by Catherine Jinks
Published by Allen & Unwin
336 pages, 2006
Buy it online
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
In Pagan's Crusade, we met Pagan Kidrouk, a streetwise Christian Arab living in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade. Pagan became squire (read "keeper") to Roland, a naïve, idealistic young Knight Templar, who was in desperate need of protection. At the end of the novel, when the Crusaders were thrown out of Jerusalem by Saladin, Pagan saved Roland's life and returned to France with him. The next two novels, Pagan In Exile and the award-winning Pagan's Vows, covered their adventures during the wars between mainstream church and the heretical Cathars. By the fourth novel, Pagan, now an archdeacon in the Church, was getting too old to be the hero of a young adult novel, so the author introduced us to Isidore, the title character of Pagan's Scribe, who accompanied the older man. Isidore, himself now an adult and a priest, returns in the new novel.
We all loved wisecracking, likable, compassionate Pagan, and after a break of about ten years, it is a pleasure to see a new novel in this universe, even if Pagan isn't in it.
Pagan's Daughter is mostly a road novel, though the last part of the book is set during the siege of a Cathar stronghold.
So, how does a churchman under a vow of chastity have a daughter? Isidore eventually explains it to the heroine, Babylonne: she was conceived at a time when both her parents were in a vulnerable state and needed comfort, which they found together, just the once.
Babylonne has spent her nearly seventeen years being tormented by her strict Cathar grandmother and aunt as a "byblow" who is naturally sinful, doing the chores around the place, when they weren't in a besieged city or fleeing a besieged city. She has been punished severely for the slightest infringement of the Cathar ways, but told nothing more could be expected of the daughter of a Roman priest.
When her family plans to marry her to an old man who thinks he's surrounded by giant olives, Babylonne runs away in male disguise, with some vague notion of joining the Cathar exiles fighting the French King. But Isidore recognizes the daughter of his old master, whom she resembles strongly and insists on traveling with her for her protection. The Cathar rebellion is at a critical point, with no mercy shown on either side. They can't help being caught up in it, even as Babylonne comes to respect and care about the kind and gentle Isidore and think of him as a father figure, while deciding that maybe her real father wasn't so bad.
This is the Middle Ages. The author makes sure we can practically smell the rubbish, the droppings, the unwashed people. The siege is described in graphic, gory detail. This is a time when believing the wrong thing can get you stoned or burned at the stake. There is no pretty music, nice clothes and gorgeous heraldry. It's really not a time or place the reader would want to live in.
As for Babylonne herself, she is a lot like her father in many ways, with his wisecracking and his way of seeing the sheer weirdness in the way humans behave. She's tough but vulnerable at the same time.
You can't help loving that opening line: "Oh no. I've killed the chicken."
After all these years, reading a new title in this series was like sliding into a comfy old pair of slippers and relaxing. I knew where I was, and found a new character to love and welcomed back an old one. If you haven't read the others, you can still read this one -- I had the feeling it might be the first of a spinoff series -- but it will help with your enjoyment if you go back and read the others. The author knows her history and it helps to let her introduce you to the Cathar situation in mediaeval France. If you don't know Pagan, you'll love him when you do -- and then you'll love his daughter too. Do yourself a favor and read the entire Pagan Chronicles. Then introduce Pagan, Isidore and Babylonne to your teenager. | May 2006
Sue Bursztynski is the author of several children's books, including the CBC Notable Book Potions To Pulsars: Women Doing Science and Your Cat Could Be A Spy. Her fiction has been published in various SF magazines. She publishes two blogs, a general one at http://greatraven.blogspot.com and a review/SF blog at http://suebursztynski.blogspot.com. She lives in Australia.