Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure: Part 2

Previous articles on plot structure:

LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 1
LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2
Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure, Part 1

If you remember, last week I discussed Shakespeare's use of 5-act structure, with specific attention to Acts 1 and 2. This week I'm looking at Acts 3-5. This was a very interesting exercise, because in these final acts, some fascinating differences crop up between comedies and tragedies.

Spoiler warnings apply!


One of the biggest differences between Shakespeare and Tolkien is in their treatment of Act 3. As I observed in LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2, Tolkien uses his central third acts to showcase big action/battle scenes. In Shakespeare, the Climax doesn't focus on one setpiece. Instead it marks a series of domino-like reactions surrounding the plot's turning-point.

In five-act structure, the Climax maps onto the Midpoint of KM Weiland's Act 2 and finishes with the "Second Pinch Point". According to classic plot theory, the Climax is a turning point. In a comedy, it's the point at which things start going well for the protagonists; while in a tragedy, it's where they start going badly. In practice it's a bit more nuanced than that.

For example, sometimes Shakespeare plays this almost brutally straight. In Romeo and Juliet, the tone is comedy, comedy, comedy right up to Act 3, at which point it takes a shrieking left turn into tragedy.

Sometimes, Shakespeare plays around with this trope, as in Much Ado. Here the Climax actually occurs offstage when Claudio thinks he sees Hero cheating on him with Borachio. Just as in Romeo and Juliet, this causes the plot to take a turn for the tragic, potentially tricking well-educated members of the audience into believing that everything will end sadly. It doesn't.

Another way Shakespeare plays with his Midpoint? Sometimes, like DK Broster in The Flight of the Heron, he doesn't even let us see it. In both Shrew and Much Ado we hear about the climactic Midpoint only after it occurs, from an eyewitness. At first this might seem an odd choice, given the high potential for drama that might come from directly showing us what is without a doubt the most pivotal scene in the play. Thinking it over, however, I wonder if Shakespeare feared stealing his own thunder. In both cases, especially in Much Ado, it could be argued that he foregoes the pivotal scenes in order to milk maximum drama out of the reaction scenes--the wedding scene in Act 4, for example.

When it comes to the tragedies, though, Shakespeare puts the Midpoint right in front of us. In Romeo and Juliet, it gets played out with vivid gore and maximum drama, as Romeo is goaded into killing Tybalt. In Othello, it's a bit more low-key, as Iago masterfully introduces the suspicion of his wife's infidelity into Othello's mind.

Finally, Shakespeare's third acts end at the point where KM Weiland would advise including a Second Pinch Point.

In Tragedies, the end of the Third Act starts a clock ticking. Juliet's father betrothes her to Paris, and she must take swift and decisive action to avoid being forced to marry a second time. In Othello, the discovery of the handkerchief in Bianca's possession convinces Othello that his wife is cheating--setting him on the path to murder.

In Shrew, the end of the Third Act comes when Petruchio spirits Kate away from her wedding feast to his isolated home, where their final confrontations will play out. In Much Ado, we get a moment of fine dramatic irony as the only people who know the truth fail to thwart Don John's plan. In both comedies, the "Pinch Point" ushers in the final Act 4 conflict between the lovers.


Act 4 leads up the the third plot point.

In the tragedies I analysed, this was the segment of the plot in which everyone takes a deep breath before plunging over the precipice at the Third Plot Point. There's a lot of positioning for the final scene, and here the characters miss their last chances to extricate themselves from the mess they're in: for example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet arranges for her escape from Verona, unaware that Fate plans to prevent it, while in Othello, we get a series of missed opportunities for repentence.

In the comedies, on the other hand, Act 4 is not such a breather. Instead it sees the most intense confrontations yet, following on from the (offscreen) Midpoint. In Much Ado, it's the disastrous wedding scene, followed by Beatrice's ultimatum to Benedick. In Shrew, it's a series of escalating struggles between Petruchio and Kate.

In keeping with this difference, the Third Plot Point at the end of Act 4 has a different function depending on whether it comes in a comedy or a tragedy.

In tragedies, the Third Plot Point ushers in the catastrophe of Act 5. In Othello, I believe the Third Plot Point occurs when Othello smothers Desdemona. That's his catastrophic decision, and it ushers in a series of revelations that destroy him (and everyone else). In Romeo and Juliet, it occurs when Juliet fakes her death, and it causes a similar series of destructive reactions.

In comedies, by contrast, the Third Plot Point is a moment at which the conflict between the lovers resolves itself in an unexpected accord. This occurs in Shrew when Kate, almost despite herself, gets the joke and begins to join Petruchio in his mad world of windy words. It also occurs in Much Ado when Benedick agrees to fight Claudio for Hero's sake, to prove his love for Beatrice. This is a fragile accord which will be tested again in Act 5, but it's basically the end of their conflict.

