Two promotional things

Blue flower with feathery foliage

It is warm! It’s ten to ten at night and I’ve just been out in the garden, watering plants. This photo is from last year; the self-seeded offspring of this love-in-a-mist flower are merrily blooming away without my having done anything about them. That’s my kind of gardening.

In similar vein, I have a couple of book promotion things to mention that have happened without my having done much.

iReadIndies lesfic giveaway

Firstly, iReadIndies.com, a community of independent ff/wlw/lesfic/etc authors are running a giveaway over on Facebook, and The Real World is one of the titles on offer. To be in with a shout, you need to be a member of their Reader Central group; you’ll find the giveaway poll under Announcements.

(Or if you don’t like the odds you could just buy it on Smashwords.)

In all seriousness, iReadIndies is doing some excellent work pulling together a somewhat underrepresented group of writers, and I do recommend taking a look if you’re into books about women loving women.

A Spoke In The Wheel, on sale

Secondly, Amazon seems to be doing that thing it does from time to time and knocking an arbitrary chunk off the price of the paperback of A Spoke In The Wheel. At the time of posting it’s down to £7.12 (from a list price of £10.99). So if you’re after a paperback this is a decent chance to get it at a discount. (They don’t knock it off my cut!)

I should say that I’m rethinking my relationship with Amazon (longer post to come on that in the next few weeks) but it’s too hot for anything drastic. In the meantime, I hope you’re all staying cool and have some good books to read.

Time is cyclical

I’ve been feeling quite ill these last few days (not COVID – I got the test results back this morning) and was looking back through my locked journal to see how long it took me to get over it the last time I was feeling this awful. Quite a while, it turns out – the thing kept coming back – but it reminded me that I was feeling much worse then than I am now, so on the whole I found cause for hope. What I also found was the following, which amused me rather, given the fact that I didn’t properly get going on the, er, sequel to Speak Its Name until September 2018. And it didn’t have a title until September 2019. Or so I thought. Just have a look at that last line. Apparently there was some little part of me that knew all along.

Jan 28 2017, 12:58pm

A Spoke in the Wheel

65K; first draft finished. I read it through this morning, having been avoiding it all January, and discovered that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as I’d though it was. There is, as always with my first drafts, too much talk and not enough action; there’s a break that doesn’t need to exist between the middle and final thirds; but there’s nothing that isn’t fixable.

I’d got very hung up on the fact that it’s not going to be as good as Speak Its Name (whatever that means); and probably it isn’t, but that’s not really the point. It’s definitely going to be different.

Sequel to Speak Its Name

About a thousand words worth of oddments. Real-world developments in the Church of England are depressing, and look like they’re going to settle down into a sort of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell stalemate. I can work with that, plot-wise – in fact, it means that I could continue bimbling along in the vague non-timeline that I was using in the original, though having thought about it I’m not sure that I do want to do that any more – but you know, given the choice, I’d rather the real world sorted itself out.

Small patchwork quilt of hexagons in primary colours
No particular reason for this picture, beyond the fact that it’s cheerful and also dates from January 2017.

Me and Warren Barguil [filk]

Stained glass artwork showing a cyclist in a yellow jersey traversing a hilly, sunlit landscape, with text 'Yorkshire Grand Depart'

So, the Tour de France. As usual, there seem to be at least two races going on, except one of them isn’t really a race any more. I’m enjoying the other one.

Anyway today’s stage ends in Carcassonne, and this prompted me to spend yesterday lunchtime scrolling back through Facebook to find the following filk, which wrote itself gently over the course of the 2017 and 2018 tours. It didn’t start out being about the 2018 Carcassonne-Bagnères de Luchon stage, but it rather ended up that way. Enjoy.

Busted flat at the flamme rouge, caught up by a train,
feeling cooked as I approached the line,
The peloton came past me while I fumbled with my chain
And I followed them a minute ten behind.
I'd been in a break of two for two hundred K of mountains,
The bunch had let us go because they knew
I was twenty minutes down on that shining yellow jersey
And the other guy was out for mountains too

Stage win's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean, honey, if it ain't GC,
Feeling good was easy when I was in that break of two
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Warren Barguil

From the walls of Carcassonne to the slopes of Col de Menté
Me and Warren shared the brotherhood of the road
Through all kinds of weather, riding hard to get away
We shared the pace, yeah, took turns to bear the load
But once we'd cleared the summit he let me slip away
He wants the KOM and I hope he finds it
But I'd trade all of my stage wins for one shot at the GC
And to wear that yellow jersey 'cross the line

Oh, stage win's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean, honey, if it ain't GC,
Feeling good was easy when I was in that break of two
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Warren Barguil

Credit for the Stage win’s just another word for nothing left to lose line ought to go to my partner, but since he didn’t actually know the rest of the song I’m assimilating it.

