a sense of the masks they wear to face the world, to shield their lonely, damaged, affection-starved inner selves. The complementary first-person narrations are a stroke of genius, because you get to see these two people struggling to make sense of each other, usually getting the wrong end of the stick, but floundering on because they simply don't have anyone else. Despite being younger, Mildmay is much more mature. He takes on Felix with the fraternal bluffness of someone raised in the tightly-knit thief community, which masks a deep loyalty and commitment rarely found in the generic 'rogue' character type. On occasion Mildmay does get exasperated with Felix, but this is balanced out by a large dose of hero-worship. He forces himself through a series of dangerous endeavours in an effort to somehow prove himself worthy of this captivating person (and be properly noticed by him). The irony, obviously, is that Mildmay is easily worth ten of Felix. In a crisis, Mildmay would probably have a rope or a piece of wire to cleverly get you out of trouble, whereas Felix would just have hysterics and hide in the corner. Anyway. For his part, even through the fog of madness, Felix develops a desperate dependence on Mildmay but his feelings (unsurprisingly, considering Felix) are rather more... complicated.

Having read some other reviews after I'd finished Mélusine, I realised that my own feelings about the book are shared by many, many other readers out there. Whenever Felix wasn't completely insane I wanted to slap him for his precious self-importance. I also felt slightly uneasy that the scene near the beginning seemed designed to force me to pity him, even though I couldn't see anything remotely sympathetic about this character. By the end of this book he seemed to be displaying faint traces of humanity, but I decided not to get my hopes up too much. By contrast, I adored Mildmay from approximately the second line written in his narrative voice, which is one of the most deliciously distinctive that I've ever come across. Peppered with slang and cant and a catchphrase that gets stuck in your head (and would be entirely inappropriate to say out loud), it shows up the differences in the way that the commons and the elite speak, and adds to the already impressive level of world-building. By the middle of the book I wasn't even watching the plot so much as revelling in the way that Mildmay tells his side of the story; and by the final pages I had decided that I had to read the rest of the series if only to spend more time with him as a character. 

I have to conclude with a nod to the striking cover art for this series. I believe the artist is Judy York (please correct me if I'm wrong) and she has created four very different but beautiful designs. I'd seen this cover several times over the years and was intrigued by it; and now, having read the book, I can only assume that Felix would be very smug about looking so brooding and mysterious. Mind you, I have to admit that the cover for the next book is even more wonderful, because it ticks all my swashbuckling boxes with gusto (and features Mildmay, obviously).

So there we go. I didn't think I was going to enjoy this book at all and, completely despite myself, I've been captivated by it. Since I read it while travelling, I went straight on to the sequel, The Virtu, because I really couldn't help myself. That says a lot about the quality of the writing, even if the content is sometimes a bit disturbing. I just hope things don't get too dark as we carry on.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Shakespeare in Love

(Noël Coward Theatre, London, currently booking to 25 October)

I will have poetry in my life. And adventure. And love. Love above all! 
For the feel-good romantic comedy hit of the summer, head down to the Noël Coward Theatre on St Martin's Lane in London, where the stage production of Shakespeare in Love has just opened for previews. It's only been running for a few days but a friend and I went along to see it tonight and it is genuinely one of the most delightful plays I've ever seen. At the end we tumbled out in the London night so stuffed full of joy that we were fit to burst: comedy, love, and a bit with a dog. What more could you desire?

It's 1593 and Will Shakespeare - actor, jobbing playwright and frustrated poet - has writer's block. His recent play Two Gentlemen of Verona has been swiped by Richard Burbage's rival theatre company, while Will's own patron Philip Henslowe is being threatened by his rapacious creditor Fennyman. Will is under pressure to produce something brilliant for Henslowe to draw in the crowds and get the theatre back in the black. His new play Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter has a promising title but little else, and the more Will thinks about it the more he begins to feel that it just isn't quite right. Despite the pirates. And the dog. To make matters worse, his friend and fellow poet Kit Marlowe is the toast of the town, and seems to be the only man around Bankside capable of throwing off a sonnet or two. Will despairs. But then, in the auditions for Romeo and Ethel, he meets Thomas Kent: a mysterious young man who promises to be the perfect romantic lead for Will's new play. When Will and Kit try to track Thomas down at the address he's given - the house of the wealthy de Lesseps family - they can't find any trace of him. But Will does see Viola de Lesseps, the daughter of the house, and falls immediately and hopelessly in love. 

