A Parliament of Spies

By Cassandra Clark.

“I’ve had a splendid idea,” said Archbishop Neville. “Why don’t we invite Hildegard to travel to London with us?”
“Excellent suggestion, your grace,” replied Edwin, but not in an excellent tone.
“What is it, lad? Don’t you like Hildegard? Not into sexy nuns, eh?”
“It’s not that. I mean, I like hot nuns as much as the next celibate priest, but, you see, every time she turns up, people die.”
“Surely you exaggerate.”
Two days later.
“How many dead so far, Edwin.”
“Six to half a dozen.”
“And how far have we travelled?”
“We haven’t actually left the palace.”

Yes, she’s back, and they’re dropping like flies as she travels with the archbishop’s entourage to London, where the king has summoned parliament. He also has to contend with his uncles and their machinations, not to mention his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and Bolingbroke’s half brother, Thomas Swynford. And if this lot wasn’t enough, the French are on the verge of invading.

On top of this, an old acquaintance of Hildegard’s reappears, which throws her career in the church into a spin, and she falls in love until her rather dangerous liaison comes to a tragic end.

The story is connected to Sir Ralph Standish, whose murder of Wat Tyler was rewarded, but having failed to achieve his second aim, which was the assassination of King Richard, he was poisoned. The poisoner was rumbled by one of Archbishop Neville’s retainers, but there is also a connection to the king’s wife, Anne of Bohemia, having a miscarriage, deliberately induced to weaken Richard’s position.

A Parliament of Spies doesn’t have a particular narrative thread. The journey to London includes a murder and a maiming. In London, Hildegard is caught up in various intrigues and and affair, but overall, there’s a lack of focus. Unlike previous volumes which tend to have the climax of the main plot first, followed by the climaxes of the subplots in a drawn-out denouement, this book has a high point, the lynching, but it comes as a random event, a result of irrational mob violence.

In the end, Hildegard must renew her vows as a nun, but she gets permission to toddle off to Santiago de Compostela on a pilgrimage first (and there’s a cameo from Geoffrey Chaucer).

There’s not much to add apart from observations about the usual unnecessary Americanisms, the jargon (some of which is actually anachronistic), and Hildegard’s frequent appearances in the thick of the action.

“I’m the main character. Let me through.”

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The Law of Angels

By Cassandra Clark.

When two stray girls, the traumatised Maud and talkative Petronilla, turn up at Hildegard’s remote establishment, trouble is sure to follow – and it does when some right villains turn up and give the place a thorough going-over. With her two new charges, the nun heads off to York, where she has business with a candlemaker, and Archbishop Neville with regard to the Cross of Constantine (uh-oh!) The town is preparing for the festival of Corpus Christi, but the Peasants’ Revolt and opposition to John of Gaunt form strong undercurrents in the area.

And before you can say “Sicut erat in principio”, Hildegard is busy running towards every danger that York has to offer. Fanatical, extremist nunnery? Tick that one off. Explosions and fires? Tick that one off. Midnight meetings with rebels and murderous battles? Tick that one off. Sneaking up to remote mills where hot babes are being held against their will? Tick that one off. Rescuing Maud from wicked knights, and escaping from a religious fanatic from the nunnery? Keep ticking those boxes. A medieval nun’s hair-raising adventures never end.

Clark once again opts for her multi-climactic style of storytelling, but like the first volume, seems to resolve the main plot a little too soon, leaving the B, C, D, etc. plots to be wrapped up in a long tail, which undermines the effectiveness of the narrative. Once the subplots had been concluded, the novel should really have finished with Maud and Petronilla narrowly escaping from the lecherous advances of Henry Bolingbroke or his dad, followed by a brief epilogue.

The book is still garnished with a smattering of inappropriate Americanisms, and there are strong arguments for the removal of various scenes and descriptions, especially of activity in York, which merely impede the progress of the actual narrative in this idealised, 21st-century portrayal of medieval skulduggery.

The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez

By Ann Swinfen.

