The Poisoned Pilgrim

By Oliver Pötzsch.

Simon and Magdalena have gone on a pilgrimage to the Andechs monastery along with various others from Schongau. But before you can say, “In nomine patri, et filii, et spiritui sancti”, Magdalena has spotted a light in the belfry of the church and must absolutely stick her nose in so that she can take part in the book’s first Dramatic Moment™.

And not too long after, a couple of monks turn up dead. The culprit is soon fingered, another monk, who, as it turns out, is an old friend of Jakob Kuisl’s from the war. And that’s how Kuisl ends up in Andechs, snooping around disguised as a monk. Oh, and he takes his grandsons with him so that the boss monster will have a hostage or two for a Dramatic Moment™.

Meanwhile, there’s some mysterious affliction going around and Simon, who’s the only doctor in the house, is up to his arms in patients with spotty tongues.

By now you’re probably wondering whether Simon and Magdalena are on the verge of getting divorced since they’re squabbled in the previous two books. Fear not, reader, you shan’t be disappointed. This time the love rival is Matthias, the handsome, mute knacker’s assistant, who stands high in Magdalena’s estimation because he pays attention to the children, while she rages that Simon is insufficiently involved in the domestic sphere. However, the moment he’s in danger later in the book, Magdalena is off in hot pursuit, his previous failings and shortcomings forgotten.

Things haven’t ended well for previous love rivals. Benedikta Koppmeyer (or whatever her real name is) was unmasked as a bandit, and Silvio Contarini was unmasked as a secret agent for the Turks, hellbent on getting everyone in Augsburg stoned on contaminated bread. Does it end any better for Matthias? Does he end up being the villain’s assistant? You’ll have to read the book to find out whether he gets pushed from the bell tower of the church, surviving just long enough to write some messages to Magdalena.

Everything’s sorted out. The boss monster turns out to be a monk who wants to play Dr Frankenstein (“Copyright violation!” squeaked Mary Shelley. Don’t worry, meine Liebchen, it predates Dr Frankenstein by about 150 years. Uncle Adolf says, ‘Keine Copyright Violation’). The disease gives Simon some leverage against the Semers, and some influence with the Count of Wittelsbach after he cures the man’s son.

Pötzsch is getting a bit repetitious with the squabbling between Simon and Magdalena, the inevitable love rival (who like the guest star in murder mysteries, is always a villain), the flimsy excuses for one or other of the main characters to join the other two, and the flimsy excuses excusing their transgressions. This is essentially telly-style writing, but where another author might find some way to unite the various strands of the plot, Pötzsch’s efforts often sound contrived.

Magdalena has become increasingly annoying. She’s written as if she fell through a hole in the space-time continuum from the 21st century and ended up in the 17th. I suppose she’s meant to be a strong female character, but comes across as oblivious (she seems exempt from the social niceties of the age) and self-centred. She’d be no less annoying if she was demure and obedient, but she needs to be dialled down a few notches. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done so that trying to make Magdalena less annoying would be irksomely noticeable.

The story is decent enough, but I think it’s time to look elsewhere for something to read.

What’s in a name?

The title of the book is baffling because while many pilgrims end up suffering from food poisoning, and a monk or two are fried in phosphorus, there are no individual poisonings per se. Possibly it refers to Simon being paralysed by some concoction from the West Indies, but there are better titles for this volume such as The Mad Monk or The Abbot of Andechs or The Gruesome Golem or … [That’s enough suggestions. –ed.]

 

The Dark Monk and The Beggar King

The Dark Monk

By Oliver Pötzsch.

Having scoffed a bunch of doughnuts (yes, doughnuts in 17th-century Bavaria; really?), Andreas Koppmeyer drops dead, and it doesn’t take Jakob Kuisl, his daughter, Magdalena, and her boyfriend, Simon Fronwieser, long before they’re involved with fanatical monks in pursuit of the treasure of the Knights Templar. They’re assisted by Koppmeyer’s attractive, sophisticated sister, Benedikta, in their endeavours. Everyone ends up in peril, and all shall have narrow escapes.

Meanwhile, Johann Lechner, the town clerk, has Kuisl leading a band of bandit hunters to capture Hans Scheller and his gang. Kuisl has Lechner promise the Scheller will die quickly, but the clerk reneges, and the hangman uses his medical skills to make sure that he’s able to keep his promise. But attacks on merchant caravans continue even when they take obscure routes supposedly only known to the merchant had his men.

