30 October, 2011

In Winter’s Shadow, by Gillian Bradshaw. Book review

First published 1981. Edition reviewed, Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-4074-4. 410 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

In Winter’s Shadow completes Gillian Bradshaw’s Arthurian trilogy, begun in Hawk of May (reviewed here earlier) and continued in Kingdom of Summer (reviewed here earlier). The central characters are Gwynhwyfar, her husband King Arthur, and Arthur’s chief commander Bedwyr. Other important characters are familiar from the legends, including Arthur’s illegitimate son Medraut and the warriors Gwalchmai (later Sir Gawain) and Cei. Fictional characters from the earlier books, including Gwalchmai’s servant Rhys and his wife Eivlin and Medraut’s companion Rhuawn, also reappear here.

After many years of struggle, Britain is approximately at peace. King Arthur and Queen Gwynhwyfar are beginning to restore some measure of prosperity and stability after the destructive upheavals of war. But although Arthur’s malevolent half-sister Morgawse is dead, the evil she set in train lives after her in the person of her son Medraut. Consumed by hatred, Medraut lives only to bring about the destruction of Arthur. Medraut’s first weapon is the shameful secret of his own birth. But it is the human frailties of Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr that give Medraut his second and most deadly weapon – one which may bring down not only Arthur but everything he has tried to achieve.

Although In Winter’s Shadow is billed as the third in a trilogy, it could be read as a stand-alone. Readers who have read the previous two will recognise events and people from them, and will pick up references to earlier incidents, but the main elements of the back story are filled in as necessary. Arthurian trilogies sometimes seem to fade by Book 3 or to sag under the accumulated weight of legend, but not in this case. I thought In Winter’s Shadow was the strongest of the three novels by quite a margin.

For me, the most compelling aspect of In Winter’s Shadow was the character of Gwynhwyfar, who narrates the novel in first person throughout. Gwynhwyfar as portrayed here is a fully three-dimensional character, with her share of human failings and her share of admirable qualities. She is intelligent and well educated, and sufficiently interested in the past to understand and share Arthur’s dream of recreating the best aspects of the lost Roman Empire, including impartial justice and respect for law. While Arthur is fighting battles, Gwynhwyfar is managing logistics and supply with a quiet fortitude that brings out the best in people and gets things done. Supply may be less than glamorous, but it is as essential as dashing tactics; as the old (apocryphal?) military saw has it, ‘Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics’. Arthur relies on her as much as on any of his warriors, and working together as partners in a shared task allows them to develop a deep and loving marriage. But the relentless immensity of the task inevitably puts a strain on their relationship, intensified by Medraut’s sly scheming.

The love triangle between Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr is completely convincing. No individual is entirely at fault, none is entirely blameless. They are three fundamentally good people who care deeply for one another, yet the conflicting demands of other loyalties, together with Medraut’s malice, conspire to twist their love into a destructive force. Gwynhwyfar is, naturally, at the heart of it, and her dilemmas, her choices, the consequences of those choices and the further dilemmas that follow from those consequences make for compelling reading.

The plot has few surprises for anyone familiar with the Arthurian legends. If anything, the well-worn tale makes the novel more poignant, as events rush to their inevitable conclusion and all the characters’ struggles to escape their fate merely serve to entangle them further. As well as the story of Gwynhwyfar, Arthur and Bedwyr, the tale of Gwalchmai and the boy Gwyn, begun in Kingdom of Summer, reaches its conclusion in In Winter’s Shadow. I noticed some deft references to other legends, for example the relatively minor character of Sandde Angel-face who appears in Culhwch and Olwen: “no-one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping”. No doubt there are lots of other subtle references like this that I missed.

A plus point for me was that fantasy and magic play almost no role in the plot, much less than in the previous two books (This might explain in part why I thought In Winter’s Shadow the strongest of the trilogy). Gwalchmai still has his Otherworld sword and horse, but if they have any magical powers they are scarcely mentioned. Medraut is said to serve the ‘Darkness’, as his evil sorceress mother Morgawse did before him, but for the most part this could be taken as a metaphor for ordinary human vices such as cruelty and greed.

A sketch map at the front of the book is useful for following the characters’ journeyings, for those not familiar with the geography of Britain and Brittany, although not all the places mentioned in the text are shown on the map. There’s no Author’s Note in the advance review copy; I don’t know if there will be one in the final version.

Moving retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of Gwynhwyfar, completing the story of Gwalchmai begun in Hawk of May and Kingdom of Summer.

29 October, 2011

October recipe: Stir-fried chicken wings with butternut squash

Butternut squashes are at their best in autumn, when their warm colour and rich flavour bring a welcome touch of comfort to offset the shortening days and the nip in the air. This spicy cross between a stir-fry and a braise uses butternut squash and chicken wings, and is a warming meal on a chilly day. It’s also quick to cook, ready in about 20 minutes after you’ve chopped up the ingredients.

Chicken wings are ideally suited to this recipe, because they are just the right size and thickness to cook in about the same time as the diced butternut squash or pumpkin. Larger joints, like chicken drumsticks, don’t work because they take too long to cook through. You could also use thickly sliced chicken breast or diced pork instead of the chicken wings.

Pumpkin works just as well as butternut squash, so if you’re planning to make a pumpkin lantern for Halloween and are wondering what to do with the pumpkin flesh, here’s a good use for it.

