It is early winter in the year 1104 in the Reinmark, a duchy in the north of the Holy Roman Empire. Karelian, Count of Lys, newly returned from the victorious Crusade, rides north with his knights through the bleak forest of Helmardin. Their destination is Ravensbruck Castle, stronghold of Count Arnulf, who holds the northern border of the Reinmark against the pagan Vikings. Karelian is journeying there to marry Arnulf's daughter Adelaide. The marriage has been arranged by Gottfried the Golden, Duke of the Reinmark, who had been Karelian's captain in the Crusade, to unite his two greatest vassals. Gottfried will need their united strength behind him, for he has great plans for a next Crusade. . . . Riding through Helmardin, Karelian and his men are caught in a sudden snowstorm. As night is falling, they happen suddenly upon a castle in the waste, where there should be no shelter at all. Karelian's men fear sorcery, but the Count, always bold in the face of danger, leads them into the castle. There they find warmth and music and beauty and sorcery enough, for the castle is Car-Iduna, Keep of the Sorceress of Helmardin, Guardian of the Black Chalice. The Sorceress is beautiful, and generous, and powerful, and utterly outside Christian salvation. She has brought Karelian here to offer him a future very different than the one he is riding to find in Ravensbruck, a future that can be his if he will renounce his allegiance to Gottfried and serve her instead. Not only his own future is at stake in his choice, but that of the Duchy, the Empire, and the realm of Christendom as well.
So begins the story told in Marie Jakober's The Black Chalice, a novel that will engross readers who love medieval historical fiction, neo-pagan fiction, or feminist fantasy. The Black Chalice's representation of this struggle between militant Christian piety and sensual pagan magic deserves comparison to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon and Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne, as well as to less ambitious popular classics of medieval historical fantasy like Katherine Kurtz's Deryni books or Judith Tarr's The Hound and the Falcon series. Like all of these works, its plot is built on a conflict between an ascetic, rigid Christian orthodoxy and a broader view of a sacred world that celebrates compassion, sensual pleasure, and magic as well as the worship of God or the gods. Its development of this conflict is not especially original, though it spins a tale that was gripping enough to keep me reading far into the night.
The work's originality and its more profound attractions lie in the way the tale is told. Central to its telling is the voice of its narrator, Paul of Arduin. Once Karelian's trusted squire, he has spent seventeen years as a monk, trying to forget the history that the book relates, hoping that his part in it will likewise be forgotten. The novel opens thirty years after the beginning of its story, when Paul, ordered by the Pope to write the history of Karelian's deeds, is caught once again in the middle of the conflict between the Church and its pagan opponents. Just as Paul begins writing his tale of Karelian's seduction by the powers of darkness, Raven, the Sorceress of Helmardin, arrives and enchants Paul's quill so that it will write only the truth, as he remembers it! That truth turns out to be much more complicated and painful than Paul would like to admit, even to himself, and he struggles to suppress the feelings that Raven's spell and the Pope's command force him to relive. Thus, although the hero of the story is Karelian, the character the readers get to know best is Paul. The story that he gives us reads as might the Gospel according to Judas or The Lord of the Rings according to Gollum. It's a narrative voice utterly unlike those of the standard late-adolescent-point-of-view characters who drive so much commercial fantasy. In Paul, Jakober has created a subtle portrait of self-deception, self-justification, and frustrated passion, a portrait both horrible and fascinating in its study of how a man comes to reject life and love in his fear for his soul, exemplified in this chilling response to the coming of spring:
Rain slithered softly over the monastery walls, and ran down the cobbled paths, whispering of bursting grapes and flowers, whispering of life: boundless life, spilling out forever from the black loins of the earth.
Always more life . . . and still more . . . and yet still more. Paul shook his head. He acknowledged God's generosity, the marvelous abundance of creation, yet he was sickened by this endless glut of life, this growing over of everything by the weeds of indiscriminate existence.
To the black fecund earth, the bones of a king and the leavings of a rat were no different. They were both just offal, just matter to chew up and spit out again in still another form -- another weed, another drop of rain, another rat. Why did God permit it? Why did all this life exist, when all but a few tiny fragments of it were meaningless and befouled?
It's in Paul's own torment that the spiritual struggle of the novel is most compellingly realized.
The counterweight to Paul's life-hating voice is the world itself as Jakober has rendered it. If her medieval German pagans are occasionally unbelievably modern in their philosophies, their world as a whole is not, and it teems with life: human, natural, and supernatural. Karelian's heroism comes from his full embrace of the life of the world, which Paul can never accept, when he binds himself to Raven: "And he would take her gift of sorcery, take it with both hands, triumphantly, and love her better for it. It was magic and wildness and shimmering power; it was strength in his body and cunning in his mind; it was the hunger to live and the hope to win and it was sweet, sweet . . . sweet as her harpsongs, sweet as the taste of her flesh against his mouth."
Jakober's representation of her medieval world avoids anachronism not only by rigorous historical research (though she's much freer with her history than is Judith Tarr, for instance) but also by her grounding in medieval romance. In addition to Paul's voice, what sets her work apart from similar historical fantasies is her debt to Wolfram von Eschenbach, the greatest of Medieval German poets. Wolfram is best known for his Parzival, a version of the quest for the Holy Grail. It's a work that exuberantly bursts the bounds of medieval orthodoxy in its celebration of human vitality and diversity. Jakober follows Wolfram by also telling a Grail story. Her Black Chalice is the Grail, and she makes explicit what Wolfram only implies: her Grail is a pagan relic, not a Christian one, and it is the Christian goal to master the life-forces that the Chalice both represents and defends that must be opposed in this book. Its story is the inverse of the traditional Grail quest.
Because The Black Chalice is much more than a pleasantly escapist fantasy, I've held it to a high standard in this review, pointing out to the prospective reader a certain familiarity to the basic story, the occasional too-modern feel of its heroes. Such faults as the novel has arise from its passionate embrace of life, an embrace so fierce that it has little compassion to spare for those who reject it. I was, as I think most readers will be, little troubled by the work's commitments, though some Christian readers may find the lack of a single Christian character who is both clearly devout and clearly humane something of a loss. On the other hand, the corners and eddies of the story that are apart from central plot of the book are so exquisitely stunning that the reader must wonder what the book could have been like if it had been just a little less impassioned about its conflict of values. Readers caught up in the main plot may be tempted to speed through some of these passages: they shouldn't. The story of Karelian and Adelaide, though clearly subordinate to the story of Karelian and Raven, is magnificently told. The squalor and subtle menace of Ravensbruck Castle, the festering hatreds and desperate dreams of its denizens, comprise as harrowing a piece of unromanticized historical fantasy as I have ever read. In parts of the story where the sides of the conflict aren't clear, Jakober endows her characters with an extraordinarily poignant psychological complexity as they try to find their ways in the harsh world that has damaged them all, the reader fears, irreparably. It is their suffering, even when turned into a hatred of everything that lives, that justifies the defense of the Chalice, much more than the ambitions of the central villains, about whom little need be said.
The Black Chalice is not a perfect book, but its flaws are small in comparison to its daring narration and vivid prose. It's been good enough to make the jump from small press to major publishing house. First published in hardcover in September, 2000, by Edge Press, it will be appearing in a paperback edition from Ace books early in 2002. The paperback edition will help it reach the wide readership it deserves. The hardback from Edge is beautifully produced, however, so if you have a taste for handsome, durable books or want to support independent publishing, I'd strongly recommend picking this book up in hardcover.
Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons.
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