Having arrived late to the party I have recently been working my way through the Merrily Watkins books by Phil Rickman. While a couple of the books in the series have been a bit weak – I got stuck on ‘The Prayer of the Night Shepherd’ for some time – Rickman has certainly got a firm grasp on the difficulties and joys of being a priest in these times. The books ooze with real characters although I do admit to being somewhat surprised knowing that this was a series to discover someone who I thought would develop into a key character being killed off in the first book, maybe it wasn’t intended as a series originally.
The first in the series ‘The Wine of Angels’ deals with Merrilly arriving in her first parish on the English side of the Welsh borders were cider used to be the wine of angels and rural life revolved around family. This village has a secret that most of them are unaware of and maybe it is Merrily’s arrival which brings it all to a head. She considers herself fortunate to have only one village parish, rather than the handful that has become the norm, but it comes as a cost. The bishop is a media darling and has decided that having a woman as diocesan exorcist fits right into his idea of just what the church should say to the world. Merrily has not had an easy time of it up to now and her and her daughter have to now try to settled down to a new life in a place very different from Liverpool. Things aren’t going to be easy for either of them, but new friends are made as they both learn who to trust and who to be wary of. This book is a cracking start to the series pulling you in and engaging you.
Next came ‘Midwinter of the Spirit’ a first class follow on. Sometimes it is the second book which is the weakest, or the second film, or the second album, not so in this case. We learn some of the history of Hereford Cathedral as Merrily comes to terms with the suspicion surround her being the Dioceses’ deliverance minister and the bishop discovers the cost of being a media darling. Some new characters are introduced, others fleshed out and brought to greater prominence.
‘A Crown of Lights’ is up there as one of my favorites, I have already blogged a bit about this book here so I am not going to say anything more about it for now.
Next up ‘A Cure of Souls’ and probably the book that was the most spooky, not sure why on reflection I felt that, maybe it was because I read a big chunk of it in the dark with the wind howling outside. However, it could also be that the way it weaves Romani traditions through the story it has an almost classical gothic horror style of Jane Eyre about it.
‘The Lamp of the Wicked’ didn’t quite work for me, okay it is fiction not fact but it still felt too contrived as the mental state of a contractor was linked first with overhead power lines and then with Fred West. Definitely the weakest of the series so far in my opinion.
Unfortunately, as I have already said, the next book ‘The Prayer of the Night Shepherd’ wasn’t the best of the bunch either. I really struggled to get into the story which draws on Sherlock Holmes’ Hounds of the Baskervilles. Jane, Merrily’s daughter, has got herself a part-time job in a struggling hotel but the manager thinks the Holmes link will turn his fortune around. Jane once again manages to get herself deeper involved than she really intended – that does appear to be a bit of a theme throughout the series. However if you wade through the first half of the book (which is basically the background material for the second half and the actually story) you are rewarded with a very fine second half.
‘The Smile of a Ghost’, in my veiw was Rickman back at his best. As Merrily helps the fragile Bella Donna come to terms with her past, the disquiet about Merrily’s role as Diocesan Deliverance Officer takes on a new form, which leaves even the Bishop himself helpless. Ludlow with its castle and ghosts are the backdrop of this tale which weaves effortlessly between the politics of the church, the police, and local goverment.
I was itching to get to this book after how much I had enjoyed the previous one, however, ‘The Remains of an Altar’, was another slow burner although thankfully not as slow as ‘The Prayer of the Night Shepherd’. Are ghosts really causing road accidents at the foot of the Malverns and what does the composser Elgar have to do with it? That is what faces Merrily, of course she once again gets crawn into Police business again and Jane is off on yet another cursade. Lol on the other hand quietly gets on supporting and helping both of them. I do sometimes think that these books are too far fetched but then I remind myself that they are fiction. How Eirion continues to put up with Jane however is really stretching ficton a bit far.
The Fabric of Sin is a mixture of the Knights Templar and the Royal family, Masons and White witches you’ve got conspiracies a plenty and all in all a bit of a mixed up story which eventually gets there. I did feel a bit as if this was two uncomplete stories that had been squashed into one because neither were going anywhere or going to get to the requisite length. That being said it has its moments and the developments of the continuing characters take some twists and turns that I am glad I didn’t miss out on.
One of the things that first made me want to read more of these books was that different aspects of church were being explored and written about. How does a single cleric (man or woman) have a relationship, what about that slightly batty but totally lovable person that challenges the Gospel, and oh those others who we all know and recognize but gain so much comfort from seeing, even if it is fictional, someone else having to deal with. The Dream of the Dead however much like the last book has lost that sense of familiarity – I didn’t realize I felt this way about the last book until I finished this one. It feels less a book about Merrily and the church and more a book about, in this instance Dawkins, or at least a Dawkins like figure. Consequently I found it all a bit tired and contrived. Jane is growing up and annoying me less however Merrily seems to have become somewhat pathetic unable to decide anything and just wait till you read what Frannie Bliss has been upto!
The Secrets of Pain – currently the last in the series – has the highs of the early books and the lows of something refusing to die with grace. The story about SAS and a Roman Legion is a bit predictable but at least better than the worn out Dawkins and Knights Templar of the previous two books. However Merrily is now very weak as a character, Lol feels like an afterthought even though he covers a lot of pages, Jane is as confused, Bliss is just nonsensical in fact even good ‘ole Gomer is not quite himself. These character peculiarities are not part of the story line. A large part of me hopes there isn’t another book, indeed I think the series was probably three too long and the final three should have been worked together into a conclusion and a clean ending.