Little does he realise that Viola has secrets of her own. A passionate theatre-goer, desperate to feel the thrill and camaraderie of the playhouse, she has been slipping out of her home in disguise - as none other than Thomas Kent. Life and art begin to twine together. Viola's fiance Lord Wessex begins to resent the playwright he spots hanging around her house, Will finds himself being drawn deeper into an impossible love affair, and Romeo and Ethel begins morphing into something greater, bleaker and much more beautiful. On top of that, the Master of the Revels is trying to close the theatres, the actor playing Juliet is on the verge of his voice breaking, and Henslowe has bought a dog that nobody knows what to do with. It has all the hallmarks of a complete disaster. But everyone knows it will turn out well in the end. They're just not sure how. It's a mystery.

'Shall I compare thee...': Will struggles with his sonnets
I must add a disclaimer: the 1998 version of Shakespeare in Love is one of my favourite films and I've watched it more times than I care to remember. It set a high bar for the stage version and I wasn't prepared to be a pushover. But the play not only matched the film: it surpassed it. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's screenplay is a love letter to the theatre and it works marvellously on the stage, where plays take place within plays, and the whole of Elizabethan London unfolds between the wings. The first half was a non-stop delight. I think the first laugh came about ten seconds into the play and by the interval I had tears in my eyes and agreed with my friend that I actually didn't want a twenty-minute break: couldn't they just carry straight on? 

My one criticism might be that the start of the second half seemed to lose momentum slightly in comparison. In a way that's a problem with the script, because after the interval the mood changes to a minor key as the comedy of Romeo and Ethel transforms into the shimmering tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The second half has to open with a string of more serious scenes, but I don't know whether they could be tightened somehow, to counter the feeling that, after the riotous first half, it becomes a little slow. It was only for a brief time, though. The audience never lost attention and there were some moments - particularly during the 'performance' of Romeo and Juliet - where the entire theatre seemed to be holding its breath. And that is a testimony to the actors.

'What light from yonder window breaks?': Viola finally finds her metier
The whole company were marvellous. I didn't recognise many of the names, although I was very pleased to see Paul Chahidi again, who'd delighted me as Maria in Twelfth Night and who here played the put-upon Henslowe. But the main roles were splendidly cast, especially Tom Bateman as Will. I hadn't seen him in anything before, although I know he was in Da Vinci's Demons (I once swore I would rather nail my tongue to the table than watch it; but now I'm almost tempted). He was perfect: engaging and lively, earnest in all the right places, with fine comic timing; and, quite frankly, he was rather gorgeous. If there was anyone in the audience who didn't come out at the end just a little bit in love with him, I'll eat my hat. Opposite him, Lucy Briggs-Owen was equally captivating. She was wonderfully tomboyish and made a convincingly gauche young man: her Viola gave off an energy and a vibrant appetite for life which I don't think ever quite made it through in the film. I was very envious of her beautiful Elizabethan gowns (but if I start on the costumes, we will be here all night, and it's already past 1am, and I need to go to work in seven hours).

I was pleased to see that the stage production gives Kit Marlowe a larger presence than he has in the film: here he's Will's friend and rival and sometime inspiration, and I very much enjoyed the few subtle nudges I spotted to various theories about his death or authorship. David Oakes did a wonderful job: his Kit was the laconic, laid-back foil to Will's frenzy, and he had a deliciously dry delivery. Since I have to stop somewhere, I just want to single out one more person; and the worst thing is that I don't even know his name. He's one of the musicians, who in this production are simply fantastic. As far as I could see they're actors doubling up on the instruments, which sound and look Elizabethan even if they're not actually historically accurate. And one of those actors has an astoundingly rich and glorious counter-tenor, which filled the theatre and made shivers go down the back of my neck. As I said, I don't know which of the cast was singing, but it was simply wonderful.

