Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday Review: Invisible, edited by Jim C. Hines

Title: Invisible
Editor: Jim C. Hines
Genre: science fiction commentary
Price: $2.99 (ebook)
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services
Point of Sale: Amazon / B &N / Smashwords
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

A few months back, Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote an article suggesting that science fiction writers might want to include more than just Straight White Males in their stories.  What should have been as controversial as “you should bathe regularly” created an amazing swirl of controversy on the Internet.  Invisible is a response to that controversy.

Blogger, author and (full disclosure) personal friend Jim C. Hines is a Mark 1 Straight White Male.  However, he offered his blog to various people who wrote moving essays about being other than Straight White Male, and what it meant to them to read (or not read) of people who were more like them.  Jim then collected 13 of those essays into this slim ebook.

The essays are all exceptionally well-written, and speak powerfully to the experience of being Other, as well as the help one can get by reading the right book at the right age.  Writers varied from an albino (have you ever seen a not-evil albino in fiction?) to people of various genders, orientations and races.

As an author, I want to entertain people.  I want to affect them in some positive way.  Reading the essays in Invisible helped me better understand how to do that.  As a businessman, (and all writers should be people of business) Invisible pointed out that non-Straight White Males have money and are interested in science fiction.  Providing them characters they can identify with can be profitable.  As an artist who happens to be a Straight White Male, part of being a good artist is an ability to populate your book with other than clones of yourself.  Invisible gave me some thoughts on how to do just that.

If you want to be a writer, you should do yourself a favor and read Invisible.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Uncommonly Common

I am a curious oyster. Anyone who knows me, knows this. Words are my obsession, as might be expected from a person who spends at least twelve hours a day with them. If I am not writing, I'm editing. If I'm not doing either of those, I'm reading. And if I'm doing none of those things, I'm either cooking, sleeping, or doing laundry.

One of my favorite avenues of learning is listening to college courses on CD in my car. I am currently listening to The Secret Life of Words, all about the English language and its origins. Fascinating stuff.

There is no pure English. It has been, from the very first utterances, a borrowing language. Germanic at the base--which in itself is a mish-mash of combining peoples--and full of French and Latin, the evolution is fascinating and far too involved to get into here.

I'm going to start with 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England. Suddenly, the royals were French--French who did not speak the native language. Many did, however, speak Latin, as the language of learning. So did some of the natives. Many of the doublets we still use to this day come from this time period, when you didn't know if the person you were adressing spoke French of English. Cease and desist. Law and order. Safe and sound. Peace and quiet. One French or Latin, one English, both mean the same.

The borrowing that began mostly with 1066 really kicked into gear when the Black Death reached England in 1348. Roughly one third of the population died, and suddenly, all those laypeople who spoke English got to fill in the spaces formerly denied them. What happened then was marvelous--the English started borrowing. Words for law, art, learning. They needed them. They borrowed from the scholarly Latin, and the elevated French. It is no coincidence that scientific and law terms tend to be Latinate, while those for the culinary arts are French.

Now look at this:

They don't mean quite the same thing, do they? Or do they? Ask is casual, question is slightly less so, and interrogate is comparatively severe--yet all have essentially the same meaning. What's the difference?

Ask is based in the Germanic/English and thus, common.
Question is from the French, slightly elevated from the common.
Interrogate is borrowed from Latin, most elevated as the language of scholars.

Fire, flame, incinerate. English, French, Latin.
Burn and combust--English, French
Broth and soup--English, French--and supper, which we get from the Latin, suppa, meaning the same.

Writers tend to grasp for the "low" speech of the common English for some things, and reach for the "high" speech from the French and Latin borrows for a more elevated feel, and most of us don't do so consciously. Let us take an old standby, Lord of the Rings. Mr. Tolkein (who most assuredly knew he was doing so) uses the "high speech" of Latinate word choices by and large, but look at how he uses the common vs. the elevated with his characters. There are no dialog tags necessary in Lothlorian, to tell the reader when Frodo speaks and when Giladriel does.

What made me really see this for myself was the word incendiary, a word Mark Nelson chose to use that always stuck out with me as I edited, The Poets of Pevana. Mark's writing has always said, "high speech" to me, and while listening to this course, I realized why--he often chooses "formal" Latinate or French borrows over the more basic English. He used the word incendiary brilliantly, to encompass fires set with words, and with flame. But he also peppered the text with that elevated speech, giving it that "high" feel.

