Hmm… probably not going to happen.
How often does a collection of novellas cause you to go and borrow every book you can by the author? For you see, that’s what I did before I’d finished reading The Year of Ancient Ghosts. That was before the Lark and the River, the final novella in the collection left me blinking away the tears, left me so immersed that I had to remind myself that it was fiction.
Not many writers do that to me anymore. It is a battle – skill and talent versus my familiarity with literature and story. Most of the novellas within the collection were excellent, a couple superb.
The titular novella, The Year of Ancient Ghosts, had me in mind of a dramatisation of MR James’ A View from a Hill – foreboding and menace found in small things, the frisson when the everyday is cleverly juxtaposed with the weird.
“Strange wee boy. Full of stories. Full of mystery. Folk around here used to say, he’s not for this world, that lad. Not for this world.” Then, checking himself, realising he might be stirring my sadness, he cleared his throat. “I’m glad you’re both here. I think you made the right choice.”
Jenny the wife of a famous novelist returns to the place of his youth – the Orkney Islands. She takes their young daughter, as they had planned, to meet the people that raised him. Straight away Wilkins situates the reader in the aftermath of a tragedy, we are immediately sympathetic and on edge, fearing what strangeness is in store for our two bereaved souls far from home. Wild weather, strange noises and bad dreams draw out the tension as we wait to cross the threshold from unsettling normality to horror.
The Crown of Rowan, is a reprint and one of the superb stories in this collection. Set in the kingdom of Thyrsland, Wilkins’ version of Anglo-Saxon England, it is a tantalising glimpse into what I think would be a great full length novel or series. Wilkins alludes to such a novel in her afterword (which also struck me as a beautiful piece of writing) hoping that she has captured the spare and elegiac mood of the original Old English literature.
There are seven kings in Thyrsland. My father is one of them, and my husband is another. In my belly, perhaps, I carry a third.
It is blood month, and outside my bower window I hear fear-moaning cattle on their way to slaughter. Every night this week, I have smelled blood on the wind: faint but unmistakable, worming under the shutters. And I’ve turned my face to my pillow and held tight to avoid retching.
Unmistakably elegiac from the get go I think. A beginning that could launch a thousand (well I said raving fanboy) books but I’d settle for just the one. I must admit I am a fan of the Anglo-Saxon era, the poetry, the mystery, the fall of Rome till the Norman conquest. Similar to England, Thyrsland is experiencing a time of change – different models of kingship, different religions, conflicts political, military and personal. I got the sense that an epic prose edda (yeah I know not quite Anglo Saxon) was to unfold alongside the personal story of our protagonist Rose. In The Crown of Rowan you have earthy magic, love, mystery and a hint of battle. Wilkins has sold me on the novel and any following set in this particular world.
Dindrana’s Lover is a reworking of Wilkins’, The Death of Pamela, and is the tale of Percival’s sister, left behind at the residence of Saint Triscula as he and Galahad go off on an adventure. It’s a reworking of Arthurian legend and I like its commentary on attitudes to desire and virginity. I am sure I am not the only reader that sincerely hoped Galahad would meet with a riding accident in this piece. The story is dark, sensuous and immersive.
He turned his gaze to her. “Virginity, Dindrana, is a woman’s only treasure. His hands, then, shall I remove them both?”
“You shall not touch him,” she said, imbuing her voice with more force than she actually felt. “Let him leave. You shall not act contrary to my wishes when you are the guest of my father.”
Galahad, courteous to a fault, put his sword away. “Go,” he said to Gabriel. “I shall be telling Dindrana’s father of this, so you’d best go for good. You will be unwelcome anywhere in Margris from this moment on.”
Gabriel stood uncertainly, reached for Dindrana. Instantly the sword was free again, swinging down and stopping a mere inch from Gabriel’s hand. “You will lose it,” Galahad threatened.
The passage made me want to kneecap Galahad with war hammer.
With Wild dreams of Blood we are treated to some Viking infused urban fantasy. It was reminiscent of The Almighty Johnsons in some ways and highlights Wilkins’ facility in being able to write across subgenres. It’s hard to swing a hammer without hitting Viking mythology these days and I thought Wilkins did a fantastic job of grounding this story in the modern and everyday to differentiate it.
My greatest praise though falls on the final story The Lark and the River. This one nearly broke me. It’s historical fiction with a touch of magic, indeed if it weren’t in a speculative fiction collection you could get away with sliding it into historical magical realism. The setting is England after the Norman conquest (another period of great change) there’s tension between the displaced Anglo-Saxons and their Norman lords, between the old gods and the new one. As with some of the previous stories the background conflict is mirrored by family and personal conflicts. This is a time of upheaval in which love blossoms despite the odds and… well I’ll let you read it.
Have the tissues handy though.
New stone churches were going up all over England. For years, we’d done what we ought and travelled to the chapel-at-ease, four miles away at Lissford, as good Christians are meant to do. Or sometimes we forgot to travel or forgot to pray or forgot about God all together, because he wasn’t as tied to our days and seasons as we needed him to be, and instead we went to the spear-stone, or the well, or the ancient yew tree, to leave offerings and tie ribbons for wishes. Our community’s faith was fluid and self-serving, and we enjoyed the freedom even as we knew the creep of containment was coming in the wake of William’s invasion.
Wilkins combines great craft with solid knowledge and understanding of the core material. We have a mix of subgenres and their attendant historical underpinnings(influences) in this collection and Wilkins’ skill is demonstrated in not being overt about it but letting her historical knowledge sit under the motivations and actions of the characters.
On reflection everyone of these stories displays strong female characters, where “strong” is demonstrated in a variety of ways. For male writers who can’t understand how to write a diverse array of female characters I’d urge you to take a look at Wilkins. For international readers just beginning to appreciate the likes of Daniells, Lanagan and Warren. Please add Wilkins to your list, I think she’s one of our best.
This book was provided by the crew at Ticonderoga Publishing.
Note: Australian readers - If you are interested in purchasing and would like to do so before Sunday the 15th use this link and put READING in the coupon code area to get free shipping.
This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013. Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.