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The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312672386
Date: 21 June 2011 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

In London 1560, the controversial Dr. John Dee is the personal astrologer of Queen Elizabeth who, according to her enemies, is not worthy to reign. Dr. Dee and his best friend and former student, Sir Robert Dudley, travel on horseback to the isolated town of Glastonbury on the Isle of Avalon. At Glastonbury Abbey, Dr. Dee hopes to find the bones of King Arthur and use them to establish Queen Elizabeth's regal heritage. Instead, he finds a town steeped in superstition, occultism and paganism. One of Dudley's servants, Martin Lythgoe, is discovered butchered on the altar at Glastonbury Abbey and a young woman who uses herbs for healing, Dr. Nel Borrow, is falsely accused of witchcraft. Dr. Dee must find Lythgoe’s killer, rescue Nel and foil a murderous plot against Queen Elizabeth.

Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon is a treasure chest that, once opened, transports the reader back in time to one of our planet's most perilous eras. The dreaded witch hunts have supposedly come to an end. Queen Elizabeth promises no more religious persecution. However, there still exists animosity between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics. Citizens are forced to attend church or have fines levied against them. Dr. Dee continues to have nightmares of when Bishop Ned Bonner, a madman, had him imprisoned for sorcery and he came close to being roasted at the stake. With its numerous descriptions of Medieval barbarism, savagery and hardship, The Bones of Avalon is a most enthralling read that engrossed me from cover to cover. It was as though a spell had been cast over me, forcing me to keep reading.

At last, in The Bones of Avalon, I have found a hero with whom I can truly identify. Dr. John Dee is a bookworm and a scholar. Everything he knows he has learned from reading textbooks. He has a morbid fascination with the occult; he believes in spirits of the dead, though he's never seen one; and he can't foretell the future, but wishes he could. He's gentle, kindhearted, and would rather flee from danger than fight. (It is wiser that he does flee since he definitely doesn't know how to fight; another character severely beats him. He is certainly not macho like Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone.) However, Dr. Dee will risk his life to protect those he loves. Most importantly, he says his prayers. Many, however, will find it humorous that he lives with his mom.

Unusual, sometimes hilarious, customs, beliefs and medical practices are presented in The Bones of Avalon. Powdered ram's horn was used for erectile dysfunction in lieu of Viagra; however, one shop keeper refused to sell it for fear of being accused of witchcraft. A sheep's bladder was used as a condom. The "dust of vision" eased one's pain and made them soar like birds; today, it is an actual component of LSD. A homosexual was often referred to as a buck-hunter or a Bessie. Indeed, there is a humorous side of Medieval life, but there is also a tragic side: poor peasants sell their children, the river Thames stinks with trash, the streets are littered with feces, and citizens live in fear of being accused, tormented and executed for witchcraft and sorcery. Practitioners of new sciences and medicines find themselves targeted for heresy. Reading this novel made me appreciate the modern times in which I live.

After reading The Bones of Avalon, I realized that mankind has not significantly changed since the time of Dr. John Dee. Instead of witchcraft, citizens are now being accused of terrorism. The Catholics and Protestants are still at odds with one another. Political figures continue to be the victims of vilification and character assassination. Like Queen Elizabeth, President Barack Obama had to prove that he had the right to take office. The Republicans kept shouting for his birth certificate. It seems that men are destined to always be at odds with one another. Legend has it that Jesus walked on the Isle of Avalon when he was a boy. Joseph of Arimathea and the Magi are also said to have visited there. King Arthur and his Lady Guinevere are rumored to have been buried at the Glastonbury Abbey. Today, thousands of tourists all over the world visit the Isle of Avalon, one of the holiest places on earth. For a novel's setting, a writer couldn't find a locale more bizarre or exotic.

Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon is an epic journey of Medieval adventure and horror. Every fan of historical mysteries needs to embark on it. It has a twisting, suspenseful plot with numerous shocks. Based on actual, true-life humans, the characters inspire love and hate. Now I understand why Rickman's ghost stories are so popular in England. He is also the best-selling author of the Merrily Watkins series. Merrily is both a parish priest and single mother in her late thirties who investigates occult-related murders in small towns that are supposedly haunted and/or besieged by witchcraft. Regardless of whether it is a Merrily Watkins or a Dr. John Dee installment, I want to read Phil Rickman's next novel published in the United States. His writing style is extremely engrossing.

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