It is one thing to make these choices subconsciously, and quite another to do so consciously. I will see books, and my writing, differently now. Will you?


This is my last post for a while, a prospect that leaves me feeling a bit bereft, I must say. Yet with my added responsibilities at Hadley Rille Books since Eric's stroke, I suppose I should welcome one less task on my list. Should being the key word here. Look for me in comments!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Review: High Maga by Karin Rita Gastreich

I’m going to be rather unfair on High Maga and compare it to a book where the story was near perfect: Eolyn, its predecessor. Presumably you have read Eolyn. If you have not, go now and do so because it’s excellent.

Eolyn began rather like a classic fairy tale, with a small child getting lost in the woods and encountering a witch. This set the tone for its mix of gentle companionship, friendship, love and sporadic but brutal violence. There was a definite pattern of recurring loss leading to hope, trust (sometimes misplaced), unexpected loyalty and a lasting love.

High Maga, on the other hand, is much more about attempting to stave off inexorable forces and despair, emphasised by the growing body count. Here even the love story becomes double-edged and a potential source of calamity to a far greater degree than ever in Eolyn.

Of course Eolyn was entirely self-contained. High Maga is very clearly not merely a sequel but also the middle of a trilogy. In many ways I am reminded of the first two Star Wars films (before Lucas betrayed a generation by chasing the toddler market). The first eclipses the second in the purity of the storyline, the second rises above the first through its darker themes and grittier tone, though High Maga, unlike The Empire Strikes Back, has a definite and fitting end, albeit with enough plot strands trailing to make a third book obvious and necessary.

Darker. Bleaker. Different.

Even the villain is different. Tzeremond was, of course, far and away the best character in Eolyn. Steadfastly loyal, scheming, clever, concerned, utterly convinced that he was right. My kind of chap really. And how he’s missed too. Tzeremond alive would have, as a character notes, been a tremendous asset in the defence of Akmael’s kingdom. Indeed with Tzeremond alive the whole sorry situation that causes so much grief here would very likely not have arisen. Defence is needed because while the events of Eolyn progressed steadily towards conflict but at a fairly gentle pace, here the start is more viscerally violent and fairly soon, after some excellent relationship complications affecting several characters, the book is almost wholly concerned with war and its consequences.

Which brings in the villain. Or rather the two. One is a sultry, ruthless, superb, demon-raising sorceress – very memorable, though not so much as her uncle who is an admirable counterpart to Tzeremond, albeit with none of that worthy’s virtues save courage. Tzeremond was never amoral or even immoral, by his lights, and did not revel in brutality. Mechnes is and does and is far more menacing, having a decidedly physical edge to add to a force of character at least equal to Tzeremond’s. Much as Vader steals the show in Episode V, Mechnes bestrides High Maga as a colossus.

And that brings me on to something that I found very different between High Maga and Eolyn. Although Eolyn used the fashionable multi-character perspective approach with essentially different chapters focused on a single character’s perceptions, it always felt to me that Eolyn herself was definitely central, with Akmael, Corey and Tzeremond in important but definitely supporting roles. In High Maga, the strength of Mechnes’ character magnifies him above the rest and Eolyn herself is a trifle diminished by this. While Akmael remains strong, what surprised me was how much Corey seemed to fade. In Eolyn he seemed more witty, barbed of tongue and devious than he does here. I’m not sure he is in fact less witty, catty or devious but he appeared so to me, which was a shame, but perhaps inevitable as other characters besides Mechnes imposed themselves also.

The best of these is young Ghemena, one of Eolyn’s pupils and a shining example of childish grit. One thing I really like about both books is how the characters remain utterly true to their innate characters (Eolyn, for instance, is an astonishingly bad judge of character in many ways, for instance surely every reader of Eolyn had Tahmir marked as a wrong ‘un from first meeting . . .). Ghemena is a stand-out example of that realism: her age is her weakness and has a shattering impact on her ability to influence events as she would wish, and sows some extremely interesting seeds which may bear fruit in the third book. But Borten (who slew Akmael’s father in Eolyn) also rises in importance and provides an interesting twist to the plot. He’s probably the most straightforward of the characters except for noble old Drostan, who also features.

