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Blacksmith and Canon (Volume One of the Viviers Chronicles)

by Garry McDougall

Rating: ***

Blacksmith and Canon is set in France in the early 16th century just as Renaissance thinking was beginning to overtake the Middle Ages. Against this backdrop, we meet Canon Michael d’Viviers; powerful, corrupt and still rooted in Medieval customs and Louis de St. Martin, Blacksmith, convicted murderer, storyteller and very much a Renaissance man. Accompanied by archers, knights and Neapolitans they undertake a pilgrimage that the Canon hopes will be his salvation in more ways than one…

Blacksmith and Canon is a credible and likeable book giving fascinating insight into the period. It is very heavily immersed in age; the language leans towards the archaic in places yet accessible for the modern reader whilst providing some lovely obscure words. The level of detail in the novel really invokes the crude and brutal atmosphere of the early 16th century. I was transported among the smells and filth as this caravan of characters made their way through rural France. The story is told through both the Canon’s and the Blacksmith’s journal entries and Mr McDougall is careful to delineate their voices. The Canon, in particular, becoming sinister and unhinged. The opening is strong; conflicts, intrigues and the superstitious whiff of witchcraft are all present. Any form of journey always provides a dependable narrative; however, the reliance on the Blacksmith and Canon did make the prose occasionally feel one-dimensional. The relationship between the two is riveting but I wonder if another intermittent point of view would have helped to balance their dynamic, maybe Semla’s, the Neapolitan anatomist and/or Martel’s both of whom were interesting characters with hidden depths and tales of their own (although I believe they are represented in further volumes). There are offshoots of plot in the main story but again, I also felt the book needed another, separate plotline that provided a diversion from the pilgrimage narrative.

The Blacksmith, Louis de St. Martin is an intriguing character and the Author’s passion to present him as a captivating, lyrical troubadour really shines through. The journal entries describing his chanson de geste or storytelling to the caravan are among the strongest; alive with firelight, allegory and bawdy humour. He is a character that you instinctively side with but are also a little wary of and I am curious to see how he develops in the next volume.

Blacksmith and Canon is an authentic and enjoyable read. If you like historical fiction rooted in this period, it’s well worth picking up – recommended. Buy from:

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