Judith Merkle Riley,
A Vision of Light
(Delacorte Press, 1989)

In Pursuit of the Green Lion
(Delacorte Press, 1990)

A Vision of Light, the first volume in a duet, is also the first novel by an American writer whose metier is historical fiction with strong fantasy elements set in medieval or renaissance England and France. Judith Merkle Riley, a college professor, has written five such books to date; the most recent, Master of All Desires, was published in 1999.

Riley's stories all feature spunky, smart heroines who survive and achieve lives of fulfillment and a measure of happiness despite the horrendous oppression of the patriarchal societies (very realistically and accurately portrayed based of the author's extensive research) in which they live. Riley's prose skillfully evokes the atmosphere and flavor of the time period of her tales without resorting to self-conscious archaisms and preciousness. She is equally adept at unpredictable plotting and creating believable characters whether protagonists or antagonists, her fondness for them and their vivdly detailed milieus charming the reader and sweeping them into the story. Supernatural and fantastic elements entirely suited to the beliefs of her narrative's historical era are incorporated into the text as genuinely real manifestations of the uncanny and not explained or rationalized away.

A Vision of Light, despite being a first effort, already displays the highly polished prose, rich detail, engrossing plot and engaging characters that made Riley's more recent books receive glowingly positive reviews. The setting is 14th century England, where the heroine, Margaret of Ashberry, surprisingly resembles a contemporary woman in spirit and thoughts.

Young, wealthy and twice-married, Margaret wishes to write a book -- a modest enough ambition -- but in 1355, the idea of a woman wanting to record her experiences and thoughts is not just unseemly, it's possibly heretical. After several clerics contemptuously refuse to be Margaret's scribe, the starving Brother Gregory, a wandering Carthusian friar with a mysterious past, agrees to take on the questionable job. There follows the first-person narrative of Margaret's life story as recorded by Brother Gregory (who eventually teaches his employer to read), this being punctuated at intervals by the omniscient observer segments that depict what is happening to the protagonist in her immediate present until the events of the autobiography and the third-person intervals coalesce in the penultimate chapter. The dynamic and exciting climax, in the final chapter (in which Brother Gregory assumes unexpected importance) is again told from the omniscient observer's wider perspective. This fascinating authorial technique reveals a character who is a woman of rare resourcefulness who has survived the Black Plague, invented the forceps (while practising midwifery and herbalism) and was accused but acquitted of witchcraft.

The fantasy aspect of the story is Margaret's experience of a Mystic Union -- a vision of light that illuminates her soul and endows her with a miraculous gift of healing and more. Even when the power is dormant, the heroine's charisma is such that to every person she encounters in her full life, she becomes special -- to her traditional parents, to the band of travelling players who adopt her, to the bishop's court that tries her for heresy; and ultimately, to the rich merchant Roger Kendall who saves her and whom she marries.

Riley's excellent wordsmithing creates a heroine who -- despite her uncanny ability to heal, see auras, perceive ghostly spirits and even hear the guiding voice of a higher power -- remains unassuming, matter-of-fact and utterly lovable, thus offering a compelling focal point to illuminate 14th-century England in colorful detail with an emphasis on women's surprisingly diverse lives not usually found in standard historical textbooks.

Margaret's voice and the events of her life and the depiction of her world in A Vision of Light is so entertaining, thoughtful, exciting and absorbing (even when some attitudes prevalent in that era are appalling to today's readers), it is a crying shame that this book and its sequel are out-of-print. Lovers of historical fiction, fantasy and anyone looking for an unusually enjoyable yarn should seek this volume out in the library or on the Internet.

In Pursuit of the Green Lion, a direct sequel to A Vision of Light, picks up where the first one left off. The year is 1358 and Margaret of Ashbury (having been taught to read and write) continues to record the events of her life in a sort of diary-as-chronicle. These first-person accounts, as in the prequel, are interspersed with omniscient observer passages that offer the reader a wider perspective on events as they happen to significant persons in the heroine's life as they affect them and in turn, Margaret.

The story opens with Margaret, newly widowed and an heiress, kidnapped and forced to wed none other than her literacy tutor, the unfrocked monk Brother Gregory, who it turns out is the prodigal younger son of the piratical, fortune-hunting de Viliers family. Gregory, nearly as reluctant as Margaret to get married, is coerced by intense family pressure and resumes his former name of Gilbert de Viliers with the acquisition of his bride and new wealth. Margaret, still mourning Roger Kendall, struggles for the sake of her two daughters she bore him to make a home among the violent, argumentative de Viliers family in their decaying manor in Hertfordshire. Margaret's gifts of healing and second sight serve her well and earns her a measure of respect tinged with some envy from her otherwise exceedingly sexist male in-laws. She even manages to befriend the previously spiteful and scary ghost of her mother-in-law and is comforted by the shade of Roger Kendall, who has followed her to her new home.

Gradually Margaret and Gilbert learn to love each other so deeply that when Gilbert is drawn by his family into campaigning in France during the Hundred Years War, only to be lost without a ransom demand or a death notice, Margaret realizes she must have him back no matter the cost. To aid her in her quest to go to France to hunt for her lost love, Margaret enlists her old friend and mentor who nursed her through the plague, the herbalist/midwife Mother Hilda. She in turn recruits her lover, Brother Malachi, the most notorious alchemist in England and Sim, an orphaned teenage boy they adopted who serves as Malachi's apprentice and general helper. This adventure is welcomed by Brother Malachi as a chance to search for the Green Lion, the secret of transmutation contained in an untranslatable book of alchemical code, and he assures Margaret that finding a lost man will be far easier than discovering the Philosopher's Stone. Also eager to go along is the ghost of Margaret's mother-in-law, braving the ordinarily ectoplasmically impossible feat of crossing open water in her passion to help find her son!

As the protagonists journey through France, the reader, along with them, discovers the complexity, wonders and hardships of pilgrimage in a foreign land in medieval times as portrayed in Riley's inimitable style so rich in vivid description, intense emotion, wit and excitement. Events rife with irony and suspense test the mettle of the intrepid band, building up to a dramatic climax in the dark castle of the Count d'Aigremont in the Pyrenees where Gilbert is being held. This formidable antagonist sponsors alchemists who practise forbidden rites that conjure up demons with human blood sacrifices. It takes all the ingenuity and skill of the heroic rescuers and especially Margaret's abilities to hear messages from the Voice of a higher power, heal and see spirits to save Gilbert and see him safely home to England after thwarting the evil Count's odious plans. The return is just as thrilling as the rescue, especially when Margaret gives birth to Gilbert's son on the road and when the group evades some exceedingly violent marauders under the leadership of the Archpriest. The plot continues to offer surprises right up until the thoroughly satisfying ending.

In Pursuit of the Green Lion once again portays a remarkable woman leading a remarkable and utterly fascinating life in 14th century Europe. Her story, told with all the skill and panoramic vividness that marked A Vision of Light, makes this book a worthy sequel to be sought after with equal zeal.

[ by Amy Harlib ]