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Dance of Stone Paperback – October 18, 2016
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About the Author
I grew up in southern England, but now live in Somerset, within an hour’s drive of the villages where two of my great-great-great-grandparents were born. I have worked in an eclectic range of libraries over the years but am in fact a thwarted medievalist with a strong arts background. I have been writing fiction for over thirty years, exploring the lives of people who are on the margins in one way or another, and how the power of love and language can break down the walls that we build round ourselves.
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Some of us know Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth,” an epic novel set in medieval England during the building of a great cathedral. It is a book that captivated my generation’s imagination, and was so well respected that it was used in medieval history courses. “Dance of Stone” is every bit as fine as “Pillars of the Earth,” and while physically a smaller novel with an intentionally smaller focus, it embraces the same heroic moment. Taylor’s closely-studied narrative offers us vividly painted portraits that take us into the heart of life in a medieval English cathedral town. But Taylor takes us somewhere else: Hugh de Barham is a man attracted to men, and therein lies all the difference in the world.
The romance novel was born in the Middle Ages, although its early form was nothing like what we know today. Indeed the word for “novel” in French is “roman” or romance. (I was a French major in university). Taylor’s Hugh is an amazing character, created to give us insight into different aspects of life in post-Conquest medieval England. He is an artisan, yet of gentle birth and mixed blood (as were many skilled craftsmen in this time). He has studied at university in Paris, and thus has insight both into the language of both cloister and court (Latin and French) as well as an understanding of courtly behavior. Hugh has no ambition other than to build churches, but he can converse with bishops and peasants with equal comfort, giving him a social fluidity unique to his place in this world.
And Hugh is also familiar with the courtly literary traditions and values of his time. He knows what it is to feel love, but also what it is to be a man. Within the framework of vast, partly built cathedrals (all based on actual places, which I spent a lot of time Googling as I read), Hugh is a man who falls in love, who yearns for love, and who resists love, all based on his own understanding of who he—a moral outlaw surrounded by holy men who are all too often both ungodly and cruel.
As a cultural historian by profession, I always approach historical novels with skepticism; but Taylor is brilliant in his depiction of everyday life among everyday people. He gives us lots of rich detail, yet does so in a way that it neither pedantic nor heavy-handed. Taylor makes clear the complex social interactions that someone like Hugh would experience every day, and through these interactions, helps us understand just what an exceptional and good man Hugh is.
The love interests in this book are wonderfully apt, appealing to a modern reader, and yet completely in tune with the medieval notion of love. There is the beautiful young Godric, adolescent son of Rochilda, a widowed peasant woman who becomes Hugh’s housekeeper. Hugh forms a distant, intensely emotional attachment for this young man as he grows up, training him as a stonecutter, waiting for the day that he can declare his love. On the other hand is Arnaut harper (note the lower case, in a world where surnames were just being formulated), a troubadour of mysterious ancestry who roams the medieval world, offering entertainment and carrying news from place to place. Arnaut is Hugh’s age and shares his inclinations. Indeed, Arnaut loves Hugh from the very beginning, but Hugh, caught up in his own notions of manliness and romance, keeps Arnaut at arm’s length.
The description of the churches themselves, while only peripheral to the narrative, perfectly captures the spiritual aspect that drove pre-technological humans to build such impossible structures. The discussion of stone and vaults and tracery as physical expressions of God’s power illuminates the intensity of spiritual yearning that drove modest men like Hugh to attempt the impossible, even as it drove ambitious men to the boundaries of morality for the sake of temporal achievement.
Having spent most of my life reading novels by straight people writing about straight people, it is hard to describe the pleasure in finding a book that does what Taylor has managed to do, and to do with such great literacy and scholarship. It acknowledges an historical truth that has been largely ignored, and offers a plausible vision of a human story long buried under ignorance and prejudice.
The characters are mature people with senses of humor filled with warm, wry natures. Happiness and sarcasm go hand in hand. By the middle of chapter three, character development was at an obviously high level.
Such vivid descriptions of sound and place helped build that relaxed and well defined atmosphere, leading me fully into the world of 12th century England. Food could become scarce in a heartbeat. No one assumes everyone may have extra, or even enough for all seated at the table. Often times, surnames are still those of the person’s profession, like John carver or James scribe.(Can we say history-gasm? I think sooooo!) Politics are alive and well, enemies are sometimes bullishly obvious and sometimes hidden in dark corners, just like those of the church of which Hugh de Barham is leading construction.
~ * ~ … Henry de Soilly who, like other men that he had met from Calvados in the past, was all sweetness and apple-blossom on the surface, and tough as Normandy limestone under the skin. ~ * ~
Hugh de Barham, or Hugh mason, is whose point of view from which this story is told. It’s his life, his struggles and demons, his successes and passions. He’s intelligent, feels deeply, has a healthy sense of right and wrong, but also isn’t averse to doing what’s necessary to get something done.
There’s an interesting mix of confidence and the role of religion and its mysticism as an institution that many of the characters possess. Religion is a part of their everyday lives but in more of a practical sense instead of all fire and brimstone and corresponding condemnation. On the flip side, arrest, prison and fines were used to try and keep people in line with the teachings of a church that was already widespread in its influence, even in small villages and towns.
One of the greatest things about this book is that, even though it takes place more than 800 years ago, most of what these characters go through, the relationships, the losses and the joys, the need to work and earn a living, even with those who make your stomach turn, everything is relatable. The emotions are the same, no matter the century. The smooth, confident writing style fit this story wonderfully.
Oh, and let me not forget to mention the humor, and the unapologetic passion. Mmm hmm!
~ * ~ Hugh tipped forward, bracing his arms hard against the cold stone. Arnaut’s kiss was hot and cold together, lips chilled by the cold air in the room, the mouth warm and inviting within. ~ * ~
I mean, c’mon, who hasn’t felt that before? Who can’t feel that now, as you read it.
Oh, and who is Arnaut, you ask? Talk about a patient man. He’s also clever, capable and very loyal. He seems to possess a bit of his own brand of mysticism. Well, at least Hugh feels that way, and I agree with him.
The detail is delicious. Complete without being overbearing. The descriptions of clothing, and not just how it looks but how it feels, and of color, of household items, of stones cool to the touch, spring green trees on May Day… I relished it all. The setting, the plot, and the characters read like a much more accessible and, dare I say, enjoyable story similar in type to that of Follett’s Pillars.
The supporting characters are all important, filling out the conversations and towns, playing their part in completely immersing me in this book.
A couple event felt repetitious but I also wasn't all that upset to spend more time in this book.
Beautiful editing of this confident prose and realistic every day characters gave me a wholly satisfying trip back to the time of the Crusades, an explosion in the building of churches, and significant societal changes in many an arena.
This is fiction at its finest, with elements of the family you make, the choices sometimes forced upon you, romance, love, heartache and joy, the struggle to do right and survive the pain.
~ * ~ ”You are a man with enemies that you don’t deserve…” ~ * ~
That says it all, whether 12th or 21st century. So much senseless suffering forced upon some people by their fellow human beings. We need to make the stars bright and within grasp for everyone.
Hugh and Arnaut, may you find your future.
* This review originally appeared on Prism Book Alliance
Most recent customer reviews
A wide-sweeping historical epic that will take you back to the days of stone masons, cathedral...Read more