After being set a few mathematical problems by her [sic] tutor, the 16-year-old Christoval Alvarez is offered work doing cryptanalysis for Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. She not only deciphers messages between Mary Queen of Scots and her supporters, but also gets sent off to infiltrate the household of a Catholic family used as a staging post for messages; to tour the south coast to see where all the Catholic priests are being landed; and to deliver messages to and from Sir Anthony Babington. And while Kit’s doing that, she’s also working as a doctor, and she plays the lute with considerable skill. The climax of the story is the thwarting of the Babington Conspiracy.

The book is a bit like Ender’s Game, I think. Just as Ender Wiggin appears to be Orson Scott Card writing himself into the story as a boy genius, I wonder whether Christoval Alvarez is actually Ann Swinfen writing herself into the novel as an adolescent genius who is constantly being praised for her work even when she bungles things a bit. Although literature requires the suspension of disbelief, Alvarez ultimately comes across as a character from fan-fic around whom the action revolves even though she’s little more than an extra.

No explanation is given as to why Alvarez is pretending to be a boy, and at no time is she ever in any real danger of the truth being exposed. Robert Poley penetrates her disguise early on, but no one else appears to notice, and he largely vanishes from the tale. It’s also unclear quite why he’d expose her to Walsingham, but she firmly believes he’s a vile traitor because, in truth, the story requires it without really establishing that the man is anything more than a shady character operating in a shady world.

The language is punctuated innumerable times by “…, for…” when Swinfen, in the modern style, should be using “because”; but the former is merely the misapplication of Greek γάρ or Latin enim to English, and far from adding elegance to the style, it sounds dated and ridiculous. Every instance is preceded by a comma, which then pops up once or twice where it shouldn’t. I’m surprised the author never used “whilst”, but the reader is – thankfully – spared that. Another peculiarity of the language is a lack of contractions in dialogue. They’re not absent, but there are far fewer of them than there ought to be.

The style is somewhat clunky early in the book where Swinfen tends to get encyclopaedic along the lines of extended sci-fi explanations when some piece of jargon has been introduced (e.g. Captain Kirk: Power up the forward phasers. Dr. McCoy: Phasers? Mr. Spock: Particle-based weapons). There are sections where the exposition could be pruned back to nothing without any great loss.

The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez is really an exercise in wish fulfilment, which might appeal to readers who are minor non-entities, but would love to be the centre of attention, with all the best ideas. Alvarez needs something to make her human beyond being nervous but otherwise perfect. At no point does she ever need to struggle, unlike Matthew Shardlake or Giordano Bruno, and being anxious about Robert Poley, who never actually threatens her, is no substitute for being in actual danger. It might’ve been a bit more fun if she’d started as a girl disguised as a boy (to work for Walsingham), who was always reverting back to being a girl (as a disguise) and being praised for how authentic she looks by people who don’t know she’s actually a girl.

The Red Velvet Turn Shoe

By Cassandra Clark.

When Hildegard is dispatched to fetch the Cross of Constantine from somewhere in Italy, she knows the journey will be dangerous, and before you can say “Perkin Warbeck”, a clerk in Lord Roger de Hutton’s employ has been murdered and stuffed in a bail of wool, with everyone assuming that it was the gay minstrel with the lute in the dorter. Hildegard is not so sure and manages to get Pierrekyn Haverel to safety in Florence before he is eventually detained there. Her own mission is a success, but when she gets back to Eng­land, there’s still the matter of Haverel’s trial, with the odds heavily stacked against him until Hildegard produces evidence demonstrating his innocence.

Like the first volume, Clark opts for a break near the end followed by a long tail. While the trip to Italy is covered in some detail, the return journey is glossed over so that the narrative can focus on Haverel’s trial. Alongside this story is the matter of Hubert de Courcy, the studly abbot of Meaux, and his religious ex­tre­m­ism. The coda is better done on this occasion because it’s not preceded by a highly dramatic climax after which the rest falls a bit flat.