There are some fascinating differences here. In contemporary three-act plotting, the Third Plot Point ushers in the climactic conflict in which the protagonists either win or lose. However, in Shakespeare's five-act plotting, that win or loss happens functionally at the end of Act 4, at the Third Plot Point itself. Whether in tragedy or comedy, it is the protagonist's last moment of decision. It sets up an Act 5 in which the direction of the plot is largely taken out of the protagonist's hands, showing the unavoidable consequences of the victory or defeat that occurred at the end of Act 4.


Act 5 has a lot of names, but Resolution, Catastrophe, or Denouement are the most common. It occupies the same space as Act 3 of a 3-act plot, but in practice it often plays out with quite a different purpose. In 3-act plotting, Act 5 is where the hero's final struggle takes place, leading to his win or loss. In 5-act plotting, that struggle has usually already taken place, with the decisive moment often occurring at the Third Plot Point. Another word associated with Act 5 is "unravelling". So Act 5 is the point at which plots are revealed and everyone finally figures out what everyone else was up to. The Third Plot Point may have been the point at which the protagonists won or lost, but they may not even know it yet. In Act 5, they find out.

In Shrew, Act 5 sees the unravelling of Lucentio's zany plan to marry Bianca. It's followed by Petruchio placing his bet that Kate will prove to be the most obedient of her three sisters. In the eucatastrophe, she proves worthy of his trust, winning his bet and finally getting the honour and authority over her sisters which she craved at the beginning of the play. In Much Ado, Act 5 sees Benedick following through on his commitment to challenging Claudio, proving the strength of his love for Beatrice. This sets him on the path to tragedy (he intends to kill his best friend), but a eucatastrophic turn of events reveals Don John's plot, vindicates Hero, and leads to Claudio's repentance. In the comedies, Act 5 not only ties up loose ends, it also tests the commitment between the new couple and proves it strong.

In Romeo and Juliet, we find catastrophe: both the leads commit suicide, thereby bringing about the reconciliation of their confused and grieving families. Rather than being revealed, Friar Lawrence and Juliet's plan goes horribly wrong. Meanwhile, in Othello, moments too late to save Desdemona, Emilia exposes Iago's plot, which leads Othello to commit suicide as a final act of justice.

In both cases, the protagonists have already either won or lost by the beginning of Act 5. The decisive moment was the Third Plot Point. The Catastrophe (or eucatastrophe) which follows is not typically driven by the protagonists' direct action. Instead, it is the moment at which divine justice or divine mercy overtakes the protagonists' previous choices and the story spirals out of their control. Maybe the protagonists get good rewards for good deeds (as in Shrew). Maybe they commit themselves reluctantly to a righteous course which will destroy their lives, but are saved by a last-minute twist (as in Much Ado and everything Tolkien ever wrote). Or, in tragedy, maybe justice for their folly overtakes them, righting the world. In each case, interestingly enough, both Shakespeare and Tolkien show preference for denouements that take matters out of the protagonists' hands.

Fascinating, no?

To make all this easier for you, I've made a simple diagram comparing five and three act plotting.

Previous articles on plot structure:

LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 1
LOTR and Plot Structure, Part 2
Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure, Part 1

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Flight of the Heron by DK Broster

 Today I'd like to review just the kind of book I decided to start this blog for...a melodramatic vintage adventure novel, the kind best eaten up with a spoon and lashings of whipped cream.

DK (Dorothy Kathleen) Broster's The Flight of the Heron, set during the 1745 Jacobite uprising under Bonnie Prince Charlie, is the first of the once famous Jacobite Trilogy. It follows the intersecting fortunes of two men, who at first glance seem almost complete opposites. Ewen Cameron, a young Highland laird in the service of the Prince, is dashing, sincere, and idealistic. Major Keith Windham, a professional soldier in the opposing English army, is cynical, world-weary, and profoundly lonely. When a second-sighted Highlander tells Ewen that the flight of a heron will lead to five meetings with an Englishman who is fated both to do him a great service and to cause him great grief, Ewen refuses to believe it. But as Bonnie Prince Charlie's ill-fated campaign winds to its bitter end, the prophecy is proven true--and through many dangers and trials, Ewen and Keith find that they have one thing indisputably in common: both of them are willing to sacrifice everything for honour's sake.

I summarised this story on Twitter a week back with the words "Honour, nobility, drama, heartstrings"--and you'd better believe it! The book has a slow first section (of five) which takes its time introducing you to the characters and their motivations. Pretty shortly, however, the book becomes unputdownable, and I polished the second half of the thing off in one afternoon.