Apologies to Kris Kristofferson. And to Warren Barguil, obviously. And to the narrator: actually I think this is a little unfair on him.

Other things I have written about cycling include: a story in the next Bikes In Space anthology, a story in the one after that, and an explanation of how I got into cycling in the first place. And a novel.

Hyperlocal travel writing: Ely cathedral

cathedral in grey-yellow stone against a blue sky

It’s the first thing you see. Coming in by road or rail it’s the biggest thing on the horizon.

They call it the Ship of the Fens. It’s a big ship, a container ship or an oil tanker, with a long, flat profile except for the bulk of the west tower and the blob of the lantern; perhaps it’s even more like a steam locomotive missing the funnel.

But that’s only one side of it, or perhaps two: south and north. Come from the west, the way I do most days, you see the lopsided, broken west front, a stark diagonal line where the north-west tower ought to be. Cross the green and you meet an incongruous-but-somehow-not Crimean war cannon.

In the town, you look up, and there’s the octagon peering over the rooftops.

Walk out to the north-west, towards Little Downham, and look back, and the cathedral is more like the submarine of the Fens, emerging from the folds of ground in a geographical peculiarity I still don’t quite understand.

If you’re down by the river on a sunny day, you can look across the meadows and the railway line to see it hovering on the higher ground in a kind of fairy-tale lightness of glittering glass and flying buttresses that leaves Neuschwanstein in the shade.

It isn’t fussy: you can see it from Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s and the station and the Fens and the top floor of Topping’s. The whole city huddles around it.

Inside, the light congregates at the crossing, flowing in from the nave and the choir and the north and south transepts, running up and down the octagon like the angels going up and down Jacob’s ladder.

I keep finding new angles to look from.

Cathedral seen across an expanse of water, with green bushes in the foreground
White van parked next a bench. The octagon of Ely cathedral is visible in the background.
A flat landscape of open fields with deep ditches. On the horizon there is a city with a prominent tower.

Historical fiction, knowns and unknowns

Three herring gulls on a shingle beach

This year I’ve read more historical fiction than I thought. I’ve just looked back down my booklist and found that about 20% of 2021’s reading has been historical fiction; it’s just that there are a couple of historical fiction books that have stuck in my head for the wrong reasons and they’re crowding out the other, really well researched, well written, ones.

The third somehow manages to be both. Last night I sat up until midnight (well, 23:57 if we’re going to be pedantic, which I am) to finish The Heiress (Molly Greeley). Which, if you can get past the Britpicky Angliquibbling gripes that I’ll get to in a bit, I do recommend.

The problem with both The Quickening (Rhiannon Ward) and Turn Again To Life (A. Zukowski) was that they knew they were historical fiction. The characters didn’t live in their now; they lived in the author’s nineteen-twenties. We get lines like this:

A wonderful story, except the fairies were dressed in 1920s clothes, copied probably from a magazine.

At this point it’s 1925. Now, I might describe the dress I wore yesterday as ‘a bit eighties’ or the one I wore on Tuesday as ‘vaguely fifties’. I wouldn’t call the one I’m wearing today ‘2020s’, or even ‘twenty-tens’. I might say ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, or just skip straight to calling it ‘a v-necked cotton jersey dress with a flared skirt’. And the reason for this is that I am living in the twenty-twenties. For me, it’s now.

In the case of Turn Again To Life, it was a case of too much research and insufficient mixing. One kept coming up against solid lumps of history: a summary of the suffrage movement plonked into the middle of a love letter, for example. I couldn’t decide whether the book needed to be twice as long or to have half as much plot, but either way it needed a better editor. A pity, because it had a really intriguing premise.

This was not at all a problem in The Heiress. This is a riff on Pride and Prejudice in which Anne de Bourgh’s invalid state is caused by involuntary laudanum addiction: a great premise, and one which is delivered on. It’s a peculiarly immersive book, and the immersion in Anne’s surreal mental landscape is a neat escape from having either to pastiche Austen or explain one’s more departure from her voice. Anne felt at once very human and very much of her time.

