Rickman, Phil - 'The Heresy of Dr Dee'
This is the second book of Phil Rickman's new series, the Papers of Doctor Dee. John Dee was a real-life figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth I - an astrologer, scryer and scientist at a time when science and religion had not yet parted company. He had a European reputation as an academic and enjoyed the somewhat parsimonious patronage of the Queen throughout his lifetime. Fans of Rickman's modern-day Merrily Watkins series will know he is comfortable writing from the spookier borders of the supernatural, making Dee an appropriate series character for him.
The story begins in 1560. Dee has brought a fortune-teller to his home town of Mortlake to find out how to obtain a 'shewstone' - a crystal ball, in other words. Dee's research in Europe has convinced him of the efficacy of shewstones. His research is driven by scientific interest, but perhaps more importantly, by envy.
"The injustice mocked me daily - the learned bookman, heaven's interpreter, cursed by a poverty of the spirit. I knew more about the engines of the Hidden than any man in England, but I could not see except, on occasion, in dreams."
Finally, he has told the Queen he has a shewstone, and is afraid to show his face at court without being able to produce one.
Meanwhile, Lord Robert Dudley, Dee's former pupil and fellow adventurer in THE BONES OF AVALON, is widely suspected of murdering his wife Amy in order to clear his way to marrying the Queen. Despite their friendship, even Dee can readily believe Dudley could have killed Amy. Dudley, 'the most hated man in England', is ambitious enough and so convinced that his destiny is to marry Elizabeth that he might well see murder as a necessary step.
Dudley's rival William Cecil realises that the Queen is likely to reach out to Dee for advice about whether or not she should marry Dudley, and decides it would be expedient to have the seer out of the way for a while. Dudley offers to accompany Dee to the Welsh borders to locate and purchase a shewstone from the former Abbot of a dissolved monastery.
The pair join up with a party travelling to the new county-town of Presteigne. A London Judge is being sent to Wales to preside over the show-trial of a suspected bandit/nationalist named Prys Gethin. The creepy Gethin, leader of the 'Plant Mat' brigands, believes himself to be possessed by the spirits of national heroes Rhys Gethin and Owain Glendower. Even in chains he inspires fear and hatred.
Dee's quest takes him to his ancestral home near the hill of Brynglas. There, in the dismal atmosphere of an ancient battleground (Rickman really captures the grey, drizzly side of Wales), he meets with the local scryer Siôn Ceddol and his beautiful sister Anna, key players in the tragic drama that unfolds. Dee's final few days in Wales are a spiralling nightmare, as the supernatural takes on some all-too-real aspects and he is put into both spiritual and physical danger.
Dee is a charming narrator, guileless despite his intelligence, and at the mercy of political, economic and spiritual forces beyond his control. He takes a rationalist approach to 'the Hidden':
"I was in a profession which dismissed neither fate nor coincidence, only sought the science behind them."
His biggest frustration is that he has no innate mystical ability of his own - despite knowing more about the subject than almost anyone, he is envious even of the feral Siôn Ceddol.
He has an odd assortment of friends and allies, including plump, friendly Bishop Bonner (who was responsible for the burning of many Protestants during the reign of Queen Mary), the ambitious and driven Robert Dudley, and his cousin, the Welsh Robin Hood figure Twm Siôn Cati.
The story is as dense and as character-led as the Merrily Watkins novels, and also shares the strong sense of place and spooky atmosphere. There is humour as well as horror. Much recommended.
Read another review of THE HERESY OF DR DEE.
Rich Westwood, England
last updated 15/11/2013 09:54