Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Brother Cadfael, now the herbalist at the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury after wide travels as a younger man, is more interested in a chance to leave the abbey walls behind for a time and speak his native Welsh again than in his prior's mission to retrieve the relics of a little-regarded Welsh saint for the greater glory of their abbey. When the villagers where Saint Winifred is buried object strongly to the prospect of her bones being carried away into England, Cadfael's sympathies lie more with them than with Prior Robert or Brother Columbanus, a young monk whose fits were apparently cured by water from the saint's holy well and who now has an oddly proprietary interest in her remains.  The death of the main landholder in the area, found with an arrow through his chest, removes the main obstacle to Prior Robert's plans, a fact not lost on anyone present, and Cadfael must work to discover the murderer and devise a solution to the argument over the saint's bones.

One of the branches of the library system where I work has a monthly mystery reading and discussion group, and this month's book was A Morbid Taste for Bones, first of the excellent Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.  I brought my own copy, which I've owned since 1994.  I own the whole set, in fact, and now I'm probably going to go through and reread a bunch of them, if maybe not every one.

I didn't initially read them in order, but I like to reread them that way. This may actually be the series that convinced me that even the kind of series where each novel stands on its own is still best read in order; with this series, you can follow the progress of the Anarchy, the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, in the background of the separate mysteries Cadfael has to deal with.

In the discussion this week, someone commented that this series seemed to be the one that launched the trend of historical mysteries, especially medieval mysteries, that is still going strong and shows no signs of falling off.  This one was originally published in 1977, but I remember the series taking off in the late 80s or early 90s, and the television adaptations with Derek Jacobi certainly didn't hurt.  I still compare all medieval mysteries to these; and most of them don't measure up, either in terms of plot or character, and especially not in terms of historical accuracy.  The benchmark of the genre, even today.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Essential Bordertown

Some time not too long ago, no one knows how or why, the Border between the human World and the faerie Realm bisected a modern city, which was soon renamed Bordertown.  Neither technology nor magic is entirely reliable in the Borderlands; anything powered by electricity or internal combustion has to have a spellbox for backup power, while spells should only be undertaken with caution, in the knowledge that not only may they fail, they may fail spectacularly. Quickly abandoned by many residents who couldn't cope with the sudden infusion of weirdness, B-town just as quickly became a magnet for disaffected youth on both sides of the Border, and developed a musical and artistic culture of misfits powered by the runaways squatting in the slums of the district called (what else) Soho.  This book offers a sort of home-grown travel guide for malcontents, with illustrative examples of everything you need to know to survive on the Border.

I stumbled across editor Terri Windling's shared world of Bordertown kind of late in the game, when the second anthology of short stories (also called Bordertown) was reprinted in 1996, ten years after its original publication. Or maybe it was Emma Bull's 1994 Bordertown novel Finder that I read first? I forget, now that I try to pin it down, and that's okay, because Bordertown is kind of unpinnable anyway.  I do know that I scoured the new and used book stores of Chapel Hill trying to track down the other anthologies and novels; the first and third, Borderlands and Life on the Border, I got used, but the novel Nevernever I bought new, and I never did track down a copy of Elsewhere to buy (though I did read it, thank you Chapel Hill Public Library). It was also the library that provided me with a copy of this book when it came out in 1998.

I recently learned that after 13 years there's finally a new Borderlands book coming out later this month, Welcome to Bordertown. On learning from the Bordertown Series website that the books I didn't own were still in print, I ordered them just as soon as I finished my fangirl squee; I've got a pre-order in for the new one as well.

This series is one of the foundations of modern urban fantasy, and I can't recommend it enough if you like that kind of thing.