The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

I enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s first book, The Sealwoman’s Gift (with one or two reservations), so I had been looking forward to reading her next one, The Ninth Child, which sounded very different but equally interesting. However, although some aspects of it certainly are fascinating, there are other parts that I struggled with and on the whole I think I preferred The Sealwoman’s Gift.

The Ninth Child is set in Scotland in the 19th century and tells the story of the construction of the Loch Katrine Waterworks, an engineering scheme designed to provide clean water to the people of Glasgow. The story is told from the perspectives of several characters associated with the scheme, the main one being doctor’s wife Isabel Aird. Having suffered several miscarriages during her six years of marriage, Isabel is depressed and unhappy, a state of mind which is not improved when her husband, Alexander, informs her that they will be moving to the Trossachs where he will be involved in the building of the new waterworks.

As a doctor, Alexander believes that the recent outbreaks of cholera in Glasgow are caused by the contaminated water supply, so he is looking forward to doing something that can really make a difference to people’s lives. Isabel accompanies him, reluctantly at first, but as she settles into her new home she finds comfort in walking in the countryside by the loch, especially when she begins to believe she is receiving messages from her lost children. It is during one of these walks that she meets the Reverend Robert Kirke, a man said to have been taken by the fairies two hundred years earlier. Are the stories about Robert true – and if so, why has he returned to the land of the living and what is his interest in Isabel?

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters: Isabel herself; Robert Kirke; Kirsty, the wife of one of the men working at Loch Katrine; and, surprisingly, Prince Albert, who is staying at Balmoral with Queen Victoria and preparing to appear at the official opening of the new waterworks. Unfortunately, the transitions from one character’s narrative to another are not very smooth and sometimes I couldn’t immediately tell who was narrating (something which wasn’t helped by the poor formatting of the NetGalley copy I was reading and will presumably have been improved in the finished version). The Victoria and Albert storyline felt unnecessary and out of place to me, but the others all added something different and complemented each other well, with Robert and Kirsty’s stories steeped in Scottish folklore and “the hills and the hollows and the brown peat moors and the ancient mounds of the Sìthichean – that’s fairies to you.”

Robert Kirke was a real person – an Episcopalian minister who lived from 1644 to 1692 and was the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which was later published by Sir Walter Scott. Legends arose after Kirke’s death saying that he had been spirited away to fairyland after revealing their secrets and this is the basis of the story Sally Magnusson creates for him in The Ninth Child. I loved this aspect of the novel, which reminded me in some ways of James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but I couldn’t help feeling that this magical, fantastical tale didn’t really belong in the same book as the much more realistic and factual story of the Loch Katrine Waterworks. Lots of fascinating ideas found their way into the pages of The Ninth Child, but in the end I felt that it didn’t quite work either as fantasy or historical fiction.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

This is the second book in a new series of historical mysteries written by Ambrose Parry, a pseudonym used by husband and wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman. The books are set in 19th century Edinburgh, where great advances are taking place in the world of medicine, and with Brookmyre being an experienced crime writer and Haetzman a consultant anaesthetist, they each bring different strengths to their collaborations.

The Art of Dying opens with a brief and dramatic section set in Berlin in 1849, before the action switches back to Edinburgh, where Will Raven has just returned from studying medicine in Europe to take up a position as assistant to the renowned obstetrician Dr James Simpson. Will had previously served as Simpson’s apprentice (as described in the previous novel, The Way of All Flesh), but he is now a qualified doctor himself and is eager to start building his own career and reputation.

Working with Simpson again brings Will back into contact with Sarah Fisher, Simpson’s former housemaid who is now assisting him at his clinic, having displayed a passion and aptitude for medicine. Sarah is deeply frustrated by the lack of equality for women, as she is sure she has the ability to become a doctor herself if only she could be given the same opportunities as men. This had been a source of conflict between Will and Sarah when we met them in the first book, but he has still been looking forward to seeing her again and is disappointed to find that during his absence she has married another man. When one of Dr Simpson’s patients dies under suspicious circumstances, however, and his rivals start to point the finger of blame, Will and Sarah must work together to try to clear Simpson’s name.

The crime element of the novel comes in the form of a number of unusual, unexplained deaths taking place around the city. At first Will is excited, thinking he has discovered a new disease to which he’ll be able to give his name, but Sarah is convinced that something more sinister is happening. My main criticism of The Way of All Flesh was the weakness of the murder mystery, but I found this one much stronger. It was easy enough to guess who or what was causing the deaths, because we are given plenty of hints right from the start, but what I didn’t know was why or exactly how it was being done and I enjoyed watching Will and Sarah (mainly Sarah at first) putting the clues together to find the culprit.