In an ideal world, this production would be on at the Globe (or the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse). The set design nods to this, with a clever wooden gallery that slides back and forth to create rooms or suggest back-stage spaces, and a set of chandeliers are lowered over the stage at several points, just as I saw in The Duchess of Malfi. Moreover, there is no curtain - the beginning of each part is signalled by the actors walking onto the stage - and the production finishes with a joyful jig, just as would happen at the Globe. It all adds to the Shakespearean flavour. Oh. And, before finishing, I should add that, yes, there really is a bit with a dog; and it's brilliant. 

All in all, this is a beautifully balanced dose of impossible love and infectious happiness. Exuberant, romantic and deliciously funny, it really is the perfect night out. See it if you can. 

Will and Kit gatecrash the de Lesseps' ball: just look at that wonderful set with the chandeliers

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Goblin Emperor: Katherine Addison

(published by Tor, $25.99, or from Amazon)


Some weeks ago, Heloise told me about The Goblin Emperor, which she'd just finished reading: she posted a review earlier today. She knows that I've just finished a very intense period at work, and urged me to track down this book for some light relief. This friendly urging was repeated several times with increased insistence, to which I finally gave in; and I'm delighted I did. At the weekend, free at last, I curled up to read and was very quickly charmed. This is a delightfully heart-warming book: a feast of intrigue with a well-meaning, appealing and thoughtful protagonist at its core. I should emphasise my gratitude to Heloise, because I wouldn't ever have chosen this book off my own back. I tend to shy away from elves and goblins and unpronounceable names (many of which appear in the first few pages here), but I have to stress that my fears were entirely unfounded. The culture clash between the different races adds political spice, but this is fundamentally a story about human nature, generosity and the will to do good. It is a story about people, and the fact that none of them are actually human is largely incidental.

Maia is eighteen years old: the youngest and least favoured son of the elf Emperor Varenechibel IV. The Emperor, who set aside Maia's goblin mother, has no interest in his half-breed son who, since his mother's death ten years ago, has been brought up in an out-of-the-way country retreat, under the tutelage of his impatient and unyielding cousin Setheris. Maia knows nothing of the court - indeed, he knows very little about anything at all. But then an imperial courier arrives late one night with shocking news. Maia's father the Emperor, along with Maia's three elder brothers and his nephew, has died in an airship crash, leaving Maia the heir to the imperial throne. With no idea how to rule or who to trust, Maia can only follow his own instincts, his sense of duty and his desire to do the right thing - and the last two, if not the first, lead him to the court and the crown. It is not a smooth transition. Maia swiftly realises that out-of-sight really does mean out-of-mind. His arrival and, indeed, his very existence, are clearly a shock for many people, not least the ambitious Lord Chancellor Chavar and Maia's newly-bereaved sister-in-law Sheveän, whose son Idra is next in line. Drawing on all his reserves of grace and diplomacy, Maia must find a way to establish himself in the face of resentment and mockery; and, in an effort to break away from the legacy of his hated father, must create an inner circle of his own. Lonely, confused and desperate for guidance, he longs for friends - the one luxury an emperor is not supposed to have. But as Maia begins to set things in place, with as much tact and dignity as he can manage, he begins to find that he is not alone. With the devoted assistance of his secretary Csevet, and his nohecharei bodyguards Beshelar and Cala, he begins to make his mark on a realm which little appreciates how greatly it needs him.

