Nectar From a Stone
Nectar From A Stone is a historical novel set in 14th-century Wales, seventy years after the country was conquered by England and immediately after the population was ravaged by the plague. It is an intensely atmospheric story of love, vengeance, and magic; although it is not a romance novel, its love story, while not altogether successful, adheres to genre requirements in the end.
In very first scene of the book, our heroine, Elise, is raped by her sadistic husband Maelgwyn. The rape is not graphically described, but is quite unpleasant nevertheless. It effectively sets up the sequence of events that follows: Elise stabs Maelgwyn in self-defense and then, at the urging of her loyal servant Annora, throws his body in the river and sets the scene to make it look like everyone in the house died of the plague. Elise and Annora pack their things and head north on foot. They plan to go to the city of Conwy and make an independent living there by selling herbal balms and cures.
It is to be a busy journey. On the road, Elise encounters a man named Gwydion ap Gryffydd. While he was imprisoned in France, his father was murdered and his estate near Conwy was seized. The murderer, an insane Englishman named Nicholas de Breauté, also slaughters other members of Gwydion’s family. Elise is present when Gwydion and Nicholas’ forces clash, a confrontation from which Gwydion is wounded and Nicholas escapes. Elise and Annora nurse Gwydion back to health, and Elise and Gwydion fall in love. But before they can find happiness, they must first deal with Nicholas – and with Maelgwyn, who is not dead.
The most interesting thing about this book, to me, is the way the culture of medieval Wales is brought to rich and colorful life. The characters do not act and think like people of our own era; the author shows how they see their world through a different lens than we do, something that few historical novelists accomplish. For instance, after Elise thinks she’s killed Maelgwyn, she sees a spider, which, she is convinced, is there to take his soul to hell. She knows that you must bury a bone from a mare’s skull in a vegetable garden to keep the caterpillars away, and that you should eat radishes to protect yourself from spiteful gossip. All the characters have similar beliefs: “[Maelgwyn] considered the wiles of sundry demons. He knew that when they assume human shape, they can’t be seen from behind. They’re hollow, have no backs, and withdraw by walking backward.”
This book is filled with such tidbits; the cumulative effect is to show that these characters walk through a world filled with capricious – but not entirely unpredictable – magic. Where we think of gravity or gravity or germs, they think of faeries and demons.
The character of Elise is effectively drawn and likable. She is terrified that her actions have damned her to hell; only gradually does she come to think that she might be forgiven for defending herself against her husband. She is resourceful and intelligent, and her relationship with Annora is filled with affection and warmth.
However, there are parts of this book that don’t work for me. The paranormal aspect, for instance. Elise has visions, sometimes foreshadowing the future, sometimes making sense of the past. It is perfectly reasonable that our characters would believe in visions, but they don’t add anything to the story. They foreshadow her meeting with Gwydion, and they lead to some interesting (but inessential) revelations about Maelgwyn; but they don’t actually lead anywhere that we weren’t going anyway.
I also got tired of the various villains in this book: not one, not two, but three characters are evil to the core. Maelgwyn, in particular, is a twisted monster, and his hypocrisy and vileness are shown to us again and again. We were present on page one when he was raping Elise; we don’t need all those additional chapters demonstrating, yet again, that he is really evil. Nicholas is equally wicked, but he at least is amusingly wacky. The third villain is apparently motivated by the fact that Gwydion wasn’t respectful enough to him. Yep, that’s evil all right.
I’m sorry to say that the love story is the least effective part of the book. We are told that, while Elise is nursing Gwydion back to health, “Elise and Gwydion spent many daytime hours conversing.” But we don’t see those conversations; from our point of view, they fall in love in the blink of an eye, and for no apparent reason. We see Elise spend a lot more time with Gwydion’s cousin Thomas than with Gwydion. Because of this, the progress of their relationship doesn’t have any immediacy. The middle portion of the book, which should have been the most romantic, actually slows to a crawl.
I suspect that the problems I found with characterization and pacing are due to the author’s inexperience (this is her first novel). In spite of these problems, Nectar From a Stone is worth reading, especially if you’re getting tired of all those books set in Regency or Victorian England. Its depiction of life in the Middle Ages is fascinating, and its heroine is vivid enough to live in your imagination long after you’ve closed the book.