Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Guest Post from Jeri Westerson, author THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT

Jeri Westerson, my favorite historical 'noir' writer, is back with the sexy, troubled Crispin Guest in her third novel in the series, THE DEMON'S PARCHMENT. Fans of Crispin's previous adventures, Veil of Lies and Serpent in the Thorns, will be excited to know that in this latest installment, Crispin finds himself again in danger when he warily takes on his most recent client, Jacob of Provencal, a Jewish physician at court. Though all Jews were expelled from England nearly a century before, Jacob has hired Crispin to find stolen parchments that might be behind the recent savage murders of young boys -- parchments that someone might have used to bring forth a demon which now stalks the streets and alleys of London.

Jeri has kindly offered this guest blog post to celebrate the October 12 release of The Demon's Parchment. Please join me in welcoming her to Historical Boys!

The Four Humors
By Jeri Westerson

No, this is not about the Marx Brothers. We don’t mean humor as in “ha ha” but humors as in exhalations of the damp variety. We are talking, well, bodily fluids. So, erm, why are we talking bodily fluids on this nice, clean blog, you may be asking? Because we are talking about my medieval mystery series and you can’t talk about things medieval without talking about bodily fluids…um, I mean Humors.

This was an ancient theory of physiology concerning one’s health and character. Indeed, one’s very soul might be in trouble if these four humors were not in balance. The four humors are Blood, Yellow Bile, Phlegm, and Black Bile, which were also associated with the four elements: air, fire, water, and earth. You see, to the medieval mind, the spiritual was bound up with the earthly. It all worked together.
So each humor reflected a particular color, if you will, of the body and spirit, and represented a good or bad constitution. These humors gave off vapors that went right to the brain and changed the temperament of the person.

Blood, for example, was a hot and moist environment and was associated with the element air. If you had balanced blood you were “sanguine” and prone to an amorous and generous temperament. Too much and you might go overboard and needed bleeding. Not enough and they would fill you up with red wine, which looked like blood (they were big into stuff that looked like other stuff. It seemed to make sense to them.)
Yellow bile was hot and dry and associated with fire. Too much yellow bile and you were “choleric” and tended toward violence and vengeance. Phlegm was cold and moist and associated with water. You were “phlegmatic” if you had too much of this and were dull, pale, and cowardly.
Are you sensing a theme here? That some of the vocabulary we use all the time had its origins in medieval medicine? Yeah, you’d be right. Sort of. This theory of the humors or humorism came down to us from the Greeks, Hippocrates in fact, but the medievals didn’t see too much wrong with these ideas and continued with this form of diagnosis well into the Renaissance. Black bile was cold and dry and was associated with earth. Too much black bile made you “melancholic” and gluttonous, lazy, and sentimental.

It was a quick way to diagnose your problems. If you were easily angered, then it was too much yellow bile and meant your gall bladder (certain organs were also associated with each humor). The best way to help you out was to diagnose and treat. Bloodletting to keep the liver healthy. Emetics and purges for the other three. For a diagnoses, there was also a lot of sniffing, examining, and tasting of urine.

Ah, those were the days.

The Boston Globe has called Jeri Westerson's hero, “A medieval Sam Spade, a tough guy who operates according to his own moral compass.” Her 2008 debut from St. Martin’s Press, VEIL OF LIES, garnered nominations for the Macavity Award for historical mystery and the Shamus Award for Best First PI novel. Her second, SERPENT IN THE THORNS, is also a 2010 Macavity finalist and a finalist for the 2010 Bruce Alexander Historical Mystery Award. To learn more about Jeri and her work, please visit her website.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review of THE SCARLET CONTESSA by Jeanne Kalogridis

Bestselling author Jeanne Kalogridis (The Borgia Bride and I, Mona Lisa) returns to Renaissance Italy in this vivid tale of one of the era's lesser known figures— the indomitable Caterina Sforza, illegitimate daughter of the duke of Milan, who married into the papal della Rovere family and ended up battling for her estates against the notorious Borgia.

Told through the eyes of Caterina's lady in waiting, Dea, the book sweeps the reader from the glamorous barbarism of the Sforza court to the vicious intrigues of Rome and insular savagery of rural Romagna. Dea is a strong narrator in her own right, her mysterious birth and determination to uncover the mystery behind her husband's murder propelling her into arcane magical knowledge linked to a secret society founded by the Medici.

Dea's compassion and loyalty to her mistress give the story its humanity; and while at times the supernatural dalliances can feel forced, Ms Kalogridis more than compensates with superb attention to details of the era and in her riveting depiction of the danger and ambition of a country broken into patchwork states, where families vying for power will do anything to ensure their success. Infamous Rodrigo Borgia, patriarch of the clan, strides across the stage as a magnetic master of seduction, terrifying in his resolve, and Caterina’s husband is a murderous giant with a weakness for gambling and appetite for mayhem. But in the end, the reader’s heart is captured by Caterina Sforza herself— a pampered, vain young girl married off to further Sforza influence in Rome, who grows into a shrewd and calculating wife possessed of a ferocious carnality, capable of intriguing with the best of the men to safeguard her dynasty; until finally she becomes the unrepentant virago of legend, resolved to protect her children and her lands from Borgia's marauding forces.