One of the chief things I demand of a fantasy novel, you might remember, is that it should have good world-building; and that's one area where this book triumphs. It's refreshing to find something which isn't simply based on medieval Europe: there is more of medieval Japan here, I think, with the elaborate robes and hairdressing, the generals who wear masks and the elaborate protocols. However there's also a rather wonderful steampunk element, with airships and steam power, automatons and pneumatic tubes to send messages. As a reader you're thrown straight in at the deep end, suddenly faced with all these strange terms and ranks and forms of address, and you are left to find your way through on your own. As you read more, it gradually makes sense until, by the end, you actually have a pretty good grasp of the social structure, customs and political factions in what I must say is a very dense and beautifully detailed world. (Heloise kindly pointed out to me today that there is in fact a glossary in the back of the book, but I think in retrospect that I enjoyed it more, having to figure it all out for myself.) 

Being the kind of person who enjoys words, I'd also picked up some of the rules of the language and was having fun puzzling out the suffixes found in names and titles. I also found it interesting that Addison used the archaic informal mode of address (thee, thou, etc.) as well as the archaic formal (you, your) as a way of immediately signalling the relationship between two characters. Moreover, characters talking formally always refer to themselves in the first-person plural (i.e. we, our) so that when someone uses 'I' or 'me' you're struck by the intimacy of it, as the listener would be too. In this way you find yourself inadvertently understanding more about the culture. The choice of address also shows - very gracefully, without the author hammering the point home - how someone might try to show affection for someone else, or to offer a closer friendship by dropping their guard. It is so, so difficult to do this well in English (one of the few areas in which I feel my language is inferior to others). There were a couple of points where it didn't quite work, and one occasion where Addison forgot herself and used a 'you' in the middle of an informal discussion, but overall it was an extremely clever device. It adds extra depths to the characterisation, too. Maia is always adorable, but when you see his constant inner desire to be 'me' not 'we', your heart goes out to him, because the very language he's forced to use gets in the way of building relationships with those around him. However, he's a delightful, warm and caring person; so all you can do is trust that he finds a way through. (And, really, when was the last time you read about a character who manages to be all that and not simultaneously irritating or bland?).

As soon as I finished the book I wanted to go back and start it all over again; and I shall certainly be re-reading it. It is very probably one of those novels which you appreciate more as you read it more, and it's rare to finish a book with such a glow of well-being and contentment as I did here. Perhaps in a year or so I'll read this post again and wonder that I didn't give it a higher rating. But I can already see that it's a little gem of a novel: witty, touching, and full of a radiant humanity, and I really hope that Addison is planning a sequel. I can't deny that the odd flash of devilry in a character always sparks my interest, but nevertheless Maia won me over entirely. He's one of the most lovable and admirable figures I've come across for a long time. and I'd love to read more about him. Very much recommended.

A by-the-by to finish: Heloise tells me that Katherine Addison is a pseudonym for the author Sarah Monette, who has already written several very popular fantasy novels. I haven't actually read any of them, although Heloise is a fan. From the scattered preview pages I have scan-read, they seem to be in a rather different spirit from this; and I'll be interested to see what others who've read her earlier books make of The Goblin Emperor

Oh, and another by-the-by. Is it just me or is there a distinct Metropolis vibe to the cover? It rather amused me and, even if it's entirely accidental, it's a very subtle way to make the point that this certainly isn't your average fantasy novel. A round of applause to the cover designers Anna and Elena Balbusso.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Richard III

(Iris Theatre, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, until 25 July 2014)

The midwife wonder'd, and the women cried
'O! Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth.'
And so I was; which plainly signified
That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.
Then, since the heavens have shap'd my body so,
Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it.
(Richard, Henry VI: Part III, Act V, Scene 6)

This is the third production I've seen by Iris Theatre, and they never fail to delight. While in previous years I've seen them perform light, summery romantic comedies (A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It), this was my chance to see them tackle something in a darker key. It's a very topical choice of play, of course: debate is still raging over whether or not the remains discovered in Leicester last year are indeed those of Richard III. I was intrigued to see what Iris, and their director Daniel Winder, would make of the king. Would he be a wicked schemer or Machiavellian opportunist? Would he be crushed and disillusioned by his family's scorn, or inherently evil? Twisted in mind, body or both? In last year's Globe production, for example, Richard was childishly petulant rather than malevolent: dangerous not for his subtlety but for his unpredictability. That was an interesting take on the role but not one I really warmed to: I longed for more of Richard's panache. Fortunately Winder and his cast provide this in spades. Their Richard is the classic Shakespearean villain: a hunchback with a twisted leg and a limp, and a withered arm. But he is also the most charming and beguiling Richard I've seen to date.