I can see why The Flight of the Heron has always been so popular. It is melodramatic. It is intense. It is about people with a wonderfully touchy sense of honour. There were times when I told myself this was the best Jennifer Freitag book I've read since Plenilune.

I have to admit that at times the characters' sentiments were so lofty as to seem unreal to me, but I freely acknowledge that I've always thought ours a peculiarly cynical age. In the end, I'm not a hundred percent sure whether a sense of honour like this ever historically existed--but it's awfully good fun to read about, and I loved that the sense of honour shared by the two main characters was what brought these enemies together and made them friends. Not that Keith Windham's sense of honour is quite as functional as Ewen Cameron's; in fact the whole point of the book revolves around how Ewen's sense of honour calls out and revives Windham's, so that his friendship with Ewen restores him the capacity to care about such things. As Belinda Copson points out in D K Broster: An Appreciation (caution: link contains spoilers!)--
There is more going on here, though, than a tale of gallant deeds and misunderstandings. Ewen Cameron is a true romantic hero, with high notions of chivalry which others find difficult to live up to. But in Keith Windham, Broster has created a much more complex character, for whom an unexpected friendship is a form of personal salvation. Windham has had a lonely unloved childhood, neglected by his mother and betrayed by a woman he loved; and has since resolved that he will form no other close relationships, since these have only let him down. He is resolved on a cynical approach to life and a friendless military career. His friendship with Ewen breaks through this protective shell, and the decisions he is forced to make about the competing claims of friendship, honour and duty make him re-examine his own opinions and values.
Much has been made of the fact that the most intense relationship in this (rather intense) novel is not the one between Ewen and his fiancee, Alison (though there were a couple of bits that had me misting up) but the rather complicated friendship between Ewen and Keith. This focus on male friendship is actually something that was a bit more common in older times (Heron was first published in 1925)--think of the friendships in books like The Lord of the Rings or Twelfth Night or John Buchan. Still, I'm actually really glad I began reading this book before looking at the Goodreads reviews, because you can't bung a brick in there without hitting someone who thinks The Flight of the Heron is some kind of homosexual romance. I've read enough history to know you can't always discount such allegations out of hand, so I read The Flight of the Heron with an open mind, but I honestly couldn't see anything that would lead anyone to think the friendship between the two characters goes anywhere beyond what was considered normal in close friendships at that time. Yet another example of moderners reading their own interpretations back into behaviours that they no longer understand.

Apparently DK Broster consulted around eighty reference books before beginning work on The Flight of the Heron, and the historical and geographical accuracy of the novel has always been highly praised. Broster herself had never planned on writing about the '45--there were already so many books dealing with it--but succumbed on a trip to Scotland, and wrote a whole trilogy. That may explain an oddity of this novel, which is that it assumes the reader is already pretty familiar with the history of that uprising. I am not (hey, it's been years since I read Waverly), but I didn't let that slow me down. I was particularly fascinated, however, by Broster's decision to give an ominous leadup to the Battle of Culloden, and then skip right over it to the aftermath. This was noteworthy because the battle was the turning-point, or in plotting lingo, the Midpoint, of the whole plot. Even more intriguing, I knew I'd seen this technique, of skipping over the Midpoint, elsewhere--in some of Shakespeare's comedies. But I'm anticipating next week's 5 Act Structure in Shakespeare post.

Apparently, The Flight of the Heron was filmed in the '60s. No idea if it's any good or not.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about The Flight of the Heron was the maturity that brought serious emotional gravitas to what otherwise might have been a lightweight melodrama. The theme noted above--the calling out of the dormant sense of honour in Keith Windham's character, which brings the grace of friendship to a lonely life--adds welcome depth, and also communicates something very important about the Jacobite cause. The history depicted was well-researched, and avoided the common trap of over-simplification. And the characters were sympathetically drawn, with good and bad on both sides.

Another was the fact that Broster stands squarely in a long tradition of Scottish adventure writing. The three most venerable practitioners in this tradition were of course Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and John Buchan, all of whom wrote adventure stories about Jacobites, and all of whose influence can be traced in the story. I don't think that Broster quite lives up to their standard, but she gives it the old college try, and succeeds remarkably well. If you like those authors, you'll probably thoroughly enjoy DK Broster's The Flight of the Heron.

Find The Flight of the Heron on Amazon and The Book Depository.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Shakespeare's 5-Act Structure: Part 1

So those of you who've been around lately know I've been studying plot structure while I outline what I affectionately call The Tome. I started out by reading some materials specifically on plotting--James Scott Bell's laissez-faire approach in Plot and Structure and then KM Weiland's more structured three-act approach in her blog series on structure. However, I didn't stop there. I went on to analyse how plot structure was used in a book which will, DV, have certain similarities to my own Tome: JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings (see my blog series here: Part 1/Part 2).

