Tuesday, 5 July 2011

A Darker Place

"Not recommended as teenage reading"

I find that the concentration on the text necessary when publishing a book makes me like a Method actor: I eat, sleep and dream the book.

I have recently been moving between two worlds- early 7th Century Deira  as brought to life by Carla Nayland  in Paths of Exile, and 17th century Furness in Kathleen Herbert's Moon in Leo. Both books are published by Trifolium Press- or at least the latter is, and the former will be available within the next week or two. I look forward to offering this new and slightly expanded edition to the public.

Now I have moved to a darker place: further north and deeper into Britain's Dark Ages. In Bride of the Spear, Kathleen Herbert's first novel, we are very close in time to the real Arthur, a Brythonic warlord who briefly unified the warring kingdoms of Britain against the invading Anglians after the Romans had left. Many of the characters have counterparts in the Arthurian stories. It is a period which still has an almost mythic hold over us: we gaze down the telescope the wrong way at these small bright figures, and they are still powerful and draw us in.

This is what Kathleen says:

I have always liked the stories of Arthur, as most English-speaking people do. You meet them young and are caught by them. You later start to ask yourself why certain stories hold you, and I agree with Jung that the stories which catch you permanently do represent certain movements of one's own psychic development. They yield powerful themes and figures, such as the quest, the last stand, the various faces of woman, the exploration of heroism. These motifs arise again and again in every great story.

It is some time since I read Kathleen's first book, and then I read her first edition, published by Bran's Head in 1982. It was originally a very long book indeed, but when Bran's Head offered to publish it she found they had a problem: He thought that my book would fit within his image, but he said frankly he couldn't afford all that amount of paper, so could I cut it? I found this technically a fascinating exercise. I have spent much of my life criticizing other people's precis. This was the precis of all time because the manuscript was enormous. I cut it down to what he could afford, and it came out as The Lady of the Fountain.

When Queen of the Lightning won the Georgette Heyer Prize, Lady of the Fountain was republished as Bride of the Spear in various editions, British and American with more or less lurid covers. This is one of the the most misleading:
This cover illustration speaks nothing of the essentially savage world of Britain after the withdrawal of Rome, Britain after the death of Arthur, a Britain in which the hero Owain  has the cattle raiders he captures castrated or tied up in the Solway to drown. No wonder A Carson disapproved of the book in 2009:

Despite the packaging, this novel is not exactly historical romance, nor is it sword and sorcery. The author provides a glimpse into a little-seen corner of British/Celtic history, and the book is well-written. However, from the beginning the tone is harsh, and after an early scene of the young heroine being drugged and deflowered with a spear, the narrative moves on to other scenes of lurid violence. NOT recommended as teenage reading.

I have to confess that I had not remembered how dark this book is- in fact much of what Kathleen had to cut to get The Lady of the Fountain published, has been put back in. This makes it an altogether weightier and more serious book, a book that enthralls and appalls, yet has enough gleams of light  to keep you reading to the satisfyingly upbeat ending.

The quotations from Kathleen are from a fascinating interview she did with Richard H Thomson in 1991. The full text can be found here.


  1. There was a fashion for that sort of cover on any novel with a historical setting, no matter how unrepresentative of the contents. It always seems illogical to me, because people who buy the book assuming it's a romance are liable to be disappointed, and people who were put off because they assumed it was a romance may miss a book they might have enjoyed. It seems unfair to everyone.

  2. Gosh - what a cover! I guess people didn't know how to categorise historical fiction in those days, although they felt it did need to go into some sort of category!