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.’

Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Write Historical Fiction For Kids?

It's my great pleasure to introduce today's featured guest on 'Heroines of Fantasy', J Anderson Coats, who is, in her own words, 'the author of historical fiction for young adults that routinely includes too much violence, name-calling and petty vandalism perpetrated by badly behaved young people.  Her first YA novel, The Wicked And The Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), was one of Kirkus’s Best Teen Books of 2012, a 2013 YALSA Best for Young Adults (BFYA) winner, and a School Library Journal Best Books of 2012 selection. It also won the 2013 Scandiuzzi Children’s Book award (the Washington State Book Award for teens).

        I was at a social gathering recently, fidgeting with appetizers and attempting to make small talk. A friend excused himself to get another lemonade, leaving a friend-of-a-friend stranded in my presence.
        She fidgeted, smiled politely, and asked, “So what do you do?”
       “I write for kids.” It’s taken me years to be able to say this out loud without tripping over it or qualifying it.
        “How interesting! Like, little poems in magazines?”
        “Fiction, mostly. For young adults.” I paused, but she was clearly waiting for something more. “Historical fiction right now.”
         She frowned. “Why?”
         It was the way she said it that stopped me. Like anyone under twenty-one couldn’t possibly be interested in anything except sparkly vampires and dystopian hellscapes and the odd cancer patient.
         There are a lot of reasons I write historical fiction. That’s a much easier question to respond to. But that’s not the question she was asking. She was asking why write historical fiction for kids? 
        It’s a fair question. Most people assume--often rightly--that the historical part of historical fiction will dredge up images of essay questions and quizzes and memorizing dates and blah blah blah. 
       Here’s the thing: I don’t think young readers are homogenous. And I don’t think they’re stupid. I don’t think they’re lazy or self-absorbed or so buried in technology that they can’t be bothered by anything beyond the edge of a screen.
        I think they’re complicated, dynamic people who are capable of making connections between the worlds in the past and their world today, who will see the value and wisdom in doing so.
        There are budding teenage history geeks out there, and I want to be on the front lines of handing them books that let them know they’re correct in believing history is awesome. And they’re not alone in thinking so.
        There are kids who don’t think much of history because all they’ve ever had by which to judge it is bland, predigested curriculum that reduces human complexity to a series of dates and politicians and battles. I want to hand them real stories about real people who feel familiar, who have the capacity to be cruel and kind and stupid and thoughtful and loving and vindictive just like we all do.
        There are kids who might like history if it was more real. Or maybe it’s not so much that I want kids to like history, but to understand that it’s not as foreign or irrelevant as they may think. I can’t un-indoctrinate them, but I can hand them a story that doesn’t pull any punches, that presents the past in all its corrupt, seamy glory, and let them decide for themselves.

          1293.  North Wales.  Ten years into English rule. 
        Cecily would give anything to leave Caernarvon and go home.  Gwenhwyfar would give anything to see all the English leave.
        Neither one is going to get her wish.
       Behind the city walls, English burgesses govern with impunity.  Outside the walls, the Welsh are confined by custom and bear the burden of taxation, and the burgesses plan to keep it that way.
        Cecily can’t be bothered with boring things like the steep new tax or the military draft that requires Welshmen to serve in the king’s army overseas.  She has her hands full trying to fit in with the town’s privileged elite, and they don’t want company.
        Gwenhwyfar can’t avoid these things.  She counts herself lucky to get through one more day, and service in Cecily’s house is just salt in the wound.
         But the Welsh are not as conquered as they seem, and the suffering in the countryside is rapidly turning to discontent.  The murmurs of revolt may be Gwenhwyfar’s only hope for survival – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.



Thursday, March 20, 2014

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: To Journey in the Year of the Tiger

H. Leighton Dickson

TO JOURNEY IN THE YEAR OF THE TIGER is the first in a Ground-Breaking Original Series by H. Leighton Dickson. This is a powerful, post-apocalyptic story of lions and tigers, wolves and dragons, embracing and blending the cultures of Dynastic China, Ancient India and Feudal Japan. Half feline, half human, this genetically altered world has evolved in the wake of the fall of human civilization. Fans of Tolkien, Game of Thrones, Redwall or Japanese anime will be entertained in these intelligent and beautifully written pages in a blend of science, fantasy and zoological speculation.
Kirin Wynegarde-Grey is a young lion with a big job – Captain of the Guard in a Kingdom that spans from the mountains of western China to the deserts of the Middle East. When an ancient threat awakens in the West and threatens to overthrow the Empire, he must lead a team that includes his enigmatic brother, a lethal swordswoman and three radically different and mysterious specialists through a world where humans are legend and animals walk like men.
This is the journey of six individuals as they travel beyond the edges of the known Empire, into lands uncharted and wild. It is a journey of magic and mystery, science and swords, romance and intrigue. It is a journey of different perspectives and unexpected kharma and love found in surprising places. It is a journey that takes place five thousand years or so in the future, naturally in the Year of the Tiger.
H. Leighton Dickinson's To Journey in the Year of the Tiger (Tails from the Upper Kingdom) surprised me with how well she delineated each character, making their traits so specific that it was easy to tell who was who from how the character acted and spoke, which was good because the author made the unfortunate choice of giving two of the main characters, both lion-men, names that were almost identical. It made sense because they are brothers, but early on, I was not always able to recall which was being referred to just by name, however, as I said their personalities and duties were so different it always quickly became apparent who was being referred to.
I almost made a big mistake and quit early on in a book I ended up thoroughly enjoying because the multiple earth cultures were seemingly hodgepodged into the cat-human-hybrid empire in which the tail, er, tale takes place. Either back when I read this I didn’t read the blurb (which I doubt because why would I have chanced a new author without even reading the blurb?) or the blurb contains much more information now than it did then.  Regardless, I read on long enough to get excellent hints that there was a very valid and logical reason (see the blurb above) behind this rather than being the amateurish world-building I initially feared.
The characterization and plotting were excellent and the female characters, though secondary, were strong, complex, integral to the plot, and often more intriguing than the protagonists who are themselves excellent characters. They were definitely not just love- interest-for-the-hero.  I only had three issues with this novel. The first was it had some of the unevenness you see in debut novels—nothing major just not the ultra-smoothness of a multi-published novelist. The second issues was that the novel was light on description and thus I don’t recall ever being completely immersed in the world itself like I was with the characters; however since it’s a future earth modeled off of Ancient Asian countries it was easy for me to fill in the blanks.   
The last issue I had was that the ending lacked a firm resolution; however it did cause me to immediately buy (All the books are only $2.99)and blaze through the sequel To Walk in the Way of Lions, which picks up right where To Journey in the Year of the Tiger leaves off. Taken as one book, which is what it felt like, it’s a heckuva of a read, surprisingly deep with an emotionally wrenching conclusion. Also, the female characters’ roles grow in each of the three novels currently out.
While I recommend reading To Journey in the Year of the Tiger, I highly recommend reading To Journey in the Year of the Tiger and To Walk in the Way of Lions as one novel. Having recently finished the third in the series Song in the Year of the Cat I rank Tails from the Upper Kingdom as one of the best Epic series going.
Review by Carlyle Clark

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