Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Review: Stephen Morris, Come Hell or High Water (Part One: Wellspring) (2012)

Come Hell or High Water is a self-published supernatural/fantasy trilogy written by debut novelist Stephen Morris and set in Prague. Part One: Wellspring and Part Two: Rising came out in 2012. Part Three: Deluge will be out later in 2013. I’ll be reviewing Rising soon, but today’s post is about the first book of the series, Wellspring.

Wellspring has two parallel narratives. The first takes place in 1356 and tells of the unauthorized execution of a woman, Fen’ka, for witchcraft – ‘unauthorized’ because, as the narrative explains, no witches were officially burnt in late medieval Prague. As she dies, Fen’ka utters a series of curses, calling destruction down on her enemies – but also on the city itself.

The second narrative follows the story of Magdalena, a lonely young woman from Prague who becomes obsessed with the occult following a tarot reading. After a startling encounter with Fen’ka (and an otherworldly guide), Magdalena embarks on the task of clearing the witch’s name. With the help of the spirit of Madame de Thebes, a fortune-teller who was tortured, killed and cursed by the Nazis, and two mysterious visitors to the city, Magdalena begins to acquire the knowledge and skills she will need to succeed in her quest.

From the opening chapter, Morris reveals a keen eye for historical detail – particularly as regards late medieval beliefs about witchcraft and the treatment of witches. While the scene of Fen’ka’s condemnation includes many ‘standard’ features of this sort of story, it also contains several unusual and precise historical details. For example, the binding of Fen’ka is described thus:
‘Pulling her to her feet, they next pushed her head and shoulders down and tied her left wrist to her right ankle and her right wrist to her left ankle. In this traditional position, not only was the woman’s body made into an X, a version of St. Andrew’s Cross (and therefore her body itself was a prayer-made-flesh that God’s truth would be manifest), but it was also that much more difficult for her to swim and exonerate herself by propelling herself along the bottom of the river.’
Similarly, the later fourteenth-century chapters, which outline the punishments resulting from Fen’ka’s all-purpose curse, weave historical detail, characterization and Czech folklore together with a rather light touch. Each of the subsequent historical chapters reads almost like a standalone short story, and I found them all engaging and compelling tales.

But Wellspring is not simply a historical fantasy, it’s an ‘urban-historical fantasy’, and half of the chapters take place in modern-day Prague (well, Prague in 2002). These also contain elements of Bohemian legend and folklore, as well as reference to the unique history of the city. Following the protagonist Magdalena as she puts together pieces of the historical/supernatural puzzle, learns about the occult arts and works as an administrator at the Charles University, these chapters comprise the main narrative arc of the novel, ending on a cliffhanger that points to the events to come in the subsequent books in the series.

The 2002 chapters have a different feel to the fourteenth-century ones, but make use of the same mix of action, characterization and exposition. Occasionally, the exposition is somewhat heavy, but the subject matter is interesting enough to carry this. I enjoyed the way the historical and contemporary chapters worked together. While they are, essentially, discrete narratives, the overall picture builds as the reader switches from one to the other and back again.

Unfortunately, I found the contemporary chapters a bit flatter than the medieval ones. This is mostly due to the presentation of the protagonist. I found Magdalena to be a bit of an unengaging heroine, a far cry from the diverse and feisty female characters in the medieval chapters. Magdalena’s lack of interaction with other characters is probably the main issue. She has, to all intents and purposes, no friends. The one character who is ostensibly supposed to perform this role is dismissed and ignored on numerous occasions, and there are very few conversations between the two women. The result of this is that the narrative is almost entirely presented through Magdalena’s internal dialogue and commentary, and this is not always very compelling. In places, the heroine’s self-explanation (occasionally accompanied by a few too many exclamation marks) was a little hard to believe.

One particularly frustrating example is near the beginning of the book. Magdalena travels to New York (on her own) for a holiday. There, she pays for a tarot card reading from a woman with a Central European accent who claims to be a ‘gypsy’. Magdalena is overwhelmed by the excitement of this: ‘A professional gypsy telling her fortune seemed too good to be true.’ She exclaims: ‘This is the highlight of my trip to New York!’ Her reaction seems utterly out of proportion to the rather average events of the card reading. (As a side note, I would say that Magdalena’s response didn’t ring true as a European response to seeing someone reading fortunes and claiming Romany blood – Europe is hardly known for its warm relationship to the Romany people, and I think every fortune-teller I’ve ever seen has the word ‘gypsy’ on their signage somewhere.)

The backdrop to Magdalena’s quest to exonerate Fen’ka interested me – and had a lot to offer. The protagonist works as a secretary to an academic at Charles University; she is asked to assist with the organization of two visiting conferences – one on Evil and the other on Monsters. I must admit to some personal interest here. These conferences are based on long-running conferences run by, and I have attended both on numerous occasions. Magdalena’s dabbling in the world of the occult leads her to believe that two powerful allies in her fight will be arriving in the guise of conference delegates.

However, this backdrop was marred a little by the presentation of Magdalena. Her wide-eyed enthusiasm for conference organization was a little grating, and not wholly plausible. I am yet to meet someone who works in university admin who is that excited at the prospect of a group of visiting academics, particularly a group who do not speak the local language and know little of the local area. That’s a headache, not an honour. By the time the conference delegates arrive, Magdalena’s enthusiasm has tipped over into near-sycophancy: for instance, she describes the accent of one English academic as sounding ‘so elegant, so refined […] that she imagined she were being addressed by the royalty of the academic world’.

Nevertheless, the arrival of the conference delegates allows for more interaction between Magdalena and the somewhat larger-than-life visitors. As far as I know, Rising will pick up where the events of Wellspring left off, and I’m looking forward to seeing things develop with the expanded cast list. There is real promise in the final chapter of the book, which suggests exciting and compelling developments in the next instalment. I hope that the new arrivals will bring out a stronger side to Magdalena’s character, as well as continuing the intense and climactic consequences of Fen’ka’s curse.

Overall, I enjoyed Wellspring. As a piece of historical fantasy set in one of my favourite cities it worked very well. Morris’s writing is strong and the plot is gripping. My concerns about characterization in the contemporary chapters perhaps go some way to revealing where the author’s strengths lie – I believe Morris’s heart is in the Middle Ages, and this is no bad thing at all. The wealth of knowledge, research and affection shown for the fourteenth century (and for Prague) are enough on their own to recommend the sequels to me. And if Magdalena is a little weak and naïve for my tastes… well, there’s always Fen’ka…

For more information about the Come Hell or High Water trilogy, visit Stephen Morris's website.

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