The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner

Although I have read a lot of books set in 17th century England, I can’t remember ever reading anything about the astrologer William Lilly so I was immediately intrigued by the title and premise of Tobsha Learner’s new novel which promised to bring Lilly’s story to life.

We first meet Master Lilly in 1641, living quietly in the Surrey countryside after finding himself out of favour with Parliament. Even in exile, though, he is still famous for his knowledge of the occult and his skill at reading fortunes, and it’s not long before he is summoned back to London to draw up an horary (a form of horoscope) for Charles I. As Master Lilly looks to the future to discover what fate has in store for his King and his country, he sees only war, fire and plague on the horizon. He and his fellow ‘Cunning Folk’ will need to use all the magical powers they possess if they are to avert disaster – but is it really possible to change what is written in the stars? Master Lilly thinks it is:

We are all born with our Fates written like maps across the cosmos, but our faith and humanity give us choice. This is what I, William Lilly, believe: the Stars incline, they do not compel, and it is up to us mortals to know when to play our hand and when to fold.

The Magick of Master Lilly had the potential to be a good book, and in some ways it was. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about William Lilly before I started reading, so it was nice to be introduced to him and to learn about his life and work (the author includes some notes at the end to give some indication of what is based on fact and what isn’t). Whether you believe that some people can really see into the future or not, it seems that Lilly, among his other achievements, quite accurately predicted the Great Fire of London. He is also a healer and herbalist, and a writer of astrological texts and almanacs, although his day to day work, as he explains in the first chapter of the novel, consists mainly of “horaries, Natal figures, seduction of reluctant lovers, the finding of lost things, and the location of errant husbands”.

Lilly is not always the most likeable of characters, particularly where his relationship with his wife, Jane, is concerned, but despite this his narration is warm and lively, pulling us into his story. The tone of the novel reminded me of Rose Tremain’s Restoration and Anna-Marie Crowhurst’s The Illumination of Ursula Flight. I could have done without the long, in-depth descriptions of every horoscope Lilly casts, though! I found myself skimming through those sections as I was much more interested in Lilly himself – his interactions with people at court; his meetings with other magicians; his romance with the (fictional) Magdalene de Morisset – than in the intricate details of his work.

My biggest problem with this book was the language. I’m usually the first to complain when the language used in historical fiction is too modern, but sometimes when the author attempts to write in a style appropriate to the period it can be just as distracting and I felt that was the case here. The word ‘hath’, for example, was used in place of ‘have’, but not consistently and not always when it made grammatical sense within the sentence. Modern words and phrases are used alongside the archaic ones, which just felt wrong to me. Also, Lilly often talks about his wife being a Quaker, a term which wasn’t used until the end of the English Civil War.

Just little things, but there were a lot of them, and they meant that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to. Still, I was pleased to make Master Lilly’s acquaintance. I do love reading about this period of history and with appearances from characters such as the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins and the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi, this was still an interesting read at times.

Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Historical Musings #19: The Halloween edition

Historical Musings October is here and has brought with it (in my part of the UK at least) a change in the weather, longer, darker nights and a distinctly autumnal feel. With Halloween just a few weeks away, I thought it would be fun to give this month’s Historical Musings post a seasonal theme! I would love to hear about any historical novels you’ve read which deal with any of the following subjects:

  • Witches and witchcraft
  • Magic (black or white)
  • Ghosts and hauntings
  • Vampires/zombies/werewolves/monsters or other supernatural beings of any kind

My suggestions:

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is one of the first authors to come to mind when I think about this type of historical fiction. The Vanishing Witch is set during the time of the Peasants’ Revolt and features both ghosts and witchcraft; at the beginning of each chapter is a spell, a piece of folklore or a superstition, which I thought was a nice touch! The Raven’s Head, set in the early 13th century, is a darker novel with a strong supernatural element. I haven’t read her other books yet, but am about to start her new one, The Plague Charmer.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy it, Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (also published as The Lost Book of Salem) deals with the Salem witch trials. It’s a dual time-frame novel but is set at least partly in the past so I’m including it here.

For those readers who are interested in witches and witchcraft but prefer a gentler read, I can recommend The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge and Thornyhold by Mary Stewart. The first is set during the English Civil War while the latter is set in the 1940s (but published in 1988, which is why I’m classing it as historical here). There’s also Susan Fletcher’s Corrag (also published as Witch Light), a beautifully written novel about the Glencoe Massacre of 1692; the main character and her mother have both been accused of witchcraft due to their knowledge of herbs and healing.

Vlad the Last Confession C.C. Humphreys has written a novel called Vlad: The Last Confession, which tells the story of Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia who is thought to have provided at least part of the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is not actually a vampire novel, but because of the Dracula connection and the dark atmosphere I’m including it here anyway.

There are also two ghostly novels by John Harwood that come to mind: The Séance, a gothic mystery set in Victorian England, and The Ghost Writer, which includes four genuinely chilling short ghost stories supposedly written by a fictitious author in the 1890s.

Finally, there’s Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Trilogy, in which our hero and heroine are a vampire and a witch. The first book, A Discovery of Witches, is set in the present day but in the second, Shadow of Night, we travel back in time to 16th century Europe. I’m not sure about the third book as I haven’t read it yet.

Have you read any of the books I’ve mentioned here? Can you think of any other historical fiction novels with a ghostly/witchy/magical feel?

