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Five star review from Readers’ Favourite

Five star review from Readers’ Favourite

A Skin of a Dragon by Frances Jones is the first book in the Guild of Gatekeepers series. Tom’s life was simple, but it was perfect to him. He was the son of a fisherman and a loving brother, full of curiosity. After he finds a box on the beach, he’s kidnapped by a mysterious man named Emerson, who brings him to London where he comes face to face with a secret society of magicians. Tom is given a choice: he can die or he can join the guild as Emerson’s successor. To save his life he’ll have to sever all contact with his family and let them think he died. Tom meets fellow apprentice Eliza, and together the two uncover a dark secret the guild is hiding that could threaten the King, England, magic, and everyone they care about. Tom and Eliza set off on the seas in search of the long lost dragonskin before it falls into the wrong hands.

Frances Jones has a gift for bringing the past to life in this dazzling historical read with perfectly fitted dialogue and finer details that capture the liveliness and the scenery of the time period. Jones transports you into the past, pulling you into Tom’s adventures. Tom and Eliza face many historical dangers, including robbers, kidnappers, and raging storms. The world has shadow horses and ghostly presences, but the real danger is from the people they encounter along the way. As they set out on a daring adventure to find the dragonskin, they encounter robbers wanting to take their boat and kidnappers wanting Eliza as a wife. Jones keeps the time period realistic and shows the grittiness of it while also weaving in a magical twist. Every instance of magic is suited to the world, always staying grounded in reality, but also never veering away from the danger and wonder magic can bring.

Tom and Eliza’s friendship is at the heart of the story as they make each other stronger and protect each other from danger, not just from the guild but from the world. Tom was taken away from his family and forced to make the only decision he could to save his life so he’s stumbling through their journey while desperately wanting to return home. This is different than Eliza who was raised by her father in the guild. They come from different backgrounds but they become fast friends and confidants, and through each other they find bravery and strength. A Skin of a Dragon is a brilliant historical fantasy with dazzling characters, a fight to save England, and a daring adventure across the sea.

 

Weaving Magic

Out of the mists of the distant past, the first weavers emerged some 27000 years ago. Nets, clothing and baskets were the simple, functional items created by those ancient weavers, the ancestors of the Vestarian. He is the the weaver, not only a skilled artisan but a magician whose cloaks protect better than plate mail and whose sails make the ship that bears them unsinkable.

Weaving and magic are easy bedfellows. The Fates of multiple European cultures are the weavers of the threads of life. In Greek mythology, Clotho spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle, Lachesis measures the thread of every person, and Atropos cuts it at the time of their death. In Hawaiian mythology, the hero Māui, angry with the sun for rushing through the heavens so quickly that day is too short for humans to complete their work, climbs to the house of the sun to restrain it with a net woven from his sister’s hair. In an alternative version, Māui teaches his family to weave ropes of flax, a skill he had learnt during a previous trip to the underworld.  

Byssus, or sea silk, from which the Vestarian weaves his magic sails, is an extremely rare and valuable cloth made from the silky threads, or byssus, secreted by a gland in the foot of the pen shell to attach itself to the sea bed. It can be woven into a cloth even finer than silk and was known to much of the ancient world, where it was prized it for its quality and golden shine. Such was its value that in the Roman Empire only the ruling classes could wear cloaks made from byssus.

For the Vestarian, the byssus itself is magic, being imbued with the spirit of the sea, but he weaves his own magic into the cloth with the assistance of his apprentice, Eliza. As with all of the textiles he weaves, the raw fibres are spun into thread under special conditions, such as a new or full moon, and incantations are chanted over them as they are spun. Alternatively, materials with particular properties, such as gemstones or minerals, may be ground up and added to the thread to achieve the desired effect. The invisibility shroud is woven with tiny fragments of polished glass, reflecting the light around it to render the person or object it covers invisible with the help of a little bit of magic. It is science and magic coming together to achieve the impossible.

Beautiful words

Two of the most beautiful word arrangements in the English language from Thomas Hardy and that most famous of all books, the Bible.

The Darkling Thrush

 

I leant upon a coppice gate
      When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
      The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
      Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
      Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
      The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
      The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
      Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
      Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
      The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
      Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
      In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
      Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
      Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
      Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
      His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
      And I was unaware.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

High and low magic

Weaving, agriculture, architecture, hunting, trade, cooking and blacksmithing: the seven mechanical arts, as described by the philosopher and theologian John Scotus Eriugena, inspired the characters of the Vestarian, the Agriculturian, the Architecturian, the Venatorian, the Mercaturian, the Coquinarian and the Mettalician.

In the strictly hierarchical society of medieval Europe, the mechanical arts were inferior to the liberal arts of mathematics, literature, philosophy and the sciences, which were considered more fitting for study by free men. In A Skin of a Dragon, the liberal arts are replaced with alchemy and rituals, astronomy and illusions. A distinction is made between these higher disciplines and the more lowly mechanical ones in that the Guild members who practise mechanical magic are ‘junior members’, while Emerson Prye, Clement Atwood and Bridget Blyth occupy the ‘senior member’ positions.