The background to the whole story remains the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which still plays a key part in what happens. The factions are divided between the boy-king, Richard II, and his uncle, John of Gaunt, and the suppression of the truth about what happened at Smithfield.

Clark keeps things moving along, although for the sake of the story, Hildegard is often in the right place at the right time, and is constantly permitted a certain amount of latitude that no nun would probably have been allowed at the time. There’s tragedy for the nun as well as triumph.

There appear to be fewer typos in this book than the first volume in the series, but there remain, as other reviewers have noted, some mawkish Americanisms which sound so wrong in context. In a similar vein, the American title is The Velvet Turn Shoe. I’d assume this is because American readers might think this is some Cold War romp about a gay Russian detective. Perhaps because the action is mostly set in France and Italy, the word “Saxon” gets flung around less often along with vague pronouncements about dialects.

And so on to Volume 3. Will Escrick Fitzjohn return to menace Hildegard once again? We’ll have to wait and see.

Hangman Blind

By Cassandra Clark

Sister Hildegard is a wealthy widow who wants to set up a small religious establishment of her own, and hoping to find somewhere suitable, she toddles off to see her old mate, Lord Roger de Hutton. But this being Yorkshire, there’s trouble at t’ mill when she stumbles across a murder victim, Lord Roger is poisoned, Ada the hot maid is murdered, Sir William kills one of the servants, and there are more shenanigans than there are days in the month. But don’t worry. Hildegard is on the case and manages to solve all the mysteries in the end. Eventually.

Clark has a bit of a mania for medieval jargon for which a glossary needs to have been supplied. But in spite of her familiarity with poulaines, chaperons and double latchets, she seems to be obliviously unaware that no one has spoken Anglo-Saxon in nearly 300 years, although I can’t comment on whether there was still a distinct chasm between the English-speaking peasantry and the French-speaking nobs in the 1380s. As far as I’m aware, that distinction was dying to dead during the reign of Richard II.

The Kindle edition has more than a few typos which should’ve been ironed out, but some of these may be the medieval jargon I mentioned above, which is why a glossary would come in handy.

The story itself progresses from left to right and down the page, punctuated by various incidents and revelations, but with about a sixth of the book left, there is a climactic contest between Hildegard and Escrick Fitzjohn as she and Brother Thomas fight to rescue one of the serving girls and her baby from him. After that, the story then begins to drag. William, Roger’s brother-in-law, has taken control of Hutton Castle and is holding Roger’s young wife, Melisen, hostage. But this episode fizzles out to be followed up by a duel between William and his brother-in-law, Ralph (actually, the cat wins that one), and an attempt by Ralph’s wife Avice to murder Melisen. And if all this wasn’t enough, a small army turns up outside and there’s a joust with a mysterious knight. By that stage, though, I was just turning pages trying to spot the next point at which something was worth paying attention to.

In spite of the book ending like a slow, wounded snake dragging its tale [sic!] along, I think I’ll give the second volume a go.

The Case of the Curious Corpse

by Howard of Warwick.

Instead of reading the second book in the series about Brother Hermitage, the king’s reluctant investigator, I thought I would skip to the latest instalment in the series to see whether things have markedly improved.

In this tale, one of King William’s hostages, a Saracen called Umair, has been killed by an unknown assailant. The king is keen to make it known that he’s not responsible and sends for Brother Hermitage and his sidekicks, who quickly discover that the Saracen had allegedly been conducting reconnaissance missions for William, but was, in fact, quite chummy with the various factions opposed to the Normans from Hereward the Wake to the misspelt Aedgar Aetheling (Eadgar Æþeling). There’s no evidence that the king killed Umair or had him killed, and there’s no evidence to suggest that the Saxons, Vikings or Welsh had anything to do with it either. Who could it be? Brother Hermitage eventually works it out.

The book doesn’t get off to a good start. Some Normans have been sent to fetch Hermitage, but everyone thinks they’ve arrived for a battle, and this goes on for pages and pages and pages. This is followed by a chat with William and his right-hand man, Le Pedvin, but no one can tell whether the Normans are dining or fighting, and appear to be doing both in another prolonged scene. The word “prolonged” tends to describe a lot of this.