However, I got thrown out quite violently when she mentioned having read the Book of Common Prayer through several times and finding it ‘dull’. There are two problems with that. Firstly, I have never known anyone read the BCP cover to cover: that’s not what it’s for. The only scenario I can think of is someone who has nothing else to read: in which case it surely shouldn’t be as dull as not reading it.

The second is this: it isn’t dull. Parts of it are, yes, and if you’re reading the Calendar and the General Rubricks straight through then you deserve everything you get. But there’s an awful lot more in there, and the author just didn’t seem to know about it. One wouldn’t even need to have an unequivocally positive view of it. One could be horrified by the Commination or perplexed by the Athanasian Creed just as well as charmed by Psalm 19. Anne’s aunt dies giving birth, and yet the pain and peril of child-birth doesn’t come to mind. The Book of Common Prayer (she always calls it that, not the Prayer Book) just doesn’t live in Anne’s head the way you’d expect it to if she’d read it several times. And yet she reads The Seasons and suddenly discovers the joy of words.

It was at this point I nearly DNFed. It felt very much as if it was heading straight for Not Like Other Girls Anachronistic Atheist Feminist territory. (It didn’t get there.)

And all that made me a lot less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt when Brighton beach was sandy and when they came back from Brighton it was snowing. The snow is just about possible. The sand… well, see the picture at the top. That was Brighton in June 2016. There will have been some geological upheaval, but still…

The problem here is not so much the historical research as the geographical research. And that’s social geography, religious geography, as well as physical geography. I know the landscape that Greeley is trying to write in, and every mistake jars. Not, admittedly, as much as that Alyssa Cole book where the hero turns out to be the Duke of Edinburgh (now that’s something you really should look up before you start writing), but it jars.

Fortunately, things got a lot better after that, and I got to the end with only a couple of hiccups: wondering when the word ‘orange’ was used to describe the colour (the 16th century apparently, so that’s a pass) and thinking that it’s slightly odd to talk about Kent being ‘only forty miles away from London’. I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at those if I hadn’t been so annoyed about the BCP thing. And everything else about it really was very good. The depiction of addiction and coercion, the challenges of entering society a decade late and massively underprepared, the convincing depiction of a same-sex relationship in that particular context, the physicality… I do recommend it. But.

All this gives me much to think about as I embark on long-form historical fiction for the first time. Can my Yorkshire Quaker shop steward call his much younger boss ‘thou’ in 1919? (Actually, he probably would, and get away with it, but I can’t have him doing it, because it will throw the reader out for as long as it takes them to wonder the same thing – which might be all the rest of the book.) I was going to send my main characters to Hastings on honeymoon, but it turns out there was a blooming great U-boat cluttering up the beach all that summer. Which I think might be a bit too, er, metaphorical. I think I’ll send them a mile or so down the coast to repent at St Leonards instead.

Briarley (Aster Glenn Gray)

Paperback copy of 'Briarley' by Aster Glenn Gray, in a rosebush.

The books that I add to my LGBTQ Christian fiction recommendations don’t usually get their own posts, but this one felt almost as if it was written especially for me. Which is not something that I thought I’d ever say about a Beauty and the Beast retelling, but here we are. (Nothing against fairy tale retellings; it’s just that I haven’t happened to read one since rereading Adèle Géras’ Egerton Hall series, over a decade ago now. I shouldn’t have got rid of my copy. Actually, it occurs to me now that The Tower Room is what introduced me to St John of the Cross, so perhaps there’s a connection after all.)

Anyway, it’s 1940, the father is a country parson and Great War veteran, the daughter is a nurse, and the beast is a dragon. The parson (his name is Edward Harper, but the narrative mostly calls him ‘the parson’) does the rose-stealing thing, but refuses to let the dragon abduct his daughter, on the grounds that a) she has her war work to be doing; b) it’s wrong to punish the daughter for the father’s misdeeds; c) if the dragon needs to be freed from his enchantment by the power of love then it’s the parson’s Christian duty; d) 1 Corinthians 13.

That’s not how you learn to love, not at all. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it does not kidnap –

One thing that I’d forgotten in all my years of not really reading retellings was that what’s interesting is not what the story does, it’s how it does it. It’s the setting; it’s the twists; it’s the characterisation. We all know where we’re going, but the journey might be surprising. In this case it was a very good surprise.

