Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The dark side of the Middle Ages: Dana Chamblee Carpenter's Bohemian Gospel

The averted eyes, the signs of the cross, the looks of awe and fear...

Mouse is an unusual name for a young woman in 13th-century Bohemia, but then she's far from ordinary.  She's intelligent and literate in several languages, yet unbaptized and forbidden to attend Mass.  All are uncommon for her time.  Raised in Teplá Abbey without a mother or father, she grows up knowing she has special talents – healing, for one – and is about to discover how far her power extends, a journey that takes her into the darkest realms of her world and of the human spirit.  

At fourteen, Mouse saves the life of Ottakar, the Younger King of Bohemia, when he's brought to the abbey, gravely wounded by an arrow.  The two form an immediate connection that endures despite their vast differences in social status and the danger they find themselves in – him, because a traitor wants to kill him, and her, because her supernatural abilities and closeness to the king elicit others' enmity.  And her quest to discover more about her personal history proves to be the most treacherous path of all.

Bohemian Gospel is a strong debut, a historical fantasy novel taking place in a setting few readers will recognize or be comfortable in, which works to its advantage.  The supernatural focus was much more prominent than I expected, given the publisher's blurb; this is far from a traditional historical novel.

The brutal court politics, full of bloody betrayals and deadly familial rivalries, call to mind the setting for Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings series.  Ottakar comes to be known as the Golden and Iron King, which itself gives a hint at the book's atmosphere.  I appreciated how period folklore was woven into the storyline (soul cakes, anyone?); likewise, the firm grip held by the church on regulating people's behavior.

Despite this, individual members of the clergy see something in Mouse worth protecting, which makes a refreshing change from stereotype.  Father Lucas, her longtime mentor, calls her an andílek, or angel, and risks much to keep her alive and safe. 

This made for an ideal read for All Hallows Eve, with its creepy suspense and unexpected-yet-apropos ending, but it should work well for any other time, especially if you'd like to take a stroll on the dark side of history.  It was published on 11/16 by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 367pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.

13 comments:

  1. Oh, I will *have* to get this book! It sounds great for the dark and dreary time of year!

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    1. That's a good way of putting it!

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  2. Anonymous10:04 AM

    I downloaded this from Edelweiss but I'm going to have to buy an e-reader as I find I don't read on a tablet at the end of the day - too tired! I am fascinated by this time period and place.

    Sarah OL

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    1. Anonymous10:09 AM

      Oh BTW I have ancestors who lived very near Tepla (emigrated to Wisconsin in 1860s).

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    2. I'd like to visit there in person. I loved the setting and wouldn't mind seeing more novels set there. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's An Embarrassment of Riches is another.

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    3. Anonymous9:46 AM

      It's also a good "genreblend" example.

      Sarah OL

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  3. This could well be my sort of book! Especially for this time of the year. I've put up a sort of round-up of non-fiction focusing on Europe's ruling dynasties of the 13th - 15th centuries, which also work for the Dark Season. December always seems to demand I read books about Europe -- fiction or non -- pre-Reformation, pre-Columbus . . . .

    Love, C.

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    1. Exciting, a new reading list. I'll go take a look!

      I can see why the publisher chose to release this book in the later, darker months of the year. It fits so well. Although I wish it had been out a bit earlier, so that it could be read around Halloween.

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    2. Anonymous12:54 PM

      I feel the same way, and I've noticed more hist fic pushing back from the Tudor era to earlier, more complicated times. Not to mention the 800th "anniversary" of the Magna Carta signing.

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    3. I've seen a lot set in Anglo-Saxon England - the miniseries based on Cornwell's novels, plus Game of Thrones, probably helped with that. It shows fiction set in dark, dangerous times (historical or no) will attract interest. But I haven't seen very much dealing with the Magna Carta - have you?

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  4. That cover is so darkly gorgeous, Sarah. I love it. I usually don't go in for fantasy much, but your comparisons make me very much want to take a chance on this one.

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    1. I'd be interested to hear what you think about the setting, and the fantasy aspects, and how well they work together/play off one another. I didn't expect it to be quite as fantastical as it was, but it worked.

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    2. I agree, too, it's a beautiful cover.

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