Monday, October 20, 2014

Wynfield's Kingdom: The making of a Neo-Victorian child hero, a guest essay by Marina J. Neary

Marina Julia Neary is here today with an essay about a literary archetype that appears in classic Victorian literature as well as in one of her own novels.  She also details her experience in seeing characters she created come to life on stage.  Details and photos below.


Wynfield's Kingdom:
The Making of a Neo-Victorian Child Hero
Marina Julia Neary

When I started writing the first draft of what became Wynfield's Kingdom at the age of fifteen, I did not realize I was trying to create a Neo-Victorian child hero or resurrect an archetype that was so prominent in 19th-century literature. That term was not familiar to me at the time. I read a lot of literature but not a lot of literary criticism. I just knew what type of character I gravitated towards, and it was never the romantic brooding leading man. It was the spunky, street-smart, barricade-climbing child who navigates between social classes without belonging to either one of them and yet sympathizing with everyone, even his enemies.

They have impressive survival skills, yet paradoxically their self-preservation instinct seems to go out the window when they are presented with an opportunity to show off their heroism. They don't have to be saintly or altruistic, but they do possess a benevolent streak, meaning they do not bully those who are weaker, though they do derive a certain amount of pleasure of provoking authority figures.

We are talking about Gavroche Thenardier in Les Miserables and the lesser-known Jehan Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris. In British literature we have a string of similar characters in Charles Dickens' novels, one of the most prominent being Oliver Twist. Over the decades, cinematic and theatrical directors have exploited these characters for sentimental purposes, simplifying them, making them one-dimensional, somehow more palatable to general audiences and, as result, somewhat cartoonish. Thanks to Boublil and Schönberg, I can no longer think of Gavroche without hearing "Little People" in my head. My hands itch to choke the performer. One of Hugo's most intriguing child characters has been reduced to a cute homeless puppy. A big part of Gavroche's cuteness is that he dies young.

Now imagine if Gavroche had not died on the barricades. Imagine if he had lived into his mid-twenties. Would he still be adorable and endearing? Or would he have turned into his father? The possibilities are numerous. Maybe Hugo had a good reason to kill his young hero before he had a chance to become a disappointment to his fellow-characters as well as the readers.

Little by little I started toying with the idea of evolving a child hero. At the age of twenty-seven I resurrected an old manuscript from the bottom of my hard drive and decided to reshape the protagonist, incorporating some of the archetypal elements, putting my own decorative twists on the classic frame. This is where the term Neo-Victorian comes into play a contemporary author reinventing and reimagining the 19th century. It was also an opportunity for me to engage my dark sense of humor to the fullest.

The result is before your very eyes. Meet Wynfield Grant the king of London slums, an overgrown street urchin, whose maturity level is that of a ten-year-old. A former gang member, savagely beaten for insubordination by the ringleader, he is taken in by a sociopath physician who had lost his medical license. The child blossoms into a romantic opium addict who steals and resells revolvers, puts on comedy skits at taverns and plays darts with his simpleton mates who look up to him for leadership. Immaturity, by the way, is a potent psychological defense mechanism. If you manage to convince yourself that you are still ten years old, the burden of your semi-criminal existence becomes a little easier to bear.

Wynfield's Kingdom, published in 2009 by Fireship Press, brought me modest critical acclaim. I ended up on the cover of the First Edition magazine in the UK and featured in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. There is a theatrical version of the same story, only told from Victor Hugo's perspective. The play opened in Greenwich in 2008 and was subsequently acquired by Heuer Publishing for licensing and distribution.

I am happy to share some of the most illustrative photos from the production. The character of Wynfield was brought to life by a talented young actor, John Noel, who is now gaining prominence on the stages of New York City. It was one of the most transformative and empowering experiences for me as a writer to see the character I conceived in high-school fleshed out on stage fifteen years later. Wynfield, my child-hero, became real to the audiences.


