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Two novels by Kathleen Herbert

Kathleen Herbert wrote a selection of fascinating academic books about interesting topics - Women in Early English Society, Lost Gods of England, English Heroic Legends. All of these are topics where the available evidence is, like the books, a bit slim, but she packs what information there is in and they make a nice change from the usual endless ecclesiastical stuff that fills books about Anglo Saxon England.

So, when I discovered she had also written some historical novels set in seventh century Northumbria and Mercia, I was really keen to read them. These are : Queen of the Lightning, and the sequel, Ghost in the Sunlight.

Queen of the Lightning is the story of Riemmelth, who in this retelling is a British princess of Rheged (Cumbria) who becomes the first wife of Oswy of Northumbria. Riemmelth, in this telling, is a fierce warrior-princess, outraged by being trapped into a political marriage.

Ghost in the Sunlight is the story of her daughter Alchflaed, who was dedicated in an abbey as a child, but became entangled in a Mercian siege of the fortress at Bamburgh, and ended up marrying Peada son of Penda, last pagan king of Mercia. In this book, the magic, which falls into that 'is this real magic or do they just believe it is?' area of doubt in Queen of the Lightning, moves into the area of 'yes, actually magic is real'. I liked that slow reveal.

There are some fabulous images, particularly in Ghost in the Sunlight. For example :
" Outside the door, her bower-women clustered and stared wide-eyed as the Bernician witch-queen danced under the shadow of Woden's spear, singing of the springtime."

The setting is complex and cleverly drawn: the Christian Saxon Deirans resent the Christian Saxon Bernicians and intrigue with pagan Mercia, the conquered Britons of Elmet hate the people of Deira, the Welsh of Powys intrigue with Mercia and at the same time dream of creating a new British alliance like that of Arthur. Penda is on one hand a savage pagan killer, a rapist who makes human sacrifices, and a jolly family man with buckets of charisma, who protects the worship of Frea, which bleeds at the edges into veneration of the Christian Virgin Mother Mary and into an older British mother-goddess. There's tension between the worship of Frea and Woden. As you might expect from such a well qualified writer, the descriptions of religious celebrations and Anglo Saxon magic are very convincing. The whole thing absolutely resonates of extensive, thorough research and a comprehensive understanding of the original sources.

And yet... I wanted to really love these books for their authenticity and, in places, their imagery, and for Oswy, who is perfect - a little cunning, willing to fake defeat or run from battle rather than risk defeat.

But I was left with a nagging feeling that something was missing from some of the characterisation, and maybe even from the plot. Riemmelth, for all her fierceness, is so impetuous - impetuous to the point of just coming across as a bit of a prat. That doesn't make her likeable. Little things niggled at me. OK, I can see that Riemmelth could be outraged at having to marry for political convenience, but it seemed a little odd that she was so *surprised* by the idea. And OK, I can see that Penda is a character with likeable as well as brutal aspects, but I feel that the woman he had just gang-raped with his war-band would not be the first person to notice this. In fact, I could have done with a bit less rape in both books. And Alfflaed, riding out from Bamburgh with two deerhounds she's only just met, but none the less are so highly trained that they obey her every command? Noooooo. Sighthounds don't work like that. :-D

Many of the characters are people who constantly tell themselves stories about their lives and situations. I suspect this is actually a really common thing for people to do - I do it - but I'm not sure that it's an engaging trait! When you can see the story that someone is telling themself, and the actual situation at the same time, it's very easy to end up becoming annoyed with the storyteller. Sometimes, too, characters seemed to change their minds suddenly about things, so suddenly that you ended up wondering if they were just a bit odd in the head. Again, I think probably people do randomly change their minds on things quite often, but it doesn't make for the best story for them to do so.

Despite all this, I'm going to read the third book, Bride of the Spear (is it me, or is that a terrible title?). I was expecting this to contain more Oswy and perhaps his children, but no, oddly for a book described as the third in a trilogy, it seems to be set around 100 years earlier. Odd.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
carmarthen
28th Jan, 2013 01:14 (UTC)
One of the reasons I don't read much adult historical fiction is that, particularly in older historical fiction, lots of rape seems to be inevitable. :-/
bunn
28th Jan, 2013 08:48 (UTC)
On further consideration, I think there was only one actual rape - which was nasty to read about, and I wished she'd chosen a different path for the characters, but it was a key plot point of both novels. I think I might have enjoyed a book where that plot point didn't happen more, but it was shown as important and traumatising.

There was also a misunderstanding about what goes on at the rites of Eostre, an unwilling marriage, and several situations with a background air of sexual menace - all of which I can accept as fitting within plot and period, but I think what really bothered me was viewpoint characters fantasising about rape, even though not actually doing it. That just seemed unnecessary and nasty (and not even particularly likely).
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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