As represented by Freytag's Pyramid
Analysing LOTR gave me a huge amount of information and confidence on how to actually apply plot-structuring-advice to my own work--mainly because it showed me what was necessary and what was not, and how plot structure can be adapted, tweaked, or even disregarded. It also brought me to suspect that Tolkien was not actually using three-act plot structure at all, but an earlier variation: five-act structure.

In Part 2 of my earlier post on plot structure in LOTR, I explained how I believe five-act structure maps onto three-act structure, with the difference mainly being in emphasis: in five-act structure, the climax of the work comes at the midpoint, while in three-act structure, the climax is at the resolution. To quickly recap, in both models, the first acts correspond; then the second, third, and fourth acts of five-act structure all correspond to different stages of the second act of three-act structure; finally, the fifth and third acts correspond.

After having my interest whetted in five-act structure, I decided to study it in more depth by analysing four of my favourite Shakespeare plays--two tragedies and two comedies--so that I could get a handle on how his structuring actually worked in practice. (Always check the writing advice you hear against great classic works of literature. It will broaden your outlook considerably). The plays I chose were Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, and this week we'll look at their first two acts.

Before I begin, a disclaimer or two. I'm not a professional Shakespeare student. I'm only a beginner on five-act structure. It's entirely possible I'm getting some or all of this wrong. In addition, the way Shakespeare used five-act structure was quite different to how Tolkien used it; other authors would no doubt also differ. Finally, it should be noted that Shakespeare himself did not insert the Act divisions found in all modern editions of his plays. We can be reasonably sure he was following a five-act structure since that was the reigning model at his time, but the Act divisions were inserted by later scholars--and in fact, the longer I looked at the plays in question, the more Act divisions I found which I'd have put in different places.

Oh, and: spoiler warning for the four plays discussed!


Shakespeare uses the exposition of his plays to introduce us to his setting, his characters, their motivations, and the conflicts that currently define their world. Here are some of the ways a first act accomplishes this in an engaging manner:

- It may show us the tail-end of the characters' last conflict, which is going to lead directly into the next. For example, Much Ado begins by bringing Don Pedro's soldiers home after a "hot war" with Don Juan which will now erupt into a "cold war" in Messina.
- It may introduce us to a story in which the characters' normal is conflict. Romeo and Juliet begins with an action-packed battle between the Capulets and Montagues. This feud itself is one of the major antagonists (the other would be Fate).
- It may introduce us to a world where things are about to change dramatically--often with new suitors arriving in town, as in Shrew (or, skipping authors, Pride and Prejudice).
- It may be a relatively self-contained plot in itself, which defines the parameters of the plot that will occur in the rest of the play. Othello begins with a mini-plot set in motion by Iago to get Othello in trouble for marrying Desdemona. When this doesn't work, Iago begins Act 2 with a new plot to ruin Othello's marriage another way. Jane Eyre also takes this approach, walking us through Jane's traumatic childhood to show how she gains the strength of character that will define her for the rest of the story.

The main task of the Exposition, in addition to giving us a taste for the flavour of the rest of the story, is to define the conflict in what KM Weiland calls the First Plot Point. Often, Shakespeare accomplishes this by having the villain give a monologue declaring his evil scheme, as in Much Ado with Don Juan or in Othello with Iago. Shrew is an interesting example in that the First Plot Point happens when Petruchio--who, despite being the play's heroic/Christ figure, takes the traditional role of the antagonist--makes a commitment to action: he intends to marry Kate. In R&J, however, there is no overt declaration of intention; rather, we reach the First Plot point when the title characters fall in love, thereby setting themselves on a path to unavoidable conflict with the feud that defines their world.


The events of Act 2 occur as a direct result of the conflict introduced at the close of the Exposition. For example, in a second act...

- The villain might formulate his evil plot for the first time, after declaring his malice at the close of Act 1. This happens in Much Ado, in which Don John has a motive, but no plot until later in Act 2.
- The villain might begin to move an evil plot into play, like Iago arranging for Cassio's disgrace and convincing him to ask Desdemona to intercede with Othello for him (which will make it all the easier to frame Cassio and Desdemona for adultery).
- The protagonists might go from unwittingly stumbling onto the path to conflict...to making a solid commitment to the conflict, as with Romeo and Juliet leveling up the relationship and getting married. Now the stakes are even higher for them, and they have even more chance of having their lives get ruined by the feud.
- Or, as in Shrew, the heroic antagonist scores a win by arranging his engagement with Kate.

