Against A Darkening Sky by Lauren B. Davis

22812820I have mentioned before my love for The Empty Room and Our Daily BreadWith this book, my admiration for Lauren B. Davis continues…

I don’t think I have ever read a book quite like this one before. It takes place in 7th century England, so long ago that it’s hard to imagine what life might have been like. If you’ve ever wondered, or are wondering now, you should read this book. I could see and feel the world around me as I read it.

All things turn and spiral back like this, it seems.  From this horror-time a peace-time will follow, if only briefly. Crops will be sowed and harvested. Another king, another court, and what is broken will be built, as the seasons turn, as day turns into night and night into day again.

This book is primarily exploring the question of faith and religion in a time of change and uncertainty. In this world of Kings, Lords, and peasants paganism still abounds. But Christianity is slowly sneaking up and taking over. The way in which this happens is interesting to read about; it is not because everyone suddenly sees the light, or even that missionaries are winning over the population; politics seems to have more to do with it than anything else. If a King has decided to embrace this new God, then all his subjects must also surrender their old beliefs.

For many, this is not easy to do. They have been making sacrifices to the old gods their whole lives – how can you suddenly drop them all to follow just one? How can one God do everything? And, what is to become of the seithkonas, the women who have devoted their lives to the gods, and who the villagers turn to when they need help or ‘potions’ for whatever ails them?

Wilona is one of these seithkonas, along with Touilt, the woman who took her in and trained her. When the King orders everyone in the village to pay tribute to the new God, Wilona and Touilt refuse and become outcasts.

Wilona, you should not put your faith in the gods so strongly. Be a willow, not an oak. Bend. Don’t break. Beware of unshakeable faith, especially if it puts you in the path of a powerful man’s displeasure.

Then there is Brother Egan, considered ‘different’ from the other monks and sent to Wilona’s village to help bring the word of God to the people. He is eccentric, but selfless and kind; unlike some of the other Christians who seem more intent on gaining power and favour with the King. He thinks of himself as “a little boat of faith in a sea of mystery“.

He never has to strain to see God in the deer or weasel, the stones, the trees, the stars; it’s only among humans that sometimes, sometimes, he doubts.

23713517Wilona is wary of Egan when he comes around to see her, or when they run into each other, but they are more alike than she knows. Both are on the outside with few friends and family members, and both are deeply devoted to their beliefs. Egan’s continued kindness confuses Wilona – she keeps expecting there to be some kind of catch or trick to his methods. In the course of the story, Wilona begins to question things; the gods and their powers, as well as the new Christian religion and what it all means.

Reading this book made me think about why we believe what we do; where does it all come from? The transformation from paganism to Christianity is a fascinating subject. The book doesn’t have all the answers; just a snapshot of one village over the course of a few years, and what it might have been like for the people living there. The bottom line – faith and love, and the struggle to stay true to yourself in the face of great change.

Look, Brother Egan, look at the waves. Some larger, some smaller, some rolling, some spraying, all part of the great body of water, each playing their part without worry. You can almost hear them laughing as they reach the shore. Be like the waves, Brother. Be just a little merry. Rejoice and simply do your part.

Lauren B. Davis includes on her website a bibliography of her research, as well as the backstory to her novel and a breakdown of the Anglo-Saxon calender.



36 thoughts on “Against A Darkening Sky by Lauren B. Davis

  1. Cathy746books says:

    I don’t think I’ve read a book set so far back in time as this one. Sounds really interesting though, like it raises a lot of questions about why and how we believe what we do.

    • Naomi says:

      It was so interesting for that very reason. And, I wondered at first if it was just all imagined, but it is actually based on research and what is known about those times (ultimately, though, it is fiction – there would just be so many gaps in a story from so long ago).
      It’s a good book for anyone interested in exploring the evolution of religion.

  2. Lynn says:

    Since I ascribe to no organized religion or deity(ies), this sounds fascinating! Great review–thanks for sharing! This is definitely on my TBR list and I’m searching the library website!

  3. whatmeread says:

    This sounds interesting. I have read a few books that circle this subject, although a little later in time. One is The Long Ships and the other The Wake. The Long Ships is more humorous about it, The Wake more angry. And oh, yes, I am soon going to review another book that is more closely related to the subject, Wolf Winter, which is set all the way in the 18th century but in Lapland, and still is about the friction between the old gods and the new ones.