After falling into the clutches of the mad monks, Simon and Benedikta rather neatly meet up with Magdalena, and are rescued by Jakob. The final battle leads to the destruction of the treasure the monks were seeking, and Kuisl manages to prevent Simon from being brutally executed for desecrating a holy relic. Simon and Magdalena are reunited, and Simon seems to have accidentally invented penicillin, which helps him to cure the Schreevogls’ daughter, Clara, of the fever that’s been affecting the cits of Schongau.

They kiss, they fight, they kiss, they fight, etc. Rather predictably, Benedikta turns Simon’s head with her Parisian French, and Magdalena, who is thoroughly versed in The Big Book of Relationship Clichés, instantly jumps to the worst possible conclusion about them. Simon also doesn’t help himself with his ill-tempered outburst to Magdalena. When Benedikta’s true nature was unmasked, I didn’t feel particularly surprised, and even after the suspicion that she’d murdered her brother was allayed, I did wonder what the truth about her was going to be.

Magdalena was the damsel-in-distress again, although she didn’t need rescuing this time. The strangely indestructible Brother Jakobus was a bit silly, a bit like one of those cinema villains, who no matter how many anvils land on him, manages to fight one more round.

Although the book purports to be the UK edition, in truth, it’s the American edition with some words spelt correctly, others overlooked, and nothing much else changed. I do wonder, when Pötzsch talks about doughnuts, what food is actually meant, and whether like so many dishes in China, it shouldn’t be translated at all.

The Beggar King.

Jakob Kuisl hurries off to Regensburg because he’s heard his sister is ill. This is an understatement because she’s been ever so slightly murdered along with her husband, and when Kuisl discovers the bodies, dear reader, you’ll be surprised to learn that the local fuzz nick him half a mo’ later. Imagine that in an Oliver Pötzsch novel. The man is so unpredictable.

Meanwhile, back in Schongau, Magdalena Kuisl throws a massive strop and heads off for Regensburg (again, how unpredictable of Pötzsch). I bet you can’t guess what happens next. Simon Fronwieser goes to Regensburg. Did you guess? No, I bet you didn’t.

And in the interests of balance after the previous instalment in the series, Magdalena falls in with the oily Venetian ambassador, Silvio Contarini, who’s even shorter that Simon.

Meanwhile, Kuisl has been being brutally tortured, with one of the witnesses clearly enjoying the proceedings just a little too much, and the Schongau hangman quickly realises that the whole business is an elaborate trap. But does our man talk? Not a bit, and Philipp Teuber, the local hangman, knows that his colleague is wholly innocent.

While her dad’s being tortured, Magdalena’s also in a spot of bother, along with Simon, the pair of them having been fingered for allegedly burning down her aunt’s house, where they found a secret alchemy lab containing a mysterious blue powder. As a result, they end up in league with the beggars of Regensburg who know much about various covert activities in the city.

Our three heroes are eventually reunited after Kuisl escapes with Teuber’s help and manages to find asylum in the bishop’s palace. But the hangman of Schongau, who has worked out who his nemesis is, immediately goes off to confront him while Simon and Magdalena confront the villains behind the blue powder.

Various things have been irritating me about this series. One is the squabbling between Simon and Magdalena, which is contrived and clichéd. Magdalena’s wilfulness is constantly and conveniently getting her into trouble, and Simon can’t sneak anywhere without tripping over the noisiest thing he can find.

In other words, the books are a bit like a collection of B-movie clichés which are trying to ape something like the relentless action of the Indiana Jones films. I can well imagine these being turned into some sort of silly budget flick in which Ben Kingsley turns up because he has to pay some ex-wife maintenance and is damned if the money will come from one of his sensible films.

I can at least report that in this volume, no doughnuts or other anachronistic American foods were eaten, knowingly or otherwise. On the other hand, the words “UK edition” ring a little hollow once again because the orthography remains so inconsistent.

The books are a decent enough read, but if they had less of an eye on some cheap, all-action flick, they might be better for it. In the next volume, Magdalena has only had to walk up some stairs to find herself in peril, and I predict that we’re on the slippery slope to, “I’m the main character. Defer to me”, and everyone does.

 

The Hangman’s Daughter

By Oliver Pötzsch.

