*****Against a Darkening Sky

great horned owl

Wilona’s spirit-guide (photo: SearchNet Media, Creative Commons license)

By Lauren B. Davis – I’ve been looking forward to this book ever since I knew it was coming (Lauren is my writing teacher), because it’s such a departure from her novels with contemporary settings. Davis is a distinguished Canadian author, and I wanted to see how she’d conjure and portray events of 1300 years ago. Now I know. Masterfully.

626 A.D. is a restless time in the medieval Anglian kingdom of Northumbria (now northern England and southeast Scotland). The traditional polytheistic world of augury and healers is about to be displaced by the sweep of Christianity, and the king is constantly threatened by a more powerful rival from the Midlands. These large currents also wash over the small village of Ad Gelfin, where the novel is set.

In the middle of this maelstrom are the traditional spell women, the seithkona—Touilt and her apprentice Wilona—powerful, vulnerable. They use medicinal herbs and tinctures, pray to the pagan gods, and are the closest to healers the community has. The beliefs they espouse are part and parcel of every aspect of daily life and involve the animals and spirits inherent to their place.

When Christianity comes to their small village in great pomp, with it straggles a young monk, Egan. His faith is strong, but in many ways he’s a misfit, most particularly because he sees good in the seithkona, while others simply want to destroy them. Whether the two young people, Egan and Wilona, can find their life paths in increasingly harsh circumstances is the plot of the book, whereas its many meanings—about the persistence of faith, about the quest for dignity and belonging—are universal.

Davis’s enormous accomplishment is in creating a world for Wilona, Touilt, Egan, and a compelling array of secondary characters that is consistent, believable, and true. She’s described the several shelves of reading she did in order to learn enough about that period to write about it authentically, and the care of her research had paid off for her readers. Wilona is especially compelling as a translator and defender of the pagan belief system, grounded in nature and the world around them. Confronting Christianity, which depends on extrinsic religious authority, changes the game utterly. It’s top-down versus bottom-up wisdom.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author Robert Olen Butler says Davis “brilliantly achieves the ideal for a dark, historical fantasy: period and milieu seem utterly inextricable from character and theme.” Those are its remarkable literary qualities; but from the reader’s perspective, it’s also a fascinating immersive adventure!

Read more about Lauren and her work.

2 thoughts on “*****Against a Darkening Sky

  1. What a thoughtful, well-written review! Of course, I agree with everything you said, but reading this made me understand the book even more than when I read it myself. Love your cogent remarks about the plot and the universal themes, something I am striving to make clear in my own work. Nicely done, and thank you!

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