  4. Brian says:

    I have already ordered a copy. I find it fascinating how in coming religions, because it wasn’t just Christianity, build on the structure of the earlier religions.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s one of the things I loved most about this – the way they try to weasel it in in a way that others will accept it – by finding a way to keep some of the old ways.

  5. Elle says:

    Oh, my goodness–have you read Hild, by Nicola Griffith? It’s about the childhood of the woman who would become Abbess Hilda of Whitby, and it’s astonishingly good on the clash of religions and pagan politics. Beautiful descriptive passages, too; highly recommended! (And first in a projected series of three, I think…)

  6. Lauren B. Davis says:

    I’m delighted to hear you found AGAINST A DARKENING SKY worthwhile, Naomi. You’ve quite made my day. And I think you’ll enjoy WOLF WINTER as well. I blurbed that book and really liked it.

    • Naomi says:

      I am happy to have made your day! And, I now have Wolf Winter on my to-read list. Which makes me wonder… I’ve quickly been through your bibliography, but there are so many titles, I was wondering which ones were stand-outs for you while you were writing your book? Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Lauren!

      • Lauren B. Davis says:

        Well, so MANY great books there, but I think the stand-outs were: Auden’s NORSE POEMS, Branston’s THE LOST GODS OF ENGLAND, Colum’s THE CHILDREN OF ODIN; all of Kathleen Herbert’s work, although that’s probably of interest mostly to researchers, not those of use who read for the sheer pleasure; the same with Stephen Pollington’s work. One can never go wrong with the Icelandic sagas (I just got back from Iceland and am even more in love with the place). THE BARBARIAN CONVERSION by Richard Fletcher had a lost of wonderful stuff in it as did Michael Wood’s IN SEARCH OF THE DARK AGES.

        Perhaps the most interesting, and idea-changing was THE HELIAND, THE SAXON GOSPEL, translated by G. Ronald Murphy, S.J. This is the life and deeds of Christ retold in a blending of the Germanic and Christian. As it says on the back of the book: “Bethlehem becomes a hill-fort, horses and horse-guards replace sheep and shepherds in the nativity, the prophets Simeon and Anna are soothsayers and the apostles are turned into household warriors. Jesus himself outfights his enemy and works powerful magic — he’s portrayed as the greatest of chieftains, the Chieftain of Mankind.” This gave me wonderful insight into the mindset of the people of the time and helped me open my imagination.

  7. Angélique says:

    I absolutely LOVED this novel. I read it from the library… and then I bought the book!
    I found the novel very thought-provoking and I loved how religion / spirituality was depicted: a true belief for some, a political tool for others, a lucky bet for the villagers (who wants to turn to the most generous god)… I’ll definitely check the other books from this author!

  8. Kathryn Walsh says:

    Thanks for this interesting review. I’m buying the novel today and look forward to diving in. Kind regards, Kathryn

    • Naomi says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the review, Melinda. If you are interested in books about religion (without the book itself being religious, if that makes any sense), then this is a good one!

  9. Carolyn O says:

    This book sounds great! I’m hesitant to recommend Marion Zimmer Bradley because of the (posthumous) horrific allegations against her, but The Mists of Avalon (a take on Arthurian legends) does involve quite of bit of this tension between old and new religions in England.

    • Naomi says:

      I had to go google MZB, because I didn’t know about the allegations – how awful. I read half of The Mists of Avalon so long ago now that I can barely remember it (maybe high school?). My brother loved it, so I picked it up but couldn’t get into it. I wonder what I would think now?

  10. Rachel B says:

    This looks like an amazing book. I’ll have to keep it on my radar. I’ll try suggesting it for my book club next month, but one of my group doesn’t like literary fiction because it’s about “miserable people being miserable.”

  11. Penny says:

    I do like the sounds of this one! I’m in a big reading funk right now and need something to get me going on the path of a really good read – this sounds like it should be added in to the mix….

  12. Alex from Carlisle says:

    Wilona and Egan? Would it really have killed the author to have used actual Old English names rather than names out of a bad Regency romance novel?

    • Naomi says:

      There’s a lot of Old English used in other parts of the novel. I was happy enough to easily be able to pronounce their names in my head. Thanks for reading!

    • Lauren B. Davis says:

      Alex — Naomi says below (or above, not sure how these thinga format), that she was glad to be able to pronounce Wilona and Egan’s names. My publisher agreed. Suffice it to say these were not my original character names. Writers often have to compromise with publishers who have their own ideas, and hold much of the power. I decided I would give in on that front in order to battle successfully for other things I felt affected the story more. Thanks for your comment. Always interesting to hear what readers think.

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