The notion of high and low magic is not a construct I invented for A Skin of a Dragon; it is present in the attitudes and practices of many cultures throughout history. ‘Folk magic’, as practiced by the village cunning man or woman, usually involved simple spells or charms, often made of natural or ‘found’ objects, to protect a person, household, livestock or crop against illness, attack or failure. Their mundane uses reflect the concerns of the people who consulted the practitioner; crop failure, disease or the death of livestock could decimate a family or entire community at a time when there was no protection against such misfortunes. Attributing their occurrence to magic or malevolent forces was a way of making sense of them at a time when the causes of such things were poorly understood. Thus, magical protection was a logical insurance against calamities. The Pitt Rivers museum of anthropology in Oxford has a vast collection of magical objects used in folk magic, including hag stones, amulets, and even a slug impaled on a thorn, which was intended as a cure for warts.

In contrast to the temporal concerns of folk magic, alchemy and other strands of esoteric magic were concerned with the purification and perfection of the alchemist in the hope of attaining a state of spiritual enlightenment. European alchemy is an interesting blend of Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Islamic teaching. It was the pursuit of educated and wealthy men only, on account of the expensive equipment required to set up an alchemical laboratory and the highly allegorical writings that accompanied the practice. The symbolism of such texts is lost on the casual reader, but their mystical nature, and the romantic notion of arcane knowledge revealed to only the initiated few, adds to the mystery and allure of characters such as Nicolas Flamel, John Dee and Edward Kelley.

 

Strange encounters

The idea of supernatural entities existing alongside and interacting with us is an intriguing and particularly ancient one. Those believed to have the power to summon and control such entities have been both feared and persecuted on account of their supposed abilities throughout history (by her own admission, the witch of Endor took her life in her hands in summoning the spirit of Samuel for King Saul [1 Samuel 28:3]), but who or what are these entities, and where did they come from?

The theology of the Abrahamic religions regarding life after death presents a problem when considering ghosts as the restless spirits of dead humans. If the dead are either admitted into heaven or condemned to hell, what business do their spirits have in aimlessly wandering their former homes or places of death? The Quran offers an interesting alternative theory, having absorbed the pre-Islamic notion of jinn.

Jinn (literal translation ‘to hide’ or ‘to conceal’) were worshipped alongside pagan gods before the arrival of Islam. The first records of them date from 4000 to 6000 years ago in the civilisations of the ancient Near East, and they were said to have been created from smokeless fire and to inhabit the desert and other uninhabited, desolate spaces where they posed a particular threat to unwary travellers, leading them astray or even vampirising them.

This concept of a supernatural trickster, whose interactions with humans range from mildly playful to downright destructive, and frequently involve shape-shifting, is found in virtually every culture, from the Norse god Loki to Azeban of Abenaki mythology. In English mythology we see the trickster in the form of the Cornish knockers, the brownies and boggarts of northern England, Robin Goodfellow, and even some representations of the Devil in local legends such as the Devil and St. Dunstan. According to the legend, St. Dunstan was working in his forge when the Devil, disguised as a beautiful girl, approached him and began questioning him on spiritual matters in an effort to seduce him. St. Dunstan, noticing a cloven hoof beneath her skirt, took his red-hot tongs and clamped them round the Devil’s nose, causing him such pain that he shifted form from one hideous monster to another before finally fleeing to Tonbridge Wells to cool his nose in the water there, thus giving it its characteristic red colour.

For most people in pre-modern England, the existence of ghosts, goblins, witchs and the Devil was unquestionable. These entities posed a real danger to life and property, and no doubt helped them make sense of a world fraught with danger and misfortune. Nonetheless, standing alone on a dark night, with the wind howling around you, in the desolate and lonely places said to be haunted by England’s mysterious inhabitants, it is easier than you might think to give credence to the legends.

Propaganda and the poodle

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Boye, the faithful companion of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, King Charles’ most senior cavalry commander, featured alongside his master in Roundhead propaganda which claimed that Prince Rupert was involved in witchcraft. He was alleged variously to be the prince’s familiar or the devil in disguise. Today, he is remembered as the first official British Army Dog.

There are no accidents in magic….or writing

While lost in one of those Wikipedia wormholes I so often find myself in a few years back, I encountered the Holly King and the Oak King. Reading further on the subject across various books and websites, I discovered that they are speculative motifs of Celtic (and possibly wider European) folklore representing the cycle of the year. The idea was first proposed by Sir James George Frazer in his book The Golden Bough and expanded upon by Robert Graves in The White Goddess. According to Graves, the Oak King represents the ‘light side’ of the year, gaining in strength from just after the winter solstice until he reaches the peak of his power at the summer solstice. After that, the tables turn, and slowly the Holly King grows in strength as the Oak King wanes. The two kings are engaged in a never-ending battle, alternately gaining the upper hand as the year progresses. This idea of an endless cycle of waxing and waning power is typical of what is known of pre-Christian Celtic beliefs, which focused heavily upon the cyclic nature of the seasons.

Graves identified several pairs of male folklore figures, including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the Arthurian legends, which he believed represented the Holly and Oak Kings. In homage to their endless battle, they are hidden within the pages of A Skin of a Dragon, subtly represented by their respective trees. Perhaps you can identify them….