The Bones of Avalon, by Phil Rickman
I should begin by confessing that Phil Rickman is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read about seven or eight of his novels, mostly the Merrily Watkins mysteries. Merrily’s a vicar who’s trying to kick the smoking habit, which can be trying if one is immersed in crime solving and mystery while raising a teenager, let alone a teen who professes to be an atheist.
Rickman’s stories have been described as spiritual mysteries. I think of them as stories at the confluence of the paranormal, the criminal, spiritual and maybe even the insane (though I willingly concede that insanity in Rickman’s hands may be merely a symptom of any of the preceding three states).
The Bones of Avalon, Rickman’s first foray into the historic fiction, features Dr. John Dee, who really was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer who believed in magic and served as consultant to Queen Elizabeth I at a time when astrology was important and magic viewed with fear and mistrust. Rickman just borrowed him for his novel.
To say The Bones of Avalon is “atmospheric” is to say the sun is a yellow ball of gases. To say its plot is complex is to say oxygen is merely the stuff we breathe. The plot is dizzyingly complex, fraught with questions about religious equity, astronomy, and astrology as they relate to Elizabethan England’s focus on religion and witchcraft, spells and conjuring, and written in a style that is amazingly rich, at times both lyrical and blunted.
Dr. Dee is sent by Sir William Cecil to find the bones of King Arthur. Among the reasons given is that the young Queen Elizabeth imagines her family is in decline and that finding Arthur’s bones would somehow right the wrong her father had committed in destroying the abbeys, especially Glastonbury, the reputed site of King Arthur’s grave, that triggered the familial downward slide. Yes. A bit illogical, but hey, this is the age of fear of magic and conjurers and of communing with angels and devils, and let’s not forget witch burnings and hangings.
When Dee arrives at Glastonbury with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and reputed to be lover of Elizabeth, Dudley is ill, and the young physician called to minister to him turns out to be a lovely, college-trained herbalist named Eleanor Borrow, daughter of the town’s physician. And John Dee is smitten.
In rapid succession, Dudley’s servant is murdered and disemboweled; a former monk and now Justice of the Peace intent on founding a college for wealthy young men, declares the death ritualistic—as in satanic; he raises a hue and cry and thugs from miles around come to turn the town upside down in search of the murderer, who’s undoubtedly a witch; people are beaten, and Eleanor Borrow is arrested for the crime. Dee, aided by Dudley, by a former monk turned blacksmith named Monger, by the inn’s owner, and, when it pleases him, a gay bone seller, are no match for the ignorance, debauchery and cruelty. His attempts to defend Eleanor in court are thwarted.
And Eleanor is hung on Glastonbury Tor.
Of course, that’s not the end of this story in which even Michel Nostradamus makes an appearance. Eleanor’s not guilty, but the twists and turns of discovery on the way to the climax are so sublime I’m certainly not going to give it away and be the spoil sport.
Go. Read the book. You’ll love it.