Ms Kalogridis has crafted a magnificent evocation of a tumultuous and complex era, where the ripple of silk hides a vial of poison, where the dagger in the sleeve is only a breath away, and where one bold woman dares to defy convention and live as she sees fit. Highly recommended!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Review of DRACULA IN LOVE by Karen Essex

Tomorrow, my good friend Karen Essex's latest novel, DRACULA IN LOVE, hits the stores! In celebration of its release, here's my review of this sumptuous and passionate interpretation of the immortal love story (this review first appeared on Loaded Questions):

Dracula Gets Sexy
He’s the enigmatic stranger in the black cape, a shape-shifting outcast who has given rise to some of literature’s - and Hollywood’s - most iconic imagery. When it was published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a critically acclaimed horror story; it did not send the shockwaves it should have through Victorian morality, excavating the repressed sexuality and decay of a fading empire while exalting the era's misogynistic flair. However, in subsequent years, as it garnered international bestselling status, Dracula began to reveal itself as a cautionary tale of unbridled desire.

Now, 113 years later, bestselling author Karen Essex, known for her lush prose and portraits of powerful women in Leonardo’s Swans, Stealing Athena, and a double-volume look at the quintessential femme fatale, Kleopatra and Pharaoh, takes on the Count in Dracula in Love. It’s a bold move. While Dracula has been revisited several times and in various incarnations, not all have been successful; and many of us have firm ideas of who he is, and, more importantly, who he is not. Nevertheless, Ms Essex serves up a sensual, unabashedly romantic approach to the fanged one, telling the tale through the voice of Mina herself, whose love affair with Dracula has become a byword for eternal obsession.

Building on framework established by Stoker, Essex vividly presents the true Victorian world inhabited by these characters—a world where a fledgling emancipation movement collides with the barbaric treatment of those deemed sexually neurotic; where marriage is still the ultimate goal for a woman; and virtue is prized more than fulfillment. While most of Stoker’s cast is present, they’ve been reshaped, with Lucy paying a terrifying price for her extra-betrothal liaison and Van Helsing as a righteous physician engaged in lethal experimentation. The Count takes his time before he appears, seen only in tantalizing glimpses; by then, Mina’s engaging, increasingly paranoid voice has captured our imagination, as she struggles to survive both her own recurring nightmares and a budding awareness that just beyond her tightly corseted existence lurks a tangled labyrinth of feral secrets.

Dracula in Love is not a standard vampire tale and purists may take issue with Ms Essex’s mythology-inspired take on the legend; however, for those who yearn for something more than adolescents pining over immortal boyfriends, this is the antidote—a luscious paean to forbidden longing.

To learn more about Karen Essex and her work, and to participate in the resurrection of our favorite Count, please visit Karen's website.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review of THE SECRET ELEANOR by Cecelia Holland

Eleanor of Aquitaine is historical fiction's current "It" girl. Several recently published novels tackle various parts of her long, often tumultuous life, including Christy English's earnest The Queen's Pawn about Eleanor's challenging relationship with her rival, Alys, and Alison Weir's controversial Captive Queen. For many readers, Sharon Penman's magnificent Time and Chance and Devil's Brood are the defining novels, evoking Eleanor in both her youthful glory and mature rage; Margaret Ball's ethereal Duchess of Aquitaine likewise captures the magnetic younger Eleanor, a high-strung heiress who fascinated her contemporaries with her courage, zeal for life, and bold passion. Her alliance with Henry II electrified her world; to this day, she continues to exert the same power over us - fearless in her defiance and uncompromising in her refusal to submit to the gender bias of her era.

Now, highly acclaimed and prolific novelist Cecelia Holland - arguably the true queen of historical fiction, whose books cover everything from early Byzantium to early 18th century California - brings us a novel about that pivotal year in Eleanor's career, when she launched her quest to get her marriage to pious Louis of France annulled so she could marry fiery Henry Plantagenet. Written in Ms Holland's elegant style The Secret Eleanor is also the tale of her "secret" other half: her sister, Petronilla, an oft-neglected historical character who, in this novel, bears an uncanny resemblance to her famous sibling, and thus brings about remarkable deceit, lethal rivalry, and life-altering transformation.

One of Ms Holland's most impressive gifts is her ability to evoke the past with a few select words. Here, we can feel the moldering damp of Louis's palace on the Seine; the earthy aroma of Poitiers in spring; and icy fall of winter in a neglected roadside inn. Ms Holland is equally adept with characterization, offering us a regally impetuous Eleanor; her sedate yet covetous sister; an ambitious peasant maid who turns the tables on her abusers; a handsome troubador who is more than he seems; an emasculated royal advisor intent on Eleanor's downfall; and of course the randy, hotheaded, devilish Henry himself, who catches Eleanor's gaze from across a crowded hall and sets the world afire to possess her.

Those familiar with the facts of Eleanor's life will find much to revel in here, particularly as Ms Holland's choice to tell part of the story through Petronilla both freshens up more familiar historical events as well as offers a less fawning look at the legendary duchess. And for those who do not yet know Eleanor's story, you can do no better than to start with The Secret Eleanor.

If you'd like to read more about the writing of this novel, please visit Sarah Johnson's Reading The Past for an interview with Ms Holland herself.


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