In five-act structure, Act 2 occupies the same space as the beginning of Act 2 in three-act structure. However, it finishes sometime before the climactic Midpoint. Where? Well, I think it finishes at the point where KM Weiland advises inserting the First Pinch Point--a dramatic moment that reminds the audience of the antagonist's strength. As a matter of fact, sometimes Shakespeare does end his second acts with a Weilandesque Pinch Point, like Borachio coming up with a way to spoil the wedding in Much Ado--but at other times, he ends it with a dramatic moment of a different flavour. For instance, Romeo and Juliet's wedding is technically speaking a victory for the protagonists, not a point of heightened danger (though it does raise the stakes significantly). Similarly, in Shrew, Petruchio's betrothal with Kate is a foreshadowing of the happy ending in which Kate and Petruchio will be happily married.

So there you have my thoughts on the first two acts of Shakespeare's five-act structure! Next week, I'm going to finish by outlining Acts 3-5. Stay tuned!

The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 1
The Lord of the Rings and Plot Structure, Part 2

Friday, September 25, 2015

Captain of Dragoons by Ronald Welch

Today, I'm thrilled to review Captain of Dragoons by Ronald Welch, a favourite from an obscure but remarkably good series of historical adventure stories for children.

The Carey Family Series

The Carey Family series of twelve historical novels were originally published between 1954 and 1976. Written by Ronald Welch, a history teacher and WWII Tank Corps officer, each of the books follows the adventures of one of the members of a (fictional) noble family, the Careys of Llanstephan, at a pivotal moment of English history. Meticulously researched, fast-paced, adventurous and manly, these books were devoured by self and siblings when we discovered three of them at a local library. Alas, the library soon took them out of circulation, and when we looked around for more, we found they were scarcer than hen's teeth.

For years, the Carey Family series has been out of print. I'm able to review this book today because of an email I got a few weeks back from Slightly Foxed, a publisher of luxurious limited editions of forgotten classics. Last week, a parcel arrived with this lovely, lovely book in it: Captain of Dragoons in a rather spiffing clothbound hardback edition. Since 2013, Slightly Foxed has been reprinting the Carey series in limited editions of 2,000; all are currently available, except for the final three which are due next year.

Captain of Dragoons

I'd already read this book a couple of times in my youth, so it was a real thrill to open the cover and plunge again into the midst of a cavalry skirmish in a European valley near Limburg during Marlborough's campaigns against the French in 1703. Our hero for this instalment of the series, Captain Charles Carey, nephew and heir of the Earl of Aubigny, leads his men through unexpected twists and turns to a hard-fought victory, then fights a duel for the honour of his troop, then stumbles across a rendezvous between French spies and an officer of his own regiment, all within the first four chapters. The plot thickens when Charles discovers that someone is trying to get rid of him. Soon Charles himself is recruited as a spy to travel into the heart of France itself, to the court of the Jacobites at Saint-Germain and the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Will Charles survive this dangerous mission? Will his quick wits and fencing skill be enough to save him next time he runs across the legendary Jacobite spy Rupert Creighton? Will he find out which of the officers in his regiment is trying to kill him?

If you guessed from this precis that this book is a thrill a minute, you would not be mistaken. The writing style is taut, the girls are shunted firmly offstage (which is fine by me; a female character would unnecessarily complicate the fine tight plotting), the adventure never lags, and Welch draws on both military history and spy fiction to deliver a rather unabashedly manly boys' adventure story.

Some hiccups

I mean to spend most of this review saying how much I loved this book, but I should take a moment to mention a couple of things. First, this is not five-star prose. The well-trained eye will detect a few too many adverbs and a somewhat choppy rhythm. That said, it's not bad either, and Welch adopts a concise style similar to adult spy fiction of the same era.

I was also faintly disappointed that a few deeper questions were left unexplored. Charles's spy handlers warn him a couple of times that the era of gentlemanly warfare is passing away and that the new day of spies require more ruthlessness than he's used to; but the issue doesn't seem to echo through the rest of the book. There are also some fascinating questions of authority, liberty, and loyalty teased, especially as Charles finds himself deceiving and working against the same Stuart kings his (*looks up family tree*) grandfather Neil Carey supported during the Civil war in For the King. This too wasn't explored deeply in the story.

What I liked

So, one of the things I've come to appreciate about Welch is his eye for less-favoured elements of history. Knight Crusader, with its focus on the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, was truly the very first book that brought the two-hundred-year history of Latin Outremer to my previously somewhat oblivious mind. While Welch also focuses on more well-known historical periods (the English Civil War in For the King, or the French Revolution in Escape from France), he isn't afraid to bypass, for example, the '45 Jacobite uprising for something a bit less obvious, like...the Duke of Marlborough's campaigns and the Battle of Blenheim.

