"I’ve always loved Kathleen Herbert’s work. Written with sensitivity, passion, and an extraordinarily vivid sense of place, her novels reflect the realities of life in a bygone age while still evoking all of its magic."
Moon in Leo takes place on the Furness peninsula in south Cumbria, England, a remote land of sparkling estuaries, rocky woodlands, and wide skies that glow pink and lavender in the setting sun. (See the cover at left.) The novel is saturated with atmosphere to the extent that the setting becomes almost a character in itself. In this beautiful yet perilous place, wayfarers who manage to pull themselves free of Morecambe Bay’s treacherous sands can find sanctuary on Chapel Island – the spot where Moon in Leo begins and ends.
Rosamund Halistan comes from a family of alchemists who have always kept to themselves, which means that she has been more sheltered from the world than other young women of her age. In 1678, her twin brother Stephen returns home from a long stay abroad. Although Rosamund had hoped to become his lifelong partner in the mystical arts, Stephen’s interests no longer lie in that direction; he had fallen in love with the exuberant Italian culture and, more dangerously, the religion of its people. Rosamund finds evidence that someone’s out to kill him, and she’s right.
Even eighteen years after Charles II’s restoration, memories of the Civil War remain at the forefront of everyone’s minds. To help keep the peace in a company of mixed faiths and political allegiances, Rosamund and Stephen agree to attend a house party organized by Sir John Westby, a former Royalist, and his wife, Prudence, a former Parliamentarian. Dark undercurrents of schemes and deception flow through the conversations, and though Rosamund doesn’t catch all of the nuances, she finds herself caught in the thick of the action. When tragedy forces her to confront the layers of corruption in the highest circles of the realm, she determines to preserve what means most to her: her family.
Two suitors vie for her hand, one a fellow seeker of alchemical truths, the other a gentleman of the royal bedchamber. As an heiress, she’s a hot commodity, and whether they have their eye on her person or her fortune (or both) is unclear. Rosamund is a true ingénue trapped in a world swirling with intrigue, and while she struggles to find a foothold, her naïveté means that the reader doesn’t know whom to trust either. Reality versus illusion is one of the novel’s most prominent themes, and over its course, the multifaceted characters are seen from numerous angles.
This lengthy book is set against the backdrop of the Popish Plot, a fictional conspiracy drummed up by Titus Oates in an effort to incite violence against England’s Catholics and prevent them from holding power. The historical background is solid, and the storyline feels intensely romantic, at least until one looks beneath the surface. While declarations of affection abound, amid pet names of “dear” and “darling” and “oh my love,” women in this sparsely populated countryside must rely on male protectors, and few women in this book choose wisely – if they’re permitted to choose at all. Herbert’s lush style can make it feel as if one was reading a classic written many years ago rather than a modern work. As a result, the many songs and bawdy rhymes inserted into the text feel even more authentic to the storyline she creates.
Ghostly visitations, sigils charged with magic, and hermetic spells play such a strong role that I sometimes felt as if I’d stepped into a Dion Fortune novel. Although most of the characters don't believe in such things, these occult happenings definitely feel real to Rosamund, influencing her actions beyond what feels natural. The multiplicity of religious beliefs in this deep, involving read make her world feel genuine, as do the well-crafted depictions of ordinary people – nobles, scholars, courtiers, and gypsies – caught in the tide of history.
Moon in Leo was published by Trifolium Books earlier this year (£11.99, trade pb, 401pp).
Contest info: I'm holding a giveaway for two electronic copies of Moon in Leo; the winners will be given directions by which they can download a copy at no charge from Smashwords. To enter, please leave a comment on this post. Deadline July 29th.