For those who still prefer – and will always prefer! – to hold a real book in their hands Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar 1) is now available in paperback format from Lulu.com.
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Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is Book 1 of the Mariana de la Mar series of novels set in the 1370s in Spain and France. It is preceded by a prequel, The Rose of Sharon, but that is not a real Medieval Mystery, and Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is in my view the best one to start with.
When the story opens she is in Paris and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a student at the university there. However, her life is still beset with difficulties.
For a start, the university admits only boys and men to lectures, so she has to dress as and pass as a boy. On top of that, her self-appointed guardian, Ferchard (Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale), an old friend of her father’s (who was a Scot living in exile in Spain) insists that she must now grow up and be the lady (Lady Marian MacElpin) she was born to be, and turn her back on the years spent as a prostitute in Spain and Avignon. But this, she finds, is not so easily done.
However, her experience of life and knowledge of the world is much greater than that of her peer-group of students and hangers-on, so it is to her they turn when one of their number is accused of murdering his uncle, a miserly alchemist who is reputed to have a horde of gold nuggets tucked away.
And no sooner has she agreed to do what she can to help discover who was really responsible for the death of the old man than she learns that another murder was committed that same night (Christmas night!), a murder closely connected with the first one.
As the title implies, the book is full of medieval witches and prostitutes – Mariana is more than a little of both herself – but others Mariana meets and gets to know during the course of her investigations include the Holy Roman Emperor, an alchemist himself and in Paris for Christmas, his daughter Anna, soon to be the wife of Richard II and Queen of England, the one-armed Albanian King of the Paris underworld, the celebrated proto-feminist Christine de Pisan, then a girl of thirteen, and the legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel.
There are many so-called medieval mysteries about and feeling at home in the medieval period I have read most of them, but I want to say simply that there is more medieval magic and mystery in this one book than in any ten of the others. And more horror. Some scenes are more than gripping, they are mesmerising. Medieval Paris is unforgettably depicted and quite apart from that it is astonishing how this very male writer gets into the heart and soul of the all-female Mariana. (But then why not, when you think that Cadfael and Falco are both written by women?)
Again the Wheel of Fortune turns, and her twentieth year sees Mariana arrive in Paris, determined now, at last, to pursue her dream of continuing the studies she began as a child, even if that means dressing as a boy – no women are admitted to the lectures. But then Jaquet, a fellow-student of hers, is accused of murdering his uncle, an elderly alchemist, and in order to save him she sets out to discover what really happened. These investigations bring her into contact with the highest and lowest in the land. She meets and discusses the case and her situation with the Holy Roman Emperor, (in Paris on a Christmas state visit) and becomes friends with his daughter, Princess Anna, who a couple of years later marries the boy-king Richard II and becomes Queen of England. At the opposite end of the social spectrum, Mariana is soon on familiar terms with the feared Albanian king of the Paris underworld and the abbesses of two of the city’s most notorious brothels – where, of course, she naturally feels at home. In the course of her investigations, though, she falls foul of the Church and has to leave Paris in a hurry. This second Mariana story is available now from Amazon Kindle and will be available in paperback very soon.