Captain of Dragoons is still the only book I've ever read on this war. As a result, I'm not sure I can comment with much authority on Welch's historical accuracy. However, I was impressed by the sheer level of detail Welch included; as an author myself, I know it takes meticulous research to flesh out a historical setting so thoroughly. The Marlborough campaign, the opposing French and Allied tactics, the nitty-gritty of dragoon warfare, and the Battle of Blenheim itself were all explained clearly and concisely, as if through the eye of a serious military historian. The sword-fighting scenes--all the Careys are aces with the blade--are vivid, gripping, and beautifully fleshed out in what seemed to me pretty authentic detail. Meanwhile, this time around, I was fascinated by the prominence given in the plot to spying--so much so, in fact, that we see our hero doing precious little actual dragooning. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that this war really did see a lot of spy activity.

I also really appreciated the character of Charles Carey. Charles is actually a pretty nonstandard character for a tale for young people. Lots of children's and YA fiction focuses on a young and inexperienced hero, whose path to maturity forms the substance of the plot. Charles, however, breezes onto the page a seasoned officer, a renowned swordsman, and a clear, decisive thinker, even in the thick of battle. Sure, there's a character arc for him--he learns to reign in his hot temper and plan more carefully for the future--but from the moment he appears, he's already fiercely competent in his chosen profession. I think that was a big part of the book's appeal for me when I was younger: Charles doesn't have to learn to be awesome, he just is already. So we can get right down to swashbuckling without having to waste time on preliminaries.

This choice also pays off with tremendous effect later on in the book, when Charles's dangerous life leads him to a significant setback. For a very brief and disturbing few pages, we see him absolutely shattered by this turn of events. It's a surprisingly powerful moment in the story, reinforcing a sense of gravity that still manages to underlie even such an adventuresome book. The horror of a friend's treachery. The pain and loss suffered by the Huguenots after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The pathetic dignity of the exiled Stuarts.


In summary, obviously I've read deeper and more thoughtful historical novels than this one. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Captain of Dragoons stood up to a reread. I've read few children's books which manage to strike such a good balance between adventure and realism.

In case you didn't notice, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which I'd consider the best of the four Carey books I've read so far. I don't know how long the Slightly Foxed limited editions will be available for, or whether we can hope for the Carey Family series to come back into print in the ordinary course of things, but I would recommend investing in copies, particularly if you're a parent looking for good quality historical fiction.

Find Captain of Dragoons and the rest of the Carey Family series at Slightly Foxed.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Poem: White Magic by Dorothy Sayers

Rhiannon in The Mabinogion
OK: First things first. You all know I have an author newsletter? Well, as of today, folks who want to sign up for that will also get a free Kindle edition of The Rakshasa's Bride, my novella retelling Beauty and the Beast. In addition, they'll get notifications of any new releases and sales I might have coming up, plus opportunities to snag free review copies of new releases. If that sounds like something you'd be interested in, click here to get started.

I haven't posted a poem for a little while, and thought that today, while I'm trying to get caught up on some reading, might be a good moment to post some poetry. Lately, Dorothy Sayers's poem Desdichado has been getting a bit of love on various blogs--Hanna shared it at Book Geeks Anonymous recently, for example. It is a gorgeous piece of work, and one of my favourites, and I'll dust it off and share it here too someday. But in case Desdichado has already crossed your path: Did you know that it originates in a whole collection of Sayers's verse, entitled Catholic Tales and Christian Songs?

And that you can read it RIGHT NOW online?

Today I want to share one of my other favourites from this collection--White Magic, which draws on a lovely dreamlike tale from The Mabinogion for its imagery and is generally gorgeous and courtly and so medieval it makes my bones ache.

White Magic

And while he sat there they saw a lady, on a pure white horse . . . coming along the highway that led from the mound; and the horse seemed to move at a slow and even pace . . . And he took a horse and went forward. And he came to an open, level plain, and put spurs to his horse; and the more he urged his horse, the further was she from him. Yet she held the same pace as at first . . . "Lady," said he, "wilt thou tell me who thou art?" "I will tell thee, Lord," said she. "I am Rhiannon."
--The Story of Pwyll Prince of Dyfed.

Looking out of my window high
Sursum cor!
I saw a merry chase go by,
E sus le cor!
I saw the merry chase go by
Before the sun was in the sky--
Sursum corda, sursum cornua,
Up, hart and horn!

The quarry went upon an ass
Sursum cor!
That soft and slowly forth did pass,
E sus le cor!
So soft and slowly forth did pass
His little hoofs upon the grass,
Sursum corda, sursum cornua,
Up, hart and horn!

And smiting with the scourge and spur,
Sursum cor!
Came king and priest and labourer,
E sus le cor!
Both priest and king and labourer,
The queen with her ladies after her,
Sursum corda, sursum cornua,
Up, hart and horn!

They sweep beside the water-mill,
Sursum cor!
An hundred yards betwixt them still,
E sus le cor!
An hundred yards betwixt them still
As they come hunting round the hill,
Sursum corda, sursum cornua,
Up, hart and horn!