The problem is very much the character of Hermitage, who manages to solve the mystery in spite of being a clueless halfwit. His response to any situation is often a weak, pathetic, “Erm”, and he lacks the necessary traits to be decent antihero. Wat possibly has more going for him, and perhaps should’ve been the main character all along. Cwen, who is a new addition to the team somewhere between the first book and this one, seems to be there to ask pointed questions and make pointed remarks about what fate she’d like to see befall the Normans, but apart from that, she seems to have no purpose I can discern. I was expecting (from her name) that she’d be a prostitute, constantly embarrassing Hermitage by praising God in a loud and erotic fashion.

Having read the bookends of the Brother Hermitage series, I’ve developed no interest in reading the intervening novels in the series. I think this is the sort of thing that might’ve appealed to be when I was about 13 or 14, but I can’t help but feel that even I could do a little better than this myself.

The Heretics of De’Ath

By Howard of Warwick.

During a debate in the monastery of De’Ath’s Dingle, Brother Ambrosius drops dead. Moments later, Brother Athan enters the room, accusing Brother Hermitage of murdering Ambrosius simply because he was the only monk present at the time. The Abbot, who is a scary bastard, sends Hermitage off to Lincoln, who meets Wat the Weaver on the way, who takes an interest in the confused monk’s business. Hermitage is sent back to the monastery with Brother Simon, who has been appointed the King’s Investigator by the bishop’s man, Nicodemus, mainly because Simon an imperceptive, pointless busybody. When the trio return to De’Ath’s Dingle, they find the builders about which no one seems to know anything have arrived, and the overweight Earl of Northumbria is up to something on behalf of one of his younger sons. King Harold turns up just in time to sort things out before he pops off to Hastings to smack William of Normandy – and we all know how that went.

The writing is not the best. It’s a little like writing down a sketch for an idea for a story, but the notes have become the story. There seem to be too many people shouting at odd moments, which makes no sense. There are other occasions where the narrative jumps from one part to another as if Howard of Warwick put his pen down for a few days, but forgot that he needed to finish of the previous scene or write some transitional section. He also has characters saying, “What?” noticeably often even though this is only occasionally a pun on Wat’s name.

I’ll try the next volume or two in the series to see whether the quality of the writing improves, but can’t overly recommend the book.

The Truth about Language

By Michael C. Corballis.

I don’t like the title. It’s a click-bait title implying that we’ve all been being misled about language. It should’ve been something like The Origins of Language according to Modern Theories. There’s no truth here because we don’t really know the truth about the origins of language. Chomsky’s idea that it suddenly sprang into existence without being subject to evolutionary processes seems deeply improbable. I think it highly unlikely that about 50,000 years ago, some bloke went from “Ugh, ugh, um, ugh” one day to “I think I’ll go down the garden centre this afternoon and buy some geraniums” the next; but perhaps it did.

Corballis’s proposal, which is not exactly original, is that language has its origins in gesture. Well, I’m giving that one a two-fingered salute myself. The main issue of his hypothesis remains the gap between expressing ideas through gestures and expressing them verbally. At best, the jaw, being another movable component of the body, is just as likely to be controlled by the same part of the brain that controls the arms, legs and head. In fact, in many people, it flaps quite independently of the brain.

Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar comes in for some flak (no, not “flack”; the word is German; actually, it’s an abbreviation for Fliegerabwehrkanone in which there’s not a single “c” to be seen), but this seems to stem from a certain amount of misunderstanding of the idea as if someone discovered some of the odder American Indian languages and wondered how on Earth their grammars could stem from a set of universal principles on which all languages are allegedly based. Any proper linguist will also look for cross-linguistic evidence that a particular aspect of the grammar of the language is not a one-off.

Although I may have dealt in historical linguistics myself, which can often progress no further than idle speculation, the origin of language is not something which to me has any real value. It may be of interest to evolutionary biologists or psychologists such as Corballis, but it contributes nothing to the understanding of language as it was and is, and is likely to remain till the next iteration of our species evolves.