Marina Julia Neary's Wynfield's Kingdom was published by Fireship Press in 2009 and re-released in 2013 in paperback and ebook with an attractive new cover (at top). 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas, a sojourn into the Victorian theatre world

Thomas’ follow-up to her wide-ranging romantic epic, The Kashmir Shawl (2013), takes place within the narrower confines of the Victorian theatrical world but is equally gripping. In 1885, when the charismatic Devil Wix meets Carlo Boldoni, a dwarf with undeniable magical skills, they become a dynamic team whose “box trick” electrifies audiences at a shabby venue in London’s Strand. Devil has grand ambitions, though—“to transform the Palmyra Theatre into a palace of illusions... it should be a place of wonderment.

The darkly compelling Devil, an unrepentant gambler with a haunted past, grabs readers’ attention from page one. Surrounding him is a varied cast that includes Heinrich Bayer, who unnervingly treats his mechanical dance partner like a real woman, and Eliza Dunlop, a smart, courageous artist’s model hoping for a starring role in Devil’s life. While the background details on stage magic and the theater business are captivating, Devil and Eliza’s ardent love story is the book’s emotional heart, and the ever-changing connections among all its intriguing performers fill it with genuine life and vitality.

The Illusionists was published by Overlook Press in hardcover in July ($27.95, 480pp).  This review first appeared in the June 15th issue of Booklist.

Some additional comments:

- Rosie Thomas is a prolific UK author who has worked with a variety of styles and settings.  Her earlier The Kashmir Shawl (reviewed here in 2012) won the Romantic Novelists' Association award for best epic romance, but The Illusionists isn't the same type of book.

- Although the British cover for The Illusionists (at right) is gorgeous and no doubt has the book flying off the shelves, I think the US version (at top) fits the tone of the story more appropriately.  Note the differences in color, subject matter, and font.

- The publisher's description for this novel has errors.  The novel takes place in the year 1885, not 1870, and Devil's partner is Carlo Boldoni, not Bonomi. The mistakes have crept into many other reviews, alas.  Naturally, the author's website has it right.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ten new country house sagas filled with drama and family secrets

Possible subtitles for this post:  What to read while waiting for (1) Downton Abbey Season 5 to be shown in the US, or (2) Kate Morton's next book to be published.  Here's a short gallery of "house" sagas published in various locales throughout the English-speaking world the US, UK, Ireland, and Australia that I came across recently. 

Although I love this type of novel, I've only read one of them so far and will talk about it at greater length below.  Please chime in and add a comment if you've read any of the rest and can recommend them (or not!).

A forbidding-sounding title for a historically-based novel centering on the last conviction for witchcraft in Ireland, which took place in 1711.  Poolbeg, July 2014.

In this English saga set between the late 19th century and WWI, an ambitious fish merchant does his best to ensure that his daughter Annabel marries into money.  Per the author's intro, her setting was inspired by Gunby Hall and Gardens in Lincolnshire, which appears on the cover.  Pan, August 2014.

The second novel by the acclaimed author of The Sea House revolves around two couples in Derbyshire; secrets dating from the WWII era erupt when their children decide to marry.  The setting sweeps from England to Valencia to Madrid.  Corvus, September 2014.

An Upstairs/Downstairs-style saga set in County Durham before WWI, featuring a young woman who becomes assistant cook at Easterleigh Hall while dreaming of a better life.  Arrow, October 2014.

At an English seaside town in 1965, a runaway gets caught up in discovering secrets dating from the '20s, when a young man came to stay with his cousin at Castaway House.  I featured this in an earlier post and have since bought a copy.  Penguin UK, September 2014.

A remote island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides is the setting for an early 20th-century love triangle between a renowned painter, his much younger wife, and his unacknowledged son. Old secrets get stirred up, along with century-old tensions about land tenancy, when the last living heir to Bhalla House comes to the island in 2010 to assess the ruined property and decide whether it's worth restoring.

