The Light Between Oceans by M.L.Stedman

The story opens in 1926 but Tom Sherbourne actually met Isabel near the end of 1920 on the “long, thin jetty at Point Partageuse” where she was “feeding bread to a flock of seagulls. She was lauging as she threw each crust in a different direction and watched the birds squabble and screech, eager for a prize. ”

“It seemed years since Tom had heard a laugh that wasn’t tinged with a roughness, a bitterness….Only gradually did he notice she was pretty. And more gradually that she was probably beautiful.”

She offered him bread and he replied that he was not hungry.

“Not for you silly! To feed the seagulls.” And they had a contest to see which of them could get more birds to come to them. When the bread was gone, Tom asked her who had won.

“Oh, I forgot to judge.” The girl shrugged. “Let’s call it a draw.”

Tom wished her a good afternoon and the story was set in motion.  Feel like a movie? Well, that is going to happen apparently in 2016 with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander already cast as Tom and Isabel. I highly recommend you read the book first given that books so often either complete movies or, most certainly, clarify their plot lines.

The setting is Australia’s southwest tip in a lighthouse on Janus Rock and a Light Between Oceanssmall town called Point Partageuse, named by French explorers.  A map is provided at the beginning of the book and this is something I always appreciate.

Janus Rock lighthouse had been built in 1889 and held the graves of sailors who had foundered on the rocks off Point Partageuse. The lighthouse “sat solidly in the middle of the small island (about a square mile), the keeper’s cottage and outbuildings hunkered down beside the lighthouse, cowed from decades of lashing winds.”

Tom had served on the Western Front during the first world war and when he came home he applied to the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service. He had an honourable discharge and preference was given in the lighthouse service to ex-service men. He got a six months’ relief posting on the New South Wales coast and then a posting on Maatsuyker, a wild island off Tasmania.

Tom wasn’t physically wounded during the war but he had wounds nonetheless and he figured if he could get far enough away from people and from memory then time would heal.

Janus Rock was not a popular posting: it had a Grade One hardship rating which translated into a higher salary. The present keeper was being put on a six months’ medical leave and although a married man was preferred, Tom was sent out as temporary keeper.

On the way to the southeast shore and Partageuse Tom was part of an incident on board the S.S.Prometheus which speaks succinctly to his character. He sort of rescued a female passenger from the advances of a crew member who had been drinking and had entered her cabin. Tom removed the nuisance and tried to set the woman at ease.

“I’d say he’s not the full quid now.”  The woman’s eyes asked a question.

“Being over there changes a man. Right and wrong won’t look so different anymore to some.” He assures the woman she has every right to have the man up on charges although Tom figures the man probably had enough troubles already. Tom has no difficulty seeing several sides of problems and this will effect the course of his life as the story progresses. It will actually change the course of his life and his primary relationships.

This story is a romance and a mystery, a philosophical conundrum, a source of information about lighthouse keepers and the lives they live particularly in an isolated Grade One hardship posting and a social commentary on life immediately following the first world war in small town Australia. The landscape is a strong character in the book and holds out considerable promise for a movie as well.

A great story which will have you asking: what would I have done in Isabel and Tom’s shoes?

Some quotes from the book:

Isabel’s mother to Isabel’s dad re the “propriety of Isabel’s sudden “stepping out” with Tom: “Life’s a short thing. She’s a sensible girl and she knows her own mind. Besides, there’s little enough chance these days of her finding a man with all his limbs attached.”

On the ocean in general: “There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only the gods can summon. It hurls itself at the island, sending spray right over the top of the lighthouse, biting pieces off the cliff. And the sound is a roaring beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needed most.”

On the town of Partageuse: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember. Children can grow up having no knowledge of the indiscretion of their father in his youth, or of the illegitimate sibling who lives fifty miles away and bears another man’s name. History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent.”

 

 

Eona, The Last Dragoneye by Alison Goodman

This is the sequel to Eon, Dragoneye Reborn which I reviewed here early in the month of April 2014. (Go to Archives listed on home page in the left hand column) At that time, I had a copy of Eona in my possession but felt obligated to finish some other reads before delving into the sequel immediately. The latter disciplinary action was not easy and if you go back and read my review of Eon you will get a sense of why that was the case. I am glad that I waited: it made the experience even more delicious.

It is probably only fair to declare upfront that I have a soft spot for all books about dragons. If you do not have such a soft spot and are ambivalent about dragons, I can only offer you my deepest sympathies and encourage you to look elsewhere for your reading pleasure.

Now, to the continuing saga of the celestial dragons and Eona the newest dragoneye and her crimson companion who has not appeared in 500 years, the Mirror Dragon.