Crucial too is Adiana, one of Eolyn’s friends from Corey’s travelling troupe. She’s definitely the chief ‘supporting actress’ and, alongside Mechnes, probably the most interesting of the cast, though Ghemena is certainly my favourite. She probably suffers the most and how she copes exemplifies a certain sort of strength – guts, even – that is very often mistaken for weakness, submission, even collaboration. She is almost the opposite of little Ghemena – whose spitfire defiance is easily taken as a sign of courage, though in fact it is generally born of fear. Adiana may well be driven by a simple desire to survive, but survival in her circumstances demands courage to face the future.

And facing an uncertain, and undesirable, future is in the end what High Maga’s about. I mean obviously it’s about danger and demons and battle and flight and separation and love torn asunder and betrayal and all that sort of thing too. But as I said at the start, Eolyn seemed to me to be about hope and loss and also about choice between love and duty, whereas High Maga is more about despair and facing up to inexorable fate.

The end of Eolyn captured perfectly the whole sense of the book, where choices had consequences and love often conflicted with loyalty. Eolyn’s final choice really tied it all together and was immensely satisfying – it felt completely right and once it had been made, her alternative, which appeared very reasonable beforehand, was obviously wrong. I found the end of High Maga less satisfying. That is I think partly a consequence there actually being no right choice here – High Maga ends with a dilemma – but it’s also a consequence of there being a clear need for a final book in the trilogy. Let me be clear though, the ending of High Maga is just as fitting, it just doesn’t have the unexpected but in hindsight obvious sort of conclusion that ended the first book. That I think shows a welcome avoidance of formula and it’s also the case that no other ending would have done.

High Maga has been written in a way that probably allows it to stand alone well enough, but I think anyone who has not read Eolyn will miss a lot of the impact of many of the events herein. It’s a more powerful story than Eolyn but requires the context of that more perfect one to fully appreciate. When High Maga itself has a sequel and the trilogy is concluded, then I think it will feel entirely complete and take its proper place in the cycle in a way akin to The Empire Strikes Back. Hopefully though there will be nothing akin to ewoks in book three . . .

It’s a great read and in parts some may find it harrowing – but the tone is fitted to the subject matter. You’ve presumably read Eolyn to have read this far, so buy High Maga and prepare for an altogether rougher ride. It’s worth it.

review by David Hunter

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

REVIEW: Non-Compliance: The Sector

Title: Non-Compliance: The Sector
Author: Paige Daniels
Genre: SF
Price: $4.99 (ebook) $12.99 (paperback)
Publisher: Kristell Ink
ISBN: 978-1909845039
Point of Sale: Amazon  
Reviewed by: Chris Gerrib

It’s amazing how time flies when you’re having fun.  Apparently I’m having a lot of fun, as now it’s time for my second guest review here at Heroines of Fantasy.  (My first review, of  The Shifter’s Trail, was back in February.)

Today’s victim book is Non-Compliance: The Sector by Paige Daniels.  It’s the first of a two-book series starring Shea Kelly.  The book is set in an America that rather narrowly won a war with undefined enemies.  The price of winning was that all Americans have to get government-issued chips implanted in them, which act like aircraft transponders.  Those that don’t are “non-compliant” and have to live in special sectors AKA ghettos set aside for them.  As suggested by the title, Shea Kelly is non-compliant.

She’s also a physically tough cookie and a computer geek, although not as good a geek as Wynne, her part-time stripper buddy.  The two of them are running a side gig to smuggle in good supplies to the sector, which brings them to the attention of the local criminal mastermind, the Boss, and his criminal rival, Danny Rose.  Problems ensue.

Although it seems like there’s a glut of dystopias on the SF market nowadays, I have to say I found Daniels’ take on a future America scared of its own shadow a tad too close to reality to dismiss.  We are, after all, living in a world in which we asked the NSA to please spy on us.  The idea of identity chips implanted for our own good seems possible.

Having found the world believable, I found Shea a realistic narrator.  Yes she’s tough, but she still also calls her dad (outside the Sector) at least every week.  She’s also not superhuman tough, and so occasionally loses a fight.  The other characters rang true, although hard-bitten, as one would expect of exiles.