Never having heard of the novel before, I grabbed a copy at Waterstones in York in early September and spent my vacation reading it instead of the books I'd brought with me.  The stunning, almost eerie atmosphere, full of the cries of wild birds and the rush of the blue-gray sea, is a character in itself. As often happens with multi-period novels, the historical strand is the most compelling (the modern thread suffers from a female protagonist with little agency), but it's still very much worth reading.  Freight Books (Scotland), March 2014.

A modern-day Irish couple uncover a crime dating from the turn of the century in the course of shooting a docudrama set at Armstrong House during its "golden age."  Poolbeg Press (Ireland), September 2013.

Australia's Blue Mountains are the setting for this expansive saga about 1940s-era artist Rupert Partridge, called "the devil of Australian art," the mystery surrounding the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter, and a modern photographer, Rupert's granddaughter, who's charged with writing a book about his home, Currawong Manor.  This looks to be in the vein of the author's twisty gothic saga Poet's Cottage.  Pan Macmillan Australia, May 2014.

Two women, two eras (1933 and the turn of the century), and a house full of secrets. Fiercombe Manor in rural Gloucestershire is the scene for mystery and tragedy.  The publisher is gearing this novel toward fans of Rebecca and The Little Stranger.  The UK title is The Girl in the Photograph. Harper, February 2015; Penguin UK, January 2015.

A folly, in architectural terms, is a building designed primarily for decorative purposes.  Lulu Taylor's novel spans two generations and has two strands, one set in the '60s and the other in the present day, and deals with a beautiful old castle, an old folly that's supposed to be bad luck, and the ramifications of an illicit love affair.  Pan (UK), December 2013.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book review: Night of a Thousand Stars, by Deanna Raybourn

One thing that must be said about Deanna Raybourn’s heroines: they lead thrilling lives. As they succumb to the allure of suspenseful mysteries and unusual locales, they draw readers vicariously along with them.

English-born socialite Poppy Hammond has a knack for finding adventure. One might even say it’s in her blood. After a surprisingly witty curate calling himself Sebastian Cantrip helps her flee her wedding to a stuffy aristocrat she doesn’t love, Poppy feels obligated to seek him out and thank him properly, only to find that he’s left England on a mysterious journey to the Holy Land.

Sensing he might be in trouble – which feels like an excuse – she finds a way to pursue him there, taking a convenient position as secretary to an elderly army colonel who’s traveling to Damascus to write his memoirs. Her formidable lady’s maid, Masterman, worries (rightly) about her safety and secretly arranges to follow her trail.

Throughout this entertaining romantic adventure, almost no one is who they seem, and Raybourn keeps us guessing about who they really are. Damascus in 1920 is an ancient, multicultural city that sits on the brink of revolution against the French ruling class. The cuisine is scrumptious and the exotic scent of jasmine pervasive, and Poppy is nearly seduced by it all. She also grows curious about two men who seek out her company: Hugh, her employer’s sexy valet, and the handsome Armand, Comte de Courtempierre, who has a slightly smarmy air to him.

As Poppy gets progressively closer to discovering Sebastian’s whereabouts, the danger level increases. She also learns more about the plight of aviatrix Evangeline Starke, the protagonist of Raybourn’s previous novel, City of Jasmine, who was believed to have gone missing in the desert. The way it’s written, those who haven’t read the earlier book should be curious about it rather than lost.

Although Poppy’s instincts are generally good, and her dialogue is sharp and clever, her spontaneity sometimes lets her down. Granted, she’s led a comparatively sheltered life, but Sebastian in particular is very tolerant of her impetuous nature. The enigmatic Masterman steals the show from her on more than one occasion; she's a fabulous character who deserves a book of her own.

While imperfect in several respects – the ending in particular is over the top – Night of a Thousand Stars offers witty escapism to a fascinating setting not often seen in fiction.

Night of a Thousand Stars was published this month by Harlequin MIRA (368pp, $14.95 pb / $10.99 ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me NetGalley access.  This review forms part of a blog tour via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ashley Weaver's Murder at the Brightwell, a classy '30s murder mystery

Historical fiction writers are in the midst of a grand affair with the interwar years of the ‘20s and ‘30s, an era that gave rise to what’s been called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Populating many of these stories were high-born protagonists caught in situations that obliged them to turn amateur sleuth; the novels’ plots unfolded in a fashion designed to draw in inquisitive readers via logically planted clues and multiple red herrings.

