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A Swarming of Bees, by Theresa Tomlinson

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Carla
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A Swarming of Bees, by Theresa Tomlinson

Post by Carla » Sat January 26th, 2013, 4:47 pm

Acorn Digital Press, 2012. ISBN 978-1-909122-22-2. 271 pages

A Swarming of Bees is a historical mystery set in and around the monastery of Streonshalh (modern Whitby) in seventh-century Northumbria. Abbess Hild and the poet Caedmon are historical figures and major characters, and other historical figures including King Oswy of Northumbria, Bishop Wilfrid, Aldfrith of Northumbria and Dagobert II of Merovingian France appear in secondary roles. The central character, Fridgyth, is mentioned by Bede but little more than her name is recorded. Other main characters are fictional.

In 664 AD, as the great Synod held at Streonshalh (Whitby) draws to its close, two young scholars arrive secretly from Ireland, fleeing an unspecified danger and seeking protection from Abbess Hild. Fridgyth, the abbey herb-wife, gives them shelter. When she deduces the identity of one of the boys, she guesses what the danger might be, but soon all her attention is claimed by tending the sick as an epidemic of plague sweeps through the monastery and its surroundings. As the disease rages and the death toll mounts, Fridgyth comes to suspect that not all the deaths are natural. Is there a murderer at work in the monastery? And can Fridgyth find out who it is in time to prevent further deaths?

Some years ago I read and greatly enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s young adult mystery set in Hild’s monastery at Whitby, Wolf Girl (review here: http://carlanayland.blogspot.co.uk/2006 ... -book.html). So I was delighted to hear about this new mystery in the same setting. A Swarming of Bees takes place a year or so after Wolf Girl and features some of the same characters, but it is a stand-alone novel. There is no need to have read Wolf Girl first.

I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, I think I liked A Swarming of Bees even better than Wolf Girl. Hild’s seventh-century monastery at Whitby is vividly portrayed as a working community at the hub of a functioning economy. Managing the resources required to maintain a year-round supply of food, clothing and fuel for a sizeable monastery, not to mention the specialist supplies needed for producing illuminated manuscripts, was not a trivial task. Commodities and services could not just be ordered in; for the most part anything the community needed would have to be made or grown locally, and people with a wide range of skills would be needed to keep the monastery working. Anyone who imagines a seventh-century abbess leading a life of pious contemplation is wide of the mark. In modern terms the role was probably closer to managing director of a sizeable group of companies. Vegetable growing, livestock rearing, weaving and boat-building all form part of the background, and are just as important as prayer, study and manuscript writing.

Abbess Hild, managing all this day-to-day and also overseeing an international centre of learning that was a university of its day, is as capable and forceful as I always imagined her. Fridgyth, the herb-wife, is a similar age to Hild, and the two women are close friends, despite their differences in social rank and religion. Fridgyth was raised as a heathen and has only half-converted to Christianity, still retaining many of the older beliefs and customs. This is entirely plausible, as the Northumbrian aristocracy had officially converted less than 40 years before, and it may have taken some time for Christian beliefs to percolate the whole of early English society. Hild’s tolerance of her friend’s customs, as well as being a sympathetic trait, is also in line with Bishop Aidan’s softly-softly approach to converting Northumbria, and with Pope Gregory’s advice to his Roman missionaries. Caedmon, who appears in Bede as a shy herdsman who became a great vernacular poet, is another major character, with an intriguing take on Bede’s tale of how his poetic talent was recognised.

The mystery is ingenious – I sort of guessed part of the answer early on (as I recognised one of the symptoms from distant days studying chemistry), but I did not guess how, who or why in advance. I also liked the presence of historical figures from Ireland and Merovingian France in the tale, cleverly picking up on known connections of the Northumbrian royal house. The description of the plague as it devastates families and communities (a historical event, although the nature of the disease is uncertain) was especially evocative. Life was fragile, even in time of peace.

I particularly liked the character of Fridgyth. With her warmth, humanity, honesty, practical common sense and experience of real life, she is an attractive and sympathetic character. Not without flaws; her forthright approach to investigation and hasty actions precipitate at least one crisis, and she is not immune from professional jealousy. She gives the whole book a warm-hearted feeling; life may be harsh, but it does not have to be miserable.

A helpful Author’s Note at the back outlines the underlying history and the fiction woven in the gaps, and a list of historical characters may also be helpful for readers unfamiliar with the period. There is a useful map at the front showing the layout of Streonshalh monastery as imagined in the novel.

Beautifully written, gentle historical mystery set in Hild’s seventh-century monastery at Whitby, with strong characterisation and a clear sense of time and place.
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria
Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009
Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords
Website: http://www.carlanayland.org
Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com

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Vanessa
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Currently reading: An Abiding Fire by M L Logue & The Flower Girls by Alice Clark Platts
Interest in HF: The first historical novel I read was Katherine by Anya Seton and this sparked off my interest in this genre.
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Post by Vanessa » Sat January 26th, 2013, 6:01 pm

I think this was a Kindle daily deal a little while ago - I downloaded it. Thanks for the great review, Carla! Very encouraging.
currently reading: My Books on Goodreads

Books are mirrors, you only see in them what you already have inside you ~ The Shadow of the Wind

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Ariadne
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Post by Ariadne » Sat January 26th, 2013, 7:25 pm

Wonderful review, Carla! I completely agree with your assessment. I didn't realize Fridgyth herself was in Bede, too.