Hard-bitten is pretty much the definition of much of the story, but Daniels also weaves in a budding romance between Shea and Quinn, the Boss’s main man.  The only thing I found disappointing in the book was the ending, which I felt was a dues ex machina.  Other than that minor issue, I enjoyed Non-Compliance: The Sector.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Joys and Pain of the Edit-Revise

Hi folks, Mark here with a few thoughts on my current experience: the joy-pain of the edit revise.

I've read The Lord of the Rings off and on since I was twelve. In many ways it has been the book of my life, and I don't mean that as an admission of nerdi-geek-ocd. It is a good friend, a teacher, source of solace when all other forms stale; Tolkien just works for me, and I am unapologetic about it. Deal with it. I hope my heaven has Rivendell and the Shire in it.

But the reason why I tag the Professor today is not for what he did in his novels. Whenever I read the volume, I always find myself dwelling on what he had to say in his forward about the drafting and editing process. He bemoaned his own lazy ways and poor typing skills, and then he said this: "and the whole story had to be revised, and indeed largely rewritten backwards."  The term 'backwards' which I italicized always gets me, and I spend wonderful minutes imagining how that process went for him. And then I tally up how much there had to have been that he had to account for, and I shudder as if someone had just told me a story about the Nazgul and I turn the page and immediately sink into the story.

Now, I realize the Professor's son lays out whole wonderful edit-revise story in his multivolume study. I have to confess I have not read them all. I just haven't found the will to purchase all of them in hardback, and for some reason I have yet to see the whole set presented in paper back. I may be cheap, or perhaps I prefer my visceral reaction and shudder too much to want to ruin it with terminal knowledge. There is just something magical in that term 'backwards' that gets me every time.

I am now going through the revision process for my third novel, Path of the Poet King, and I finally think I am at least getting closer to what the Professor had to go through. I find myself constantly thumbing through the earlier volumes to check names, dates, tone--all that cool writerly stuff that comes when you breach the 300,000 word barrier wandering around in a world you've created.  CJ Cherryh has been quite candid on her blog about the challenges she faces with her long running Foreigner series. She has even gone so far as to ask her readers to help her fill in blank spots from lost files.

I'm lucky in that I have a colleague and friend as my editor. Terri-Lynne DeFino's kindness and honesty makes it an easy process for us, or at least I like to think so. For Path of the Poet King, I've been working off some detailed edit notes she sent me, as well as insights I've gleaned from our periodic phone conversations, and I think I have begun to frame my own method for the joy/pain of the revise/edit. I used to quail when Terri would tell me to "kill a few of your darlings."  Agony, pure, simple, wretched agony.  But with this latest novel the delete key seems to work just fine. "Whoduthunkit"?

In the end I think I revise forward rather than backward. Most of my issues fall into the too much tell and not enough show variety. I had to admit to myself the finished first draft of Path was more of an ultra-shiny plot outline than a fully formed story. I went through once trying to tame point of view, and then again removing a preponderance of passive voice. And now, going through it a third time with Defino's notes I find that in removing all the introspection, circular thinking, and wheel spinning that suggests writing around a story as opposed to actually writing the story, I've rediscovered voices in characters I didn't expect, I've added flesh in dialog, and recovered some of the magic that was Pevana for me when I first started putting The Poets of Pevana together as a unified tale. The effect is altogether exhilarating as I inch towards the end of this pass. Despite the joy/pain of the experience, I know that Path is a better book than it was going to be at first, and I'm sure DeFino will put it and me through the pasta stretcher again to squeeze out more or our imperfections. And by 'our' I mean myself and the novel. In the end I believe the edit-revision process gives life to the story and also serves as an instructional tool for the author. And when you've done a good job of it, well, it makes that first pint at The Green Dragon taste that much better.

So, do you have a particular method you resort to during the dreaded edit-revise phase?

Mark Nelson

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Zero Sum Game by SL Huang

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good.

The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight. She can take any job for the right price and shoot anyone who gets in her way.

As far as she knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower . . . but then Cas discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master.

Someone who’s already warped Cas’s thoughts once before, with her none the wiser.