As with the first book, though, it was the medical aspect of the story that I found most interesting. In The Way of All Flesh, we learned that James Simpson had been carrying out experiments into the use of chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth. This book continues to explore the development of anaesthetics, showing not only the potential benefits for surgery and obstetrics, but also the dangers of administering too much of a substance which was still not fully understood.

I enjoyed this book more than the first one and I think it does work as a standalone, but I would still recommend starting with The Way of All Flesh so you will understand the background to Will and Sarah’s relationship. Both characters have changed and grown since the beginning of the series and I’m sure there’s lots of scope for more development ahead; I’m hoping we won’t have to wait too long to find out!

The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

When the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin was The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, I was quite happy with that result. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a while, it had been recommended to me by more than one person and I thought I might find it more enjoyable than my last Spin book, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which I still haven’t managed to finish.

Jane Porter (1776-1850) was born in England but grew up in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott was apparently a regular visitor to the family. The Scottish Chiefs reminded me very much of Scott’s work, although it was published several years before Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I don’t know whether Scott read and was influenced by Porter’s novel or not, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have done.

The Scottish Chiefs was published in 1809 and tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, a story many people are familiar with through Braveheart. Like Braveheart, this is a highly romanticised account of Wallace’s life and can’t be assumed to be entirely accurate; however, there is a limit to what historians know about Wallace anyway and for centuries one of our major sources has been Blind Harry’s narrative poem from the 1400s, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The novel opens in the summer of 1296. Having recently acted as arbitrator in a dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne – resulting in John Balliol becoming king rather than his rival Robert Bruce of Annandale – Edward I of England has entered Scotland with his army and gained victory at the Battle of Dunbar. Balliol abdicates and is sent to the Tower of London, while the majority of Scotland’s other noblemen agree to acknowledge Edward as their overlord. William Wallace, who is ‘too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission’, is one of the few who refuse to accept this and at the beginning of the novel we see him visiting a fellow rebel, Sir John Monteith of Douglas Castle. Monteith presents him with a small, heavy iron box, which he had been given by Lord Douglas with the following message:

“…commit the box in strict charge to the worthiest Scot you know; and tell him that it will be at the peril of his soul, who dares to open it, till Scotland be again free! When that hour comes, then let the man by whose valour God restores her rights, receive the box as his own; for by him only it is to be opened.”

As Wallace rides away, the iron box is seen by English soldiers who assume that it contains treasure and soon the English Governor of Lanark, Heselrigge, arrives at Wallace’s home hoping to gain possession of it. In the violence that follows, Wallace’s beloved wife Marion is murdered by Heselrigge and when Wallace takes revenge by killing the Governor, he swears that he won’t rest until he has freed Scotland from Edward’s control and the day comes when the mysterious box can finally be opened.

I enjoyed The Scottish Chiefs, although I did find it a bit uneven. There are some gripping set pieces – such as the storming of Dumbarton Castle and Wallace’s infiltration of Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel – but there are other parts that were much less interesting and where I struggled not to lose concentration. It has to be remembered, though, that the book was published in the early nineteenth century and written in the wordy style that you would expect from literature of that period. It’s also a very long book – I read an ebook version and hadn’t appreciated just how long it was until I started reading!

Not many of the characters have the depth and complexity I prefer; most of the women, such as Marion and Helen Mar, are portrayed as paragons of virtue, while Wallace himself is too perfect and heroic to be true. The more villainous characters were the most interesting, particularly Helen’s stepmother, Joanna, Countess of Mar (in her notes at the end of the book, Porter says that Joanna was a real historical figure, daughter of the Earl of Strathearn and a princess of Orkney, but I haven’t been able to find any information about her anywhere). Porter doesn’t use any Scots dialect so her Scottish characters sound the same as the English ones, but some authors can write very convincingly in dialect and others can’t, so I think it’s best not to use it at all than to use it badly!

I ended up reading the free Project Gutenberg version of the book, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print. The book covers in this post are for illustration purposes only. I hope someone like Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics will decide to publish an edition at some point – with notes giving us more idea of which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional – as that might encourage more people to read this book; at the moment The Scottish Chiefs seems to be a bit of a forgotten classic, which is a shame as despite the flaws I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Scottish history or in early examples of historical fiction.

This is book 13/50 read from my Classics Club list.

The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.

Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg

Henry VIII’s sister Margaret is one of the lesser known Tudors and doesn’t usually get a lot of attention either in fiction or non-fiction, yet she was important historically as both an English princess and a queen of Scotland. This very enjoyable new biography by Melanie Clegg takes us through the whole of Margaret’s life from her birth in 1489 to her death in 1541, throwing some light on her childhood, her time as queen and her unhappy second and third marriages.

