Mark McKerracher

Fantasy fiction

Review: Botolph

Botolph, by D.S. Pepper.

Well, here’s something refreshingly different: an adventure novel about the formative years of a 7th-century English saint. Even for an Anglo-Saxon, St Botolph is hardly a household name, so there’s something pleasing about him getting a novel to himself (three, in fact: this is the first in a Botolph trilogy).

Essentially, Pepper tells us the story of Botolph’s birth, childhood conversion to Christianity, and eventual calling to a monastic vocation, by way of some intrepid voyages and internecine Saxon warfare. For most of the story, Botolph is accompanied by his best friend Luka, a pugnacious dwarf with a mystifying catchphrase (which I won’t spoil here).

There isn’t exactly a guiding plotline other than Botolph feeling his way towards his vocation, which eventually and interestingly takes him and Luka into modern-day France, via plenty of episodic adventures, like fighting pagans, getting lost in fog at sea, or searching for a missing royal child. There’s room for plenty of these adventures in Botolph‘s 415 pages, although sometimes they turn out to be surprisingly inconsequential. For instance, a night raid on a royal camp is quickly defeated because there were only a handful of raiders, and Botolph understandably wonders why such a small band even attempted the attack. Why indeed? We never find out.

There are some purpose-made maps, which make a nice addition, and the typesetting looks charmingly homespun. The narrative is punctuated by a surprisingly high number of exclamation marks. The author clearly got excited! And amused! (“The reunion was massive!”) Elsewhere, the punctuation and formatting can be rather idiosyncratic – and occasionally just plain incorrect – and the overall impression is a bit, well, first-drafty. A keener editorial eye, at least during typesetting, would have helped enormously.

I study Anglo-Saxon England for a living, so it was great to see that Pepper had clearly done his research into the period (since this is a fiction review, I won’t go into any archaeologists’ quibbles). Much of the author’s research is apparent in the lively Foreword, “Prepare yourself for the Seventh Century”, which is intended to “acclimatise your brain” to the period. This enjoyable section prepares us for a perilous and mysterious world, where “superstition is the rote by which you live”, and suspicious strangers may kill you given the chance. Most of the strangers that Botolph and Luka meet, however, quickly overcome their suspicions and become heartily good friends – possibly because of Botolph’s emerging blessedness, though this isn’t obvious – so I actually got the impression of quite a friendly and hospitable seventh century. Botolph, despite a very mild personality, certainly comes across as extraordinary in his achievements, such as hand-building a stone chapel.

Despite the oddities and rather unmatured writing, there are some big pluses too. I love that Pepper is writing fiction set in the seventh century at all – it’s a relatively neglected period in English historical fiction, but it needn’t be. As Pepper shows, there’s plenty of room of post-Roman, pre-Viking storytelling. He brings bags of enthusiasm to the task, and this energy kept me engaged. As for characters: Botolph might feel a bit two-dimensional sometimes, but Luka makes an enjoyable roguish buddy, and there are some standout minor characters (like Father Fursey, the big, rebellious Irish abbot with “two great paws”). Botolph’s Christian faith gets a fair hearing, which makes a nice change; plenty of historical novels are unnecessarily patronising – in an “opium-of-the-people” sort of way – about religious people of the past. Also, we get a spiritual almost-romance which is genuinely bittersweet, of a kind which I’ve never seen in another book.

Finally, if there’s a ‘marmite’ in this book, it’s probably the descriptive language. There are plenty of similes, methaphors and colourful descriptions for people and places. At first I found it a bit overdone, but once I got into the (playful) spirit of the thing, it became quite fun – the sheer bizarreness of some descriptions startled and tickled me in equal measure.

By way of a taster, perhaps the most memorable phrases relating to an alcoholic old sea captain (or “the scruffy, hairy owner of the skipper’s voice”, when we first meet him). Boarding a ship, Botolph and Luka heard snoring and “found the source was a fetid open cavity smelling strongly of mead. Surrounding the mouth was something resembling a gorse bush” – and then a page later, when this unholy vision stirs: “A minor exploision came from beneath the blanket which erupted in the shape of animated arms and legs”

Ye gods!

It took a little getting used to, but ultimately it was the weirdly comic passages like these that really lifted the story for me. Later on, Luka tries to buy bread from (and chat up) “the miller’s buxom daughter”, and a page later he still has “the taste of the buxom daughter’s fresh buns in his mouth” – I still can’t decide if this is Carry On-grade double entrendre, or just a bread memory.

Overall, it may be a bit unpolished, but this was a surprisingly entertaining and refreshing read: ***

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