Land of the Silver Dragon by Alys Clare
I confess to being a bit hazy about the history of Britain and Europe around 1090. Having read this book, I can authoritatively assert we had William II on the English throne, Roger I had conquered Sicily, Alexios Comnenus ruled in Constantinople, the Vikings had more consistently turned to trade, and we were building up to the First Crusade. That’s enough to be going on with. Historical fiction, particularly when it contains a detective element, is always a challenge to write. The author has to balance the need to inform against the need to develop the narrative. Very few people have any detailed knowledge of any historical period other than the one they are living through. To understand the context for the fictional action, there must be sufficient explanation of who everyone is and what they are doing. If the detail is insufficient, modern readers will not understand the characters’ motives. If the detail is too great, it becomes a history book with events illustrated through character studies and fictionalised versions of events. Neither extreme works well as entertainment. Land of the Silver Dragon by Alys Clare (Severn House, 2013) the fifth Aelf Fen Mystery fulfills the Goldilocks rule and is just right.
It all begins with the arrival of a pedlar announcing the murder of Utta of Icklingham. Hearing this are the first-person narrator Lassair, her mother and aunt. The news is distressing because the deceased is her sister’s mother-in-law. Goda, her sister is also injured in what seems to have been an early Middle Ages home invasion. Next the robber breaks into Chatteris Abbey where another sister, Elfritha, is a nun. This is followed by a break-in at the family home and the desecration of new graves at the local church. Lassair speculates that the robber is looking for something belonging to her Grandmother Cordeilla who has recently died. He believed it would have been handed down to one of the women in the family. Failing to find it among the living, he tried the graves to see if anything had been buried with the newly deceased. This pagan practice is now discouraged. The Church teaches that people should leave as naked as they came into the world. To make sure all is well, she goes to the secret family burial ground. It’s undisturbed. Her Aunt Alvela is then murdered which forces the family to send Lassair to safety in Cambridge with her teacher Gurdyman. Surprisingly, the robber follows her and searches the open sections of his house. Obviously he’s still not found what he’s looking for. After that, there’s only one thing left to do. Yes, Lassair is kidnapped.
There’s just enough detail of life in the villages under the Norman lords to let Lassair emerge as a credible character. Born into a family with some tradition as healers, she’s shown real aptitude and, under the guidance of her aunt and Gurdyman, she’s developing a good practical grasp early medical treatments. Taking an overview, the practical side of story works well, even when we get into the more thrillerish elements of the kidnapping and later fighting. The reason for all the attacks and deaths lies in a feud between different factions in an extended kin group. Both as fiction and as history, this all works well. Had this been the sum of elements in the book, I would have been full of enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I found my attention slipping when the fantasy element arrived.
Even today, some people believe in the supernatural. Given that our culture has passed out of the Dark Ages and into what’s supposed to be a more enlightened time, we can put this down to perversity. But almost one thousand years ago, it’s quite natural the characters would have sincerely believed in a range of supernatural phenomena. Indeed, as a practitioner of medical arts, Lassair would find some people wary of her as a potential practitioner of magical arts. In those days, it was easy to believe knowledge and skill was derived from divine forces (with Christianity only just gaining the ascendancy over the pagan religions) or diabolical sources. The average person could not understand or replicate the effects so there had to be a supernatural explanation. Hence, I have no problem with individuals being confused about what’s real or attributing magical powers to fetishes or artifacts. Indeed, even the most sophisticated of contemporary characters might genuinely believe in the power of a device or relic. Just as we talk blithely of the placebo effect today, people have always been capable of deceiving themselves into producing physical responses to inanimate objects. All it takes is the strength of the belief. But these characters are apparently experiencing real visions, can perform remote viewing. and have ESP skills of diagnosis, particularly when it comes to mental disorders. That doesn’t work for me. Either the author is writing a straight historical detective book or we abandon “reality” and write a fantasy. Elements attributed to supernatural causes would be consistent with the belief systems of the time. What we have here falls on the wrong side of the line. It’s a shame because this spoils what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable book. Land of the Silver Dragon ends up merely enjoyable.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.