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Well, I said in my last post that I'd write about Phil Rickman's novel A Crown Of Lights, so here I am. It's a much earlier work in the Merrily Watkins series than The Fabric of Sin, and for my money, it's somewhat better. Written in 2001, it deals with issues that are still hot topics today. It all starts when a young couple, Robin and Betty Thorogood, buy an old house in Old Hindwell, a little town on the Welsh border. The Thorogoods are practising capital-P Pagans, and together they aim to 're-consecrate' a tumbledown old church standing on their land by conducting a pagan ceremony in the church on Candlemas night. But Old Hindwell doesn't take kindly to this sort of thing, especially not since the arrival of Ellis, a vicious new evangelist vicar who owes more to American fundamentalist doctrine than anything the Church of England ever taught. Meanwhile, Merrily is called upon by a nurse friend to provide spiritual assistance to Old Hindwell's wealthy solicitor Weal, who literally can't let go of his dead wife and is insisting on having her buried in his wine cellar, a practise the anti-church Ellis fully approves of. And then the dead woman's sister mysteriously disappears. Sparks duly begin to fly and the scene is set for a confrontation that could turn violent as Merrily discovers more and more about the sinister vicar and his horrifying brand of religion.

Although some of these themes are so well-worn they could almost seem hackneyed, Rickman handles the conflict and resulting intrigue deftly, without resorting to cliches. That doesn't mean that many of the characters aren't spot-on, however. Robin Thorogood (the most militant of the two pagans) is a pompous ass of epic proportions whose bigotry very nearly surpasses that of Ellis himself, and pretty much all of his half-baked views on paganism and 'evil' Christianity ring horribly true to life. And it goes without saying that Ellis earns himself a one-way ticket to The Other Place before the book is even half-done. In one chapter, her C of E superiors railroad Merrily into representing the Church on a godawful Jerry Springer-style debate show on the theme of paganism, and the array of obnoxious Wiccans and pagans who spout their opinions on air are bitingly, hilariously realistic. And there are more scathing attacks to come. One of Rickman's most compelling themes in this novel is the domination of a small rustic town by a cadre of corrupt powerful men (and I say 'men' for a reason, since they all seem to be Masons) and he lines up an impressive parade of really bad bad guys. The sheep-like denizens of Old Hindwell come under similar fire, though Rickman is careful to imply throughout the series that not all Welsh villagers are sheep-humping moronic bigots - Merrily's own town, Ledwardine, has by now accepted her as a vicar despite her sex, and no-one there gives a stuff about Ellis either.

But in this novel it's often the characters who are only moderately religious who are the most interesting. Betty in particular turns out to be a more complex character than her role as 'high priestess' might imply, and her gradual loss of faith in her husband's pagan ideals is one of the most intriguing things in the book, though she remains a genuine psychic. Merrily's daughter Jane also seems less one-dimensional than in The Fabric Of Sin, even though she is some years younger in this book. Merrily remains fairly likeable, but less so than in the later book - she really is a bit of a doormat this time, and her indecision about which side to pick eventually gets frustrating. She feels unable to attack Ellis because he's C of E, and even after witnessing him abusing a member of his flock in a disgusting (and most un-Christian) exorcism ceremony of his own she still finds it hard to pull away. Which is a bit rubbish, really.

I prefer A Crown Of Lights to The Fabric of Sin because it is significantly better-written. The irritating tropes I mentioned in my last review are mostly absent here, and there is no Lol side-plot to distract from the main thrust of the narrative, since he has yet to enter the scene. This all leads to a style of writing that is less idiosyncratic, but more mellifluous, subtle and enjoyable to read. And hardly anybody talks on the phone! This time, all of the main characters take part in the back-breaking joys of nature. And as before there's a wealth of fascinating interwoven themes: the four St Michaels churches allegedly built in the area to contain a mythic 'Dragon' (which are real), psychic abilities, evil spirits haunting ancient ruins, strange occult messages, ancient Christian practises and non-hysterical descriptions of pagan activities all appear here.

If you're interested in finding out more, Philip Grosset reviews a number of Rickman novels here at Clerical Detectives. I can only agree with his verdict on both the books I've reviewed, though I think he's being a little bit harsh on The Fabric of Sin! I think both of them amply repay the reader's attention.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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