When Josef Grimmer is fished out of the river, and dies shortly afterwards, the people of Schongau instantly decide that the culprit must be the local midwife, Martha Stechlin, who must be a witch. She’s rescued by the hangman, Jakob Kuisl, who takes her to prison for her own safety. The town council wants him to torture her and extract a confession so that she can be executed and peace and calm can return to Schongau. Not for one moment does Kuisl believe Stechlin is a witch, and although he cannot avoid torturing her, he does manage to delay a confession long enough to save her.

Meanwhile, the murders of children continue, led by a man called the devil because of his skeletal hand. The killers are, in fact, four mercenaries, who are working for some prominent burgher who is searching the site of a leper house for some buried treasure.

Kuisl is assisted in his investigations by Simon Fronwieser, the son of the local doctor, who has more than a slight interest in the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena. Together, the pair of them manage to solve the mystery, rescue Magdalena, and see that the former soldiers get their just desserts.

The book is based on the history of Pötzsch’s own family, and Jakob Kuisl is an actual historical figure. He’s officially the hangman, torturer, and CEO of sewage management in Schongau, but he’s also a learned man, who is far more skilled in medicine than Fronwieser’s father, who still lives in the medieval world of the four humours, and he has a collection of the latest medical texts.

Magdalena, the eponymous daughter, is very much her father’s child. Fronwieser admires her as much for her wits as for her looks, although her primary function is to be abducted so that the boys can rescue her.

Simon Fronwieser is the archetypal weedy sidekick. Like Kuisl, he’s forward thinking in contrast to his father and much of the rest of Schongau, who still seem to be living in the Middle Ages.

If anything, The Hangman’s Daughter is slightly windy, although it never got to the point where I was skipping pages to get to the next major event. Pötzsch can be a little repetitious at times. On more than one occasion, characters recall they’ve forgotten something, and the encounters with main villain, Christian Braunschweiger, mostly end the same way with narrow escapes for our heroes, but his comeuppance happens off screen. Kuisl needs to overcome him, but by that point in the story, the description of their battle has gone on quite long enough. The delays which Kuisl engineers to prevent Stechlin from confessing lead to repeated gatherings of witnesses from the town council, which might’ve largely taken place off screen as well. “The door slammed shut, and Jakob went grimly about his business.”

As to the identity of the mastermind behind the murders of the children and the damage to the leper house, the answer is completely unexpected, but in the best traditions of the genre, the boss monster only has a very small role to play in the book until the curtain is swept aside and they emerge from the shadows twirling their metaphorical moustaches. On the other hand, the reader is never invested in the puppet masters, who get away with it anyway. In a further twist, the town clerk, Johann Lechner, already knew who was behind recent events, but wanted Stechlin to be the scapegoat.

Presumably, the dull cits of 17th century Bavaria were inclined to be as deeply superstitious as Pötzsch portrays them (and, I suppose, this was the great age of moral panic about witchcraft). Certainly, according to the author’s note at the end of the book, the Kuisls were a well-educated family, and there is an antithesis between the hysteria of the unlearned villagers and the hangman’s more rational, sensible view of the situation.

I did wonder about the translation at times. The word “doughnut” appeared on the first page. Was bagel meant? Would bagel have been a more suitable word? Would it have been better to retain the German word of the original? Or “By now she had realised that something was fishy” (my italics). Really? Fishy? Is that stylistically suitable? Or “You chaps stood around yammering” (again, my italics). What is this, the 1930s? At least you can get a UK edition of the book. No need to be irritated by irritating Americanisms.

While The Hangman’s Daughter has its issues, it’s a decent enough read and has me looking forward to the next volume in the series.

Chosen

By Benedict Jacka.

In Alex Verus and the Case of the Angry Adolescent Adepts, Verus is confronted by a group of, er, angry adolescent adepts1, led by Will Traviss, who is especially angry because Verus allegedly murdered his sister, Catherine. (Actually, the mage helped abduct the girl when he was an apprentice, but the real killer was Verus’ fellow apprentice, Rachel [aka Deleo, the Chosen of Richard Drakh]). After several encounters, Verus decides that the best defence is termination with extreme prejudice. He entices them to his former master’s unoccupied mansion, and summons Deleo and Cinder to do most of the dirty work.

The plot is somewhat thin and repetitious, being repeated episodes in which the adepts quickly track Verus down, who then barely survives the encounter, either with help from Luna, Anne and Variam, or by himself. The story filled out with flashbacks, one to when Drakh’s apprentices abducted Catherine, and the other, in the shadowy dreamworld of Elsewhere. There, Verus learns how Rachel became Drakh’s Chosen, how Shireen died, how she exists in Elsewhere, and why, it seems, Rachel is a couple of wands short of a magic shop.

