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The Black Chalice, Marie Jakober, Edge, 2000, 460 pp.
The Black Chalice tells the story of the struggle between pagan and Christian beliefs in medieval Germany. It's a historical novel insofar as Jakober has done her research on the conditions of life, as well as the typical ways of thinking, of the era. It's also a fantasy novel, with many of the trappings of such, like magical powers and artifacts. The closest comparison is to The Mists of Avalon, especially in the conflict between the fading pagan ways and the ascending Christian ones, also in the explicit favouring of pagan over Christian. Jakober's book might be a thematic descendant of Bradley's, but The Black Chalice is far more tightly written and situates itself with greater detail in a historical moment. The Black Chalice also has some interesting parallels to Guy Kay's Sarantine Mosaic, most pertinently in the concern over whose version of events will survive for later generations. Jakober is less subtle than Kay in this regard, as we will see.
An elderly monk named Paul sets out to write down the events of his tumultuous youth. The apparition of a woman appears before him, enchants his quill, and disappears. Who is this woman and how does she have the power to make a monk's quill write only the "truth"? The story of Paul's youth makes up the bulk of the book, with only a few passages from the point of view of his older self. Paul was a squire for a knight named Karelian, and as the story begins, they are both freshly returned from the crusades in Jerusalem. Karelian is on his way to claim the lands which he won for his knightly prowess, and he decides to take a shortcut through an area of the woods that is of ill repute. Karelian and his men stumble upon the enchanted castle of Car-Iduna, and there they meet for the first time Raven, the sorceress who came to Paul and enchanted his quill. Raven and Karelian eventually fall in love. The plot finds its way, after a bit of meandering, to the conflict which becomes central to the book. After a troubled interlude with another noble family in the area, Karelian is enlisted by a duke named Gottfried in a scheme to enthrone Gottfried as the Holy Roman Emperor. However, things quickly sour between Gottfried and Karelian, and soon Karelian and Raven are fighting against Gottfried and his minions.
As I said, Jakober has done a great deal of research on the era. Two main points emerge from the narrative: the crusades were a bad idea, and medieval times were filled with misogyny. No news flash in either case of course! But Jakober takes a somewhat nebulous idea like medieval misogyny and explicates it lucidly and fully. Most of that comes from the narrative itself, but Jakober has also chosen the chapter epigraphs with care. For example, Chapter 1 has this quote: "'Nothing drags the mind of man down from its elevation so much as the caresses of a woman.' Saint Thomas Aquinas" (1). Or later, for Chapter 18: "'When a man has carnal knowledge of his wife and the pleasure of it in no way pleases him, but rather is hateful to him, then such commerce is without sin.' William of Auxerre" (174). These themes are echoed in Chapter 36, where Paul is forced to watch what Christian men do to Raven once she is in their power: "She was the disobedience which lurked forever at the edges of their consciousness, the loathsome carnality they resisted but could never free themselves from, not even now" (367). In Chapter 37, the reader gets a message about the nature of sexuality, but on the whole, Jakober manages to avoid preachiness. She has things to say but usually balances the needs of story and theme gracefully. To use another comparison, she never succumbs to the epigraph creep (to coin a term) that afflicted Herbert's Dune series, where the epigraphs got longer and longer and the drama became drier and drier.
This is the first book published by Edge, a new Canadian publisher for science fiction and fantasy, and they've done good work here. The Black Chalice is a slickly produced hardcover, with interesting and appropriate cover art (which is more than can be said for about three-quarters of new books being published, in my opinion). Edge has also put some thoughtful little touches into the book -- like different iconic drawings at each chapter heading -- that make the book polished and professional. Check out Edge's website (www.edgewebsite.com) for more information.
Last modified: October 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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