Ashley Weaver’s debut, Murder at the Brightwell, pays homage to these classics with its retro ambiance and subtle wit, yet at the same time it feels remarkably fresh and vibrant. The heroine, the trippingly-named Amory Ames, has a confidence that springs from her wealthy background and skill in social situations, but she’s less certain about one important facet of her life: her playboy husband Milo’s true feelings about her.

In 1932, Amory’s former fiancé, Gil Trent, invites her to take a trip to a Kentish seaside resort.  Seeing that Milo often does his own thing without bothering to consult her, she decides to accept.  Gil hopes that Amory, due to her own unstable marital state, will be the perfect person to convince his sister, Emmeline, that the man she hopes to wed, the slick womanizer Rupert Howe, is bad news. And perhaps Gil and Amory might rekindle what they once had… the same thought no doubt sits in the back of both their minds.

With its white marble floors and ritzy furnishings, the Brightwell Hotel is a scene of gracious sophistication, but while the remaining vacationers in Gil’s loosely gathered party – insipid socialites, unhappy couples, others with secrets to hide – aren’t the most pleasant company for Amory, they make for a great cast of characters for a murder mystery. After Amory spies Rupert’s body lying at the base of a cliff, Gil is carted off as a suspect, leaving Amory to clear his name – with the surprising help of a new arrival, Milo, who may simply see the investigation as an amusing distraction. Or maybe he really wants Amory back?

With her assured attitude and determination, Amory is a bright spot amid a sea of upper-class insouciance, and it’s entertaining to watch her developing rapport with the straitlaced cop assigned to the case (and his probing curiosity about her ever-changing marital situation). Weaver, a librarian by profession, brings a sense of classy ’30s style to her first novel, which is a winner in every respect, and one especially recommended to fans of Agatha Christie, Nicola Upson, and other writers of traditional mysteries.

Murder at the Brightwell was published by Minotaur Books this month ($24.99 / Can$28.99, hardcover, 325pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Interview with Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire

Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire has been garnering praise throughout the blogging community, and for good reason.  It's an accessible, historically authentic, and emotionally intense retelling of the Trojan War as seen from the viewpoint of Briseis, a young woman who finds herself at the center of the drama but who wasn't given a significant voice by the Greek epic poet Homer. To my mind, Judith's novel exemplifies the value that small presses have in the industry; they let wonderful stories like these be heard.

If you're not familiar with ancient Greece or with the cast of Homer's Iliad, there's no need to worry; no prior knowledge is needed either for the novel or for this interview, for that matter. I hope you'll enjoy reading it.

Your interest in classical literature and culture is longstanding. What first ignited your passion for this field?

In college I fell into the welcome clutches of a small band of young, enthusiastic and especially brilliant classics professors—they lit the torch. But how I fell into this fruitful study is downright silly. I was sitting in a freshman orientation meeting and heard an English professor say the one thing he’d change about his life was that he would have studied ancient Greek. I suppose to a clueless freshman enrolling in Greek sounded like the way to ensure a lifetime of happiness—and it has! The semester I read the Iliad in Greek I became permanently hooked on the poem. I believe it’s the most humane piece of literature ever composed. Reading the Iliad continues to grant epiphanies of understanding into the human condition every time I open my worn copy—even though college was a long time ago! To my perpetual surprise, the Iliad was the favorite of the majority of my high school students every year I taught it.

The mythological story of the Trojan War has been told and retold many times in fiction, with each novelist offering her or his own interpretation. Why do you think the story has exerted such a pull on writers and their audiences?

I think there are two parts to the answer.