It should be noted that some sources have indicated that this book is a standalone or can be treated as such! Let me dispel that notion immediately: unless you don’t like to know the background of a story you are reading then go ahead and expect to be completely at a loss about what is happening in this book. If you are a serious follower of dragons then you would never question reading the first book first so we shall say no more.

From the Preface written by Prahn(teacher,Imperial Librarian and tutor of His Majesty, Kygo, rightful heir to the Imperial throne), son of Mikor,  “on this twentieth day of the new Rat Dragon”: “I can confirm a report that Lord Ido – the Rat Dragoneye – was instrumental in killing almost all of his fellow Dragoneyes and their apprentices in the quest for their power…I saw the bodies and we have all felt the tremors in the earth…Now the only Dragoneye Lords alive are the treacherous Lord Ido and the new Mirror Dragoneye, Lord Eon, who was seen escaping the palace. Lord Ido’s apprentice – Dillon – is also believed to have escaped.

…No one knows the whereabouts of Lord Eon. I pray that he is hidden far from the City. I know that he was under the protection of Ryko, one of the elite Shadow Men guards, and Lady Dela, a twin soul with a man’s body and a woman’s spirit…it can only be hoped that their combined skills will keep the young Dragoneye safe. Amid all the fear and lies circulating the Palace, a foul whisper has arisen that Lord Eon, a brother eunuch, is in fact a girl.” As readers, of course,Eona we have more information than Teacher Prahn and we are much more optimistic about the future of the youngest Dragoneye but we shall let the teacher continue as he updates or reminds us about the story to date.”

“I do not know how our Empire can survive with only two Dragoneyes and their beasts to control the elements, especially when one Dragoneye is an imprisoned traitor and the other an untrained boy. Although Lord Eon is quick and clever, he cannot control the earth energies by himself. For as long as can be remembered, it has taken the combined power of eleven Dragoneyes and their beasts to nurture the land. When the missing twelfth dragon – the Mirror Dragon – returned from exile and chose Lord Eon as the first Mirror Dragoneye in five hundred years, it was seen as an omen of renewed strength and good fortune. I pray that this is so, and that the return of the Mirror Dragon to the Circle of Twelve spirit beasts is not an omen of annihilation. A resistance force has long been gathering against Lord Sethon’s brutal war-mongering, but now they will have to stand against the entire army, and such a struggle will tear our land apart.”

In addition to the political setting described above there is the problem of the ten bereft dragons whose dragoneyes have been murdered. The only two remaining are Lord Ido’s blue Rat Dragon in the north-northwest and Eon’s red dragon in the east: “The Mirror Dragon. The queen. The other ten dragons had still not returned from wherever spirit beasts fled to grieve.”

“Tentatively, I formed our shared name in my mind – Eona – and called her power. Her answer was immediate: a rush of golden energy that cascaded through my body. I rode the rising joy, reveling in the union. …Deep within me, a sweet greeting unfurled – the wordless touch of her dragon spirit against mine – leaving the arm spice of cinnamon on my tongue.”

Then an attack by the returning dragons crashed into them: “sorrow tore at my hold on earth and heaven, I was spinning, the bonds of mind and body stretched and splitting. I had to get out or I would be destroyed.” Then she realized they would not attack their queen but that meant there was a new problem. “Perhaps this was the start of the String of Pearls, the weapon that brought together the power of all twelve dragons – a weapon born from the death of every Dragoneye except one.”

And so Eona begins to reflect upon what she needs to do. She has to learn to direct the Mirror Dragon’s power and also the force of ten spirit-beasts “reeling from the brutal slaughter of their Dragoneyes”. She has to study the red folio that has been passed to her through her ancestor Kinra which is written in Woman Script and which holds the secret of her hereditary power passed through the female bloodline, the only hereditary Dragoneye power in the circle of twelve. Eona’s union with the Mirror Dragon had heeled her lame hip and she could now run and walk without pain or limp but she was facing incredible challenges.  Her friend and supporter Ryko was dying of terrible injuries. Rain, storms, floods and earthquakes were threatening the land. And their General, Tozay, was warning that they must move on before Lord Sethon’s armies were upon them.

Alison GoodmanAll of the above information is conveyed in the first eleven pages in the second installment of this exciting story. Oh, and there is romance too but you will have to read about that as it is unfair and unkind to reveal all. And what of the future of Eona and the Mirror Dragon? What happens to Lord Ido? Dillon? Ryko? Dela? Vida…oh, sorry, you haven’t met her yet.

Do visit Alison Goodman’s website http://www.alisongoodman.com.au/ to learn more about her and her writing.

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodman

This is a delightful, daring, delicious, diverting and demanding dragon tale! And it has a sequel which I have started into already because I must know what happens next!

