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Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on the Bronze Age metal work hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Writing has always been a major aspect of her life and at a young age, she won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story ‘Busman’s Holiday’. Louise lives with her husband in west Renfrewshire.
Fire and Sword
“In September 1489, letters of fire and sword were issued by King James IV to Sir John Sempill, Sheriff of Renfrew.
They referred to 'burnings, hardships, and destruction' in Renfrewshire and to an attack made by Sempill on the Place of Duchal in times bygone.
This novel was inspired by these events.”
Before our reading journey begins, we are presented with a cast of characters, which proves to be very helpful, as there are so many, such is the plot of Turner’s novel. The first and second group of cast members are people who actually existed, and are pivotal to the unfolding story. The third group of cast members, we are informed, are fictitious, as Turner informs us that …the common man scarcely ever warrants more than a fleeting mention in the sources at this time.
Turner also informs the reader in her Author’s Note that,
…Because Fire and Sword aims to recreate real characters and real places wherever possible, I've left the names very much unchanged. This may cause some confusion, because it means that every other man is called John, and every other woman, Margaret…
And I can only agree with her. I had to track back to the cast of characters quite a few times, until the characters were well seated in my head. This impeded my initial reading of Fire and Sword, but once I sorted out the characters, my reading was well under way. I have to admire an author who keeps historical names intact. Although this is a book of some 89 chapters, one would imagine that Fire and Sword would be presenting itself as an over-sized tome, but this isn't the case, being of some 454 pages.
Fire and Sword is a book of political intrigue. Set in Renfrewshire, it tells of the conflicts between the Semphills of Ellestoun and the Montgomeries of Eglinton. This is an extremely addictive era in Scottish history, and one that has me wanting to do more research for myself.
The book begins at The Place of Ellestoun, February, 1488:
“They say he’s in league with the Devil.” Marion Sempill paused with her hand on the latch. The candle guttered in the draught, giving her a fey, unearthly look. “From the looks of him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
John caught his sister’s eye, curious, a little concerned. “What’s he doing here, anyway?”
“How should I know?” she retorted. “I’m just a woman!” She patted his arm. “Rather you than me.” Opening the door, she swept from the chill darkness of the stair-tower to the light and warmth of the hall.
John followed close behind.
Turner portrays her characters with great ease, allowing the reader to visualise them, faults and all. There is an element of peeking through the curtains, spying, almost, at the private lives of John and his family.
The dialogue is naturalistic, and flows well, and in places Scottish dialectal language has been used, which lends depth to the characters. For example,
…”For six months they’ve raided us. It was a hen or a few cabbages at first. Then they started lifting the kye and burning the byres…” I googled ‘kye’ and found that it was the plural of cy = cow.
…Hugh’s gude-father Colin Campbell, the Earl of Argyll.] I had assumed that it meant ‘good’, but I was wrong. This I also googled, and this is was I found: It means God, and is pronounced ‘gyd’.
The John Sempill character shows both vulnerability and yet strength of character, which Turner describes in such a way that, for me, gives him a certain perspicacity. At the same time, however, his display of timidness when in the company of Margaret Colville is really touching, even if at times, I could have shouted at them both, the bonus of being the omniscient reader. Margaret does not want their arranged marriage, but must obey her family in this, as in all matters, being female. She does, however, set out to make the situation as difficult as she can for everyone. To say more would be laying down spoilers.
Turner’s style of writing is painterly, that is to say, her descriptions of her characters, and their surroundings conjure detailed images. It allows the reader to be fully immersed in the progress of the novel. For example:
Their surcoats formed a swathe of colour against the drab tones of the land, their banners hanging listless in the gnat-clouded stillness of the evening. The tips of countless spears glinted in the sunlight, a bristling thicket that sprang from the ground below.
The atmosphere of this scene is palpable, because their banners are …[..hanging listless in the gnat-clouded stillness of the evening.], and conjures in the imagination, a hiatus of one’s life, while awaiting the surge of battle. Imagine, also, spears that glint in the sunlight. An alarming image for the foe. Such depth of description in so few words, impresses the moment more fully on the reader.
A flick of his wrist brought his visor down, and his surroundings shrank . The countryside was a distant memory, a sun-drenched strip which beckoned through a grim and claustrophobic world.
The description is absolute. Imagine, if you will, only being able to see through a strip when in a state of siege. The disadvantages are astronomical. Not being able to see to the right or the left without turning one’s head, no peripheral vision, only forward vision. Ask yourself, how would you cope? How would you feel? The weight of the helm, the weight of the mail, and the armour. It could not be more of a claustrophobic world, could it?
In conclusion, I would have to say that Turner’s ability to draw the reader into the fifteenth century world of Scotland, transport said reader to the locations, and eavesdrop on family conversations, lives and personal moments, is incredible. It is because of this ability that Turner is able to intertwine both the history of that time with some well-crafted fiction into a compelling historical fiction novel.
The author is so graciously offering a free copy of Fire and Sword for one lucky winner. To get your name in the hat simply comment below OR at this review's Facebook page here.
Louise Turner can be found on Facebook.
Louise E. Rule is author of Future Confronted. She can be found on Facebook, here, Twitter and Goodreads.