The only previous Phil Rickman book I have read (the first Merrily Watkins novel) was about ten years ago and I was not impressed. I found his style turgid, his story dull and his characters lifeless and dislikeable. At that point I vowed that I would never read anything by him again.
I stood firm to that conviction until I saw his latest - The Bones of Avalon - available on the Kindle Store at a promotional price of 99p. Since the subject matter (the Arthurian legends and the identity of the "real" King Arthur) has always interested me, I decided I'd be gracious and given Mr Rickman a second chance.
As well as the Arthurian angle, the book also had something else going for it, in that it is set in my favourite historical period - Tudor England. As such, the omens were good that here was a book that I might enjoy.
If you boil it down to its essentials, The Bones of Avalon is little more than an historical whodunit. It is 1560 and Elizabeth I has been on the throne for less than a year. Besieged at home and abroad by religious enemies who seek to depose her, Elizabeth is desperate to prove she is the legitimate ruler of England by discovering the bones of her "ancestor", the legendary King Arthur. She sends her astrologer, Dr John Dee and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester to the town on Glastonbury, to investigate the claims that the Abbey (dissolved by Henry VIII) was originally the final resting place of Arthur. When one of their servants is murdered, Dee and Dudley find themselves caught up in a dangerous world of occultism, religious plots and local politics.
This historical setting, of course, puts Rickman on a collision course with the popular Matthew Shardlake books by C J Sansom. Indeed, there are many common points: both are set in Tudor times, both feature main characters who are "outsiders" viewed with some suspicion by contemporaries and both have a knack for getting caught up in murders. Whilst not quite as strong as the Shardlake tales, The Bones of Avalon nevertheless is an interesting historical novel.
Much of the reason for this is that Rickman uses his two central characters well. Both are genuine historical figures and Rickman uses what is known about them from historical sources to help establish his version of them, using his imagination to fill in the gaps. The pair were friends in real life and Rickman captures this well, injecting a real sense of friendship into their relationship.
On the downside, Dee sometimes comes across as rather dour and dull - not someone with whom you would want to spend a great deal of time, and this can impact on the pacing of the book. Dee often comes across as a grumpy old man and there were several occasions when I got a bit sick of his constant moaning and "pity me" attitude. In a way, it's a shame that Dudley is mostly reduced to the role of support character because he comes across as far more interesting, and lights up the book whenever he appears. Interestingly, Rickman also gives another (probably accurate) side to Lord Leicester. Dudley is normally portrayed as a womaniser, a chancer looking to marry Elizabeth to secure the throne for himself. Whilst there is undoubtedly an element of truth to this, Rickman takes the time to show another (equally accurate) side- that of a highly intelligent, brave and fiercely loyal man who would do anything for his Queen and a man who probably genuinely loved her. This helps to make Leicester a far more rounded person than he often appears in both historical fiction and in many history books.
Just as Sansom does with his Shardlake books, Rickman gives The Bones of Avalon a strong sense of time, firmly establishing a convincing account of life in Tudor England. His descriptions of London and Glastonbury are based on known historical details, but he also successfully captures the sense of uncertainty, fear and suspicion that permeated English society during the early years of Elizabeth's reign, when no-one was certain who to trust and memories of the religious atrocities committed by Elizabeth's sister Mary were still fresh in people's minds. This atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion is central to the plot and Rickman establishes and uses it to good effect.
Less successful is the way in which Rickman uses other historical information. It's clear that he has done a huge amount of research into Elizabethan England and the lives of the real-life counterparts of his characters. He does, however, have a slight tendency to overuse this, to shoehorn in facts, figures and incidental historical figures and events that are not really needed or don't quite ring true. When he does this, the plot acquires a rather artificial feel which clashes with the strong, realistic atmosphere established elsewhere. One particular sequence towards the end of the book captures this perfectly in a passage where Dee comes face-to-face with another famous astrologer and mystic. It felt very contrived and awkward, as if Rickman was trying to prove the validity of his interpretation of the people and their time. Such occasions were relatively rare, but they reminded me why I'd not read a Phil Rickman book for over 10 years.
The mystical/magical element to the book was also disappointing. Rickman's books often focus on such themes, but it was often a little heavy and overcooked for me. There are some interesting thoughts on mysticism and a look at how perceptions of "witchcraft" have changed, but on the whole I found it a little dull.
As a historian, I was pleased to see that Rickman had included additional information at the end of the book, highlighting which characters and situations were real and which he had created for this narrative. It's always nice to have historical endnotes of this kind and I was rather surprised to learn that some of the minor characters in the tale were real; I had assumed that Rickman had made them up. This is a tribute to his characterisation and the seamless way in which he integrates them into his plotting.
On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by The Bones of Avalon. It features a interesting plot which grabs and keeps your attention, together with convincing and well-developed characters. I won't be rushing out to buy more books by Phil Rickman, but he has gone some way to redeeming himself in my eyes.
The Bones of Avalon can be purchased in print for about £6 (or cheaper second hand); the Kindle edition will cost about £3.50.
The Bones of Avalon
© Copyright SWSt 2012