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"The Flame Bearer" by Bernard Cornwell

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"The Flame Bearer" by Bernard Cornwell
With The Flame Bearer Bernard Cornwell brings the tenth entry in his vivid Last Kingdom series (once known as the Saxon Chronicles). In it Lord Uhtred continues to focus his energy and his followers on retaking his ancestral home, the fortress at Bebbanburg. The action continues apace, with vivid, expertly done battle scenes, and  theatrical set pieces where Uhtred holds center stage at court, adroitly turning the tables on ambitious nobles and venal churchmen. Yes, all the usual thrills are here for your delectation.

While the campaigns with their vivid 10th Century battles do not come as frequently as in other Last Kingdom novels, Flame Bearer makes up for it with its climax. Uhtred must lull his usurping cousin into a false sense of security (through use of strategically placed misinformation) while running a blockade set by a fierce Norseman. Throw into the mix a third enemy, no less than the feared army of Scotland, led by its King Constatin, and you have unusually long odds, even for Uhtred. Suffice it to say the final battle scene makes up for the occasional - and comparative - calm that precedes it. Excellent stuff.

This is an escape I savor every time a new Uhtred of Bebbanburg book comes out. Cornwell excels at this writing, and is widely admired for it. It isn’t just every series that is made into a Netflix series - I was deeply interested to start watching it, but with my schedule that’s all I could manage - just the start. I am glad and proud that others have noticed the quality of the thrills, plots, characters, and yes, the truth of these tomes. Cornwell puts into his hero’s

Escape to 10th Century Britain. You couldn't find a finer time machine.
mind and speech the consciousness of war’s horrors, the plain if covered-up truth of men’s fear on the eve of battle, the honest and frank description of shit, and blood, and guts, and screams, and stench of it all. If these are things to escape to, let Cornwell be your guide. I have no idea now how many more books he will bring out in this series. I feel like I’ve been on borrowed time for a couple of books now, anything else has been and will be a bonus.

"The Loss of all Lost Things" by Amina Gautier

"The Loss of all Lost Things" by Amina Gautier
In one piece of Amina Gautier’s collection, a character sees a glimpse of a second chance, and actually seems to take it. In “Cicero Waiting” a teacher’s wife invites him to bed in a gesture so giving and so touching, that it stands out against the all-too-prominent self-absorption on display elsewhere. In “Cicero Waiting” a couple is trying to survive the loss of their three year-old daughter to kidnapping and murder. The father, who was taking care of the little girl at the time, cannot forgive himself, does not believe he is worthy.

These emotions fill this collection. The extremely human feelings of loss, guilt, regret, anger, and denial fill these pages and are very effectively portrayed. After failed marriages, characters (sometimes) grudgingly admit the possibility of their own partial fault. Others remain peevish or egotistical, or they deny their heritage, or they engage in highly ill-advised liaisons, sometimes even with their exes. The desperate guilt and loss some of these characters feel reaches us as true and authentic. This is Ms. Gautier’s achievement, and the proof of her skill.

The author sets most of these stories against a backdrop of academia, with tenured professors, respected specialists, and struggling graduate students. Ms Gautier does not shy away from depicting prejudice, or resentment, or self-aggrandizement, or confusion among this population - far from it. Her vision for her characters - and her undeniable success - is to set their raw, injured, or imperfect humanity on display.

There is a consistency in these stories. They’re executed well, their themes are set up and displayed succinctly, and some have a power to touch our hearts. And the author shows a solid range of voice and point of view, and she always suits them to her purpose. A solid collection by a young writer whom I will be watching.

"The Comet Seekers" by Helen Sedgwick

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"The Comet Seekers" by Helen Sedgwick
In her debut work of fiction, Helen Sedgwick has crafted a unique and soulful story that focuses on human loss and emotion, but also encompasses the entire universe. Lovers and family members orbit each other, comet-like, across continents and across the centuries, held in the thrall of love’s gravity. Sometimes the revelations at perihelion reward the orbiting soul; other times, we learn lessons less immediately gratifying. This is a touching and beautiful book.

We first meet Roísín as a young girl in 1970s Ireland, where she tries to indoctrinate her cousin Liam in the sights and facts of the nighttime sky, which happen to include a passing comet. Each chapter is named for a comet’s visit, and the dates range from 1079 to 2017. Comets attract scientific attention, while also heralding visits of another kind. Severine, who lives in the Normandy town of Bayeux, is visited by ghosts as each comet makes its appearance. These ghosts are her ancestors, and each has a personality and a story of their own. These ghosts carry an important load in the novel, and occupy much of Severine’s attention, to the detriment of her son François.

The conceit of the comets leavens the narrative while going it a framework. It expands the scope of the story and its imagined implications. Even this grand scale is expanded by Roísín’s shifting astronomical focus: from comets to exoplanets, to galaxies so far away they echo the beginning of the universe. And this is just her problem: with her wanderlust and her eyes on the stars, she forces away a devoted lover who will not quit his roots.

 

Severine meanwhile has visited the Bayeux Tapestry often, with its fanciful depiction of Halley’s Comet and its recounting of the Battle of Hastings. And the ghosts from France and Ireland visit her frequently and await her participation in their collective story.

These two protagonists occupy the lion’s share of the narrative: Roísín leaves her love to roam far and wide; Severine cannot bring herself to leave Bayeux and her ghosts, and thus continually disappoints her son’s desire to see the world. The two threads balance and contrast perfectly in an elegant construct that supports Ms. Sedgewick’s theme of the rarity and complexity of human love.

Her language does the same. There’s a restraint and a lilt that draws out the poignancy of many of the transactions. Time and again I’ve seen it: plain and quiet language leverages the weightiest themes into focus; plain language for complex ideas. This book is beautifully made and well worth your attention.