Cas should run. Going up against a psychic with a god complex isn’t exactly a rational move, and saving the world from a power-hungry telepath isn’t her responsibility. But she isn’t about to let anyone get away with violating her brain — and besides, she’s got a small arsenal and some deadly mathematics on her side. There’s only one problem . . .

She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.

I’ve been reading SL Huang’s blog for a while now. It’s interesting, intelligent and opinionated, and so I’d marked her first novel as something to look out for, curious to see how her writing translated into a longer form. The pitting of author's skill against reader's attention is not a zero sum game: if a book is good, both are winners. Nor are the stakes equal for the two sides. They're far higher for the author: there's a lot of books to choose among and so major tests for any one are Can it keep a reader reading? and Would you recommend it to a friend?

Well, Zero Sum Game passes both tests with flying colours. As escapisms go, I’ve found few better recently. The prose is crisp. The characters are finely drawn. And diverse (which ought to be a given but, sadly, isn’t). The pace is relentless, never letting a reader pause for breath. Onwards! it demands, effortlessly upping the ante, and, onwards, I rushed, breathless, through the story. I read this book in a single, four-hour session. The one time somebody tried to interrupt me, I snapped out something very short and pithy to the effect that I was reading and would they please leave me alone until I was done. Only, you know, rather less polite.

It’s a thriller, with sf overtones. Cas Russell has what I can only call a synaesthetic sense of mathematics; she views the world through a veil of numbers, vectors, equations and this allows her to instantly extrapolate trajectories, angles of incidence, forces and so on. This ability, coupled with her high intelligence, preternatural reaction times, near lack of physical fear and apparently unlimited access to firearms, makes her exceedingly dangerous. Whether Cas's abilities are innate or the result of modification by person or persons unknown is unclear; my money’s on the latter. She also has no past, no family and no curiosity about these lacunae: this is the first in a series and seeds of a longer plot arc are scattered in the text. Her closest associate is Rio, a man to whom murder and mutilation come as easily as numbers do to Cas. Cas works in ‘retrievals’; when a woman hires her to recover her sister from the clutches of a drug cartel, her path crosses with that of Arthur Tresting, a private investigator hired by a woman to find her husband’s murderer. And we're off into a rollercoaster of a plot.

I’m not a mathematician so I just sat back and let the maths wash over me in a pleasing torrent of words and effects; I hugely admired Huang’s verbal dexterity at depicting Cas’s numerical vision of the world. The effect was exceedingly enjoyable; akin to watching Sherlock, when the camera shows you Holmes’ vision superimposed upon the world. I recognised references, of course, but, although I can solemnly swear an intimate, intuitive understanding of mathematics is not required to enjoy Zero Sum Game, I suspect there are bonuses and Easter eggs a-plenty for those who have it. It’s also deeply satisfying to read a book which glories so in its characters’ intelligence: every superhero demands a supervillain and, in the power-hungry psychic, Cas might just have met her match. Both sides are clever; both are having to work against the other’s cleverness. But it’s not just their brains they’re using: there are also lots of guns.

And it is an extremely violent book – think Hollywood blockbuster. Lacking Cas’s sense for figures, I soon lost count of the bodies. It’s the same sort of violence as in a blockbuster and, because it is so over the top, as hard to take seriously. More disturbing, perhaps, is the acceptance of that violence, both her own and Rio’s, by Cas. Your opinion may differ. I’ll just mark that the shades of grey in this book are very dark indeed. Within the story, I rather suspect there is more to Cas’s acceptance of Rio than she is herself aware of; there are aspects of her relationship with him which echo her response to the psychic. I hope I’m right, because, on reflection, I find the alternative reading depressing.

You’ll have noted it wasn’t a reservation which stopped me from reading and enjoying, or holds me back at all from recommending. Moral ambiguity is as old as storytelling itself. For me, Zero Sum Game worked because it did what it set out to do extremely well: it tells a gripping story building to a highly satisfying conclusion. It’s an absolutely cracking read. I could suspend both disbelief and lack of sympathy because of the quality of the storytelling. And that is the one rule of writing: Do it well and you’ll carry the reader with you in spite of themselves. To that extent the title is a misnomer: I reckon both author and readers are winners here. The sequel can’t come a day too soon.

