Category Archives: Thriller

For the Joy of Reading: Warrior Daughter

This book has been sitting in my “To Read” pile for some time and, I am ashamed to say, that it was the recent death of the author that prompted me to tread it. That is a shame because it is an excellent book.
It is about Skaaha, the Gaelic, possibly Pictish, woman warrior of Irish mythology. I should explain immediately that the spellings used by Janet Paisley are anglicised to help her readers to be able to pronounce the names and the Gaelic spelling, as written down by Irish monks a thousand years after the possible events is Sgathach or Scathach. Her sister’s name, Eefay is really spelled Aoife, and the same applies to many of the names of the other characters in the book. The only name that we know to be real is Cartimandua, but that is a Latinised version of a Celtic, possibly proto-Welsh, name. There is no evidence that Skaaha actually existed apart from the mythological poems of the Ulster Cycle But that is the case with all pre-Roman Celtic societies. Celtic society was not literate. It did not produce written records.
But this does not matter. This is not a history. It is a work of literary imagination, a story, a prose poem, an entertainment. It is something in which we know that the Celts excelled. Their enemies, the Romans, tell us this. Also, there is the evidence that two of the greatest Latin stylists, Virgil and Livy, came from Gallia Cisalpina, the Celtic lands along the Po Valley, south of the Alps. We do not necessarily have to believe everything that the Romans allege about Celtic drunkenness and licentiousness, as this was the Roman excuse for conquest, bringing “civilisation” to savages. It is, however, reasonable to assume that they had a totally different culture to that of the Romans.
This is the basis from which Janet Paisley starts. She creates a wholly believable culture in which women could be warriors or blacksmiths, in which they shared husbands, in which marriage was not for life, and in which women were held in high repute. We know this because Cartimandua was the Queen-Regnant of the Brigantes at the time of the Roman invasion, and Tacitus tell us that it was the public whipping of Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, and the rape of her daughters that led to the revolt that nearly drove the Romans from Britain. Although this is not a history, it does use what historical evidence is available to make sure that the story is believable.
And what a story it is. It is straightforward adventure thriller. Will Skaaha and Eefay survive the machinations of the villainous Queen Mara? Will the chief Druid, Suli, an old blind woman be able to guide Skaaha through the perils surrounding her? Will Skaaha sleep with Ruan the Druid or Fion the warrior? Or both? Will the enemy raids along the coast be successful? Or will Skaaha fight them off? It is an exciting tale, and you do care about what happens to the protagonists.
But it is also a tale about Celtic mythology, about the celebration of the great festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasa (spelled Lunasa in the book) and Samhain (spelled Sowen). Of course, we have no idea how these festivals were celebrated. We can guess that Beltane was a fire festival because “tan” means fire in Welsh and we know the times of year at which they were celebrated. Indeed, we still celebrate May Day (Beltane), Lughnasa (Lammas), Samhain (Hallowe’en) and Imbolc (Winter Solstice) to this day. We do not know what happened even though the Romans tell us that they got drunk and had sex. Janet Paisley creates a believable spirituality for these festivals. That, in itself, is remarkable.
I do have some quibbles. In one scene, an eagle catches a rabbit in its claws. A hare would be plausible, but a rabbit in pre-Roman Britain is simply inaccurate. There are arguments about whether it was the Romans who introduced rabbits to Britain after the conquest of 43AD or the Normans after 1066, but it does not matter. There were no rabbits in Britain at the time that the story is set.
My other quibble is that Janet Paisley says, in the Author’s Note, at the end of the book that these islands were called Alba (Scotland) or Albion (England). She ignores the Welsh word Prydein completely although this is clearly the word from which the Romans derived the name of their province, Britannia. As a Welshman, I find it rather tiresome and annoying to be written out of our history, our shared history, in this way. There is clear evidence that Welsh was spoken in Scotland. Place names using the word Aber (confluence) give it away, as in Aberdeen, Aberfeldy, Aberlour and Abertay, give that away. So does the use of the word Strath for valley. The Welsh word is Ystrad, and refers to a wide valley.
None of this distracts from the sheer pleasure of reading this book, and that is exactly what you should do.


For the Joy of Reading: Fault Lines

Doug Johnstone requires you to believe two improbable things at the start of this book.   First, that a volcanic island has erupted in the Firth of Forth, turning Edinburgh into an earthquake zone.   And secondly, that Louise, a geologist going into labour at the time of the eruption, decides to call her daughter Surtsey.   This is the volcanic island that emerged to the south of Iceland during such an eruption in, if I remember correctly, the 1960s.   Personally, I find the former more likely than the latter, but then people from Edinburgh are capable of anything.

Surtsey is the central character of this story.   It begins with a murder on the said volcanic island, which is called The Inch, from the Gaelic, Inish, which means island.   The one thing that we know is that it is not Tom Lawrie, one of Surtsey’s two lovers, because he is the corpse.   We also know that Surtsey was going to meet him on the Inch, for a romantic tryst, and that when she finds the corpse she rows away as fast as she can.   That happens in the first five to ten pages.   The question is, who did it?   And why?

One other person can be ruled out, and that is Louise because she is terminally ill in a hospice overlooking the Firth.   But otherwise, there are plenty of suspects.   Is it Alice, Tom’s vengeful wife?   Is it Halima, who likes getting Surtsey doped to the eyeballs?   Is it Iona, Surtsey’s sister, who is not coping with Louise’s illness?   Is it Brendan, Surtsey’s other lover?  Is it Donna, the old school friend?   Is it Bastian, the leader of the New Age protesters, who want the Inch left in peace?   At one point, I thought it might even be either Yates or Flanagan, the Rebus-like policemen, but lacking his vivacity and charm.   This should give you a clue about how difficult it is to work out whodidit?   I did, but it took me quite some time.

There is also a logic to the way that the story progresses.   From the discovery of Tom’s corpse, being devoured by seagulls and crows, and Surtsey running away, the possible options for her become more and more limited.   She has fled from a crime scene.   There are questions that run through her head.   When will the body be discovered?   Was she seen on the Inch?   Can she cover her tracks?   And, of course, who killed him?   This is not the usual progression in a detective story.   We know that she has something to hide, and we know what it is.   But this is not a detective story: it is a thriller.   There are certainly are thrills – plenty of them.    Doug Johnstone knows how to keep you on tenterhooks.

But enough of the story line.   You will need to read the book to find out what happens.   I am not going to tell you.   What I will tell you is that Doug Johnstone writes very much in the tradition of Raymond Carver.   To describe the writing style as short and pithy does not do these sentences the justice that they deserve.   They are sharp and to the point.   There is not a word wasted.   There is no fat in them to be trimmed away.   Yet, they manage to be elegant, conveying precisely the trajectory of the story.

One final thing: I got this book at the launch event last night in Edinburgh and I finished it over breakfast this morning.   I did get some sleep last night, but it was not enough.   I blame you, Doug Johnstone.