And they may ride till they crack their breath
Sursum cor!
To track that quarry down to death,
E sus le cor!
They never will ride down to death
The Wizard-Man from Nazareth,
Sursum corda, sursum cornua,
Up, hart and horn!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

Can I just mention that the cover's terrific?
Everyone loves a good vintage detective story, obviously. I had never read any of Georgette Heyer's detective novels, and so when I had the opportunity to pick one up for free, I jumped at the chance.

(An aside: For the last few years, a shelf of free ex-library books has been provided at the train station in our local town. Travellers are encouraged to nose through them and take something to read on their journey. Isn't that a neat idea? That was how I acquired this book, and honestly, I can think of few better things to do with ex-library books than giving them out to me for free).

So, Behold, Here's Poison (which comes with an endorsement from no less a luminary than Dorothy Sayers herself), opens in the approved manner, with the discovery of a dead body. Mr Gregory Matthews, the deceased, was known to have heart trouble, and none of the other members of his household--stingy spinster sister Miss Harriet Matthews, manipulative widowed sister-in-law Mrs Zoe Matthews, or Mrs Matthews' son and daughter, the feckless interior-designer Guy or perpetually exasperated only-sane-woman Stella--think for a moment that Mr Matthews might have departed this life with assistance.

But Mr Matthews's other sister, the formidable and acid-tongued Mrs Lupton, knowing the resentments and frustrations seething in the Matthews household, insists on an autopsy--and to everyone's amazement, the body tests positive for nicotine poisoning. Inspector Hannasyde arrives from Scotland Yard to investigate, and is plunged into all the nutty goings-on of the Matthews family--none of which is more infuriating than the smug and smooth-tongued heir Randall Matthews.

In some ways this book was a fun read. Heyer's wit and humour are in good evidence here. If you've only ever read Heyer's Regency romance novels, as I have, you might even find this book pretty surreal, as so many of the characters act like the characters in her Regency books. It can be difficult to remember that Heyer's writing contemporary fiction (Behold, Here's Poison was first published in 1936). When Randall sends a note to Inspector Hannasyde protesting against the colour of the boots worn by the plain-clothes detective following him around London, it's not just hilarious, it's also rather difficult to keep in mind that just this once, Heyer's not writing a Regency dandy.

In other ways, I'm not sure this was a particularly good detective story. I do appreciate Heyer focusing on psychology and character rather than painstakingly going over clues and alibis. However, the plot didn't seem particularly tightly woven. The interaction of the characters, who were fun to watch for a while but ultimately tiresomely unpleasant, and a few red-herrings took up the majority of the plot. At the end, it turns out that the motive for the murder was foreshadowed very well, but the actual murderer was someone so unexpected as to seem almost irrelevant to the rest of the story. Meanwhile, Stella, who acts as the point-of-view character for most of the book, has an oddly disjointed and underdeveloped romance subplot that manages to be both unexpected and rather Heyer-typical at the same time.

Finally, I didn't appreciate the fact that one of the most unpleasant characters in the book is also portrayed as a believer. It was not unsubtly done, and I'm sure people like this exist, but it's also the most overt reference to Christianity in those of Heyer's works that I've read and seems to fit in with a generally dismissive and cynical attitude I've noticed in her other works.

To conclude, this book was entertaining, witty, and an easy read. It was also somewhat cynical in tone with a weak ending and characters to whom, alas, I did not, with Dorothy Sayers, "take a violent fancy".

Find Behold, Here's Poison on Amazon or The Book Depository.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Sick Heart River by John Buchan

It was John Buchan's 140th birthday last week, and it's appropriate the day should have found me slowly meandering through his very last novel, the quiet, introspective, poignant and beautiful Sick Heart River.

Buchan died in February 1940, aged 64, following a stroke. He was the Governor-General of Canada at the time of his death, of course, and had recently signed Canada's declaration of war against Germany. According to George Grant, Winston Churchill responded by calling Buchan's death the most terrible loss of the whole war to date. The "Christian statesman par excellence" had passed on to the other side, but days before he left, he finished one last book to record just what he thought of it.

(It seems to me typical of Buchan's Scottish business sense and practicality that he should somehow have arranged to have completed his last novel, when so many authors--Elizabeth Gaskell, for instance, or PG Wodehouse--had to depart leaving unfinished business behind them. Not even Death, it seems, could catch Buchan napping.)