Harriet Goodchild

Buy Zero Sum Game:
Barnes & Noble

Monday, March 31, 2014

Introducing Today's Guest: Marie Macpherson

Historical Novelist Marie Macpherson
      And now it gives me very great pleasure to present historical novelist Marie Macpherson, whose debut novel The First Blast of the Trumpet (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012) has a setting very close to my own heart - early 16th century Scotland.  Central to the story is a real historical figure, Elisabeth Hepburn, prioress of St Mary's Abbey in Haddington, so without further ado, I'll hand over to Marie so she can explain all...

The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the polemical pamphlet by the Scottish reformer, John Knox, has reverberated down through the ages and irritated generations of women no end. So why did I choose such a controversial title for my novel? Basically because my original title The Abbess of Unreason lacked resonance, so the publisher decided. Something punchier was needed and, since the abbess may have been one of the ‘monstrous regiment’ that Knox railed against, then why not steal his cracking title? Though it may sound as if my Abbess of Unreason could be a ‘heroine of fantasy’ she was neither mad nor fantastic but a very real historical figure whose importance, like many women then and now, has been overlooked. 
             Elisabeth Hepburn was the prioress of St Mary’s Abbey, the Cistercian convent in Haddington, East Lothian, where the famous treaty that betrothed Mary Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin was signed in 1548. That tiny nugget of information piqued my curiosity to find out more about this mystery woman. How was she related to the Hepburns of Hailes, the powerful Earls of Bothwell? Did she have any connection with John Knox, who served as a priest in Haddington? Was she acquainted with the playwright Sir David Lindsay, exiled to Garleton Castle a few miles away? 
              Delving amongst local records I was excited to discover that this prioress was not in the least pious but had a murky history. For a start her age and ‘defect of birth’ should have disqualified her from being appointed prioress. At 24-years-old she was too young and as the natural daughter of an Augustinian canon she was illegitimate. Nevertheless her uncle, John Hepburn the influential Prior of St Andrews, forced through the appointment, overruling the nuns’ own choice and gaining a dispensation for his niece. He did this to ensure that the Hepburn family controlled the wealthy abbey finances. 
             But her life at St Mary’s was hardly one of quiet contemplation. A prioress in 16th century Scotland was a woman with considerable power in a world dominated by men and Elisabeth was plunged into the political maelstrom and religious turmoil of the times. Strong-willed and independent she rode to the hunt with the court of King James V and faced an accusation of ‘carnal dalliance’. Her unorthodox behaviour may even have inspired the character of the prioress in Lindsay’s biting attack on the corrupt Roman Catholic Church in Ane Satire of the Three Estates’. His prioress turns out to be a ‘scarlet woman’ who tears off her nun’s habit to reveal a crimson underskirt, complaining that she didn’t want to be a nun anyway.  
         The writing was on the wall for religious houses, however, as the reformation loomed in the shape of her godson, John Knox. The First Blast of the Trumpet speculates about the rĂ´le that Prioress Elisabeth played in the upbringing of the young reformer and how it may have influenced his attitude to women.

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first book of the Knox trilogy, is no Calvinist slog but a highly- entertaining exploration of the early life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox (an excerpt follows below). It chronicles his on-going relationship with the powerful Hepburn family, including the Earls of Bothwell, but especially his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn, Prioress of St Mary’s Abbey, Haddington.

Opening in 1511, two years before the Scots’ tragic defeat at the Battle of Flodden, 1513, it ends in 1548 with John Knox as a galley slave rowing the young Mary Queen to Scots to France. 

