Mar 26, 2010

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

In case you were wondering (I know I was), “gard” is an old word for castle. And in this context, “perilous” means that which has to do with magic – like enchanted, or bewitched. This is what Kate Sutton is told shortly before she’s sent to live with Sir Geoffrey Heron at his old castle in Derbyshire – the perilous gard of the title. The year is 1558, and Kate is one of Lady Elizabeth’s attending maids. But when she finds herself caught in a political conspiracy, she’s exiled by Queen Mary Tudor to a remote place.

At the perilous gard, Kate meets Sir Geoffrey’s brother, Christopher Heron, a young man consumed by a dark secret. She hears tales about a young girl gone missing at a place called The Holy Well, she realises that all the villagers fear the castle and its folks, and she wonders if all of this might be connected with all the legends she has heard about the castle and the fairy folk. But can the old stories really be true? Very soon, Kate’s modern Tudor world merges with the Old England of ballads and romances: a place of old rituals, eerie powers, and mysterious ladies in green.

I picked up The Perilous Gard because it’s based on Tam Lin, which is one of my favourite traditional ballads (and which inspired books I pretty much worship, such as Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin and Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock). And let me start by saying that no, you absolutely don’t need to be familiar with the ballad to enjoy The Perilous Gard. What we have here is not to much a retelling as it is a story in which the ballad is referenced. Kate’s awareness of the old stories and of their relevance for the predicament she finds herself in could be described as metafictional, which made me enjoy this book all the more. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I love it when stories make use of other stories.

I’m a big fan of historical fantasy, though I’m aware that this subgenre is not everyone’s cup of tea. In this case, the Tudor setting, though well-researched, is not really the main thing about the story. Kate has been exiled, and she has also been forbidden from writing or receiving letters, so she’s isolated from what’s happening in the rest of kingdom. What mostly matters about the setting is, first of all, that this is Olde Englande; secondly, that it’s the Renaissance, a time of great change, and a time when old customs and beliefs are quickly giving way to new worldviews and ways of life.

Which brings me to what differentiates The Perilous Gard from the other Tam Lin-based books I’ve read to date, and really from most books featuring the fairy folk: in this case, the story is told from the perspective of someone who doesn’t necessarily see losing the Old Ways as a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong; the book takes no moralistic stance in the old Pagan versus Christian debate. But Kate is a Tudor girl, and she’s naturally attached to her own views and way of life. The change from old customs to modern habits is portrayed more as a natural shift than as a loss, which I thought made for an interesting change.

This was all quite interesting, but the reason why you should read The Perilous Gard is because it’s a gripping story with a smart and resourceful heroine. Sir Geoffrey’s house and the surrounding forest – aptly named Elvenwood – are wonderfully atmospheric. The story is also more complex than it initially seems, and it has real emotional resonance. Plus the faeries are wonderfully written: they’re neither silly and frivolous creatures nor dangerous-but-so-sexy like the faeries we sometimes see in contemporary urban fantasy. Like Pamela Dean, Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, John Crowley or Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Marie Pope captures everything that is dark, mysterious and awe-inspiring about the old beliefs in the fairy folk. Add plenty of adventure and a touch of romance, and the result is one very satisfying book.

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  1. oooh I want this one! Historical fantasy isn't an area I have ever ventured into but as I am still reading Mists of Avalon, I cannot help but think that a lot of the stories surrounding King Arthur would come under the same category. This book just sounds so appealing to me. Thanks for sharing Ana.

  2. I can't say that I'm not a fan, because quite frankly, I've never tried it. But, I do love Tudor history & historical fiction, so perhaps this should be my introduction to a genre outside my box. Great review; thanks!

  3. I just got a copy of this and am glad to hear that you enjoyed it. It may, of course, be years before I get around to reading it, but I'm still looking forward to it!

  4. Ah, you and Tam Lin :-) Historical fantasy is one of my favorite settings, but probably not in the Tudor era. I am so Tudor-ed out, so I'm glad that the era isn't so important to this story's success. But... it makes me sad that the loss of the Old Ways isn't portrayed as a bad thing. I suppose I always like when people are nostalgic about that sort of thing, and I have trouble believing that one religion naturally overtakes another- I don't think that's natural myself. Not saying that you DO, really- just that thought process saddens me, generally.

  5. Historical Fiction is not normally my cup of tea, but this sounds fabulous!

  6. Meta-fiction historical fiction sounds fascinating and difficult to pull off, but it sounds like the author did a fabulous job.

  7. I can't imagine any retelling of Tam Lin which could be as good as Fire and Hemlock, but you certainly make this sound worth reading.

  8. It sounds like one I'd want to read. Going to add it to the ever-growing list!

  9. Vivienne, that's a good comparison, yes! This book actually reminded me of Mists - they aren't similar in any way, but some of the themes are the same if that makes sense.

    Elisabeth: You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up.

    Teresa, I think you're going to enjoy it :)

    Aarti: It's funny - normally it would make me sad too, but in this case it didn't. I think it was because the book wasn't making any statement about it being good or bad; it just showed how things were from Kate's perspective. I don't want to say too much about the plot (though I know you don't mind spoilers, but someone could accidentally read this :P), but Kate's feelings are contrasted to those of other characters who are more...keen on keeping the past alive. And it's not that they're bad and Kate is good, but it shows that her own attachment to the world she was raised in was valid too. Having sad that, the thought of traditions being lost, languages disappearing, etc. always makes me very sad too.