Most of what one needs to know is concisely provided in two pages entitled From the Primer Scrolls of Jion Tzu which states:

“No one knows how the first Dragoneyes made their dangerous bargain with the twelve energy dragons of good fortune. The few scrolls and poems that have survived the centuries start the story well after the deal was struck between man and spirit-beast to protect our land. It is rumored however, that a black folio still exists that tells of the violent beginning and predicts a catastrophic end to the ancient alliance.
The dragons are elemental beings, able to manipulate Hua – the natural energy that exists in all things. Each dragon is aligned with one of the heavenly animals in the twelve-year cycle of power…Each dragon is also the guardian of one of the twelve celestial directions, and a keeper of one of the Greater Virtues.”

Every year on New Year’s Day the next animal year begins and the dragon representing Eonthat animal becomes ascendant and his power doubles for the next twelve months. Also for that dragon a new apprentice is chosen and the present apprentice becomes Dragoneye and replaces his master who retires. The Dragoneye has enough power to move monsoons, redirect rivers and stop earthshakes. His bargain includes giving up his Hua to his dragon.

“Only those boys who can see an energy dragon can hope to be a Dragoneye candidate.” The boys go through a rigorous training program. This includes a study of Dragon Magic, based on East Asian astrology and based on the skills of sword-work and magical aptitude. It is understood that “women have no place in the world of the dragon magic.
It is said they can bring corruption to the art and do not have the physical strength or depth of character needed to commune with an energy dragon. It s also thought that the female eye, too practiced in gazing at itself, cannot see the truth of the energy world.”

At the outset we meet Eon at a training session: “I let the tips of both my swords dig into the sandy arena floor. It was the wrong move, but the dragging pain in my gut was pulling me into a crouch. I watched Swordmaster Ranne’s bare feet shuffle forward, rebalancing his weight for a sweep cut. Training with him always made my innards cramp with fear, but this was different. This was the bleeding pain. Had I miscounted the moon days?”

The Swordmaster tells Eon: “You’ll never be ready. You can’t even finish the approach sequence.”

Eon has a comfort that eases the harsh treatment from Ranne: “I was the only candidate who could see all of the dragons at will, not counting the Mirror Dragon, of course, who had been lost long ago. It took all my focus to see the spirit beasts and left me weary, but it was the only thing that had made the last two years of hard training bearable. It was also the only reason why a cripple like me was allowed to stand as a candidate – full dragon sight was rare, although, as Swordmaster Ranne liked to remind me, no guarantee of success.”

Needless to say,there is considerable pressure on the candidates for dragoneye apprenticeship. Eon ‘s friend Dillon was as worried as Eon was about the ceremony. Dillon and Eon “were the weakest candidates. He was of age – twelve, like all the boys in the circle – but as small as an eight year old, and I was lame. In the past, we wouldn’t even have been considered as Dragoneye candidates. Neither of us was expected to be chosen by the Rat Dragon in the ceremony tomorrrow. All the gambling rings have Dillon at a 30:1 chance. I was at 1000:1. The odds might be against us but even the council did not know how a dragon made its choice.”

Tough  odds! and reason to be worried. Lives would change for those who were not successful. “Candidates no longer fought for the honor of approaching the mirrors, but we still had to prove our strength and stamina in the ceremonial sword sequences. At least Dillon could complete the approach sequence, even if it was poorly done. I had never once managed the intricate moves at the Mirror Dragon Third.”

Much was riding on this contest. If the Rat Dragon chose a boy he would “hold status for twenty-four years; first working as apprentice to the existing Dragoneye and then, when he (that Dragoneye) retired, working the energies” himself. He would earn “a mountain of riches, even with the 20 per cent tithe” to his former master. To Eon, it meant that “no one would dare spit at him or make the ward-evil sign or turn their face away in disgust (because he was a cripple).”

If he did not get chosen, he would be lucky to be kept on as a servant in his master’s house likely as a slops boy or be sent back to the salt farm where he used to work.

No wonder Eon was puzzled by his gift to see all eleven dragons and his ability to shift his mind into the energy world and see those huge translucent bodies. He was told by the Armsmaster the day before the ceremony that he was never going to be able to get the Mirror Dragon Third sequence right but that there was a precedent for using a Reverse Horse Dragon Second and that Ranne should have told him about this. He checks with his master when he goes home and learns that what he has been told is correct. This means he has a chance.

Will he become a Dragoneye? How will he manage being a cripple and all? Why has it been made so difficult for him? Who are his friends? Who are his enemies? How will he manage against such odds? A great story that holds and grabs one’s attention to the end and leaves one wanting more, more, more!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine. …Sometimes I think I see it again, the arm, burning in the dark. Sometimes I can feel the ache of winter in my lungs, and I think I see the flames mirrored in the ocean, the water so strange, so flickered with light. …I looked back to watch the fire, and if I lick my skin I can still taste the salt. The smoke.”

