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"To Dream of the Dead" is the tenth book from Phil Rickman in the Merrily Watkins series. The Merrily Watkins series began in 1998 with "The Wine of Angels" and follows the adventures of a female Church of England exorcist in Herefordshire.
Although this sounds a somewhat ludicrous notion, Rickman deals with the character deftly and we find that Merrily is quite an ordinary woman with a deep spiritual side to her. Merrily deals with several issues throughout the series, such as her teenage daughter Jane's antics and her own guilt over the breakdown of her troubled marriage and the subsequent death of her husband. We also see the development of her relationship with Lol, a lonely musician.
Merrily is the vicar for a small village called Ledwardine and at first meets a lot of resistance as a female and an incomer. She is also a single mother and when Jane embraces Paganism the village is scandalised. Her subsequent status as an exorcist or as the Church terms it, Deliverance minister, also causes some problems.
Merrily is often caught up in situations that she has to investigate as the diocesan exorcist. Generally the events that occur are due to criminal activity rather than spirits. Merrily is quite sceptical when it comes to her Deliverance duties at first and will not take things on face value. This is interesting as a reader as it allows you to question the events of the story.
As this is the tenth book of the series a lot of the characters are recurring and are usually friends or acquaintances of Merrily. The detectives are recurring, such as DI Frannie Bliss and his boss Annie Howe and they play a large role in "To Dream of the Dead". Bliss is quite an entertaining character, especially in his intense dislike of his boss Annie Howe, and is a friend of Merrily's. Annie Howe is known as "The Ice Maiden" and dislikes everyone.
The book is set in late December and Ledwardine is threatened with flooding. There is a debate raging with the council over the discovery of buried Bronze Age stones in a meadow earmarked for development - stones which were discovered by Merrily's pagan daughter, Jane.
Another prehistoric site, the Dinedor Serpent, is threatened by the building of a new road and a grisly murder is soon linked with it.
The details about paganism are quite interesting and are carried over from the other books in the series. Rickman looks at the common perception that all pagans are mad hippies and is quite good at showing many of them as normal people. However he is always quite balanced so some are shown to be a bit over the top. Rickman is good at showing extremism from both sides in the religious vs secular debate.
Merrily also has to deal with a fervent evangelical parishioner who sees her as evil and also discovers an author living nearby who is in hiding from religious fundamentalists after the success of his book rubbishing religion and embracing atheism.
The character of Merrily is well drawn - she is normal, even down to her cravings for cigarettes. She is sympathetic and is easy to like as the protagonist of the series.
Jane is also likeable but can be a bit irritating as a precocious teenager with New Age ideals. Jane's Welsh boyfriend Eirion is a solid character and loves Jane despite her airy fairy nature. Rickman has done well in portraying the different phases a teenage girl goes through however and also deals well with the sometimes fraught relationship between mother and daughter.
Merrily's boyfriend, Lol, is also likeable as a fractured and somewhat reclusive musician whose love for Merrily has changed his life. His blossoming musical career is quite a large part of this story and the series as a whole.
We also see Gomer Parry, an older man and a good friend of Merrily and Jane's, who has become their self-appointed protector. We see the friendship between them developing throughout the series and it is quite touching, especially when Gomer loses his beloved wife, Minnie. Gomer is always happiest when he has something to do and is always helpful to Merrily and Jane with his local knowledge.
Rickman also looks at the effects of incomers or those "from Off" in small villages. The village mentality is examined and we see how people who have lived in the vicinity for 30 years or more are still considered as "from Off" as they weren't born there. We also see how local young people cannot afford to stay in the area as the "weekenders" force the housing prices up and then only come a few times a year.
Rickman examines many social aspects throughout this series and it's not all about religion despite having a female vicar as the protagonist. The corrupt practices of local Councils are also a favourite of Rickman's.
I enjoyed this book as I have read all of the preceding books in the series and understand the characters and their relationships. As a stand alone book I think it would be more difficult to get into.
Although the story was interesting and kept me guessing I just didn't feel that this book was as gripping as the previous Merrily books. I usually read them very quickly as they are compulsive reading but I found that I took my time with this one.
However, despite this I would recommend this book if you are a fan of the Merrily Watkins series. If you've never read Phil Rickman before give him a go, but start with the first in the series. Rickman has also written other books outwith this series but also dealing with village life and paganism.
This is available on Amazon from £4.79 in paperback.
This review is also on ciao.co.uk under my username.