A tale of two Richards …

Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright

lion heart

Richard I was a king I know very little about. The sum total of my knowledge comprises little more than knowing that he went on the crusades to the Holy Land, his mother was Eleanor of Acquitaine, and the minstrel Blondel was supposedly involved in his release from imprisonment in an Austrian castle after the third Crusade, and that Tim Rice co-wrote a musical about him – the troubadour that is.

So I was looking forward to reading Justin Cartwright’s new novel.  Although I’d not read any of his other books, Cartwright has a good pedigree having previously been Booker shortlisted, and friends have recommended his previous book Other People’s Money to me.

Lion Heart is the tale of two Richards. First, the historical one – recounting Richard the Lionheart’s later days and his attempts to get the relic of ‘The True Cross’ to safety from the Holy Land. The second is set in the present, the story of Richard Cathar who is researching the former.

Cathar’s late father Alaric had been obsessed with Richard I and in particular his supposed meeting with Robin Hood, but he was never able to prove it.  His son saw him as a hippy who didn’t take it seriously enough.  There was little love lost between father and son, particularly when young Richard is packed off to boarding school – a nautical college …

At the end of my first term, my father asked me, with that old roué’s pointless smile on his threaded face, his fair flapping winningly over his brow and coursing in two wavelets back over his ears, how school had been. I said, ‘Oh, fucking marvellous, I have learned how to wash the inside of a lavatory with my head. Thank you, Pater. I’m sure it will come in handy when I join the Navy.’
He laughed: life is after all really just one cosmic joke.
‘That’s cool, man.’
I hit him, knocking him off his chair. From the floor he appraised me for a moment. I was only fourteen but had been doing a lot of rowing on the Thames, the college’s one and only area of excellence. He was against violence. He stood up, blood streaming from an eyebrow, and walked towards the door. He stopped.
‘I will write to the Commodore and tell him that all shore leave should be cancelled indefinitely. I won’t see you again until you write me an apology.’
‘I had shit in my mouth and hair.  Can you imagine what that was like? And then they rubbed my balls with Cherry Blossom shoe polish.’ (It was oxblood brown.) ‘You should be writing me an apology.’
I was sobbing, but my father was already on his way upstairs to rummage in his bathroom, whistling – I seem to remember – ‘Light my Fire’. He was probably stoned. …

Yet Richard ends up equally obsessed with Dick I – is it a compulsion to prove his father wrong?  Or, might he end up understanding him?

A discovery of some papers gets Richard to follow the paper trail to Jerusalem, a city he starts to fall in love with …

What the adhan speaks of in this mad, beautiful, violent, restless city is the human longing for certainty. And why wouldn’t you want certainty if you lived here? This is a place where horrors, all of them in the name of a higher authority, have been committed for thousands of years a place where countless people have died for their religion, where the walls have been built and destroyed and rebuilt constantly, where Armenian, Syrian and Orthodox priests sail blandly about – Quinqueremes of Nineveh – where observant Jews with side-locks wear their painful blank devotion on their pale faces, where creased Bedouin women in embroidered dresses and triangular jewellery sit patiently outside the Jaffa Gate to sell vegetables, where young Arab men, in strangely faded jeans and knock-off trainers, push trolleys of food stuffs, where in countless cafés men contemplate what might have been, their hair failing, there faces turning to yellowed ochre, as though the tea they drink endlessly is staining them from the inside. Or perhaps it’s the water-cooled smoke from their hookahs that is doing it, smoking them from the outside.

Richard meets Noor – an Arab-Canadian journalist, and they fall madly in love. But just a few weeks later, Noor is kidnapped in Cairo when on assignment and Richard’s life is thrown into turmoil. All is not what it seems with Noor, and Richard ends up having to throw himself into his work whilst waiting for her situation to resolve – just being her boyfriend means he is very low down in the chain of communications.

The author alternates sections of pure history telling Richard I’s story as told by Richard, or is it Alaric?, with the present day one. I found these historical sections rather dry, long and over-factual – but then, they are presented as extracts from a history book. Thus, I did learn a bit about Richard’s great foe Saladin, and all the French castles they besieged on the way home, but this wasn’t the fashion I’d have naturally chosen to read about Richard Coeur de Lion.

