A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley

I can’t believe it’s been nearly eight years since I read The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley. Having enjoyed that one, I had fully intended to explore her other books but never did; of course, it didn’t help that most of them seemed to be out of print at the time. Thanks to Canelo, all three books in her Margaret of Ashbury trilogy are now available, of which A Vision of Light (originally published in 1988) is the first.

The novel opens in the year 1355 with our heroine, Margaret, hearing the voice of God telling her that she must write a book:

“I am only a woman,” I said to the voice in my mind. “I have no letters, and do not know Latin. How shall I write a book, and what shall I put in it, as I have never done any great deeds?”

The Voice answered:

“Put in it what you have seen. There is nothing wrong with being a woman, and doing ordinary things. Sometimes small deeds can show big ideas. As for writing, do as others do: get someone to write it for you.”

The person she gets to write it for her is Brother Gregory, a young friar who is trying to make a living as a scribe writing letters for London’s largely illiterate population. Brother Gregory has a low opinion of women but he needs the money so he accepts the commission and reluctantly begins the task of chronicling Margaret’s life. He is sure a woman can’t possibly have a story worth telling, but once he begins to meet Margaret and listens to what she has to say he becomes drawn into her tale despite himself.

I won’t go into too much detail regarding Margaret’s story. There’s not really a central plot that I can describe; beginning with her early life in the little English village of Ashbury, it takes the form of a picaresque novel as she moves from place to place, having a series of adventures along the way. There are outbreaks of plague and accusations of witchcraft. There are encounters with humble peasants, wicked noblemen, travelling entertainers and mysterious alchemists. And then there is the Vision of Light which Margaret receives one day, leaving her blessed – or cursed – with the miraculous powers of healing.

I found A Vision of Light great fun to read, even though, like The Oracle Glass, it contains a few of the things that often irritate me in historical fiction: the occasional use of anachronistic language, for example, and a heroine whose views are sometimes more appropriate to the century in which the book was written rather than the one in which it is set. The writing is imbued with so much humour, life and energy that those things didn’t bother me the way they usually would; it’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time touching on some serious – and sometimes dark – topics, and getting the balance just about right.

Although the tale Margaret relates is the most compelling part of the novel, the framing narrative is also interesting, mainly for the interactions between Margaret and Gregory and the way their relationship develops as they spend more time together. Gregory is an intriguing character in his own right and although his attitude towards Margaret makes him difficult to like at first, I thought he did improve as the book went on! I’m sure I will read the second novel, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, at some point so I can find out how the story continues.

15 thoughts on “A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I thought this sounded familiar and sure enough, I read it in 2000. I was not blogging yet but I remember liking it a lot. I used to have a friend who gave me such books to read and this one was a winner for me.

  2. tbr313 says:

    A friend gave me this years ago, and it’s sadly still sitting unread. You may have inspired me to move it up the shelves.

  3. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    Now what I want to know is if this trilogy is based on a real person or if it is pure HF? Off to google to find out.
    Thank you

  4. Alyson Woodhouse says:

    Margaret sounds like a fun, intriguing character to spend a few hours with. I’ve never heard of this series before, but it sounds enjoyable and not too heavy handed.

    • margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

      Certainly sounds like an interesting story – had a look and it appears to be purely fictional – but no less interesting for that.

      • Helen says:

        Yes, Margaret and the other characters are all completely fictional, as far as I know, but the medieval setting is convincing and I found the story very entertaining.

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