The characterisation of the adepts in limited. Only Will has a grudge against Verus, but he has nothing beyond that, and every encounter they have is basically the same, occurring in different places. One or two members of the group have names, but others are never identified beyond nicknames, and there’s no opportunity for them to develop except where the circumstances require input from them. There was also something a bit too young-adult-fiction by making them stroppy teenagers. It seemed to me to undermine the internal plausibility by having Verus menaced by a bunch of schoolchildren.

Verus remains ambiguous. What is he really? A Dark mage in denial? A grey mage? A pragmatic mage? A devious, manipulative mage? He’s supposedly not a bad person, but so far, he’s not shied away from killing people off even if the pattern is much the same. Like Khazad in the first book, Will is warned, and when he fails to heed the warnings, Verus kills him. When Verus is called a Dark mage, he doesn’t even bother denying it, and there’s no internal monologue denying it, either.

The most interesting part of this is not the main plot, which is thinner than a monk’s underpants, but the back stories even if the one in Elsewhere does drag on, and the reader is inclined to agree with Verus that Shireen could’ve cut to the chase.

It’s still difficult to guess where Jacka is going with all this. Is Verus going to admit he’s a Dark mage, or is he constantly going to end up in such danger that if he doesn’t kill his enemies, they’ll kill him?2 As one review on Amazon put it, Jacka needs to make his mind up about what sort of mage Verus is.3

If I’d been writing this, I would’ve either abandoned it or have turned it into a novella, but there’s not enough toothpaste in this tube without squeezing some of the vacuum out as well.

I think that with Chosen, I’ve done with this series. None of the books in it have been much above three to three-and-a-half stars; I can’t say I much like Alex Verus anyway, or find his character engaging in the same way that Milton’s Satan is engaging; and it can’t be a good sign that I read this one in about a day flat without even noticing that it’d gone by so quickly.

Notes
1. Adepts are magic users, but only have access to a single spell.
2. Since Jacka is or was a lawyer, I wonder whether these stories are the world of lawyers (bitchy, backstabbing, ambiguous) transposed to a magical universe.
3. If I wrote a book called “How to annoy your audience and alienate readers”, I’d be citing this series.

 

Destroying Angel

By SG MacLean.

Damian Seeker has been sent to Yorkshire where among other things, he’s on the hunt for Sir Thomas Faithly, who’s vanished from the court of Charles Stuart. But Seeker’s original mission gets knocked sideways by other events. Gwendolen Sorsby, the adopted daughter of Pullan family, is murdered, killed by a poisonous mushroom called destroying angel, and Caleb Turner, the trier, who is in Faithly to pass judgement on the local vicar, Septimus Jenkin, turns out to be the man who spirited away Seeker’s daughter; and with Turner is his wife, and Seeker’s ex-wife, Felicity. On top of all this, the village is populated by several nasty little nobodies like Abel Sharrock who dig up scandals from the past to further their own ends. And apart from all this, there are other secrets and vendettas to be uncovered.

It’s difficult to outline too much of the plot without giving too much away. Seeker clouts Turner in a fit of ill-advised anger. His ex-wife is more than a few shades of Lady Anne Winter, who also has a role to play in the book (“Of course I’m going to be in this volume,” said Lady Anne. “After all, I’m contractually obliged to be in it, and have been voted Sexiest Villain in a Damian Seeker Novel three books running. Just giving the fans what they want.” You’re the only sexy villain, muttered Seeker). But for Seeker, there is at least a happy ending.

I think, though, MacLean was trying to achieve too much because there’s too much to be reasonably achieved. What, in fact, is the A plot and what are the subplots? Is it the hunt for Sir Thomas? Well, not really because the man lurks a lot and then steps out into the open. Is it the hunt for Gwendolen Sorsby’s killer? It could be. Is it Seeker’s ongoing search for his long-vanished daughter? That seems to take up quite a lot of the book. Is it the activities of Sir Edward Faithly, Thomas’s brother who missed out on the Civil War because of a riding accident? Probably not. Or is it the pervading theme of the book, which is very much women who have suffered some sort of abuse from Tansy Whyte, who’s been waiting for her husband to return home for 14 years, to Gwendolen’s mother, packed off to a squint in a church in York, to Emma Faithly, married to the ghastly Sir Edward so that he can spite Matthew Pullan?