Sick Heart River is the fifth book in the Edward Leithen series. (The others are The Power-House, a novella that acts as a sort of spiritual precursor to The Thirty-Nine Steps; The Dancing Floor; John Macnab; and the very odd time-travel-ish tale The Gap in the Curtain). Sick Heart River finds Leithen now in his late fifties facing a terminal diagnosis of turberculosis. Leithen has enjoyed a dazzling career as eminent barrister, member of Parliament, Cabinet minister, and attorney-general--but with only months left to live, he leaves it all behind and takes up a whole new mission into the bleak arctic wilds of Canada. The friend of a friend, Francis Galliard, has gone missing in the North, and Leithen volunteers to find him and send him back, and so to die well, far away from the irking sympathy of his friends or the coddled atmosphere of the sick-room. But the North has some surprises in store for Leithen.

When I first read this book, I didn't appreciate it anywhere near as much as I did this time round. It is an extraordinary novel, full of the anticipation of death, valedictory of life. All of Buchan's books deal with danger, hardship, and adventure in the wilderness, but in this book, poised as it is on the threshold of death, everything becomes somehow harder, clearer, and sharper.

Sick Heart River is an outdoors tale, full of long hikes, mountaineering, hunting, and tracking in winter in the extreme North. Despite periodic bouts of illness, John Buchan himself was an avid and lifelong outdoorsman--and a particularly seasoned mountaineer. In fact, when the closing years of his own life took him to Canada, he couldn't have been happier having a whole new country to explore and climb up and ski down and shoot caribou in--resulting in worried letters from the King, who hoped he wasn't overdoing it at his age. Buchan was, in other words, a man who pushed his body hard and expected it to rise to whatever challenges he threw at it. His hero, Edward Leithen, has the same idea of the strenuous life--but now, with death approaching, he must now hike and climb and hunt with a body steadily decaying through time and sickness. There is a very keen sense throughout the novel of the departure of a certain physical glory. And yet Leithen's reaction to this is neither self-pity nor rest and ease. Rather, it is to keep going, and to die, if die he must, in a hollow in the snows rather than in a nursing-home. Buchan's philosophy of the strenuous life is nowhere more apparent.

Buchan is perhaps most famous as the inventor of spy fiction, but he was always willing to try something more introspective and thoughtful on occasion, and Sick Heart River is perhaps his most quiet and character-driven tale. The Canadian North itself seems to be the antagonist here. I should take a moment to say that Buchan employs some of his most beautiful and evocative writing to describe it.
A wave of icy air swept out the frowst, and Leithen found himself looking into a radiant world, rimmed with peaks of bright snow and canopied by a sky so infinitely far away that it had no colour except that of essential light.
JB does not get a lot of recognition for his writing style, which is rarely showy but always crystal-clear, measured, and elegant. Here, though, it is almost showy, and the result is not just a pleasure to read; it's so clear and so vivid that you feel like you've actually been there.

But lovely as it is, Buchan also imbues the North with a good deal of terror and awe. At first glance it seems cold and vast, cruel and pitiless, an immensity with no care for humanity. Throughout the book, the characters are tested and challenged by it. Francis Galliard, who has abandoned his Northern roots as a young man, is drawn back to it in an attempt to face and conquer it, but instead is frightened to madness by its power. The Indians, from Lew and Johnny Frizel, the half-Scots half-Cree guides to the Hare tribe suffering from pessimism, have an uneasy truce with the North--they are able to eke out survival by its suffrance, but they know it has the strength to crush them. Only Leithen finds the key to face the North without blinking. At first, it's that he is already dying, and therefore has no fear of what the North might do to him. But though that provides him with a certain stoic reserve of strength, it's unable to lift anyone else out of despair--until Leithen discovers something else. In one of the most uncharacteristically emotional passages I've ever read in Buchan, he has a sudden and staggering vision of the North as full, not of impersonal harshness, but of God's mercy and provision for large and small creatures.

Buchan uses the North as a symbol of life itself--"it's a great life, if you don't weaken", as Blenkiron says in Mr Standfast--and the fear of the North is described once or twice as accidie, the sin of apathy, or a despairing detachment from the duties of the world. The cure for this fear and despair is initially sought by Galliard and Lew Frizel at the hidden Sick Heart River itself, though they are disillusioned when they discover that the Sick Heart is even more inimical to life than anywhere else in the North. Rather, it's Leithen's vision of the tender mercies underlying creation that provides the cure--not just because it provides hope to counter despair, but also because it refocuses Leithen himself. The man who went into the wilds to get away from concerned friends and to die alone in stoic silence discovers that this is no longer an option. Instead, the vision drives him to spend his last hope of recovery in work, pulling a dying tribe of Indians back from the brink of extinction and demonstrating that the North can indeed be beaten.

No doubt I've only scratched the surface of this extraordinarily deep and thoughtful book. Sick Heart River is unlikely to win much acclaim these days; it's too character-driven to please the lowbrow, and too politically incorrect to please the highbrow. All the same, it's a beautiful book.

Find Sick Heart River on Amazon, The Book Depository, or Project Gutenberg Australia.


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