The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann, is an historical novel set in Stockholm in the late 18th century. It follows Emil Larsson, a Sekretaire working in customs, who has been told by his employer that he needs to marry in order to retain and improve his job and his social position. The enigmatic Mrs Sparrow performs a mystical card reading called an Octavo for Larsson, giving him hints of eight people whom he must find in order to find the love and connection her vision has foreseen for him. Larsson’s story is set within a period of unrest and political intrigue which influences and is influenced by Larsson’s aims.
Okay so here’s the thing. It’s no secret I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence. I read his first book, Prince of Thorns, and I was hooked. I’ve reviewed every book as he’s released them – beforehand, in one case, since I managed to get hold of an ARC. I pre-ordered The Liar’s Key in September last year. Mr Lawrence has got a great voice to his prose, one that keeps me reading – this time round til 1:30am two nights running – and fantastically fun protagonists. There was never any doubt in my mind that once again he’d pull it off and I’d of course review his book and say it’s great. Which it is.
And therein lies the problem. There’s only so many ways you can say “this author’s great”. But I’ll see what I can manage.
I popped into my local library this morning, and saw they had a Mystery Books shelf – books wrapped up in brown paper, their titles and covers obscured. This is an idea I’ve seen on the internet a few times, and I’m thrilled my local library has latched onto it – though they’ve gone even further than some of the versions I’ve seen, and have given no information at all, where other libraries have given the genre, the title, or one or two key points of what sorts of things to expect. So I picked up one of the books, and I plan on adding it to my A Year for More Reading list.
Before I unwrap it, I’ll describe it: it’s a hardback, maybe about the same size as most of my hardbacks, though not very thick. What I assume is the front (it’s got the sticker with the catalogue number on that side) has the cover jutting out further than the back, so it’s probably been well used. So let’s see what it is then.
I’ve unwrapped it to reveal The Bishop’s Tale by Margaret Frazer. On the cover is a picture of a wooden chalice and a walnut, standing on a surface covered with a green cloth; in the background is a wooden cross on a wall. Quotes on the back cover indicate it’s historical fiction, so it sounds like it might fit in nicely with the Cadfael books I was reading over Christmas and New Year.
Inside, the last dates it was borrowed are May 2013 and May 2012, so it’s not been a popular loan recently, though there are multiple loans for every year from 2006 to 2010, and the stamp suggests it’s mostly been housed in a different library in the county, in a town much smaller than my town. There’s a page listing books by the same author, twelve of them, so this isn’t the first in the series.
The blurb on the inside cover – mentioning death and mystery as investigated by a nun – suggest I might be right about it fitting right into the same vein as Cadfael.
Time to get reading.
This is not a review. Not wholly. I’ve committed to reading 26 books in 2015, and blogging about them, and while this book wasn’t and isn’t on the list (I started it in 2014, and only read the last tenth or so today) I want to blog about it anyway. This is the second book in the series, which I only started reading relatively recently. It’s a series I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, partly because I’ve seen the adaptations with Derek Jacobi on TV, partly because it is set in a location that’s not too long of a drive from home, and partly out of a desire to branch out more into historical fiction, which I consider a sister or at least a cousin to fantasy, and can inform it.
I found One Corpse Too Many easy to get into, as I had with A Morbid Taste for Bones. What I notice about the prose is a tendency to slightly archaic syntax and sometimes vocabulary too, and occasional telling. The narrative is third person omniscient, usually looking from Cadfael’s point of view and within his thoughts, but with the points of view and internal thoughts of other key characters too. So overall rather at odds with the way I usually write, and yet it remains compelling.
My impression before I picked up these books, based on hazy memories of the TV adaptations, was that these were murder mysteries set in a medieval abbey. And to a certain degree, they are, but these stories take things further than finding out whodunnit. There is an element of everyday drama within them, where Cadfael’s goal isn’t merely to solve the murder, but to solve the other problems of the community of which he is part (or, in A Morbid Taste for Bones, to which he travels) to the satisfaction of all worthy of it. And while, on the back of two books, I have the impression that Cadfael is in some respects too perfect, the conclusions perhaps too neatly arranged at his urging, there is definitely satisfaction in the solutions he contrives.
In my own writing I have worried about endings – and worried rather more about them than I have written of them. I seek to find that balance, where the ending is satisfying, but not too tidy, because life in general isn’t tidy. In these Cadfael books I have read, the ending is eminently tidy, where the key players generally get what they deserve, murder victims excluded, and the younger characters end up in love with the right people. All ends with relatively little grief, except for those who are dead, and no expectation of future drama or imperfection. I think this leans a little too close to tidiness, the loose ends too neatly tied. It leaves it feeling too much like a story. In my own writing, while I certainly enjoyed the satisfaction of how one plotline in particular turned out, I would not imitate this wholly. A satisfyingly tied up plotline at one juncture is uplifting, but in all plotlines feels cheap, sickly sweet perhaps.
More visible here than perhaps in other books, what drives the story is questions to which both Cadfael and I as the reader want answers to. Not just who is the murderer, but several questions about who did what, went where, and why. Questions about how things will turn out, how Cadfael will get his answers, and how the mess of several linked situations will resolve themselves. I don’t tend to think, in my writing, about questions and answers, of mysteries and the revelations of their constituent parts. Maybe there’s a lesson to be drawn in this book about that.
There’s a lesson, too, in one particular character who in the first half of the book is set up to seem one thing, and only revealed, along with his motives, half way through to be quite different from expectations. His motivations were not at all what I expected, but were very human and ordinary. It was a reminder to me that characters don’t necessary have to act based on their ambitions and desires, working towards a personal goal, but can also have goals which are nothing to do with their larger ambitions and long-term hopes, which have an element of selflessness to them, but be no less important to them. I think when I write my characters lack that humanity. I get stuck into this idea of “this is what they want” and don’t leave space for nuance, for different motivations, for goals that have nothing to do with one another while being worked towards simultaneously.
I’ll definitely continue reading the Cadfael series; I’m enjoying the prose and the mystery of them. And in my writing going forward, there’s a little more for me to think about.