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Friday, February 17, 2017

To Shine with Honor, Book One: Coming of Age by Joseph Scott Amis            Review by Pim Wiersinga

To Shine with Honor, Book One, the debut of Joseph Scott Amis, is a novel of great accomplishment. In a few bold strokes, we are catapulted into late 11th century France: a world of knights, Men of God, and commoners in the decades prior to the First Crusade (1095–1099). I expected a good read; I got more. Many episodes moved me deeply. What is the novel’s secret?

The novel opens with a tiff between brothers: Thierré de Coudre, typically the stuff warrior-knights are made of, taunts his youngest brother Galien by not appearing at the latter’s coming-of-age ceremony. Galien, fourteen years of age, is already making money as a local scribe; he is destined for a high post in the fold of the Church - anything else being inconceivable in that era. You are forewarned: you now enter a time-zone where career options are slight, even for those of noble descent.

Being of noble lineage, though not destined to become a knight, Galien receives a new sword out of his father’s hands; an occasion that fills him with pride, yet enhances his misgivings about the life ahead of him. To his - surprised - brother Martin, he confides: “Right now, I am making enough money with my scribe work to think of marrying. Had Father given me the coin he paid for this sword and scabbard, I could have a five-acre freehold and a sturdy cottage.” Martin gently chides his younger brother for thinking like a peasant: a great career awaits you... Moments later, Galien comes to blows with his oldest brother, and he is “feeling the Norman blood of his mother come to full fury.” The sword-duel won’t come to pass; the brothers are marched off to face the wrath of their father Henri - the same sort of short-tempered warrior as is Thierré, if humbled after having lost command of his right arm in a fight. 

The scene of Henri de Coudre punishing his sons is superb. It eloquently shows the sense of justice and the affection beneath Henri’s grim veneer, in a terse, reticent, yet dramatic style. The scene brilliantly shows the ‘barbaric’ conduct to which noblemen in those days were prone. But, time and again, Mr. Amis conveys the sobering notion that underlying the fierce violence is an even fiercer sense of justice - violence being the means overlords must resort to if they are to redress wrongs and protect the weak, as is their duty. The best noblemen never indulge in violence; however, they do ‘indulge’ in the combating of injustice in whatever form. While catching thieves in the act, for instance, they threaten to cut the culprits’ balls off, this being the speediest route to confession. Mr. Amis manages to convey the harrowing terror of the threat without exploiting it: his reticence helps reveal the rationale behind ‘barbarism’. Miscreants setting themselves apart from human goodness can’t expect to be on the receiving end of it; nor do they expect it. Those at the right side of the fence are well-rewarded: there’s a mutual acknowledgement of valiant deeds, ample celebration, pursuits that people grant each other in a spirit of generosity.

By lending tangible life to leading tenets of honour and goodness throughout the novel, Mr. Amis passes the apprentice test for historical fiction with flying colours; indeed, he goes way beyond that mark. Not only do we lend credence to the medieval world as evoked, we also get deeply involved with the characters, especially those who stand out against - yet remain within the confines of - the moral and historical backdrop of this haunting book; they truly shine with honor, as the trilogy’s title has it. Galien, Lisette, Alisende, Maitre Joseph: they are (or were) at variance with ‘easy normalcy’ as they pursue their destination, yet they evidence a deeper understanding of what life is (or should be) about.

Galien carves out a path between knighthood and priesthood; he desires to marry a women whom many of his ilk would mark out for lust; even Lisette herself, of common ancestry, deems herself unworthy of him. This is no mere ploy to inject human interest in the novel. We are made to feel Lisette is convinced of her sacrifice; and we never blame Galien’s brother Martin for his disapproval, nor their father Henri for withholding consent, nor Galien himself, for that matter: not only do they act to the best of intentions, they also act to the best of their convictions, fully acknowledging - and this is a masterly touch - the tragedy involved. The Coudre family bears Lisette no ill-will: Galien’s sister Alisende, Lisette’s best friend, sets up a business with her - not an obvious path for a lovelorn lady of rank. Yet Alisende’s deportment looks like the closest thing to knightly valour for a woman; which arguably was one (unconscious) reason why I found their episodes so utterly moving.

Mr. Amis spins tales that always lead somewhere; while reading about Lisette’s heart-break, we just know that isn’t the end of it; and the author needs few words indeed to have us understand that Pernelle, a merry Troyes noblewoman whom Galien meets en route, won’t ever replace Lisette.

Nowhere does the author content himself with a simplified scheme of good and bad guys, if the era’s ethics seem unequivocal. Halfway the novel, Mr. Amis has Count Bayard, an enemy, show up in the monastery where Galien dwells; this Bayard claims to repent his former greed and coldness by donating large - and welcome - sums of money to that monastery. Try as he might to better himself, Bayard will in the end be exposed as a hypocrite; a twist that is quite deftly intertwined with other threads, such as Galien’s apprenticeship to the eccentric maitre (‘architect’) Joseph, in whom the author salutes his former profession… But let us not spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that the universe in which Galien and others move may seem simplistic to us; and yet its intricate ramifications leave ample room for character development. No one in the story attests to this more strikingly than does Galien’s brother Thierré. Starting off as a bully, he ends up one of Galien’s best friends - and a praiseworthy pupil to the art of corresponding. It is touches like these that make a good novel great.

Pim Wiersinga is a Dutch author of historical fiction. His English debut, The Pavilion of the Forgotten Concubines, a novel of intrigue in the Imperial Court of late 18th century China, was released by Regal House Publishing in February 2017. Presently, he is writing his second work in English, The Thomas Trilogy, a tale of the adventures of a young troubadour in post-Third Crusade Aquitaine. Pim holds a MA in Literature from The University of Amsterdam.

To Shine with Honor, Book One is now available in paperback and e-book, at the link on this page. To Shine with Honor, Book Two: A Trail of Blood is scheduled for release in Summer 2017.

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