Tuesday, July 16, 2013

the bones of avalon, by phil rickman

the bones of avalon
by phil rickman

as a general rule historical mysteries set in times prior to the victorian era haven't held much appeal for me, at least not thus far. but i'm kind of a sucker for anything with an arthurian theme (and i'd give a special nod to jack whyte's nine-volume the camulod chronicles) so i decided to branch out a bit with phil rickman's the bones of avalon.

while i wouldn't go quite so far as to say that the bones of the title, being those of king arthur, were a mcguffin, the author could probably have substituted something else entirely without affecting the story all that much. which is not to say that it was a bad story. not at all. i liked it quite a bit, with perhaps one relatively minor reservation.

that would be the personality of the main character, dr. john dee, a fictionalized recreation of a real-life character who was apparently attached to the court of queen elizabeth i. the dee of the book could be described as what passed for a scientist in his day though he could also be described as a sorcerer, conjurer, astrologer, or what have you, depending on who's doing the describing.

which, quite frankly, is not a good thing to be in england in 1560. this is a place that's fraught with a great deal of political and religious turmoil, which in dee's case, has resulted in him nearly being burnt at the stake. this goes a long way toward describing his personality, which (understandably, i guess) is suspicious and very fearful, almost bordering on paranoia. which didn't make him a particularly sympathetic or likable character in my book but the strengths of the story helped to make up for that.

which story concerns a small expedition to glastonbury, a key site in arthurian legend, mounted in hopes of recovering the bones of arthur. dee is part of the expedition, but not long after arriving another member of the party is found murdered in a way that suggests a ritual murder. dee is smitten by a local healer and undertakes a mystic vision, of sorts, with her assistance. but as the hue and cry goes up to find the murderer circumstances demand that he toughen up and take certain matters into his own hands in a way he's not accustomed to doing.

while i found myself grumbling about the languid pace of this one early on, the author kicked things up considerably later on, with the result that the last half to one-third of the book zips right by. i especially liked he how used a plot point that will seem relevant to modern-day readers, but it wouldn't be fair to go into any more detail about what exactly it was.

while i liked rickman's book it hasn't inspired me to seek out any more historical mysteries just yet. however, it did motivate me to finally take a crack at mary stewart's five-volume retelling of the arthurian legend.