These are the imagined words of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who was convicted of killing two men, Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson between the 13th and 14th of March in 1828 at Illugastadir, Iceland. Two other persons stood accused of the same crime, Fridrik Sigurdsson  and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir. They were found guilty in the District Court and the sentences were upheld by the Land Court in Reykjavík and remained in custody while the case was tried in Copenhagen’s Supreme Court where the original judgment was expected to stand.

Hannah Kent informs readers in the Author’s Note at the end of the book that her Burial Rites“interpretation of the Illugastadir murders and executions is informed by many years of research, during which I have accessed ministerial records, parish archives, censuses, local histories and publications, and have spoken with many Icelanders. While some historical characters have been invented, omitted, or had their names altered out of necessity, most … are taken from historical records.” There is a fascinating Program Transcript here which tells more of Hannah’s search for Agnes.

“Many known and established facts about Agnes’s life and the murders have been reproduced in this novel, and events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.The family at the farm of Kornsá did hold Agnes in custody after she was held at Stóra-Borg, and Agnes chose Assistant Reverend (Thorvardur) …Jónsson to act as her priest in her last days.”

When Agnes was brought from Stóra-Borg to Kornsá, the Mistress there ” was unpre-pared for the filth and wretchedness of the woman’s appearance. The criminal wore what seemed to be a servant’s common working dress of roughly woven wool, but one so badly stained and caked with dirt that the original blue dye was barely discernible under the brown grease spread across the neckline and arms. A thick weight of dried mud pulled the fabric awkwardly from the woman’s body. Her faded bluestockings were soaked through, sunk about the ankles, and one was torn, exposing a slice of pale skin. Her shoes, of sealskin, it seemed, had split at the seam, but were so covered in mud it was impossible to see how damaged they were. Her hair was uncovered by a cap and matted with grease. It hung in two dark braids down her back. Several strands had come loose and fell limply about the woman’s neck. She looked as if she had been dragged from Stóra-Borg, Margrét thought.”

When asked to raise her head, “Margrét winced at the smear of dried blood across the woman’s mouth, and the grime that lay in streaks across her forehead. There was a yellow bruise that spread from her chin down to the side of he neck. Agnes’s eyes flickered from the ground to Margrét’s own, and she felt unnerved by their intensity, their color made lighter and sharper by the dirt on her face.
“This woman has been beaten.” The officer searched Margrét’s face for amusement, and, finding none, lowered his eyes. ”

And so begins Agnes’s stay with Margrét and her daughters Lauga and Steina (aged 20 and 21 years). Margrét’s husband Jon is a District Officer under the supervision of the District Commissioner, Bjorn Blöndal. There are no detention centres or prisons in Iceland at this time and so the District Commissioner was responsible for finding suitable accommodation for prisoners who were not sent on to Copenhagen for execution. It had been decided to keep the prisoners in Iceland and to execute them locally to give a message to the populace. This is why Margrét has Agnes in her home.

The priest has been assigned because Agnes requested him. She had met him when she was very very young and he had helped her get across a river. He did not remember her at first but after some time he and Agnes establish a relationship within which Agnes is able to talk about what happened to her at Natan’s farm and what came about in mid-March 1828. Her story is compelling and the reader is drawn into it along with the Reverend and Margrét and even Lauga and Steina. Agnes works hard at a variety of tasks including both household and farm tasks and also shares her knowledge of herbal preparations. She is skilled and useful and earns the trust of the family even the skeptical Jon. She becomes far more to Margrét than another pair of hands and the Reverend  (Tóti) learns more from Agnes than she learns from him.North Iceland farm in winter

The winter isolation in the country is a character in the novel and inserts itself into the character of the people. It plays a major part in the murders and in the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators. While reading one cannot help but try to imagine what life would have been like for Hannah, for Margrét, for Jon, for Tóti, and/or for a number of other characters including the servants and even the executioner. (Northern exposure … an isolated farm near Iceland’s north coast. Photograph: Patrick Dieudonne/Robert Harding.)

To the Reverend, Agnes eventually reveals some of her relationship to Natan but she reveals more to the reader. “How can I truly recall the first moment of meeting him, when the hand I felt press my own was merely a hand? It is impossible to think of Natan as the stranger he was, once, to me. …I cannot remember not knowing Natan. I cannot think of what it was not to love him. To look at him and realize I had found what I had not known I was hungering for. A hunger so deep, so capable of driving me into the night, that it terrified me.”

This is an exceptional reading experience. Hannah Kent says that the book “has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman.” She has most certainly accomplished her goal.