As the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Margaret had the sort of privileged childhood you would expect – perhaps more so than usual because Henry, not yet secure on his recently claimed throne, wanted to do everything he could to increase the rank and status of the new Tudor dynasty. Margaret grew up well aware of her own importance and value to her father in his efforts to arrange marriages for his children and form alliances with other royal families. In 1503, at the age of thirteen, Margaret was married to the thirty-year-old James IV of Scotland and made the long journey north while still in mourning for her mother, who had died earlier that year. It must have been a daunting experience for such a young girl, but James, despite already having several mistresses and illegitimate children, treated her with respect and kindness and helped her to settle into life in her new country.

Margaret was still just in her twenties when James was killed fighting the English at the battle of Flodden in 1513, leaving her to rule as regent for their young son who was crowned James V. She did not remain a widow for long, however, and soon married again, this time to a husband of her own choice, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a move which angered the rest of the Scottish nobility and resulted in her losing the regency. The remainder of Margaret’s life was marked by political turmoil and personal tragedy – including the death of her younger son, divorce from Angus and an equally unhappy and unsuccessful third marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Methven.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. It is written in a clear and easy to read style and although it may not be academic enough for some readers (sources are just listed at the back of the book, for example, rather than being directly referenced in the text) for the general reader this is a good introduction to Margaret Tudor’s life and to this period of Scottish and English history. Melanie Clegg’s portrayal of Margaret feels quite fair and balanced, so that the reader feels some sympathy for her while also being aware of her flaws. There are parallels with the life of her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots (James V’s daughter), who also made some poor decisions when it came to choosing husbands!

Clegg shows how, in Margaret’s first few years in Scotland she has little interest in politics and government, but as time goes by she begins to grow in knowledge and experience. She is often torn between her adopted country and the country of her birth and does everything she can to bring about peace between Scotland and England, not always successfully. It can’t have been easy being the sister of a man like Henry VIII, after all (though maybe slightly preferable to being his wife). She should have been able to rely on him for support, especially after James is killed at Flodden, but instead he tries to make his own plans for Margaret and her children, aimed at uniting the two countries under one crown. Of course, this is what would eventually happen anyway, if not quite in the way Henry had hoped, through the marriage between Margaret’s granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and grandson, Lord Darnley (son of Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Douglas) which resulted in the birth of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England.

I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book, which deals with the rivalries between the various factions of Scottish noblemen, the conflict between Margaret and the Duke of Albany (the next nearest in line to the throne) and her escape to England. The earlier chapters, although less dramatic, are interesting too and I loved the way James IV was portrayed. Staying in this fascinating period of history, I am looking forward to reading another new non-fiction book I have waiting on my TBR, The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J Coleman.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is the second book I’ve read for this week’s 1965 Club, hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Like my first, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord is described as a book for younger readers, although it doesn’t really feel like one. I have previously read two of Sutcliff’s adult books (The Rider of the White Horse and Blood and Sand) and I found this one just as beautifully written and with just as much to offer an adult reader.

The story is set during the time of the Roman Empire and our hero, the gladiator Phaedrus, is the son of a Greek wine merchant and his slave. The novel opens with Phaedrus, a slave himself, winning the Wooden Foil (and therefore his freedom from slavery) when he is victorious in a fight in the arena of Corstopitum, a town on the great wall built by Hadrian in what is now the north of England. His freedom is short-lived, however, when he is imprisoned after getting into trouble while out celebrating in the town, but this time he is rescued by a group of men who have noticed that he closely resembles their king and are hoping to persuade him to take part in a conspiracy.

Soon Phaedrus is heading north into what we now call Scotland, a land which at this time is home to both the Caledones (Picts) and the Dalriadain (Scots). The plan is for Phaedrus to impersonate Midir of the Dalriadain, who has been usurped by the Caledonian Queen Liadhan and blinded to prevent him from trying to rule. As he travels to the Antonine Wall and beyond, Phaedrus educates himself on the history and culture of his new people and comes to understand the significance of his new role as Horse Lord. But will he manage to convince everyone that he really is Midir – and who will win the upcoming battle between the Dalriads and the Caledones?

There was so much to enjoy about this book. I loved the descriptions of the Roman settlements along Hadrian’s Wall, including Corstopitum or Corbridge, as it is now known (I can recommend a visit to Corbridge Roman Town, run by English Heritage, if you’re ever in the area), and the contrast with the tribes in the north, where Roman rule hasn’t reached. I also found it fascinating to read about the differences in culture between the patriarchal Dalriads, whom Sutcliff tells us have ‘become a Sun People, worshipping a male God’ and the matriarchal Caledones who ‘had held to the earlier worship of the Great Mother’.