The final encounter with Caleb Turner at the end of the book is brief and an entirely chance thing, and yet it involves him murdering two soldiers apparently as a way of attracting Seeker’s attention. What are the odds?

It’s not that Destroying Angel is poorly written or unengaging, but as I said above, MacLean is attempting to do too much and has too many plots to effectively deal with. If she’d enmeshed them in some clever and cunning way, I think this would’ve been a more satisfying book, but I’m inclined to say three to three-and-a-half stars.

 

Taken

By Benedict Jacka.

In Alex Verus and the Case of the Disappearing Apprentices, apprentices have been, er, disappearing without a trace. Using his time magic, Alex’s new mate, Sonder, can track them back to a certain point, but the rest is shrouded from him. The answers seem to be at Fountain Reach, where apprentices will be competing in the Triwizard Tournament, little knowing that this will enable Gríma Wormtongue to resurrect Dr Manhattan [Worst mixed metaphor evah. –ed.] No matter which way Verus turns, everything points to the Reach.

The house itself is heavily warded, which weakens Verus’ divination magic and makes him feel distinctly uneasy. It seems obvious that the current owner, Crystal, is up to something. All right, fairly obviously, she’s behind the disappearance of the apprentices.

Meanwhile, Verus has acquired two new sidekicks, Anne and Variam, who were originally apprenticed to a Dark wizard, but escaped from him and were taken under the wing of a rakshasa, Lord Jagadev, who instructs them to help Verus. Anne is a life mage, who can heal people as well as drain them of their lives, and Variam is, well, permanently bad tempered with more stones in his shoe than a pebble beach.

There’s also the mystery of that happened to the previous owner of the house, Vitus Aubuchon, and here the reason for the disappearance of the apprentices is revealed. Aubuchon was doing research on longevity and partly succeeded, but needs a supply of batteries. After using ordinary people (Everyready), Aubuchon has instructed Crystal to switch to apprentices (Duracell).

Alex and his sidekicks manage to enter the shadow mansion where Aubuchon exists in parallel to the real one. They rescue Anne, whose skills as a life mage, attract the monster’s particular attention, but are pursued by Onyx, Crystal and Vitus, escaping by the skin of their teeth.

Verus also works out Lord Jagadev’s role in Anne and Variam’s lives, they being the descendants of the British and Indian mages who killed his wife in the 19th century.

I think the problem with this volume was the split between who was abducting the apprentices with the reason why they were being abducted. There were more than enough hints for it to be obvious that Crystal was the villain (in fact, from the very opening scene), but the deeper mystery, that Vitus Aubuchon was the driving force behind the abductions, was a bit of a shrug because he was merely some raging, blood-sucking monster with no discernible personality. If Crystal had seemed to be an ally for far longer, maintaining the suspense, this might have worked a little better.

Similarly, the explanation of Lord Jagadev’s role in Anne and Variam’s lives was left till the end, and was no more than an explanation.

Verus behaves like a cheeky schoolboy at times as if Jacka still hasn’t quite got beyond writing characters that behave like adolescents. There’s some laughs-in-the-face-of-danger going on here, but Jacka is perhaps still playing around with Verus’ character. The apprentices certainly behave like clichéd teenagers with their various rivalries.

There were fewer translations into American, although the have-gottens abound once again, and there were quite a few “brings” that should be “takes”. This time, there are “arseholes”, but there were also some phrases that had me wondering whether Jacka had actually written them in an attempt to emulate some annoying mid Atlantic style of English, or whether his original phrases had been translated.

Taken probably needed to have a tighter focus. As I said, Crystal’s involvement in the abductions should’ve been less obvious, and although the subplots (Vitus Aubuchon and Lord Jagadev) may have been linked to the main one, the way in which it was done was not so satisfying.

 

Cursed

By Benedict Jacka.

Alex Verus is asked to track down a barghest, but the creature is not only dead, but not from any physical or obvious magical causes. As Alex subsequently discovers, some Dark mages have resurrected a ritual to extract the magic from other creatures, and the powerful Light mage, Belthas, wants Verus to put a stop to it. However, Belthas has no interest in destroying the knowledge of the ritual because he wants to use it on Alex’s mate, the giant spider Arachne, who lives under Hampstead Heath. There’s a big fight and Cinder lends a hand.