Chapter XIV


Then would I say: ‘If God me had ordained
To live my life in thraldome thus and pain
What was the cause that He me more constrained
Than other folk to live in such ruin?
The King’s Quair
 James I, 15th Century
St Mary’s Abbey, 9 November 1513
Arrayed in the virginal white of a novice with a wreath of embroidered flowers crowning her chestnut hair, Elisabeth approached the altar and genuflected. Prior Hepburn smiled indulgently.
‘Her recent loss seems to have purged our bee-heided niece of all her daft notions.’
‘Aye,’ Dame Janet replied. ‘Now that her fiery temper has been smoored, you’ll find our niece more ready to accept her fate.’
A few days before, at the Requiem Mass on All Souls’ Day, as Prior Hepburn read out the roll call of the fallen at Flodden, Elisabeth fumbled for the talisman she’d hidden underneath her sark. Looped onto the blue ribbon were the king’s ring and the St John’s nut, its kernel pierced with a needle. To help her endure fort when she heard Adam’s name being read out, she pressed it against her heart. Still, the shock made her ears buzz and, yawning deeply to clear them, she just caught the name – Sir David Lindsay. Her heart shoogled.
‘Dies Irae, Dies illa. Day of Wrath, that dreadful day,’ the choir chanted, ‘Lacrimosa dies illa.’
Though her heart longed to scream out in anguish, she kept her head bowed, fearful that the ever-watchful eyes of Sister Maryoth might detect her distress. But the words of the Gospel made her raise her head: Thy brother, Jesus said, will rise again. Would that it were true.
Since then Elisabeth had been confined to her cell where she’d spent the last few weeks in prayer and fasting to cleanse her soul in preparation for receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders. The regime must also be purifying her body for she hadn’t needed to ask for monthly cloths. That, the washerwife pointed out, was one of the benefits of fasting. It staunched the accursed monthly bleed. ‘And another,’ she added with a conspiratorial wink as she gathered up the linen for washing, ‘is that it’ll put you in Sister Maryoth’s favour. For it’s a sign of devotion in her eyes.’
As he anointed her on the forehead with holy chrism, the prior noticed that his niece’s downcast eyes were red and swollen and her face pinched and pale. Janet was right. Much of her fire had been quenched. He must have a word with Maryoth not to be so harsh.
After Elisabeth had pledged her vows, he presented her with two gifts. From a velvet-lined box he took out a string of rosary beads made from freshwater pearls with an exquisite silver crucifix that glinted in the candlelight. He draped it over her wrist and placed in her hands a Book of Hours, expensively illustrated with a jewel-encrusted cover and gold clasp. The newly ordained nun could only nod her thanks.
The sacrificial lamb was led in to the sacristy where Sister Maryoth tore off the wreath and put away the pearl rosary beads and the gaudily engraved Book of Hours for safekeeping. Then she set about cutting her hair. She grabbed it in tufts and hacked at it clumsily, cropping it back almost to the scalp, all the while muttering, prayers and incantations under her breath to fend off evil.
'Lord, she is not worthy. Lord, forgive me for this shameful offering. Cast out the horned Prince of Darkness from this child of Satan.'
‘What’s this?’ Maryoth’s hand had become entangled in the blue ribbon round Elisabeth’s neck. ‘A holy scapular?’
Though she had no idea what a scapular was, Elisabeth gripped hold of it and nodded.
‘Though I doubt it. For a heathen such as you, it’s more likely to be a lucky charm.’
Before she could stop her, Maryoth had tugged at the ribbon, snapping the love knot and sending the ring and the nut clattering onto the flagstones. Elisabeth dropped to her knees, splaying her fingers to search for them but as she crawled about, Maryoth stamped on her knuckles and then crunched the nut underfoot. The ring had rolled away unseen.
‘As for this,’ she declared, dangling the blue ribbon as if it were a venomous viper. ‘The only way to be rid of this devil’s tail, is to burn it.’ With that, she held it over a candle, watching intently until it shrivelled to cinders. The vicious look in her narrowed eyes betrayed a desire to dispose of her rival in the same way.
Meekly the newly shorn lamb obeyed Maryoth’s order to strip off her white lace gown and stood shivering in the cold vestry, hugging her tender breasts. Elisabeth closed her eyes as the dun-coloured habit was pulled down over her head, prickling her scalp and scratching her skin. Only when Maryoth tugged the hempen cord and knotted it tightly until it dug into her waist did Elisabeth flinch.
For now that she had lost Lindsay and her only connection to him had been severed, nothing mattered any more. She didn’t even have the St John’s nut to protect her from the evil eye. Covering her shaven head with the wimple and securing the ties, Maryoth thrust a heavy wooden crucifix, crudely carved with the figure of the dead Saviour into her hands.
‘You are a bride of Christ, now. Kiss your holy spouse, Sister Elisabeth.’