The plot was good enough to hold my interest to the end and made me think of other imposter stories I’ve read (such as The Great Impersonation and, in particular, The Prisoner of Zenda), but the setting, the time period and the themes it explores make it different and original. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I thought the ending was perfect – both powerful and poignant. And yet, there was still something that prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I would have liked to. I’m not sure why, but I sometimes seem to struggle with books set in more ancient periods of history; I often don’t engage with the characters and storylines as thoroughly as I do when a book is set in slightly later periods. I’ve no idea why that should be, especially when an author writes as well as Rosemary Sutcliff does!

Katrina from Pining for the West has also reviewed The Mark of the Horse Lord for 1965 Club, if you would like to read a Scottish perspective on the book.

The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley

This is the fifth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the star cluster known as Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Each novel tells the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls come from different cultures and backgrounds, but all grew up together on Pa Salt’s estate in Switzerland. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. You may have noticed that there are only six sisters; for some reason, which we don’t yet know, a seventh was never adopted. This is one of many mysteries running throughout the series.

At the beginning of the first novel, The Seven Sisters, Pa Salt died, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their biological parents. So far we have heard Maia’s story, Ally’s, Star’s and CeCe’s; now, in The Moon Sister, it’s the turn of Tiggy. All of the books in the series work as standalones and it’s not essential to read them in order, but this book does overlap with one or two of the others and advances some of the storylines begun earlier in the series.

The Moon Sister follows Tiggy as she begins a new job in the Scottish Highlands, where she has been employed by Charlie Kinnaird to establish a colony of wildcats on his estate. With her degree in zoology and her love of nature, Tiggy is perfect for the job and quickly settles in, getting to know the animals on the Kinnaird estate and forming a close friendship with Cal, the man whose cottage she shares. The peace is disturbed, however, when Charlie arrives with his troubled teenage daughter and his spiteful, vindictive wife.

Away from the problems in the Kinnaird household, Tiggy meets Chilly, an elderly gypsy who lives alone on the estate. It seems that fate must have brought them together, because Chilly is the one person who knows the truth of Tiggy’s origins and can point her in the direction of her birth family. From Chilly, Tiggy learns of her ancestor, Lucia Albaycin, a famous Spanish flamenco dancer. But Chilly doesn’t know everything, so to discover the rest of her family’s story, Tiggy must travel to Spain and visit the gypsy community in the caves of Sacromonte.

Like the others in the series, this book is divided between the modern day storyline and the historical one. We spend a decent amount of time with each character before switching to the other, which means we can become absorbed in both stories. Lucia’s story is fascinating – I can’t say that I liked her, as I found her very self-centred and driven by ambition at the expense of everything else – but she is certainly a strong character, whose power and passion as a person is matched by the power and passion of her dancing. It was interesting to watch as she (along with her equally selfish and irresponsible father) start from nothing to build a successful career in flamenco which takes them all over the world. Meanwhile, in Sacromonte near Granada, we follow the sad story of how the lives of the other gitanos (Spanish gypsies) are affected by first the Spanish Civil War and then the onset of the Second World War, leaving their community changed beyond recognition.

It was good to get to know Tiggy better too – and she is much easier to like than Lucia. The other d’Aplieses think of her as the sensitive, spiritual sister…the sort of person who wants to help everyone around her, whether human or animal, and who cares deeply about nature and the environment, trying hard to resist temptation and stick to her vegan diet! Of all her sisters, Tiggy is particularly close to Ally, whom we met in The Storm Sister, and it was lovely to see her again in this book. The one part of Tiggy’s story that didn’t really work for me was the romance. I felt that she and the man concerned hadn’t spent enough time together for their love for each other to develop, so I didn’t become as emotionally invested in their relationship as I would have liked.

The next book is going to tell Electra’s story and I have to admit I’m very apprehensive about that one. From the little we’ve seen and heard of Electra so far, her personality strikes me as very unappealing. However, we are given lots of intriguing clues in The Moon Sister regarding Pa Salt, his death and some strange occurrences at his home, Atlantis, so I’m hoping Electra will fill in some more of the gaps for us. I’m also curious about the rich businessman Zed, who keeps popping up throughout the series, trying to worm his way into the lives of first Maia, then Tiggy and now, it seems, Electra. For those reasons, I will be looking out for the next book, which I’m hoping will be published later this year.