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Late twelfth-century England: a country of divided loyalties while the Lionheart is on crusade. Hugh de Barham, master mason at Wells, walks a dangerous path between Glastonbury and Wells as the two vie for supremacy, a path made more dangerous still by the fact that Hugh, if he could, would share his bed not with women but with men.
The only way to stay safe is to keep his head down, but building the church of his dreams is no way to do that: and then there is Arnaut l’Occitan. What does this stranger from Provence want with Hugh? And can he, or anyone, be trusted?
“Dance of Stone” is an acquired taste and my experience a mixed bag of feelings. I took some enjoyment from it even though it took me half the book to get there, I concede that the writing is elegant and the knowledge impressive, but I am not convinced by the execution, partly because of my reading tastes that incline towards something more intense, partly because of its limitations as far as characterization is concerned.
The story covers almost ten years of a master mason’s life and work throughout England, between the late 11th and the early 12th centuries. The author obviously knows her subject; she treats the reader to a wealth of details about The Age of Cathedrals, the art, the medieval way of life and day-to-day routine, from clothing and food to housing accommodations and travelling, from a different feel of time to a different feel of closeness and distance. It should have been captivating, but the lack of excitement had me pawing the ground with impatience and all the time in the world to be picky.
The first part especially is studious, the lesson in history a little bit too obvious, the whole a little bit too dull for my liking as nothing ever makes waves even when drama strikes. Niggles of a bored mind, perhaps. However, while there’s no denying that knowledge and a solid historical setting are essential and admirable, that the details are indeed interesting, they are not enough to make a captivating story telling. As a matter of fact, my niggles would have remained trifles if I’d had a good grip on the main character, whose fears and joys, nightmares and dreams, all in all whose feelings and emotions are what the story is about beyond the events that affect his life. Instead, they’re the weak spot when the author resorts to a recurring inner voice that conveniently explains or describes said emotions. I am not crazy at all about the inner subtitles; they’re awkward and flat, and they pinpoint exactly where the writing is falling short of the mark, which would be to give consistance.
Thankfully, something gave in for the second part – my impatience or the author’s world building. I don’t know what exactly to be honest, but it felt like the prose let go of its studiousness to be more lively, and I grew interested enough to care about the story lines that had been there all along to enjoy :
Hugh de Barham dedicates his life to building something immovable, yet he is submitted to the whims of princes and games of power, and is forced to lead a wandering life when all he wants is to put down roots. He builds churches. He works and masters stones, crafts edifices and makes them rise toward Heaven, yet believes that his immortal soul is condemned to Hell, and is terrified by the impending fall.
“Stop me”, Hugh said. “Stop me falling off the world”
“Dance of Stone” is first and foremost a dive into the world of medieval craftsmen. The story takes more after a historical novel with gay characters than after an m/m romance in period costumes, which is noteworthy, and should please historical fans. Readers who favour elegance and delicacy in their stories should also enjoy it as long as they don’t mind the romance burning slowly in the back seat. If you’re a sucker for intense, character-driven stories, you might want to pass.
Title: Dance of Stone
Author: Jay Lewis Taylor
Publisher: Manifold Press
Pages: 352 pages
Release Date: May 1st 2014
Purchase Links: Manifold Press