Carla
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Post by Carla » Tue January 29th, 2013, 2:54 pm

[quote=""Ariadne""]Wonderful review, Carla! I completely agree with your assessment. I didn't realize Fridgyth herself was in Bede, too.[/quote]
Only in a couple of lines. A nun named Begu has a vision of Hild ascending to heaven, and she runs to tell Frigyth, who then organises all the sisters in the monastery to go into the church and pray for Hild's soul. (Ecclesiastical History Book IV ch. 23 if anyone wants to look it up).
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria
Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009
Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords
Website: http://www.carlanayland.org
Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com

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Ariadne
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Post by Ariadne » Tue January 29th, 2013, 3:35 pm

Thanks, Carla -- very interesting, and good to know.

annis
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Post by annis » Thu February 7th, 2013, 1:24 am

I grew up in Cleveland, quite close to Whitby and since childhood I have been fascinated by the ruined abbey on the cliff-tops. From an early age I heard stories of the famous Abbess Hilda, whose ghost could sometimes be seen in the ruins on moonlit nights, and Caedmon the cowherd, who miraculously became the first person to compose poems in the English language. As a younger writer of historical novels for young adults, I considered trying to write about Abbess Hild, but shied away from it, feeling that it was too iconic a subject for me to tackle, but as I’ve grown older I became more and more attracted to this exciting period of history and told myself that it was now or never!

Theresa Tomlinson speaks about A Swarmimg of Bees in an interview at Brit Writers

Carla and Ariadne have already written excellent reviews of this book, so I won’t go on!

Having read and enjoyed Theresa Tomlinson’s young adult novel Wolf Girl some time ago, I was delighted to return to Whitby Abbey and catch up with many familiar faces; Abbess Hild, Caedmon the cowherd/poet, Princess Elfled and her stalwart young companion and protector, Wulfrun. Some like Wulfrun's mother, Cwen, make cameo appearances. ASOB is engaging, evocative of time and place and its characters vividly drawn and real. They enjoy the pleasures of companionship and share both the times of plenty and the hard times when food is scarce and plague and murder stalk their close-knit community. They feel grief, fear and happiness and a strong connection with each other, the natural world and the presence of the divine, whether seen as Christian, pagan or a mixture of both. A Swarming of Bees is a novel of great warmth and has about it a sense of shining goodness which makes it quite special. Although I worked out early on the answer to the mystery (the bees told me :) ), I still found it intriguing to follow the untangling of the threads leading to the final denouement and justice done.

Although written for adults, I feel that Tomlinson’s teenage fans would also enjoy ASOB and do hope that it is in fact just the first in a series.
Last edited by annis on Sat February 9th, 2013, 8:14 pm, edited 8 times in total.

Carla
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Post by Carla » Thu February 7th, 2013, 7:44 pm

[quote=""annis""]A Swarming of Bees is a novel of great warmth and has about it a sense of shining goodness which makes it quite special. [/quote]
Yes. I said the novel was 'warm-hearted', but I think it goes further than that, and your phrase captures it better than mine.

Many thanks for the link to the interview with Theresa Tomlinson. I would be very pleased if she develops more of the ideas in her folder!

The bees told me part of the secret, but not whodunit - I had to wait for Fridgyth to discover that!
PATHS OF EXILE - love, war, honour and betrayal in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria
Editor's Choice, Historical Novels Review, August 2009
Now available as e-book on Amazon Kindleand in Kindle, Epub (Nook, Sony Reader), Palm and other formats on Smashwords
Website: http://www.carlanayland.org
Blog: http://carlanayland.blogspot.com

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Ariadne
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Post by Ariadne » Thu February 7th, 2013, 11:23 pm

I really like the way you've phrased it too, Annis. It's a tone I don't often see in historical novels, mysteries or otherwise, and it made for a very pleasurable read.

annis
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Post by annis » Fri February 8th, 2013, 8:06 pm

Thanks, Carla and Ariadne :)

I don’t want to give the impression that the people of Whitby Abbey in this novel are saintly. As in any community there are natural tensions, petty rivalries and jealousies, a degree of superstition and parochialism and even an ugly example of xenophobia when a Frankish nun is attacked as a knee-jerk response to an unfortunate incident. I do think, though, that Tomlinson has captured something of the atmosphere of a place of genuine faith devoted to the welfare – physical and spiritual – of all people.

I wish I didn’t, but I when I read mysteries I have an unfortunate habit of picking up a clue near the beginning and making intuitive jumps which often give me the answers when I’d rather not know! Most annoying.

Kudos to Theresa Tomlinson, too, for making sure the production of her novel is spot-on. I’m becoming very tired of novels (not always self-pubbed, but they are the worst offenders) absolutely full of spelling and grammatical mistakes, some of them clearly resulting from the curse of the spell-check i.e. “cheep” instead of “cheap”. It means I'm not able to settle down and enjoy the story. I’ve just finished muttering and grumping my way through one now which includes someone in the “throws of a nightmare”, having problems with the “souls of his feet” and being "sleep-depraved". The mind boggles :) Too many other such errors to mention, and the author thanks her mother in a note at the end for reading her story multiple times and checking it for her. Note to authors: Mum may not make the best copy-editor!

Am I the only reader driven mad by this stuff?
Last edited by annis on Sat February 9th, 2013, 8:15 pm, edited 15 times in total.

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