The portrayal of wartime rural England wasn’t bad at all; the enchanted house stuff was all in line with the fairy tale. More to the point, from my point of view, was that there was a real sense of theological literacy, and that was refreshing. I only put books on my recs post if they get to a point where they acknowledge the possible coexistence of Christianity and queerness within one individual, but several of them never get much beyond a superficial (and often borderline antisemitic) rebuttal of Leviticus 18 (“but prawns!!!”). This one felt much more comfortable in its arguments. It helped that one of the main characters had already done the thinking, yes, but it went beyond that. I very much got the sense of faith and/or religion as something in which these characters lived and thought. There’s a throwaway reference to David and Jonathan and a long-running, sophisticated riff on hospitality and the sin of Sodom. (Had OT scholarship got that far by 1940? I’m not sure, but it works in the book, which tends to rely on experience rather than scholarship.) There’s a committed, personal, engaged wrestling with 1 Corinthians 6. And this was true for the minor characters, too: I particularly liked the moment when one of the servants (invisible, not transfigured into household objects, in this version) responds to a “doubting Thomas” reference with, “Ma’am, I haven’t spear wounds you can probe.” Ownership of scripture isn’t restricted to the clergy here. This inhabiting of a common religious inheritance never felt heavy-handed or out of character, but it was always taken seriously.

One thing that was missing was the immersion in the Prayer Book and the Authorized Version, such as you’d find in Streatfeild or Sayers or other mid twentieth century British authors writing about this sort of milieu. This didn’t bother me on the first read (straight through, last night) but struck me when I was thinking about it this morning. The 1 Corinthians 13 bit, for example: really it should have been ‘Charity kidnappeth not.’ But that would have rather undermined the lovely quibble on the different sorts of love (of course the enchantment is picky about the sort of love required to break it) and so I’ll let it off.

Other nitpicks: there was a moment towards the end of the book that didn’t quite sit right with me, but I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t talk about it. Only one out-of-place Americanism (a “gotten”) tripped me up. There was a cricketing detail that felt slightly off, but may well have been plausible for the mid nineteenth century; I have no idea. Finally I was a bit worried about the parson’s poor neglected parishioners, but he did at least feel bad about neglecting his duty (unlike some fictional clergy we could mention), and had a reasonable excuse.

This is a short book – 165 pages in the paperback edition. I would have loved to read more of the parson’s backstory, but at the same time it felt like exactly the right length; we knew as much as we needed to. And it meant that I could finish it at a reasonable hour and might read it all over again tonight; who knows?

Anyway, if you like my stuff and you like dragons you’ll probably like this one. Very much recommended.

Briarley

Landing (Emma Donoghue) #EU27 project

Paperback copy of 'Landing' by Emma Donoghue, with a coastal scene and wooden blocks with pictures of an aeroplane, a compass rose, and a maple leaf

Four books into the #EU27 challenge, and for the first time I’ve managed to read something that was actually written in the European Union. Except, according to the cover, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Oh well. She’s Irish, much of this book is set in Ireland, and people pay for things in euros. I’m going to count it. I’m also going to count it towards the Sapphic Reading Challenge, which I’ve been keeping up with but not, as yet, posting about.

Published in 2007 (the year in which I last travelled by plane, incidentally), this is a complicated romance between an Irish-Asian flight attendant and a Canadian museum archivist. And, while I’ve been doing a lot of escapist travel reading throughout the pandemic, I wouldn’t say that this was a book to induce wanderlust: it’s too clear-sighted about the trials of travel, and of being in love with someone who’s thousands of miles away. Though there’s a real affection for the real Ireland and for the fictional ‘Ireland, Ontario’ I didn’t find myself planning an expedition, the way I have with some other places.

I could add all sorts of tropey genre tags – long distance relationship, age gap romance, opposites attract – but they wouldn’t come close to conveying the depth of the novel. I would want to say that all of them add up to make for two interesting, complex characters. (And the supporting cast on both sides of the Atlantic deserves a mention, too: from the stoner ex-husband to the obnoxiously precocious god-daughter.) I wasn’t convinced that their relationship was going to last beyond the end of the book, but watching it get as far as it did was fascinating.