Part one, it’s Homer—he sang this tale so profoundly and yet so accessibly that it has been grabbing everyone ever since. My high school students are a testament to that. I tried to hold onto the resonant quality of Homer’s version of the Trojan story when I wrote Hand of Fire. Homer created a few perfect vignettes of women in the Iliad, but women weren’t his focus. I wanted to shift the lens so we saw it through the central female character, Briseis. That meant a new version of the tale, but I didn’t want to lose Homer, although I should say, no one needs to have read the Iliad to enjoy Hand of Fire. I needed to know Homer, but my readers don’t.

The second part of why the Trojan story exerts such a pull is the story itself. No matter who tells it, the elements of entertainment and enthrallment are built in. Heroic warriors take their attack to the gates of a legendary city in order to achieve greatness and the only immortality available to men—fame, but these men find instead that they cannot resolve their own conflicts among themselves. We can all believe that very human dynamic, and what a backdrop for it—battles of glistening armor and colliding chariots, and a city that seems almost golden as it beckons to these warriors.

Then, introduce the defenders of home and hearth, the equally heroic Trojan warriors, show us their wives and their infants. Bring death close to these innocents. Now light a passion between a captive woman, Briseis, and the greatest of the Greeks, Achilles, that flames into uncontrollable danger when Achilles loses her to his hated rival. Then throw in friendship so deep and profound that a half-immortal man can’t recover himself when he loses that friend, not until an aged father reminds him how to be a human being not a god. Love, war, passion, friendship, heroism, all the elements that make a great story, time and again. All there, handed to a writer like me on a gorgeous platter of myth and legend. The pull is intrinsic.

Fully half of the novel takes place on Lyrnessos, before Briseis leaves with Achilles and his fellow warriors. Was this a deliberate decision, to give equal attention to her earlier life as a priestess and her later life away from her homeland?

Briseis, we are told in the tradition, is a princess of Lyrnessos (not a daughter of Priam as people have been led to believe by Hollywood). Lyrnessos is a city allied to Troy somewhere on the far side of Mount Ida. Or so the Homeric and surrounding mythic tradition says. No site identified as Lyrnessos has been excavated, and Briseis may have been a figment of Homer’s imagination. I focused on Briseis because a question had bothered me for many years as I taught the Iliad. While Briseis triggers the central conflict in the poem, she gets only a few mentions and in those, one of the key ideas Homer suggests is that she loves Achilles. That had never made sense to me. Achilles has killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city. So why the love between Briseis and Achilles?

The answer to me lay in who Briseis was before she met Achilles. There had to be so much that connected them that those bonds would create a bridge over the unthinkable grief he’s caused her. I found those commonalities in two ways. We’re fortunate in the last decade or so to have access to translations of cuneiform tablets excavated from archaeological sites of cities sharing the same cultural and religious traditions as Briseis’s people. Troy was located on the Western coast of what is now Turkey. To the east of Troy in Briseis’s age lay the powerful Hittite Empire, which left us these large clay libraries. Many of the tablets describe the role of healing priestess that I gave to my Briseis. As a healer and a singer of sacred tales—both activities Achilles was famous for along with his fighting prowess—she stepped out of the historical record as this believable lover of Achilles. But no modern audience is familiar with this “job” of healing priestess, so I did some world and character building so that this exotic place and time would feel familiar to my readers and along the way showed how Briseis responds to crises and stress.

Also, I found a way to connect Achilles and Briseis mystically before they came face to face—he’s half-immortal and she’s a priestess, so this was very natural to their story despite being “fantasy” in some ways. I won’t spill too much, but suffice to say, in the Hittite myths there’s a very Achilles-like god whom I am convinced served as the model for much of what became the Homeric Achilles. I wove that Hittite god into my story to create a spiritual connection between my two unlikely lovers. So the first half, back in Lyrnessos, isn’t “prelude” but integral to the love story, even as the physical first meeting has not yet occurred. Also, although this is a tale of love, it doesn’t have a traditional romance arc. It’s Briseis’s story first and foremost, not Achilles and hers as a couple. She enters the stage alone, struggles to define herself and she steps off the stage not as a “happily ever after” romance would do it. She needed some room to grow before the outsized Achilles filled the space.

