Saturday, July 16, 2011

A look at Kathleen Herbert's Moon in Leo, plus a giveaway

First, a disclosure: a quote of mine, based on my reading of Kathleen Herbert’s Dark Ages trilogy from the mid-'80s, is printed on the back cover and first page of Moon in Leo.  Not surprisingly, the words I’d written earlier proved to be true about this book as well:

"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.


  1. Great review, Sarah. This book sounds like something I'd be interested in reading so I'd like to put my name forward for the contest.

    confessions (dot) avidreader (at) gmail (dot) com.


  2. I'd love to put my name forward too, Sarah! I grew up on the Furness peninsula. :) edwardofcaernarfon(at)yahoo(dot)com. Thank you.

  3. You do not have to own a Kindle or other dedicated reading device to enjoy a free download- you can download a Kindle app for any device- phone, tablet or computer. And that's free too!
    Kathryn- you might be interested to see some photos of Furness I have just posted on my blog

  4. Adelaida Lower2:53 PM

    Sounds really good.
    I am in.

  5. Anonymous4:06 PM

    Oh wow, a further review of a novel you had previously mentioned, and about 17th century England and its political troubles no less! It's enough to make me run out and buy a Nook (though I can read ebooks perfectly well on my macbook).

    Sarah Other Librarian

  6. Excellent review! I liked Moon In Leo very much, too, particularly the landscape - like you, I felt the landscape was almost a character in its own right (my review is here. Don't put me in for the giveaway; I've already bought a hard copy!

  7. Not having been to Cumbria, I very much enjoyed the photos of Furness at the Trifolium Books site! It looks like a wonderful place to visit.

    Thanks, Carla, and I enjoyed your review as well! I agree with you in that it didn't tip completely into historical fantasy, because there were scenes where it wasn't entirely clear whether the occult happenings Rosamund observed were real or simply part of her beliefs.

  8. Good luck to everyone, too!

    For Kathryn, Connie, or Carla (or anyone else reading this!), are there any other historical novels set around Furness you'd recommend?

  9. Anonymous1:41 PM

    Furness is in Lancashire, which is also the setting of DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL by Mary Sharratt (based on historical events). Although the novels are one hundred years apart, they share the same conflict of "old" vs. "new" religions.

    Sarah Other Librarian

  10. Ah, yes - my geography is a little fuzzy. I read Daughters of the Witching Hill last year. Excellent novel.

  11. Sarah Other Librarian: Furness has been in (south) Cumbria since the re-organisation of the English counties in 1974. It was in Lancashire before that.

    Connie: thank you! I'll go and take a look now!

    Sarah: I can't think offhand of any historical novels set in the area, though Ulverston is important in the history of the Quakers, so it may feature in some novels about them.

  12. Lancashire's a very varied county, especially before the local government reorganisation in 1974. Daughters of the Witching Hill is set inland around Pendle Hill, which is a very different landscape from the Furness coast.

    I can't think of any historical novels set specifically in Furness - pity, considering what a lovely area it is. You already know about Kathleen Herbert's 'Cumbrian Trilogy', partly set in nearby areas of Cumbria. A few scenes in Elizabeth Chadwick's The Greatest Knight are set around Furness - William Marshal owned land there and founded Cartmel Priory - but only a few.

  13. Kathleen and Carla, thanks very much for the info. I remember that Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper, which I reviewed earlier this year, deals with the Quaker movement and is set in Cumbria, though it's unfortunate there isn't more fiction set around Furness specifically. The Greatest Knight is one of EC's that I haven't read yet, so I'll add it to the list.

  14. Betsy Tobin's novel "Crimson China" features Morecambe Bay, but it isn't a historical novel, being based around the tragic 2004 drowning of Chinese cockle-collectors who were trapped by the rising tide.

    Judging by Connie's photos it is a very beautiful place as well as deadly.

  15. Annis, I just read about Crimson China recently (it was an Amazon recommendation) and it had totally slipped my mind that it was set there. Thanks for the reminder. I'd read about the incident with the Chinese workers via Carla's review. Terrible.

  16. This sounds so intriguing. I love lush settings and deep plots.