Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Review: The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman

A scientist and an astrologer, a mathematician and a sorcerer, and the queen's adviser in the hidden matters. John Dee is all this, yet his greatest desire is to build his own library and devote his life to studying. Much to his dismay, Queen Elizabeth I sends him on a mission to recover the lost bones of King Arthur from the one-time Avalon, now the gloomy town of Glastonbury that harbors dark and dangerous secrets. Dee is plunged from his world of quiet contemplation into the whirlwind of murder plots, witch hunts, grave robbers and the literally deeply buried secrets of the ancient and more recent kings.

Dr. Dee is not your typical dashing hero. He knows his books, but they have imparted to him precious little knowledge about the real world. The shy and socially clumsy bookworm (what, identifying with the main character? Me?) is forced to survive situations entirely novel to him. Including encountering an interesting woman.

While I love historical fiction, I don't often read historical mysteries. I enjoyed ”The Bones of Avalon”, however. It wasn't always easy to follow who did what and why, and I found the ending somewhat underwhelming, but I loved the rich period detail. Many of the characters are real historical figures and are, for the most part, skilfully drawn and have their strengths and weaknesses. The writing is beautiful, and while the pace is slow, I found that it fit the feel of the story. And the feel and the atmosphere were perhaps the best parts of the novel. There is eeriness, mystery and magic and the sense of the land and locations that is just... I was going to say incredible, but the right word here is credible.

I particularly enjoyed the conflicts between science and sorcery, and between Christianity and the 'old ways'. The lines between them blur, and it was amusing to read about Dee's astonishment when he is considered a 'conjurer' while he sees himself as a scientist, a man of enlightenment. This is one of the elements that make the book entertaining as well as thought-provoking, something I enjoy in a novel.

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