By the way, Achilles is a psychological mess, so I really needed a young lady skilled in therapeutic healing or she’d have gone nuts being in love with him! Imagine if your mother had plopped you in a magical fire that made you mostly but not quite immortal and then ditched you when her magic failed. Yikes! (It was fun introducing readers to that myth in the novel.) My heart always goes out to Achilles and I wanted him to have a lover who could understand his fragmented psyche and make him happy for at least a time. Both Briseis’s healing knowledge and her mystic physical connection made that possible.

The personal relationships that the people of Lyrnessos have with the goddess Kamrusepa, the rites performed by healing priestesses like Briseis and her mother, and the important roles these women play in society come through clearly in your descriptions. How did you re-create this aspect of your heroine’s life?

The rites and the important roles of women come directly from the written record found in the cuneiform libraries of these people. Actually these aspects all come in exacting detail, sometimes pages upon pages of it for a single rite or role (far more than would ever be incorporated into good fiction). I was surprised but pleased at how influential these women were—literate and leaders of their communities. It felt as though the Briseis of my imagination had been quietly sitting there in the historical record waiting for me to “dig” her out. It must be said, however, that the tablets make for dry reading—none of the emotions or connectedness to the gods are explicitly there. It’s implied by the fullness of activity, the sometimes heart-rending content of prayers, and the devotion of lives to the gods, but it isn’t revealed fully. I had to fill out those implications with the imaginative process. I also felt my characters’ connection to the gods in some of the beautiful artifacts such as libation cups and divine statues. This artwork often mirrors the soul of the artisan and reflects this society’s attitudes about the relationship between gods and mortals.

Queen Hatepa’s maid, Maira, was one of my favorite secondary characters, due to her intelligence and resilience. How did you develop her role in the story?

author Judith Starkston
She was such a delightful accident. Her character wasn’t present in early drafts and her much expanded role came very late. She started as an “extra” and grew into one of my favorites also. She kept insisting that she could make a problematic scene work, that she could be the friend, often silent, that Briseis so deeply needed. Sometimes it feels as if characters are actually alive independently of my imagination—with Maira that was so true. When I tried to explain Briseis’s epiphany about her connection to Kamrusepa, I found the only way I could express it was through Maira’s response. She let me “say” what needed saying without a word but with a resonance. I must have gone back into the novel five or six times adding Maira layers in. The surprising information she shares with Briseis toward the end, came as a surprise to me also. Maira helped me so much with a theme I hadn’t known I was going to write about, but that became central to the novel: the theme of women’s resilience in the face of personal violence against them. I couldn’t have said what my soul needed to if Maira hadn’t shown that kind of strength. Briseis needed someone who’d been there with her.

Could you provide some background to your depiction of the immortals? Although they don’t have direct speaking roles, not really, they have a definite presence in the novel that conveys their mystery as well as their influence and occasional powerlessness against fate. I particularly admired the portrayal of Thetis, the water imagery associated with her, and how she watches over her son Achilles from afar.

I’m so glad you like my Thetis. She’s a primordial force to be reckoned with, not a “sea nymph” to be dismissed as so often people think. In the myths she took on all the gods when they tried to overthrow Zeus and she has the powers at her command to defeat them all. So I included this imagery and myth of her great power because it does such a great job of making us believe that Achilles, her son, is indeed larger than life, an invincible warrior. And if such a seemingly omnipotent being as Thetis can’t save her son from death, then that maternal grief can convincingly resonate in my readers’ hearts. If even she can’t save her child, what hope do we moms and dads have to protect our children? No one wants to think of losing a child, but for us to imagine thinking of that, bearing that for eternity, as she must, causes us to weep with her in a universal lament for this worst of all sorrows. That’s the kind of resonance that I borrowed from Homer. I love the water imagery, which she shares with her son Achilles. Water is limitless in its fluidity and is the hardest of all forces to control when it rages. Yet it appears so life-sustaining and benign—perfect for such a goddess and a merciless warrior who was also a healer and poet.