At the same time, Luna is supposedly Alex’s apprentice, but the whole arrangement isn’t going well. As Arachne notes, he doesn’t behave like the master and she doesn’t behave like the apprentice. She acquires a “boyfriend”, Martin, who acquires the monkey’s paw that has ended up in Alex’s care. Alex knows this won’t end well, but initially, it deals with the effects of Luna’s curse, and he suspects that Martin is (correctly) a wrong ’un. His big mistake is to wish for Alex’s powers, which overwhelm him and in the end, the monkey’s paw proves to be deadly for him.

The book ends with Luna formally becoming Verus’ apprentice, thus putting their relationship on a professional footing.

Jacka manages to spin out a rather thin plot which, in some ways, is a reprise of the first book. A Light mage wants to get his hands on something powerful for his own ends even though it’s best left well alone. It doesn’t flag, although there are times when Jacka explains things in perhaps a bit much detail (without being quite as bad as Jasper Fforde).

This is the book Fated ought to have been. Verus is no longer the tantrumous [sic] adolescent that he was in the first book. There are hints of ambiguity, suggesting that Verus is going to turn out to be a Dark mage whether he likes it or not; or will keep behaving like one. Here, though, as I said in my previous review, mages seem to be Less Dark and More Dark. Belthas is hardly a model of goodness and niceness, and is actually working for Levistus, who wants Verus dead for denying him the fateweaver.

Possibly, though, Jacka is taking this whole moral ambiguity trope too far. If the Light mages behaved ethically and pragmatically, this might work. At the moment, the dilemma is, “That’s a terrible ritual,” said Belthas, “which only the worst sorts of Dark mages performed, and most of them wouldn’t go near it. I must have it for myself, and try it.” It’d be better if there was a paradox in that if some Light mage doesn’t do something, the consequences are bad, but if they do do the thing they’re trying to avoid, the consequences are different but also bad.

Is Jacka hinting at Verus’ eventual fall from Limbo? Cinder observes that he’s quite deadly, and he does manage to kill a lot of people, directly or otherwise, without much compunction. Much is made of Verus being skilled at scarpering, but his ability to see into various possible futures and choose the optimal one often results in him being a one-man killing machine.

Like the previous volume, this came from Amazon US, which meant the same peculiar mélange of spellings. “Centre” was correct, for example, but the have-gottens were still there along with some dubious lexical choices that just didn’t sound right. The former grate because of their frequency, and the latter are like bits of grit that occasionally get stuck to the soles of your feet.

Anyway, this is a bit more promising. Let’s see how volume 3 goes.

 

Fated

By Benedict Jacka.

Alex Verus runs a bookshop round Camden way and happens to be a wizard whose particular skill is divination. He can look into various futures and see what the outcomes of his various choices might be.

Meanwhile, the wizarding world wants to get its hands on the fateweaver, a powerful ancient artefact which has been bound within a statue that has some fairly heavy-duty defences. With nothing else for it, the Light wizards make Verus an offer he can’t refuse (“Retrieve the fateweaver for us or die”), and a bit later, the Dark wizards make the same offer.

However, not only does his divination come in handy, but also the fact that his mate, Luna, found the key and she’s the only one who can use it. Unfortunately, Verus has a bunch of minders to contend with, who all want to get their hands on the wand for their own selfish purposes.

Our hero manages to get the fateweaver (natch), but must merge with the spirit of Abithriax to use it. The old mage helps Verus to defeat his enemies, but then turns out to be interested in more than just a temporary union (“Go on, baby,” whispered Abithriax, “you know you want to”). Thanks to Luna’s curse, which is to deflect bad luck from herself to other people, Abithriax is probably destroyed.

In Verus’ world, there are Light and Dark wizards, although there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference between them apart from the latter indulging in a spot of more overt brutality. He himself started out as the apprentice to a Dark wizard called Richard Drakh (no, seriously, Drakh; with a name like that, he’s not going to be in too many other professions), but rejected such a path. At the same time, he’s no friend of Light wizards and largely exists outside the wizarding world.

Perhaps, Verus’ background is supposed to explain why he seems to be little better than a touchy, peevish adolescent, who seems constantly annoyed with everyone, and is annoying them as well. He gets into an argument or two with Luna even though there seemed to be no reason for such a conflict to arise, and he’s frequently offhand with people.

He does inhabit an unpleasant world populated by unpleasant people. The wizards are not so much Light and Dark than they are less dark and more dark. Levistus, who’s meant to be a Light wizard, only gets Verus to agree because when he looks into the future, he gets murdered for declining, and has to accept a contract with clauses such as “don’t tell anyone else about our arrangement (or I’ll kill you)”. But Verus would’ve spared everyone a good deal of bother if he’d agreed to Lyle’s original request instead of behaving like a smug, antagonising git.