By contrast, the present day narrative veered back and forth from Richard’s quest, via his romance, to a spy thriller. I love spy thrillers, but this wasn’t enough of one.  I also enjoy dual narrative novels with historical strands, but the historical part here was too boring, and the present day part was too bitty because of the spy business, although the relationship drama between Richard and Noor was quite gripping.

The result was that it didn’t feel as if it were clear which audience it was aiming at, and it didn’t grab me enough. This is a real shame as Cartwright’s writing is rather good – as in the Jerusalem quotation above. I ended up feeling that the author had tried too hard to distance his quest novel from Dan Brown territory (something he has Richard acknowledge in the text), and ended up by marginalising it.

Lion Heart for me was a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent quest novel with a medieval theme, or it could have been a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent spy novel, both with added romance. I would try reading Cartwright again though, as I’m sure this is quite different to his previous novels.  (6/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

blondelLion Heart by Justin Cartwright, pub by Bloomsbury. Sept 12 2013. Hardback, 352 pages.

Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

Blondel Original Cast Album

Advertisements

Medieval Iceland – a place of cod wars even then…

On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, trans Alda Sigmundsdottir

At the heart of this novel is the tale of Ragna, a young Icelandic woman from a family with property in Greenland which she will inherit. Still a young teenager, yet betrothed to Thorkell, Ragna becomes unmarriageable when she becomes pregnant by an English sailor who is shipwrecked on their shores. Disgraced, she manages to make a life for herself and her son and is luckily taken on by the new English Bishop Craxton as housekeeper, a role that gives her as much respect as she she can ever now expect. However Thorkell returns, now an ordained priest, and is immediately attracted to Ragna again. Can a relationship work between a priest, who should be celibate but has already sired bastard children, and an excommunicated woman?

His intensity frightened her. It also enraptured her.
“Promise that you will never betray me, Ragna,” said Thorkell one night at the beginning of the month of Goa, in early spring, when they met in the small back room. For a full week they had not been alone together, as he had been away on business with John Craxton. Before she knew it, he had brandished a knife and cut his palm, his bloodied hand reaching out for hers. Hesitantly she extended her right hand, and he used the knife again. Her blood swelled from the wound, and she merged her blood with his, promising him loyalty unto death in this ancient manner. A few drops fell on the floor between them.
“Now you are mine in the pagan manner,” he said and smiled, the priest, with fire in his eyes that made her burn, inside and out.

So, that’s the love interest got out of the way. What was more interesting in this novel were the other themes behind the central romance.

At the turn of the century the Black Death had killed nearly half of the population, and left Iceland a very poor country, reliant on the stockfish (wind-dried cod) trade. Iceland was divided into two political factions – the nationalists, led by the Icelandic Archbishop are loyal to the old regime, as Iceland was owned by Norway and Denmark at this time.  Those at Holar, who are governed by the new English Bishop appointed by the Pope, are happy to ply an illegal trade with England, ruled by Henry V at this time of 1420. The English rule the trading though setting the prices which makes for an uneasy relationship.

Thorkell, who has political aims of his own, manages to get promoted to being Bishop of a parish who wouldn’t submit to Holar, deposing the sitting Bishop who remained loyal to the Norwegian King.  These priests and their people are not afraid of taking up arms, and when some English sailors in Iceland by permission of the see at Holar start to do some raping and pillaging, the scene is set for conflict.

Ragna gets caught between the two sides – her responsible role at Holar working for the Bishop, and her passion for Thorkell, the randy priest.  All along she is seen as a commodity, initially destined to end up being owned by a man one way or another, even though she will be an heiress. Men are not subjected to the same standards as women by the church, and Thorkell can easily get away with his behaviour.

I really enjoyed this historical novel, especially the cut and thrust of the episcopal politics in 15th century Iceland. Ragna has some spark to her, and the will-she-won’t-she relationship with Thorkell contrasts with the big picture. Some of the romance and dialogue may be slightly cheesy, but you kept rooting for Ragna throughout.

If you liked The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, you’ll probably enjoy On the Cold Coasts, (which is much shorter too!).  (8/10)

It is the first book I’ve read from Amazon Crossing – Amazon.com’s latest publishing venture of books in translation from around the world.

* * * * *
My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine for review. To explore further on Amazon.co.uk, please click below:
On the Cold Coastsby Vilborg Davidsdottir, pub Amazon Crossing, Mar 2012, paperback 207pp.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett