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Black Chalice, The

Black Chalice, The - Marie Jakober This book made me angry. What could have been an intriguing story of magical realism and passions set against the backdrop of XII century Europe is, instead, an excuse for a book that veers uncomfortably close to anti-religious rhetoric. The characters are black and white personifications of two opposite attitudes towards the frailty of human condition and the mysteries of the world, and until its abrupt ending the focus of the narrative is not on the plot, but on the messages the author wants to convey.

“Truth is a kind of justice.”

The incipit was interesting because the narrator is downright biased, yet he is forced to write the truth. Historical time and synopsis were of my linking and I plunged ahead, my curiosity piqued already, only to be disappointed. The novel is indeed historical fantasy, steeped in myth, old religions and the lore of the Nordic countries but also beware that it openly condemns the Christian faith, basically seen as a lie to justify wars, tithes and prevarications, as a power to hold the masses in the thrall of poverty and fear. There is sexism, homophobia and bigotry. Christians are either ignorant of the yoke they wear, sly, power-hungry egomaniacs or self-delusional, obsessed creatures. Instead, the worshippers of the Old Gods are smart and all-knowing. Although they believe in a very different truth, both factions don't mind spilling blood and have similar concepts of revenge and ambition.
This conflict is the main object of this 480-page-book, while plot, worldbuilding and characters are only an accompaniment.

“Controlling others is a great Christian virtue, if only you can seem to be doing it for the Lord.”

The protagonist, Karelian, a handsome knight barely past his prime and fresh from the First Crusade, is sick at the concept of blood and atrocities committed in the name of God. Worldly and disillusioned, he is questioning his lifelong beliefs and is unmanned by the ugly reality beneath the veneer of righteousness sustaining his career as Christian knight. His young squire, Paul, sees everything through the distorted lens of a faith that chokes and deprives, he holds on his prejudices as the only anchor against what is different, what -for good or ill- shows him a different reality. He watches, doubts, and then dismisses what he cannot comprehend as sorcery and perversion. From his self-proclaimed moral high ground he takes it upon himself to help his master repent his sins and renounce his fascination for heresy and a certain sorceress.
Bottom line, Paul was full of admiration for Karelian when he was slaughtering heathen children, but he recoiled in horror when his idol started to question his life and so his Christian faith. Of course he is aware of his arrogance and that his motives are not entirely selfless, but he blinds himself willingly.

I have nothing against religious criticism, particularly when a tale deals with the corruption and wickedness of the olden secular church, but here I noticed a useless vehemence which the story or the characters motivations didn't warrant, also considering you don’t really need more than 15 pages to loathe or pity the narrator with a passion. Some sentences were strong to the point of offense and the argument was expounded for two thirds of the book, so definitely not just for the plot’s sake.

I was undecided whether to drop it or not, because there is fiction and there are limits. But somehow I was compelled to finish because I liked Karelian and I wanted to see what kind of ending the author was going to concoct (not wholly resolved, as it happens).

Pages full of sterile critique aside, I found far more interesting the mix of Christian and Pagan (not in a demeaning sense, but in the contextualized sense of the word) practices and how this coexistence was manipulated to further petty interests and mundane intrigue; or the theme of the privileged few versus the starving masses, the game of status and the divine’s will to justify human ambition and greed. Throw in a Jesus Christ married to Mary Magdalene (no, I'm sure you have never heard of this one before)...That was fun actually, thinking about their hidden progeny, the reaction of the Popes at such news and about what would happen if a powerful lord claimed divine ancestry in the Holy Roman Empire.

If not original, at least the potential for an engaging plot and some mysteries was there, but as I said, the execution fell short.

Another puzzling point is the novel’s depiction of women: they are inferior creatures made to entice and/or to send men to perdition, the very embodiment of evil, so they must pray and curb their willful nature. A good woman is a commodity, silent and demure, who exists only to breed heirs, satisfy a man, work and celebrate the superiority of males.
This is the sum of pious Christian women and very medieval-like or not, it’s of course difficult to sympathize with such a picture.

The female lead, Raven, makes plenty of use of her considerable bodily assets, fitting well into the image of the sorceress and temptress the Christians warn against. She needs the help of men but she has considerable power herself and she is not a weak-willed creature, nor are her motives shallow. She knows where she stands, what she wants and how to obtain it. She is not void of emotion either and to achieve her goal she is willing to betray and be betrayed.
She is not a Christian woman and of course the reader can easily root for her.

The other women are pretty wallflowers, like Adelaide, introduced as "schooled at seventeen in the art of seeming, better known to women as the art of survival.", or embittered middle-aged witches full of malice and spite, like Sigune, bearing scars on the outside as ugly as their souls. Then there are Clara and Helga, the archetypal evil stepmother and sister….Women so brainwashed and plagued by guilt that they can, despite all, love their tormentors even to death (whose depends on the situation). They can try to influence their destiny but in the end they are a contemptible lot indeed. It goes without saying, there is also a superfluous rape scene and the narrator manages to find sublime justifications for it.

But it wasn’t God’s business to make people happy, was it? Life was hard. Life was supposed to be hard, the countess said. How else would a Christian deserve heaven?

Not that a man’s life is presented as much easier, particularly the life of servants or of those pledged to a lord, like Rudolf, but generally speaking the Christian’s faith champions the superiority of men so they are better off. The other men characters are either full of self-doubt, like Karelian, or gruesome warring monsters like the Iron count, interested only in plunder, sex and blood (not sure about the order) or like Gottfried, the epitome of the Christian knight, full of charisma, conviction and ambition.

Anyhow, since they serve the story, all the characters are stereotyped to fit their role and completely flat, there is a weak attempt at development in Raven and Karelian only. The full cast is very argumentative, they believe they are morally right and their points of view, set forth at length to different degrees, are very convincing, though some have opposite ideas.
They are all wonderfully selfish and fight for their own values and heart’s desires, so all their emotions come to the fore. Most characters indeed question themselves as the story progresses, but there is a clear-cut line between those who consequently find self-betterment and those who spiral farther downwards into a deeper pool of delusion.

Again, wasted potential, since all the behaviors are steered and contrived.

Nothing, he thought, was ever as it seemed, and human creatures least of all.

I didn’t dislike the book, after a fashion and all the above paragraphs, the story is not boring, the historical background is compelling, the writing style is nice and despite the narrator’s best efforts to anticipate the facts as he chronicles the past, I was in for some surprises. I liked the characters, flatness and all, because I was interested in their struggles even if they were mostly obnoxious, deluded or dense. However, the rhythm is not very good: the first few chapters unroll fast then the pace slows down and the abuse of foreshadowing spoils the suspense. The story, which started with a definite single plotline, becomes increasingly confusing and the transition is jarring, not to mention the subsequent parts feel more like a pileup of events than the result of a cohesive flow. The book would certainly benefit from an editing revision as well, it’s certainly too long for his plot points and several scenes are overwritten.

There is a very marginal M/M subtheme but it's just a plot device to reinforce the hypocrisy of a certain character and to show how well homosexuality dovetails with medieval Christian morality (as if the tale needed further denunciation of religion and social control). There is instead a relevant M/F romance thread and also some sex.

“What really does happen to a man who binds himself to a witch—other than in bed, where everything that happens is what other men dream of?”
Yeah, way to go. What was I expecting from a character of such deep insight?

Actually, as long as there are some thought-provoking themes I'm fine with despicable characters. My issue is with the fact that less vehemence, a closer-knit tale, a healthy dose of character development, more intellectual honesty and a serious editor would have made for a much better novel, even with all its shock-value unpleasantness. I would probably have enjoyed it and accepted the invitation to think and drawn my own conclusions with more ease.

In this regard, considering the length of my review, the author succeed but probably not in the expected way since my thoughts are more focused on my irritation (also at myself for seeing this novel through) than on the narrative, and particularly on the fact that it had the potential to yield better results.

1.5 stars, rounded to two because I should have known better.

Everybody wants more than they have, don’t they?”