If Jacka had had Verus behave like a reasonable adult instead of a tetchy schoolboy, the character might have been more appealing and relatable. Some comedy (beyond the vacuous Starbreeze, who’s just an empty-headed teenage girl) would also help to have relieved the fairly bleak world that Verus inhabits.

This particular edition is a weird mix of English and American. Some words are spelt correctly (e.g. “colour”), but all the “have got” phrases have been translated into “have gotten” (and being a phrase which Jacka uses quite extensively, this grates), and, you asses, the word is “arsehole”. There’s no need to translate books written in English into American. I’m sure no such consideration is given to us non-native speakers of American.

I’m going to try the second book, but I have to wonder how on the basis of Fated this series has reached its ninth instalment. While readers might not want another Harry Potter, they probably don’t want grumpy, adolescent Harry Potter roaming around the place, either, but that’s very much what Verus is.

The Burning Chambers

By Kate Mosse.

The Joubert family lives in Carcassonne. Bernard has been a recluse for some time since he came back from a trip. Minou, his daughter, is tall and has different-coloured eyes. Aimeric, his son, probably thinks he’s a wee scamp. The youngest daughter, Alis, is prim and serious.

Piet Reydon, a half-Dutch, half-French Huguenot, goes to see his old mate, Vidal, who is becoming a big noise in the church. It’s not a happy reunion, and but for the intervention of the Jouberts, it would not have ended well.

Meanwhile, Blanche de Bruyère, who is – coincidentally – Vidal’s girlfriend, is searching for some­one who poses a threat to her position as the Chatelaine of Puivert.

In the meantime, France is being torn apart by a religious civil war into which the Jouberts get thrust when Minou and Aimeric are sent off to Toulouse.

Blanche, however, pays a visit to Carcassonne, where she indulges in a spot of kidnapping to entice Minou to Puivert; but Minou is trapped in Toulouse and has no idea that Alis has been abducted because the letters to her have been intercepted by her aunt-in-law, Madame Montfort.

Eventually, the impasse is overcome, and the gang are all off to Puivert to confront Blanche, who’s dottier than a polka dot dress. Bernard is already there, having been nicked on the assumption he was a poacher, and Piet and Minou have been thrown back together through the fighting between Catholics and Huguenots in Toulouse.

Blanche has arranged a bonfire, but things don’t quite turn out as expected, and our heroes triumph.

Mosse links the characters together in a very tight little knot so that there are connections between them directly or indirectly, and people are often in the right place at just the right time (e.g. Piet turning up at the house of Minou’s vicious uncle; or her aunt, Madame Boussay, taking out Bonal to save Minou and the others). The story hinges around the connection between Bernard Joubert and Puivert, but Minou also has a link there, as does Vidal with Blanche de Bruyère.

Sometimes the story strains for effect, especially Minou’s aunt and her faulty memory when the reader knows the answer has to be “Vidal”, or when having escaped the clutches of her abusive husband, she suddenly turns out to be sharper than a Bilbao sword. Vidal himself is a kind of parody villain, casually casting people to the Inquisition, including the ones who have annoyed him, but the man needs a moustache to twirl or to be nagging his agent to get him a part in a Bond film.

I felt that some of the narrow escapes for our heroes seemed a little too contrived at times, although Minou’s sudden appearance, which enabled Piet to escape from the clutches of the Inquisition was a nice touch.

There are also times when Mosse is being a little too 21st-century, but perhaps there were some idealists in France and Occitania in the 16th century who thought they could create havens where Catholics and Huguenots could live together in harmony.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, especially, as I said above, because of the way in which Mosse connects the cha­rac­ters together.

PS. In her note on language, Mosse claims that Occitan (Languedoc), which is the collection of Romance dialects of southern France (and Catalan in northern Spain), “is closely related to … Basque”. Er, no. Basque is an isolate, which is unrelated to any other language in Europe, Indo-European or otherwise. I assume Mosse’s editor was having a snooze at the time.

The Durrells

Things to do on Corfu when you’re destitute.

Linda stumbled across The Durrells quite by accident. We kicked off with the third series, and then watched the first two.