David Hwyel Baynes, whom I last saw as an efferverscent Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, turns in a masterly performance. His Richard starts out as a confiding, impish fellow who is almost overcome by his own cleverness and who wants to share that glee with the audience. As he realises what he can get away with, he carries us along with him; we know that what he's doing is evil, but his humour and openness (to us) make us will him on to success. That makes his psychological disintegration in the second act even more shocking, as the boyish meddling turns into the homicidal fury of a man desperate to cement his position. But it also means that, by the final scenes, we are able to feel real pity for this Richard. He deserves all he gets; but, because he's won us over and made us laugh, even as he's shocked us, we can't watch his fall unmoved. And, rather than finishing on the high note of Richmond's triumph, this production continues for a moment longer, returning the focus to Richard's broken body amid a haunting Miserere. It willingly shows us Richard the villain but, unlike the other productions I've seen, it also shows us Richard the victim.

Richard as ambitious schemer, king and thwarted villain
That's partly the result of a very clever opening to the play. Iris do something which I haven't seen before: rather than plunge straight into the 'winter of discontent' speech, they begin with a scene from the end of Henry VI: Part 3, which helps to set the scene. By starting with the Battle of Tewkesbury, with the clash of steel and the death of Henry VI's son Edward at the hands of York, Clarence and Gloucester, we see that the rest of the play unfolds as a result of that murder. It makes it clear that the deaths and the fragmentation of the realm aren't the result of one man's machinations, but the price exacted by Fate from Edward IV and his brothers for their usurpation of their anointed king. (It's like Richard II and Henry IV all over again, with the usurpers doomed to expiate their sins, before a pure young king enters in the final act to set things right.) Moreover, such an approach changes the entire dramatic thrust of the play and gives much more significance to the figure of Queen Margaret (played by Mark Hawkins). 

In other productions I've found Margaret rather tedious and, when the Globe's version cut her out completely, I didn't think the play suffered for it. But Iris's decision to put Richard III in context makes the play part of something bigger and so Margaret becomes more important: a foil and counterpart to Richard, one grotesque against another. Her first appearance is at Tewkesbury, as a bona fide virago leading her men in battle with sword in hand. Later she slithers into the complacent York court, a chilling, prophetic figure with dishevelled auburn hair and one wild, staring white eye. Hawkins's performance is riveting. He conveys the full force of Margaret's anguish over her dead son and husband, which drives her into madness and curses and a thirst for vengeance. And, what's more, Iris adds one final particularly clever twist: Hawkins plays both Margaret and Richmond. In this way Margaret's triumph over the murderers of her son is personified in the noble figure of the future Henry VII. Very smart. (Hawkins also plays the Archbishop of York, and it wasn't until I read the programme afterwards that I realised he was also Catesby, who in this version becomes Richard's amoral sell-sword, the go-to man for murdering Clarence and the children. All in all, it was something of a tour de force. Someone give that man a clap on the back.)