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan

the-hawley-book-of-the-dead The first line of The Hawley Book of the Dead is a very intriguing one: “on the day I killed my husband, the scent of lilacs startled me awake.” Immediately there are questions. Who is speaking? Why did she kill her husband? And what does the scent of lilacs have to do with anything?

I didn’t have long to wait for the first two questions, at least, to be answered. The narrator is Reve (short for Revelation) Dyer and she didn’t intend to kill her husband. She and Jeremy were happily married with three children and had worked together for years as part of a successful Las Vegas magic act known as the Amazing Maskelynes. Jeremy’s death was the result of a stunt that went wrong when someone replaced the blanks in Reve’s pistol – a stage prop – with real bullets, something which must have been done deliberately. Now Reve has been left devastated and afraid – even more so when she becomes convinced that the murderer is a man who has been on her trail since her student days, a man she knows only as ‘the Fetch’.

Deciding it’s time to start a new life as far away as possible, Reve and her three young daughters, Grace, Fai and Caleigh, move to their family’s neglected old estate in Massachusetts. Hawley Five Corners was once a thriving little town, but was abandoned long ago amid stories of unexplained disappearances and a haunted wood. It seems the perfect place to hide from the Fetch, but almost as soon as she and the girls move into an empty farmhouse in the deserted town, strange things begin to happen. When she finds a mysterious red and gold book which has been in her family for years, passed down through the generations, Reve discovers that the only way she can keep her daughters safe is to try to understand the secrets the book contains.

The Hawley Book of the Dead is the third book I’ve read for the R.I.P. XI event. It proved to be an ideal book to read at this time of year when the weather is beginning to change and the nights are starting to get longer (the characters even celebrate Halloween halfway through the novel). I’ve seen comparisons with The Night Circus, The Lost Book of Salem and A Discovery of Witches and while I can see some similarities with all of those, I thought there were plenty of original ideas here too.

I liked the way magic was handled in the novel. It’s important to the plot but doesn’t dominate the story to the exclusion of everything else. A few chapters in, we learn that the female members of the Dyer family (going back for centuries) possess magical powers of one sort or another – for example, Reve’s gift is the ability to vanish into thin air, while Caleigh’s is a fascinating one involving string games. At first I didn’t really understand the purpose of their magic but as the history of the Dyers and Hawley Five Corners was gradually revealed, it all began to make more sense. I was particularly intrigued by the Irish mythology and folklore – especially the tales of the Tuatha de Danann – which were woven into the story of Reve’s ancestors.

However, the magic was the most interesting thing about the characters. Although I liked Reve and her daughters and enjoyed the occasional scenes involving Reve’s grandmother, Nan, and her mysterious friend, Falcon Eddy, I didn’t find any of the characters very strong or memorable. I also thought the inclusion of Reve’s old boyfriend, Jolon, as a love interest was unnecessary, especially as she was still supposed to be grieving for Jeremy. These were my only disappointments with the book; otherwise, I loved the author’s descriptive writing, the entertaining story and the atmospheric setting.

The Hawley Book of the Dead was published in 2014 and according to the About the Author note at the end of the book it was intended to be the first in a quartet. I can’t find any recent news about a second novel, but I hope there’s still going to be one as I would like to know what happens next!

Thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

A few months ago I mentioned that I would like to revisit a few of Shakespeare’s plays, but for one reason or another I haven’t had time to do that until now. I thought this would be an appropriate time of year (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, of course) to look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As I’m not a Shakespearean scholar and haven’t actually tried to write about one of his plays since I was at school, this is not going to be an in-depth analysis. As the title of this post suggests, I am just going to give some of my thoughts on rereading the play.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is widely performed on stage, making it one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The play is thought to have been written around 1594-1596 and is classed as a comedy.

There are three separate storylines woven into the plot. The first involves the upcoming wedding of Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. A group of craftsmen (known as ‘mechanicals’) are rehearsing the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, a play they are planning to perform at the wedding. In the second thread we meet Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies. Titania has a new page boy and Oberon is jealous. He and his servant, the mischievous fairy Puck, come up with a plot to distract Titania while Oberon takes the boy away from her. The third storyline follows Hermia (who is in love with Lysander), Helena (who is in love with Demetrius), and Demetrius and Lysander (who are both in love with Hermia). Confusing? Yes – and it gets even more complicated when the four of them get mixed up in Puck and Oberon’s scheming!

In Act I Scene 1, Lysander tells us “the course of true love never did run smooth” – and the central theme of the play is love and its difficulties. Here is one of my favourite quotes on the subject of love:

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind:
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste:
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

The play begins and ends in Athens but the majority of the play is set in the nearby woods, a place free from Athenian law. With some of Shakespeare’s plays I find it difficult to get a real sense of the time and place, but with this one I have no problem picturing the characters running through the moonlit woods on a warm midsummer’s night while the fairies dance around them weaving their magic. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the way much of the action takes place while various characters are sleeping. Here Oberon describes the bank where Titania sleeps:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

As in several of Shakespeare’s plays there’s also a theme of doubling and symmetry with Theseus and Hippolyta mirroring Oberon and Titania, and the two men Lysander and Demetrius being balanced by the two women Hermia and Helena. The conflict is caused by the fact that although Hermia and Lysander are in love, Demetrius also loves Hermia, leaving Helena on her own. Only when the balance is restored by Demetrius falling in love with Helena can the story come to its conclusion.

If you’d like to read the play online you can do so here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a few words from Puck…

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.

*The picture at the top of this post shows “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton, c. 1849 (in the public domain)