    She: It's really not too historical :P Or it is, but more in a "long ago" sort of way.

    Kathy, I thought she really did!

    GeraniumCat: It's definitely not as good as Fire & Hemlock, but then again, what is?

    Jeane, I hope you enjoy it!

  10. "As you’ve probably noticed by now, I love it when stories make use of other stories." Why yes, Ana, yes I have. :D I am so grateful for your love of've opened my eyes in so many ways. I wish so much that I could explain what I mean, but I'm totally at a loss. (So I'm relying on your gift of being able to intuitively understand me right through so many of my babblings. :P)

    I'm adding this to my wish list...but I'm definitely making Fire and Hemlock much more of a priority. I sooooo want to read that!

  11. I like the point you make about Kate being a Tudor girl. I read and enjoyed this around five years ago, long after I'd read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin and Fire and Hemlock.

    It seemed to me the most un-magical book that it was possible to write about fairy abduction! I didn't even make the connection Tam Lin. I liked it, but it had that debunking feeling. I just thought it was because of the era in which it was written, when fantasy literature for children still had a bit of a stigma, but I think Kate's Tudor practicality is a better explanation.

  12. Ah, I totally want to read the Perilous Gard, although my mind always reads Gard as grad. Weird right? Anyways, historical fantasy is indeed awesome, I wonder if Authurian books fall under that umbrella? Because I am addicted to Authurian fiction!

  13. This sounds so different from anythign I've ever read- thank you for broadening me once again!

  14. Adventure, magic, castles, and romance? This sounds like it's TOTALLY up my alley.

  15. I have not even heard of Tam Lin! Oh My I feel so ... illiterate! And I have not read in the historical fantasy genre either! ooo.. It does sound thrilling and I so want to read the books you mention here.

    I will definitely look for this one here.

  16. Historical fantasy - I didn't even know this subgenre existed, but I am glad that you mentioned it. Sounds like a great read and your review made me want to read it!

  17. I love it that you start with an explanation of the words in the title. The minute I read the book title, I started questioning. This sounds like a wonderful read.

  18. Debi: I don't know what these intuitive abilities you speak of are :P Have you ever noticed that we've only communicated through writing? And yet I know you well and understand you just fine? Either this means that I have supernatural abilities (which I know you believe in as little as I do), or that - gasp - you express yourself JUST FINE through writing :P

    Trapunto: Actually, your explanation makes sense to me too! It could be either, or maybe a little bit of both. It is a remarkable practical, un-magical book, considering what it deals with. But I liked how that made it stand out.

    April: I think they definitely do! I love me some Arthurian fiction as well.

    Marie: It's what book bloggers are for, after all :D

    heidenkind: I think you're enjoy it, yes :)

    Veens: You're not illiterate! Tam Lin is not hugely well-known or anything...I'm just a bit of a mythology and folklore geek :P

    Andreea: I hope you enjoy it if you do! :)

    Trisha: The title really intrigued me at first, so I thought I'd explain :P

  19. I read this book when I was in sixth grade, really enjoyed it, but had only the vaguest memories of it that would resurface from time to time for years. Finally, I was able to rediscover the title (with the help of internet book people of course!) and bought it right away to give to my sister, who was about the same age. I didn't re-read it again myself, though now I wish I had, because my sister totally didn't like it and thought it was boring! I should pick it up again myself and see if it still appeals.

  20. A "smart and resourceful heroine" sounds like my type of girl. This is good!

  21. I've often heard this book mentioned, but was not really clear on what it was about. It does sound as though it would be my cup of tea though. Wonderful review. I like the fact that it references Tam Lin as well. That's another book that has been on my shelf for ages and that I have heard wonderful things about!

  22. Nicole: What a pity your sister didn't like it! It's a slower book than today's children's fantasies tend to be, so perhaps that was why? I hope you enjoy it still when you revisit it.

    Alice: She's my type of girl too :D

    Zibilee: The Pamela Dean Tam Lin? Oh, I hope you love it! I need to read it again.

  23. I've read this--I liked it, but I don't remember many details. I do remember how I came to have the book, though.

    I'd come home from a rough day at work (teaching) and found an Amazon box in my door. I was confused, figured it was for the neighbor--I hadn't ordered anything in months. But no, it was my name on the package.

    Inside, the note on the packing slip encouraged me to enjoy the book (which had been on my wishlist) and if I like randomness like this, I should check out Bookcrossing. I'd been a Bookcrossing member for a while already at that point, but the person clearly didn't know me from there. All I can figure is that they randomly picked my Amazon wishlist and decided to send me something--a random act of kindness. And the only thing I know about the person is that Amazon puts their residence in Oklahoma City.

  24. Sorry to bother you with another comment/link... :P

    Here's my review of The Perilous Gard:

    I really loved this book as a teenager, in fact, I still re-read it often. You were spot on when you mentioned that Pope got the faerie folk down perfectly--they aren't silly, nor are they overly romanticized, they just are what they are. I'm also a huge fan of Tam Lin.


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