The programme is based on Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy about the five years his family spent on the island from the mid-to-late 1930s. With little to keep the family in England, Louisa Durrell takes her four children to Corfu. Lawrence fancies himself as a writer, Leslie is accident prone, Margo is interested in boys and worried about spots, and Gerald adopts animals as if they’re going out of fashion.

The family are almost skint when they arrive on the island, but get help from Spiro, the local taxi driver.

While the series is enjoyable, it’s somewhat formulaic with the characters all having particular parts to play. There’s always the love interest of the series for Louisa. In the first series, this is Sven, the Swede, who starts out with they-kiss-they-fight-etc. Oh, he’s actually gay. In the second series, this is the oily Hugh Jarvis, a local expat olive magnate, who’s previously been involved with the Durrells’ new landlady, Vasilia, but when he asks Louisa to return with him to England, she declines. In the third series, Spiro comes to the fore after his wife temporarily leaves him and takes the children, but in a world of will-they-won’t-they, you know they won’t, and they don’t even though they love each other.

Lawrence is forever bashing away at his typewriter, producing yet another literary masterpiece when he and his brother Leslie aren’t shouting at each other. Lawrence’s other function is as a sounding board for his mother, saying the right thing, or supplying some insightful response to her personal issues.

Leslie’s three characteristics are guns, clumsiness, huffy exits and inappropriate comments. There’s some hints that he had an artistic flair, but of all the characters, he’d be the one least missed if he was run down by a rogue giraffe. In the third series, his story line is to have got some local girl preg­nant only to find that he was less responsible for it than the actual father. He also signs up to be a policeman, but resigns when the word comes that Sven and Viggo are to be arrested for being gay.

Like her mother, Margo’s principal pastime is boyfriends, or potential boyfriends. Unlike Leslie, who initially appears to have little or nothing to do, and who contributes less, she gets a job as the companion to the semi-reclusive Countess Mavrodaki; but if the rogue giraffe happens to crash into her as well, the loss wouldn’t really have a serious effect on the story.

Gerald is the youngest Durrell, whose sole interest is natural history, and whose main roles in the series are collecting various animals and insects, and avoiding a proper education.

Spiro the taxi driver is clearly Louisa’s long-term love interest from the very start of the series, who takes more than a passing interest in the welfare of the Durrells. Lugaretzia is the dour, dis­ap­pro­v­ing housekeeper who thinks Leslie is the best child even though he doesn’t exactly contribute a lot. The local naturalist, Theo, takes Gerry under his wing. Aunt Hermione judgementally descends on them a couple of times, and then dies.

Although this is a series in which the characters all appear to have very specific functions which they repeat from one episode to another, it manages to be enjoyable and entertaining. It doesn’t fall into the trap of straining for effect as if some tyrannical director sat there shouting at them, “More funny!”, but was actually frightening the cast instead. It succeeds where other adaptations of books never quite work because somewhere in the process the spirit of the book is lost.

Louisa and her relationships are the linchpin of the series while the rest of the family seems to exist for subplots, shouting and chaos. So long as this runs on a one-series-per-book-year basis, it should go out on a high note without outstaying its welcome. Everyone will bawl their eyes out when Louisa toddles off to England, no doubt leaving Spiro behind.

Envoy
I must read the books on which this is based to see how this compares to them. The entire family was born in India, including Louisa and her husband. The sense I get from the programme is that the children were actually somewhat feral because of a lack of parental discipline which their mother was ill equipped to supply, and I wonder what the islanders actually thought of the family. ¶ I know that Larry and his wife, Nancy, had already been living on Corfu before his mother arrived with the rest of the family. He did become a celebrated writer, although these days far less read perhaps because of the style of his writing and perhaps because his work appealed to the literary fashions at the time. (Or, quite possibly, you read his books, raved about their cleverness, but privately thought they were the literary equivalent of thick treacle.) He and (especially) Nancy had a mania for swimming naked. ¶ Leslie avoided the limelight altogether and seems not to have been a great success in life. He was the one who got to know Kostis, the convict, not Gerald. ¶ Margo opened a guesthouse in Bournemouth and would regale guests about what subsequently happened to her. ¶ Gerald became the best-known member of the family for his Corfu trilogy and for his work in the world of conservation long before it became fashionable. ¶ Louisa variously lived with Margot or Gerry, and died in 1964, having apparently been an alcoholic as a consequence of the loss of one of her children and her husband, a vice which Gerald glossed over in his books. There were also mental health issues as well; and Keeley Hawes is far too pretty to be playing a woman who in reality looked much older than she actually was.

 

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.