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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter

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Bohemian Gospel

 

by

 

Dana Chamblee Carpenter

 

(Pegasus Books, Nov. 2015, hc, 370 pp.)

 

 

 

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

If you are a diehard fan of multiple award-winning author Tim Powers's "secret histories" (The Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard, Hide Me Among the Graves, and others) you're going to love Dana Chamblee Carpenter's Bohemian Gospel, her debut historical fantasy set during the Middle Ages circa mid-13th century Bohemia.

The specific time period is that of the Iron and Golden King, the Czech Ottaker II (1233-1278), who ruled as King of Bohemia from 1253 until his death. Upon the death of his brother Vladislaus in 1247 Ottaker became the heir to the Bohemian Empire, for which he had no original desire. 1248 saw him persuaded to lead a rebellion against his mad father, King Wenceslaus.

Against this backdrop (and remaining faithful to the above historical events) the story begins with young Ottaker II being transported to Tepla abbey where the court surgeon is sought in order to remove an arrow from his chest, put there through innocent accident by one of his archers. When the surgeon is discovered to be away and unavailable, Mother Kazi of the abbey is sought as the second possible healer, but is also away. With the king's life slipping away, a young girl elbows her way through those surrounding their dying king and offers to help. After first dismissing and roughly holding her away from the young king, she convinces his second in command that Ottaker will perish unless she is permitted to save his life, which she does, having surreptitiously read the current medical tomes housed in the abbey.

This is our introduction to the young girl who calls herself Mouse and about whom Bohemian Gospel revolves, for this is Mouse's story from beginning to end. Abandoned anonymously at the abbey gates while a babe (along with several pieces of gold and silver jewelry—and some gems—hinting that she might come from the nobility from anywhere in the kingdom), kindly Father Lucas calls her his little Angel, though others call her witch, for they have witnessed odd little happenings where Mouse seems always to be present, though no hard proof can point a finger in her direction.

Though a waif taken in by the abbey and a nobody given class dynamics at the time, king Ottaker takes her in as his physician during his time of healing. From these opening scenes things get complicated, not only for Mouse but for king Ottaker, for they have fallen in love but due to his position and a kingdom in turmoil he is forced to give her up, leaving her in the hands of his second in command, the lecherous Lord Rozemberk, also an unbeknownst traitor who plots Ottaker's death.

Mouse's journey through several horrific predicaments finds her escaping the clutches of Lord Rozemberk, shaving her head to appear as a young boy, and living a life of secrecy, deprivation, and hardship as she seeks to find Ottaker, who is off with his army to secure his empire. As time passes Mouse grows older on her quest and her story becomes progressivly darker as she discovers more of herself and her "gifts," until a time comes when she finds herself imprisoned in a tiny, dark cell and facing death—her only reprieve contingent upon making a deal with the Devil himself, one which will not only save her life but grant her a form of immortality as well. It is at this utterly captivating point in the narrative and what happens next that has me, as a reviewer, extremely conflicted as to what to reveal—or not to reveal. I am caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place. If I do not reveal what this deal with the Devil is I fear the potential reader will not grasp the beauty of what the author has accomplished (unless the reader is a history buff of this time period, has knowledge of a certain book, and nods appreciatively at what the author is doing). If I do reveal what this book is really about then it might diminish the surprise at the outset and what I was fortunate enough to experience without prior knowledge—and so again ruin it for the potential reader. A rock and a hard place.

Consulting with a fellow reviewer/critic with whom I have the utmost respect and presenting him with my dilemma, and after commiserating with my plight, he offered that it might be worth it in the long run to go ahead and provide what this "secret history" is that provides the basis for the story. And so I shall.

Bohemian Gospel is an ingeniously reconstructed explanation for the authorship of the dark and partly Satanic historical tome known as the Devil's Bible. Also known as the Codex Gigas, it is the largest surviving medieval manuscript in the world. According to accounts, the codex was written by a single monk who sold his soul to the devil, though records ceased after 1229. According to wikipedia, the "Codex Gigas is composed of 310 leaves of vellum allegedly made from the skins of 160 donkeys or perhaps calfskin. It initially contained 320 sheets, though some of these were subsequently removed. It is unknown who removed the pages or for what purpose but it seems likely that they contained the monastic rules of the Benedictines." Half of the codex is comprised of nearly all of the old and new testaments of the Bible, separated by the medical works of Hippocrates, several other works by ancient Greek writers, all transcribed in Latin "and a calendar with necrologium, magic formulae and other local records." Again, wikipedia tells us that: "According to one version of the legend of the origin of the Devil's Bible, a scribe—a monk—broke his monastic vows and was sentenced to be walled up alive. In order to avoid this harsh penalty he promised to create in one day a book to glorify the monastery forever, including all human knowledge. Near midnight, he became sure that he could not complete this task alone so he made a special prayer, not addressed to God but to the fallen angel Lucifer, asking him to help him finish the book in exchange for his soul. The devil completed the manuscript and the monk added the devil's picture out of gratitude for his aid. In tests to recreate the work, it is estimated that reproducing only the calligraphy, without the illustrations or embellishments, would have taken five years of non-stop writing."

I found myself caught up in Bohemian Gospel from page one, but though having heard of the Devil's Bible over the years had no knowledge of it or its dark history and the legends surrounding its making. This lack of knowledge led to my being brought up short at the two page Epilogue (which I definitely will not reveal). Suffice it to say that it nearly—not quite but nearly—threw me out of the whole book. Scratching my head in an attempt to discern why the author ended this otherwise fascinating novel in this manner (I always try to figure out author intent in cases like this), I researched the Devil's Bible and it was as if a thousand lights went off in my head all at once. Fresh from reading the novel and then immediately learning the macabre history of the Devil's Bible brought home to me in an instant what a brilliant job the author had done in weaving together the fictional and historical elements (not least of which the legends surrounding the speculated-upon authorship of the Codex Gigas) into one terrific adventure (and this knowledge made the title, Bohemian Gospel, reveal its lyric irony as well—what a great title), and made complete sense out of the Epilogue. As far as the Epilogue goes, all I can do is hope readers will resist temptation and not read it until they have read the book. I know this is akin to telling a child not to do such-and-such, which only insures that they will disobey and do the opposite at the first opportunity. But if you can resist the temptation to look at the Epilogue the enjoyment and magic of this book will increase a hundredfold.

Bohemian Gospel is the tragic, yet uplifting story of Mouse, the little angel/witch girl we learn to empathize with from her early years of innocence, through the remaining hard years of her adult life, and the Devil's Bible, and how one's fate is tied to the other. I found it to be one of the most moving and expertly interwoven dark historical fantasies of the "secret history" sub-genre I have read in years. And that's saying something. My only regret is not having spread the word about this wonderful novel sooner. I can but hope that this year's World Fantasy Award judges have at least considered it for one of their nominees for the 2016 World Fantasy Award, to be presented the weekend of October 27-30, 2016 at the World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio.

♣  ♣  ♣ 

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.