Fragment (consider revising)

Seedlings in small pots of composts

Jack Kerouac famously stuck hundreds of sheets of paper to make one long roll so that he could write On The Road all in one go. This is not an approach that would have worked for me.

As I’ve remarked before, I’ve never been one to start at the beginning of a story, and go on until I get to the end, and then stop. And it seems that over the last year I’ve become even less inclined to do that. At the moment I have six documents open:

  • an experimental anthology that may or may not be going somewhere (4,532 words since summer 2019)
  • the Ruritanian thing (30,642 words since summer 2018)
  • the historical novel (13,659 words since this February)
  • a how-to-write-your-book-while-holding-down-a-job workbook (7,886 words since summer 2020)
  • and two short stories (6,851 words and 631 words respectively)

Not to mention, of course, this post.

My current approach is, every day except Sundays, to open up everything I’m working on and add a sentence to each of them. Depending on where we are in the month and how knackered I am, I might then keep going on whichever one or ones of them take my fancy.

Sometimes I manage whole paragraphs; very rarely, whole scenes. Sometimes I come back from a walk with the next scene in my head. Sometimes I write it. More often it was my morning walk and I have to do my day job, and so I write myself a note at the breakfast table:

Cherry Ripe – the garden at the Beaumont house – resolves the Parry question

crisis: factory brawl, domestic brawl

Ben & Mack could go to Paris?

Which gives me something to start from later in the day.

(Please do not suggest that I get up earlier. Getting up earlier does not work for me.)

I do not always add complete sentences. I have a feeling that I used to add complete sentences, but lately I’ve found it easier just to write the words that are in my head and come back to the other ones later.

Blame pandemic brain, or else the fact that I’m doing all my writing on the laptop at the moment and can get away with this sort of approach. Either way, it results in a lot of my writing looking something like this:

[He leaves]

Did I feel weird about sleeping in Amelia’s pyjamas in Amelia’s bed? Not remotely. I was far too tired to have scruples about something like that. I slipped between those smooth, white, hotel sheets,

It would have been nice if it had been a dreamless, untroubled, refreshing sleep. I thought I deserved some peace and quiet. I didn’t get it.

[nightmare]

[phone ringing]

All except the alarm, which turned out to be the phone. Automatically, I reached for the receiver.

There’s a lot that isn’t there yet, and what is there isn’t exactly inspired. It leaves me a lot to sort out later, of course. But, weirdly enough, that turns out to be an advantage. When I open up my six (or however many) documents it’s quite handy to find a pair of square brackets that I can fill in, or half a sentence that I suddenly know how finish off. And sometimes I keep on going.

It probably isn’t the most efficient way to write a novel. (Or, in this case, two novels, an anthology, two short stories, a workbook, and a blog post.) I’ve no idea when or if I’m going to finish any of them (except the blog post). But at the moment it seems to be the only way that I’m writing anything at all. And it adds up. And it keeps the pilot light on. So let’s go with it.

The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, in a three volume Penguin paperback edition

I was somewhere in Purgatory when I realised that I could count The Divine Comedy towards the EU27 Project.

A tradition of mine (it’s been two years now: I can call it a tradition) is to attempt a daunting Christian book over the Easter weekend. Last year it was Julian of Norwich. Easter was a little later last year, and spring was a little earlier, and there were no services in church, and there was all the time in the world to take a folding chair out into the back garden and read. Result: I would no longer call Julian of Norwich ‘daunting’.

This year I thought I’d try Dante. I stayed on the sofa, though. I finished Paradise on Sunday morning. In the afternoon it was just about warm enough to read outside.

This is the third book I’ve read for the EU27 Project, and all of them were written outside the European Union. (The next one up breaks the pattern and actually mentions euros.) The Divine Comedy is, of course, the oldest. When Dante was writing the unification of Italy was centuries away, and the idea of a unified Europe was – well, I don’t want to say utterly foreign, because of course there was the Holy Roman Empire and the memory of the Roman Empire to work with. And he does. But he’s writing as an exile from a bitterly divided Florence.

My medieval history is extremely shaky, particularly outside England, and I had no idea who about 70% of the personages we encounter. The notes were useful here; so, too, was giving up worrying about which corrupt Pope was which and just going with it.

Dorothy L. Sayers isn’t afraid either to be a vigorous Dante apologist or to relate the people and politics of his context to her own. This helped a lot. He’s writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, having experienced first hand the bitterness of civic feuds. She’s writing in the middle of the twentieth century, in a world that has just been brought face to face with the fact of how utterly depraved humanity can be.

