Moon In Leo

Kathleen Herbert

Trifolium Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9568104-0-3. 402 pages.

Moon In Leo is set in Furness in northern England in 1678, against the background of the Popish Plot. Historical figures including the Earl of Shaftesbury, Earl of Rochester and Titus Oates play important off-stage roles, and others such as the Quaker Margaret Fox appear as minor characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Highly intelligent and educated by her father as a scholar in alchemy, Rosamund Halistan has expected that she and her beloved twin brother Stephen will carry on their father's work together, unaffected by the political, social and economic troubles brewing in Restoration England. When an attempt is made on Stephen's life, Rosamund realises that political turmoil is not some distant irrelevance but a real threat to her and her family. Trying to protect her brother and then in danger of her own life, Rosamund comes into contact with two contrasting men, the gentlemanly scholar and fellow-alchemist Simon Challis, and the notorious rake Henry Ravensworth. Both want to marry her, but Rosamund fears that one or both is an enemy with designs on her brother's life and her inheritance. As treason and plot turn murderous, Rosamund must decide who - if anyone - she can trust.

Moon In Leo is set almost exclusively in the small area of the Furness peninsula in what is now south Cumbria (then Lancashire-over-sands), south of the main Lake District mountains and jutting out into the vast tidal flats of Morecambe Bay between the estuaries of the Leven and Duddon rivers (see map link here). So powerful is the sense of place in the writing that not only can every step of the action be precisely located, the landscape itself almost seems to be an actor in the drama, from the brooding hills around dark Frith Hall to the sunny farmland at Scales and the wide skies and mercurial tides of the Cartmel sands. (Lest anyone think that the quicksands and rip-tides are a melodramatic invention, Morecambe Bay can and does claim lives even today). Readers who know the area will recognise many of the locations, and readers who don't will find themselves transported there by the writing. I'm reasonably familiar with the Coniston fells, less so with the plains and the coast, and I had great fun tracing the routes and places on a large-scale topographical map.

Rosamund Halistan is the central character, and most of the novel is told in third person from Rosamund's viewpoint. So it is through Rosamund's eyes that the reader sees most of the world, and forms a first impression of most of the other characters. Nothing is as it seems, however, and Rosamund often finds herself having to revise her original assessments - sometimes drastically so - as she learns more about the other people and the complicated relationships between them. Everyone is an individual with their own foibles and motivations, past history, values, hopes and desires. As the story unfolds, hidden connections are revealed, and Rosamund comes to realise that many people are far more complex than she originally assumed. For all her intelligence and learning, Rosamund has been educated for all her 18 years in an academic ivory tower, leaving her ill-equipped to navigate the world outside, especially when she comes into contact with the murky world of politics and plot. Warm-hearted and deeply loyal to her family and the philosophy in which she was raised, she is inclined to leap to conclusions that often turn out to be unfounded and lead her into trouble. Her cleverness and courage go a long way towards extricating her from problems, though she also has to rely on help from other, often unexpected, quarters. Rosamund's alchemical philosophy is all about the search for truth and perfection, and this is neatly paralleled by her search for the truth about the events and people in her life.

As Rosamund, her father and Simon Challis are all practitioners of the occult, supernatural elements such as demons, visions, out-of-body travel through time and space, and use of a crystal ball to see and control distant events play a large part in the novel, almost tipping into historical fantasy. I say 'almost', because although these incidents are all too real to Rosamund and are central to her beliefs and actions, not all the characters believe in the occult and it's largely left up to the reader to decide which beliefs to share. As one of the characters wryly observes, "He took a sigil [magical symbol used to conjure demons] to Chapel Island, but he also took a loaded gun." Or "…. they had a stroke of luck, as Harry would have put it. Rosamund would have said that the Power guiding the universe was looking kindly on their intentions." Conjuring tricks and charlatanry feature alongside the alchemy and occult practices, and are just as readily accepted as real by some of the characters. Indeed, one of the most magical episodes in the novel is explicitly shown as an elaborate trick performed with benign intent and happy outcome. I wonder if there is a subtle point there about the nature of magic and belief.

The range of beliefs and cultures in the novel is a particularly attractive feature. As well as alchemy and black magic, there are roles for Puritans, Catholics, gypsies, rational materialism bordering on atheism, and a mother-goddess fertility cult closely tied to the traditional rhythms of the farming year. There is a range of political ideas as well, with Royalist versus Parliamentary rivalries left over from the English Civil War only a generation before, disputes over the royal succession, factions disaffected at corruption in government and licentiousness at court, and the egalitarian ideas of the Society of Friends*. The characters think and believe as well as feel, and there is a real sense of turmoil and political upheaval as competing ideas clash.

A list of characters at the front of the book is very helpful for keeping everyone straight, especially in the early chapters as different groups of people are introduced in quick succession. A hand-drawn map at the front is also useful for following the characters' movements (and the 1:25,000 topographical map in the link above provides even more detail).

Compelling tale of a young woman's search for truth and love, set in the romantic landscape of Furness in turbulent post-Restoration England.

*Also known as Quakers