Serves 2

Stir-fried chicken wings with butternut squash

3 or 4 chicken wings, depending on size
Approx 12 oz (approx 350 g) butternut squash or pumpkin
Half a red or yellow pepper
Half a small onion or 1 small leek
Root ginger, approx 1” (approx 2 cm) cube
1 clove garlic
3 Tablespoons (3 x 15 ml spoon) light soy sauce
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) cooking sherry

Halve the chicken wings at the ‘elbow’ joint. This is quite easy to do with a sharp and fairly strong cook’s knife. I find it easier to cut just to the lower side of the joint, where the wing has two small bones (the upper part of the wing has a single thick bone).

Peel the butternut squash or pumpkin and remove the seeds. Cut into chunks about half an inch (about 1.5 cm) cubed.

Wash the pepper, remove the seeds and cut into pieces about half an inch (about 1.5 cm) square.

Peel and chop the onion (or wash, trim and slice the leek). Peel and shred the ginger. Peel the garlic.

Heat about 1 Tablespoon (about 15 ml) cooking oil in a wok or large frying pan. Add the chicken wings in a single layer and brown on all sides.

Add the diced butternut squash or pumpkin, and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes until starting to colour.

Add the chopped pepper, onion or leek, ginger and crushed garlic, and stir-fry about 30 seconds.

Stir in the soy sauce and sherry. Put a lid on the wok or frying pan, turn the heat down, and cook gently over a low heat for about 12-15 minutes. Turn the chicken wings once or twice during cooking. It’s ready when the juices run clear when a knife is inserted into the thickest part of the chicken wings, by which time the squash or pumpkin should be soft.

Serve immediately with noodles or rice.

26 October, 2011

Locations: Edale, Derbyshire

On the far side another blind valley bit into the hills, and beyond it the fitful moon gleamed on a line of dark cliffs crowned by rocky teeth.
“That’s Kyndyr!” Lilla exclaimed. “Luned says there’s no way over it!”
Severa laughed, as clear and buoyant as the skylark’s song. “There is if you’re with me! That valley is Combe’s hafod, and I spent seven summers retrieving stray sheep from Kyndyr.”
“… a lung-bursting climb up an ever-steepening rocky valley that pierced the hillside like a sword slash…”
--Paths of Exile, chapter 14

“another blind valley bit into the hills”
View over the Edale valley from the south

Larger version of same photograph

This photograph was taken from the middle of the ridge that forms the southern rim of the Edale valley, and you can see how the uplands form a ring around the head of the valley, enclosing it. You can also see this from the contours in the topographical map link. There’s a road into Edale at the mouth of the valley in the east, but the only way out of the head of the valley is over the hills.

“a line of dark cliffs...”
Close-up of one of the gritstone edges overlooking Edale

“...crowned by rocky teeth”
Close-up view of one of the tors

“...retrieving stray sheep from Kyndyr”
Lamb perched on a ledge halfway up a tor on Kinder Scout, bleating piteously for someone to come and help it down.
(Yes, it did get down safely. After ten minutes or so the mother ewe arrived, they bleated back and forth a few times, and then the mother showed the lamb how to jump across to another ledge and then down to safety, probably the way it got up there in the first place).

“an ever-steepening rocky valley”
The upper part of Grindsbrook Clough. ‘Clough’ is used in Northern England for a steep or narrow upland valley. This is the route taken by the fugitive party in Paths of Exile as they climb out of Edale and onto Kinder Scout.

‘Combe’ in Paths of Exile is modern Hope (see map link at end of post). Hope is derived from Old English ‘hop’, meaning a small enclosed valley, particularly one that overhangs the main valley. In the early seventh century as imagined in Paths of Exile, the language spoken in upland Derbyshire is Brittonic (an ancestor of modern Welsh and Breton). So I translated the Old English ‘hop’ into its approximate Brittonic equivalent, ‘combe’ (spelled ‘coomb’ in Cumbria), also meaning a small upland valley.

‘Kyndyr’ is Kinder Scout. See earlier posts for pictures of the Kinder Scout plateau and some of its gritstone tors.

‘Combe’s hafod’ in Paths of Exile is modern Edale (see map link), the valley immediately south of Kinder Scout and separated from the Hope valley by the long upland ridge of Mam Tor and Lose Hill. Several of the hamlets in Edale have the name ‘Booth’, a Norse word meaning temporary shelter (related to modern Scottish ‘bothy’). I have imagined that Edale in the seventh century was used by the inhabitants of Hope for summer grazing in the valley and on the slopes of the surrounding hills. ‘Hafod’ is a Welsh term meaning something like ‘summer farm’, roughly equivalent to the Norwegian ‘saeter’ or Scottish shieling.

Map links
Scroll around to see how Hope and Edale relate to each other

11 October, 2011

Writing About the Anglo-Saxons: History and fiction in the age of Sutton Hoo

I will be taking part in a one-day event "Writing About the Anglo-Saxons: History and Fiction in the Age of Sutton Hoo", to be held at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, UK on 23 October 2011.

No charge for admission. Book places in advance at Sutton Hoo Reception (01394 389700), or ask at Reception on the day.

Full details here

  • Talks on aspects of Anglo-Saxon history and culture and the challenges of recreating the world of early mediaeval Britain in fiction and non-fiction

  • Panel discussions

  • Question-and-answer sessions

  • Book signing

  • Carla Nayland, author of Paths of Exile, historical novel set in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria

  • PM Sabin Moore, author of Stormfrost and Brightfire, historical novels set at Sutton Hoo

  • Paul Mortimer, re-enactor and author of Woden's Warriors, a non-fiction study of Anglo-Saxon warrior culture

  • Steve Pollington, author of numerous non-fiction works on Anglo-Saxon history and culture

  • Connie Jensen, proprietor of Trifolium Books UK, publisher of historical fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England, including Paths of Exile and Bride of the Spear