Margaret grieves for her son at Tewkesbury  |  The innocent, ill-fated Lady Anne  |  Margaret glories in Elizabeth's grief
The rest of the cast divide up the roles between them and are uniformly impressive, slipping from persona to persona. I would love to go through everyone name by name, but we'd be here all day, so I'm going to stick to two other actors who particularly caught my eye. One moment Anne-Marie Piazza is the slaughtered Prince Edward of Lancaster; the next she's a naive Lady Anne, her initial vehemence fading into confused acquiescence in the face of Richard's repeated avowals of his love; and then in the next scene she turns up in the form of the future Edward V, all boyish self-importance and gaucheness. But perhaps the most wonderful transformation was Dafydd Gwyn Howells from the sainted King Henry VI (effectively a cameo, as he was slaughtered fairly swiftly) into a stiff, smug Earl Rivers, and then into a monumental and deliciously camp Duchess of York. But it's very much an ensemble success, so bravo to all. It's a show full of exuberance and flair, and I always love the promenade aspect, which means that the actors move among you and hurry you on from place to place: nowhere else do you have quite the same sensation of being part of the play. If you're in Covent Garden before 25 July with an evening to spare, do try to get to see this. You won't be disappointed. And if you can't make it by then, don't despair. Iris are putting on Alice through the Looking Glass from 30 July until 30 August. With their particular brand of magic, that should be equally unmissable. 

This probably counts as a spoiler, so if you're planning to see the show please don't read on because it'll be much more effective if you don't. But to those who won't get to see it (many of you, probably) I wanted to flag the staggering ending. As with the other two Iris productions I've seen, the performance ends within the church, which this time has been transformed into a throne room. In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth you go in, to find dry ice hazing the air. At first all you see is Richard on the throne. Then you realise he's not seated on the throne, but impaled through his stomach on a lance rising out of the throne - pinned in mid-air, limbs hanging, as if he really were a spider finally caught on an etymologist's pin. It was a shocking and hugely powerful ending. I wasn't the only person who clapped my hands over my mouth when I realised what I was seeing. 

A small aside. Surely it's no coincidence that the throne bore a striking similarity to the Iron Throne of Westeros? The Wars of the Roses famously served as a source for Game of Thrones, but during the interval I found myself thinking that the series's popularity could also give audiences a new and more sympathetic attitude to Richard. After all, in that series we're used to rooting for a man of acute intelligence who's mocked by those around him, simply because he's had the misfortune to be born with physical differences that make him a monster in other people's eyes. The key difference with Richard III, of course, is that ultimately Richard also becomes a monster to himself:

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
... I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul will pity me:
Nay, wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?
(Richard, Act V, Scene 3)

Queen Elizabeth (Laura Wickham) and Edward IV (Sam Donnelly) in happier times  |  Is winter coming?
The dashing Duke of Buckingham (Nick Howard-Brown)
Photos in this post from Iris Theatre's Facebook page.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Outlaw: Angus Donald

(published by Sphere, £6.99, or from Amazon)


The Outlaw Chronicles: Book I
As I looked up at the church door, I noticed something amiss. A dark lump had been affixed above the lintel ... It was the severed head of a young wolf, eyes still open and glittering madly in the torchlight ... I felt a sense of almost unbearable excitement, a euphoria soaring up through my lungs and into my head. He had dared to desecrate the church with the body of an animal, to make it, for one night, his own. He dared to risk his immortal soul with a pagan symbol in the sacred precincts of our Mother Church. This was a fearless man indeed.
Angus Donald's name crops up a lot in the historical fiction forums over at Goodreads and so I was rather chuffed to stumble across a copy of his debut novel in my local second-hand bookshop. As you know, I find it hard to resist novels about Robin Hood and I was interested to see how Outlaw would tackle this character, whom I've recently come across in two very different fictional forms: romantic, noble and quietly traumatised in Lady of the Forest, and psychotic madman with a Messiah complex in the most peculiar Hodd. It's proven to be a good read, full of colour and historical flair.