Were there any cultural artifacts or other discoveries you came across during the writing process that were so compelling that you knew you had to use them in your book?

There’s a silver rhyton libation cup in the Metropolitan Museum. It’s shaped like a kneeling stag with branching horns, a checked collar and then an elaborate freeze of priests making a sacrifice to the gods. Before I’d travelled to Turkey, I’d come upon this cup. Briseis’s goddess, Kamrusepa, is said to hold the stag as her sacred animal and divinities are often depicted as standing on the back of a stag in Hittite iconography, so this exquisite piece lit my imagination immediately. Briseis lifts this cup at the festival to Kamrusepa when she is visited by a crucial mystical vision. Her goddess was there in her hands.

In your author’s note, you mention traveling to Turkey for research. What insights did you pick up there that you may not have otherwise known?

The many Turkish museum collections are inspiring for populating Briseis’s world with real objects. The archaeologists and the sites they showed me were full of crucial information that I wove into my novel. But most important, I think, is the experience of the real landscapes of my book. A good story places the reader concretely into its world. When you’re writing about the Bronze Age every building or city is a hypothetical reconstruction based on a lot of complicated scholarly research. I needed to throw myself into the natural landscape without that filter. Mount Ida and surrounding areas—that is Briseis’s beloved world—have been established as a national park so I could walk and explore all through this area. Tiny villages survive that have houses with stone and mud brick walls like their Bronze Age compatriots. I needed to experience the dramatic waterfall and glimpses of the crystal blue Aegean from Ida’s peak to be able to write from the heart. I am so grateful I had that opportunity.


Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website.

Hand of Fire was published by Fireship Press in September ($17.50 trade pb, $5.50 ebook).  This interview marks part of the author's virtual tour.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Philip Freeman's Saint Brigid's Bones, an appealing mystery of early Ireland

It wasn’t a matter of who could have gotten into the chest – everyone had access to the church day and night – but who would dare to do such a terrible thing. To steal the bones of Brigid was an unthinkable blasphemy.

With his accessible debut set in historical Ireland and featuring a determined female detective, Philip Freeman joins the company of longtime mystery writers Peter Tremayne and Cora Harrison. Saint Brigid’s Bones takes place even further back in the past than their works, though, at a time when Christianity had just established a foothold.

In 6th-century Kildare, ten years after the death of the woman who will become one of Ireland’s patron saints, the monastery she founded is in an uproar.

Brigid’s bones have vanished from the chest where they’re kept, and if the relics aren’t found by her holy day in February, three months away, visits from pilgrims will dwindle, and the community will lose critical food and income. Their newly built church at Sleaty was just destroyed in an accidental fire, which compounds their financial woes.

The redoubtable abbess, Sister Anna, asks young Sister Deirdre to take charge of the investigation, even though some people blame her for the fire at Sleaty (Deirdre had fallen asleep while praying with a candle burning at the altar). With her status as an Irish noblewoman of Druid heritage and her education as a professional bard, she has connections the others lack. The many suspects of the crime include the abbot of a competing monastery, which has much stricter rules for nuns, and the greedy sons of King Dúnlaing, who covet Kildare’s land.

This novel would be an excellent choice for newcomers to historical mysteries or to its early Irish setting. There is some exposition masked as dialogue in the very beginning, but Sister Deirdre has a friendly narrative voice that guides readers over the hills of the picturesque countryside and into the homes of its residents as she conducts her inquiry. With its achievements in literacy, music, and medicine, her Kildare seems a very enlightened place – but also a religiously diverse one where shocking pagan rites still occur.

Despite all her training, Sister Deirdre has the tendency to throw herself unnecessarily into danger, and her invented background, which draws in many aspects of Irish society at the time, feels a little too convenient. She and her best friend Sister Dari make for a good team, though, and revelations about her personal history make her an even more intriguing character. The author holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Celtic Studies, and his new series – featuring many real-life figures and grounded in the complex history of its times – is off to a promising start.

Saint Brigid’s Bones will be published by Pegasus in hardcover next week ($24.95, 224pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.