The Truth about Language also has a repetitive feel to it as if it’s a series of lectures for undergraduates with short attention spans written up as a book. It does manage to hold the reader’s interest without outstaying its welcome (waggish asides about students are appreciated), but ultimately, it isn’t convincing because the gap between gestures and language generated by grammatical principles is never spanned beyond some reasonable suppositions.

The Black Friar

By S.G. MacLean

Here’s a puzzle for Damian Seeker. Carter Blyth, one of Thurloe’s secret agents has been found dead, hidden behind a wall (echoes of Sherlock or Jonathan Creek) and dressed as a friar. What’s going on? Did Seeker miss his invite to MI5’s tarts-and-vicars Christmas party?

It gets even more murky when it becomes known that various children have been going missing, that Anne Winter is up to something, and that Shadrach Jones is not some harmless gerund grinder in the days when such things mattered before student-centred learning became all the rage.

If that’s not enough, Seeker also has to deal with a whole crew of religious nut jobs who make Cromwell and his regime look positively enlightened in comparison, and the grave illness that has been afflicting Thurloe himself. (Aside: Is it just me, or has MacLean never noticed the irony of the man’s name, which contains the element Thor-?)

The second volume doesn’t quite have the engaging intricacies of the first, or the climax(es). The revelation of the machinery of Anne Winter’s trickery leads to no great moment, and the resolution of the plot line about the missing children is similarly flat. “Yeah, the kiddies were down the back of the sofa.”

Nonetheless, it’s quite fun to have the likes of Samuel Pepys and various other historical personages knocking about.

This may be Seeker’s second and last outing, or perhaps MacLean is going to take him to the mean streets of Yorkshire [Er, you do realise Yorkshire’s a shire, don’t you? –Ed.] where he can say, “There’s trouble at t’ mill” and “I certainly was expecting the Spanish Inquisition because I’d been reading MI5’s intelligence reports.” And he may also find Anne Winter still up to her pretty Royalist nose in plots to unseat Oliver Cromwell.

The Seeker

By S.G. MacLean

Damian Seeker is a secret policeman, protecting Oliver Cromwell from various Royalist plots. When John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favourites, is murdered, the authorities believe Elias Ellingworth is the culprit, but Seeker is not so sure, and his investigation reveals all manner of secrets as he attempts to rescue Ellingworth from arbitrary justice and stop a daring assassination attempt on Cromwell himself.

It’s difficult to write a synopsis of The Seeker without giving the game away, but there are drug addicts, white slavers, Royalist plots, and war crimes all tangled together. Party fun for the whole family.

Seeker is an anti-anti-antihero (which probably makes him an antihero anyway). He works for the wrong people because history is against Cromwell and his religious fanatics, and Seeker’s reputation is one that instills fear in most people who cross his path. On the other hand, he’s quite determined to make sure that Elias Ellingworth isn’t executed for a crime he never committed, and he doesn’t mind bending reality out of shape to see fairness done rather than justice.

Seeker is James Bond without the sex and gadgets. He is a character who is based on reputation, and he only has to snap and snarl a little, and people crumbled in the face of his forthright questioning, but in the course of the novel, he only gets into a serious confrontation with Alexander Seaton to prove his credentials. Other than that, he’s so tough that when he wants to wash his clothes, he hurls himself at rocks in a river.

If anything, Seeker could do with a sidekick to lighten the load of being so tough that when he combs his hair, he doesn’t stop till he gets to the bone, and when he shaves, if there’s no blood, it means there’s still stubble. But who might step into this exalted position as Sancho Panza to Seeker’s, er, Torquemada? No candidates step forward immediately.

The plot is certainly engaging as it twists and turns even if it’s one of those books where some opening scene, which is a significant clue to what drives the tale, is soon forgotten. Nonetheless, the plot is sufficiently appealing for me to have me buying the next volume in the series.

Life and whatever in the imperium sericum.