Outlaw focuses on the Robin Hood myth from the perspective of Alan, a fatherless young thief who steals in order to support himself and his mother, the widow Dale. However, he steals one pie too many and, after escaping by the skin of his teeth from the soldiers of Sir Ralph Murdac (the Sheriff), Alan flees home to his frantic mother, who appeals for help to the one man who can stand up to the authorities. This is Robert Odo, called Robin by those who follow him: a renegade nobleman who, despite his youth, has transformed the villages and hamlets of Sherwood into a kind of personal affinity. Taken under his wing as cupbearer, Alan learns to respect, admire and fear his new master, whose privileged upbringing wars with a dark, ruthless streak. As he trains in the exercise of arms, develops his natural gift for music and learns to behave with the manners expected of a young squire, Alan is conscious of being part of something bigger: much bigger. Robin's devoted followers can muster a small army and, in these dark times with King Henry abroad, Queen Eleanor in prison, and their eldest son Richard chafing at his father's authority in Aquitaine, such power is no small thing in England. As Murdac and his fellow Norman barons seek to fill their pockets in the kingless kingdom, Robin and his men stand to protect the Saxon commoners crushed and oppressed by this new elite - and, moreover, to preserve the realm for when the king returns.

All the usual elements are present and correct in Donald's story, but he marshals them in a fresh and very effective way. He sets his story at a slightly earlier period than usual, at the tail end of Henry II's reign rather than already under Richard I, presumably to allow for the Crusades to play a role later in the series. This also means that his Robin is rather different from usual: he's still in his early twenties and has never been on Crusade, and Donald asks us to believe that he has built up his position through a mixture of opportunism, charisma and ruthlessness. I was very nearly convinced by this, but not entirely: perhaps more of Robin's backstory will become clear in the later books, which will throw more light on it. What is clear is that a traumatic childhood, precocious intelligence and a rather flexible attitude to morality have given Robin the impetus to strike out on his own, away from the shadow of his father and his eldest brother. Donald suggests an element of psychological instability: this Robin can be clubbable and merry and even romantic, when he's with his beloved Marie-Anne (the Countess of Locksley); but it can take very little to push him over the edge into calculating, almost psychopathic acts of violence. Disillusioned with the Church, he finds dark satisfaction in taking part in the rites of his pagan followers, assuming the role of Herne the Hunter and using the ancient rituals as another way to draw the people to him. (I thought that was a very successful scene, although it did give me flashbacks to the horned-god scenes in The Fall of the Kings.)

Alongside the conception of the 'merry men' as a well-drilled and regulated army, rather than a band of lovable rascals, this goes to make a very engaging take on the story and on our so-called hero. Donald is extremely good at battle scenes, particularly in the extended sequence towards the end of the book where there is a real effort to present an authentic late-medieval engagement in all its stages (there was even a mangonel: not exactly a trebuchet, to my disappointment, but worth a Brownie point). It felt gritty and cinematic: just the kind of battle-writing I enjoy, and the writing overall was vivid and rich. Where the book is slightly less successful is in the leaps of faith it asks us to make. I've already mentioned that I wasn't quite convinced by the youthful Robin drawing all these hardened older men to his cause. I also wasn't sure that Eleanor of Aquitaine would really have let one of her ladies sneak off for unaccompanied rendezvouses with a notorious outlaw. And I found the closing chapters rather hurried, as everything was tidied into place a little too conveniently. With the luxuriantly-described battle at an end, it felt as though Donald had suddenly realised that he had to scrabble all the loose ends together for a conventional Robin-Hood finale (am I risking spoilers to mention weddings, King Richard, the comeuppance - but not death - of the Sheriff, etc.?). In a way, knowing there are more books to come, I would have been quite happy not to have the traditional ending and to see the pardon, wedding and rehabilitation dealt with at greater length in the next book. 

But these are minor quibbles. I found this thoroughly enjoyable - which was a relief, because I bought the sequel, Holy Warrior, at the same time - and of the various Robin Hood novels I've read, I found it the most satisfying. It'll be interesting to see where Donald takes it from now on: judging from the sequel's title, it's pretty safe to say we're off on Crusade (and I'm looking forward to it, because I've been keen to get back to the Holy Land ever since Lionheart). However, I'm intrigued to see whether Robin is going to keep any of his qualities, or whether the outlaw days are truly done and dusted, and our merry men are going to smoothly transform themselves into warriors of God, and never think of Sherwood more.
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