And this was something that I, reading in the early twenty-first century, found very comforting. We do, in fact, live in precedented times. The world has been a mess since we left Eden; it’s a mess in a different way this time round, and I don’t always agree with either Dante or Sayers about the appropriate response to that – but it resonates. The anger resonates, the despair resonates, the hope resonates. And then that leap into a bigger picture which none of us is actually qualified to see, whose portrayal is wonderful in its own inadequacy… I loved it. Dante’s worldview is very different from my own, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

Reading The Divine Comedy over the Easter weekend allowed me to follow it in real time, sort of. I didn’t start until the morning of Good Friday (Dante gets lost in the wood on Maundy Thursday), managed to keep up through Hell, and then had to sprint a bit in various parts of Purgatory owing to the demands of Easter socialising and the fact that I had work to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Once he gets into Paradise we lose the time markers, and so I slowed right down again until Sunday morning, when I finished it all off at once. The momentum helps. The notes are intimidating, particularly in the thickness they add to the books, but helpful. I might read up on some medieval popes and Holy Roman Emperors and go back to it in a bit. As for next Easter, I’m thinking of St Augustine.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: T

West front of a cathedral with two west towers and one central one in yellow-grey stone, seen across a broad grass green
Wells, standing in for Torminster. We’ll get there shortly…

Tarta is purely a place to spend the night, so I return to The House of the Four Winds and Evallonia for the sake of the inn, which is another of those wonderful Buchan establishments:

Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appendage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the town folk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.

You could come by horse, as implied here, but it’s the 1930s and this party is travelling by car. Start in the Tirol (more on that next time), drive all day, cross the Rave, pass through the village of Zutpha, and follow the boundary of the Odalchini estate. Dinner will be worth it.

Alyssa Cole’s Thesolo takes us to Africa for the first time in this series. (In fact, reading her Reluctant Royals series earlier would have solved my problem finding a place for the letter N, since we also visit a country called Njaza.)

I have to say that I think the way that Cole introduces the country is absolute genius: our heroine Naledi receives an email headed Salutations from the Royal Family of Thesolo. No wonder she thinks it’s a scam. The reader, more familiar with the conventions of the genre, knows better, and into that gap between the character’s suspicions and the reader’s knowledge Cole slips an entire country.

Much of the action takes place in the USA, and we learn about Thesolo little by little. It’s in the south of Africa. (In fact, a little anagram work makes it seem plausible that it’s modelled on Lesotho.) There is ‘an above ground light rail system in the main city’. (This is the sort of detail I like. I am always here for fictional public transport infrastructure.)

It’s at about the two thirds mark that we arrive in Thesolo, and it is perhaps not what we expect:

Your current location is fifteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains, and it is winter. It’s ski season here.

You can get there by private jet, getting a good view of the mountains and waterfalls, if you are a reluctant royal. There seems to be a reasonable commercial service, too. And of course the longer we spend there the more we learn about the culture, the scenery – and the politics. Of which there are plenty. Delicious.

And T has a cathedral city, too, in Torminster. Elizabeth Goudge says in the foreword to my edition:

Torminster is not an entirely accurate picture of Wells in Somerset, where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life, but I think it is an accurate picture of a small west-country cathedral city in those safe, motorless days.

I have a soft spot for Wells; I was there for a week with a visiting choir in the summer of 2013, and spent most of the time when I wasn’t rehearsing finally getting Speak Its Name into a coherent shape. Here is Torminster in the narrative:

The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible, a thing you could see but not touch. It lay in a hollow of the hills like a child in its mother’s lap, and it seemed that as it lay there it slept. It looked so quiet that it was hard to believe the ordinary life of men and women went on in its streets. Rather it seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of the bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. Jocelyn could see a confused mass of roofs and chimneys and church spires, some high and some low, weather-stained and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. The smoke from the chimneys went straight up into the windless air and then seemed to dissolve into a mist that lay over the city like the waves of the sea that had drowned it, and out of this sea rose a grey rock with three towers… The cathedral… It stood there gloriously, its majesty softened by the warm day but not diminished, its towers a little withdrawn in the sky but no less watchful.

Gorgeous.

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole

A Prince on Paper, Alyssa Cole

City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRST