Against a Darkening Sky
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Release Date: April 14, 2015
From the author of Our Daily Bread and The Empty Room comes a fascinating new novel of mysterious, magic-riddled 7th-century England: Against A Darkening Sky transports the reader to a rich yet violent past, an era convulsing with change, in which a young woman is torn between her faith and her desire to belong.
Wilona, the lone survivor of a plague that wiped out her people, stumbles out of the moors to a new life in the village of Ad Gefrin. There she is apprenticed to Touilt, a revered healer and seeress. She blossoms under Touilt’s tutelage and will one day take her place but, as an outsider, she is viewed with suspicion by all except Margawn, a warrior in the lord’s hall. When the king arrives, proclaiming a conversion to the new Christian religion, Ad Gefrin becomes dangerous for Wilona and Touilt as the villagers embrace the new faith and turn against the old ways, even as Wilona’s relationship with Margawn grows. Wilona’s fate becomes intertwined with that of Egan, a monk sent to Ad Gefrin as part of the Christian mission; both will see their faith tested.
Torn between loyalty to the old gods, and loyalty to her adopted kin, Wilona battles for survival, dignity and love against overwhelming odds. Exploring timeless conflicts and offering rich, nuanced historical details that bring pagan Britain to life, Against a Darkening Sky is an exquisitely rendered work of fiction from one of Canada's most acclaimed and celebrated novelists.
“Lauren B. Davis’s Against a Darkening Sky brilliantly achieves the ideal for a historical novel: period and milieu seem utterly inextricable from character and theme, and together they illuminate timeless and universal truths of the human condition. Seventh-century England is fascinating. Wilona is achingly real. Her quest for an identity and a place in the world are richly resonant. Davis is a remarkable writer.” —Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"As with The Empty Room which grabs a hold of you on the very first page, Lauren B. Davis' Against A Darkening Sky pulls you in from start to finish."
-Shelagh Rogers, The Next Chapter, CBC Radio
Listen to Lauren's interview with Shelagh here. (Her bit begins at the 21-min. mark, but it's all good!)
“Lauren B. Davis’s Against a Darkening Sky brilliantly achieves the ideal for a historical novel: period and milieu seem utterly inextricable from character and theme, and together they illuminate timeless and universal truths of the human condition. Seventh-century England is fascinating. Wilona is achingly real. Her quest for an identity and a place in the world are richly resonant. Davis is a remarkable writer.”
—Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"Seventh-century England comes to life in author's skilled hands. Against a Darkening Sky is told in the clear, uncluttered prose that characterizes Davis's other work; the present-tense narrative and straight-ahead pace take the reader into seventh-century England, specifically the Northumbrian village of Ad Gefrin. Never a false note is struck in Davis's detailing of Anglo-Saxon life... The story can be enjoyed for its conflicts and its engaging characters, but there is a reflection here of what has plagued the world for centuries and continues to: that religion never seems to give lasting comfort, that it brings only heartache and bloodshed. Even though the warring factions in seventh-century England all turned Christian, they expected Christ to help them kill their rivals...Lauren B. Davis is too good a novelist to make her story simply a vehicle for a 'message.' This tale of medieval life and the struggles of a steadfast pagan woman and a fearful monk is captivating and entertaining. In fact, even Margawn's dog, Bana, and Wilona's pig, Elba, are memorable."
-David Williamson, Winnipeg Free Press, May 2015
"Montreal-born author Lauren B. Davis charts new territory with each book she writes, but Against a Darkening Sky, her fifth novel, is the biggest departure yet. Rather than the literary fiction she’s known for – Our Daily Bread was long-listed for the Giller Prize in 2012 – it’s a historical epic set in 17th-century England, just as Christianity is making its way into a land once ruled by gods and superstition. What Davis has proven with Against a Darkening Sky is that she’s a very capable historical writer. The novel tells the story of Wilona, a young girl orphaned after a brutal plague. After months of wandering the moors, she is saved by Touilt, a respected healer in the village of Ad Gefrin. In Wilona, Touilt sees a protégé – but the life of a healer is a lonely one, and Wilona grapples with the power that lives within. Soon, her story merges with that of a young monk named Egan, whose spiritual struggles turn out to be uniquely parallel to hers. Because it’s written by an author with a such a solid literary background, this novel is richly layered. It’s not just a compelling story, but also a treatise on the idea of fighting back when one’s beliefs are challenged from every direction. The way one’s ideals might survive in an ever-changing world, as imperative now as it was thousands of years ago, is at the crux of this expertly rendered parable, and Davis’s colourful – if at times uncharacteristically overblown – prose keeps the tale flowing nicely towards provocative revelations about love, religion and the human instinct to survive."
-Globe & Mail, July 23, 2015
"Davis (Our Daily Bread) takes readers to seventh-century Northumbria as great change sweeps the land and long-held pagan traditions are threatened by the arrival of Christianity. In the village of Ad Gefrin, this tension is depicted through the eyes of Wilona, a strong-willed apprentice seithkona (or "spell woman"), and Egan, a zealous but good-hearted Christian monk. Despite their opposing faiths, there are many parallels between Wilona and Egan, as both were led to their spirituality at a young age, and both honor their beliefs with a conviction that many others cannot understand. However, while Wilona is trained by Touilt, the village seithkona, to heal with plants and runes, recite sacred charms, and commune with the elemental spirits, Egan studies Latin, meditates upon Christian prayer, and prostrates himself to feel closer to God. When Egan arrives in Ad Gefrin to promote the Christian mission, Wilona and Touilt come up against growing distrust from their once-loyal neighbors and intensifying pressure to join in forsaking their ancestral gods. Set against an otherworldly, intimate backdrop, Davis's tale vividly brings to life a near-mythic period of British history while speaking to universal human experience."
-Publishers Weekly, August, 2015
"While it is certainly more historical than speculative, there is something of the fantastic in Lauren B. Davis’ latest novel. Against a Darkening Sky takes place in a world knit together by faith and magic; gods both pagan and Christian are profoundly real to the characters within the text, and whatever the reader may believe about the fabric of reality, in the 7th century Britain that Davis creates it is more about seelie than science.
Despite being so far removed from the contemporary worldview, the strength and sumptuousness of the setting is one of Against A Darkening Sky’s major strengths; the world is rich and well-realized, both in the village of Ad Gefrin and the larger country beyond, and accommodates the huge shift in world-view in reality making (in the form of the country’s conversion to Christianity, as pagan gods give way to the new religion).
The narrative primarily follows Wilona, a plague survivor who is more flexible than most, apprenticed to the witch and seeress (well, healer) Touilt and passionately in love with the fighter Margawn. Wilona also finds herself pitted against the monk sent to oversee her village’s successful conversion to the new religion, a threat to both her livelihood and her sense of reality.
Though it wrestles with big question surrounding how we construct a view of reality, it’s the human connection and the deep intimacy there that gives this novel its magic."
-This Magazine, March 1, 2015 Natalie Zine Walschots
“Davis brings ancient Northumbria to life…. The story’s theme – how to remain true to one’s beliefs when they pose a threat to belonging, and even survival – still resonates today.”
-Quill & Quire, April 2015
"Against a Darkening Sky comes complete with the knowledge that healers possessed centuries ago, a bonus for a novel already filled with a sense of time and place. Brings to life a suspended time, caught among myth and legend."
-The Sun Times, April 2015
"A beautifully written novel that brings the world of the past alive with stunning imagery that wraps around the mind of the reader and shuts out the lights and noise of the modern world. ... Anyone would be hard pressed to find another novel able to bring the story to life in such striking detail "
-Minneapolis Books Examiner, May, 2015
"The dramatic sweep of AGAINST A DARKENING SKY takes your breath away in its story of the coming of Christianity (the White Christ) to the pagan world of seventh-century Northumbria. The novel is narrated in alternating chapters by the pagan mystic/wise woman/midwife Wilona (and her intense and gorgeous communication with nature, animals and the old gods that seem to ride in the air she breathes), and the idealistic, utterly gentle Christian monk Egan (who truly lives by love and who will encounter Christians who live by brutality).
The novel sweeps you into another time. It is so real you feel you are truly there with every cry of an owl or a woman in childbirth or breaking of a twig under the sandal of an approaching stranger. The story encompasses dozens of characters whom you come to care about deeply. The writer totally enters the minds of people who lived fourteen hundred years ago. The thoughts of one character about the meaning of life and the hope of faith are so simple and deep and makes you realize that we are still seeking answers to questions first raised a long time ago in a different world where the way we live now would not even be a vague dream.
Truly, the book is a world apart and a very rich and fascinating one."
-Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille and Marrying Mozart
Back in 2007, I was suffering a pretty significant depression. As I am a person who believes in a power greater than myself, I turned to the church I was attending at the time (I no longer attend any church) for comfort and direction. It helped, in some ways, but I was taken aback and, indeed, distressed, by certain pockets of dogmatic rigidity.
Eventually, I recovered from this depression, and during my time in the dark abyss I can truthfully say I found a number of gifts and invaluable insights for which I am grateful. However, that clash between one's personal experience of The Ineffable, and what folks in authority allow is permissible and valid haunted me.
The girl held the freckled hand for hours; long past the moment it first began to grow cold. She sat on a stool next to the bed with a sheepskin wrapped around her shoulders, yet still she shivered, for nothing but embers remained of the fire in the clay pit. The bodies of her aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbours lay scattered about the hamlet, some still in their beds, some on the floor of their houses, some waiting on the burial ground. Those who died early, her father and brothers and sister among them, rested in peace beneath the earth. A terrible silence squatted, troll-like, over the village. The dogs harried the corpses until the girl threw stones at them, and then they disappeared to the hills. The two shepherd boys either ran off or died, and the sheep had wandered away. Even the few remaining chickens refrained from squawking. When she had gonedown to the river to get water yesterday, the cries of a pair of early-nesting ravens startled her, but now they, too, were silent. Her swollen eyes felt sand-filled. With her free hand she touched her neck, her armpit, her groin. Nothing.
Her mother’s mouth had fallen open; the skin sagging and mottled, the eyes half-closed. Her hair, once the color of autumn barley in the sunlight, lay flat and tangled, and a small brown spider tiptoed through the lank strands. Soon her flame-bright mother would not look like her mother at all. The girl had tried to lure death to her by sitting very still, but death would not come. She could not change the web of wyrd.
The girl closed her eyes and tried to let go of her mother’s hand, but the fingers had stiffened. The rigid claw would not budge and with her heart pounding in her ears, she used force. The stool tipped and the girl thumped on the floorboards. There were more tears then.
She crawled to her bed and imagined her sister’s soft scent in the straw-stuffed linen mattress. She rolled over, covered herself with a fur and stared at the whitewashed wall. The restless dead swirled through the air, hopping from rafter to rafter, their fingers at the shutters, their wails on the wind, their chill breath on her cheek. She thought how easy, how comforting, it would be to go mad. She wondered if she could open herself to it and willed her muscles to relax, her mind to slacken. Like a great ragged owl, despair swooped down, spreading tattered wings. She shrieked, shielded her head with her arms, and curled into a weeping ball until she fell into a sort of sleep. Or, she assumed she slept, for there stood her mother, at the end of the bed, wearing a yellow tunic held at the shoulders with garnet brooches. The girl tried to rise and rush into her mother’s arms, but she could not move. Arms, legs, hands, fingers, head – all pinned by a cruel, enchantment. She wanted to call out, but her voice was tight in her mouth. Her mother held out her hands—pale, freckled, and calloused. Her hair lay unbraided on her shoulders, shining like sunlight. Surely she’d come to take her daughter to the hall of the gods. And yet it appeared her mother could come no closer than the end of the bed, though her grey eyes pleaded. It took everything the girl had to move even a finger. Not enough. Trapped as an ant in amber. Her mother’s lips moved, silently, and still the girl heard her.
The dead cannot stay with the living. The living cannot come with the dead. Child, you must walk…
The bed tilted, the earth slipped, and the girl slid into darkness.
** ** ** **
Under the boy’s grip the oar was slippery with sea-water and his hands were cramped claws in the icy wind. Frequently he wiped his hands on his thighs to keep his grip sure. His skin had cracked and flecks of blood spotted his spray-soaked tunic. The salt stung like a thousand wasps, not only in the blisters on his hands, but in the still-seeping lash welts on his back. His legs quivered and ached from bracing against the roll and pitch.
The coracle’s hazel ribs creaked and muttered, protesting the weight of water, but the little boat was strong and flexible. The boy sat on the transom bar, steering with his oar. Above him the sail strained and bulged against the wind. When he set out yesterday at dawn the sea had been calm, but now the waves were steeper and came faster. . . he knew he might well drown here. If so, then it would be God’s plan. His father had tried to beat his obsession out of him to no avail and now the grey wall of water rose before him, terrifying as his father’s rage. He closed his eyes. The boat teetered, hesitated, trembled at the crest of a wave and then his stomach was in his mouth as he rushed down toward the unknown depths.
The prayer was constant on his lips. Lord Jesus, the power of the storm is thine, the power of the sea is thine. If it be thy will, see me to the harbor of thy love.
All his dreams had been of the wide sky and open sea. All his dreams ended with the angel of the one true God appearing before him – white and gold, with fire round her head and birds hovering above her, beckoning him, a smile on her garnet lips. Her wings were like sails of finest linen, held in a gentle wind. The placid waves lapped at her fine-boned feet. No matter how his father bullied, no matter how his mother cried, despairing of his sanity, he could not refuse the angel’s call. Over many months, in secret moments stolen from his time minding sheep, he built the boat, and set sail without saying goodbye.
The boy opened his eyes. On the far horizon, under a glowering steelish sky, was a glimmer of gold, and in the glimmer a dark spot. Land then. Ioua. The holy island. It must be. His heart leaped, even as another wave rose before him and blotted out the vision . The boat skewed at the wrong angle. In horror, the boy watched as a wave the size of the chieftain’s hall loomed overhead, frothing at the lip, and then crashed down. Something cracked, tore, split…
There was no chance to scream, no chance to howl a prayer. All was black and icy. Rough forces pulled at him. His hands reached for nothing. The world was gone and below was above and above below. So this was how it would end: the angel calling him to his death. His chest burned, but this wet world was cold and dark and silent. He could drift here, slide into her arms and sleep. As though he would open his mouth and breathe…