Wonders Will Never Cease - Robert Irwin
Wonders Will Never Cease - Robert Irwin *****
The novels of Robert Irwin are indeed wonderful things and it's good to see that they haven't ceased yet. All stories must eventually come to an end however, and not all of them end as we might like, but there will always be new stories and many more wonders to discover as we go through life. That in essence is what Wonders Will Never Cease is all about, but with it being a Robert Irwin novel and with the story here set in the War of the Roses period of English history, there are many other philosophical and esoteric matters to consider in a rich work that is itself filled with magic and wonder.
A historian specialising in Oriental studies, Irwin made his literary mark with the labyrinthine horror fantasy The Arabian Nightmare in 1983, but each of his successive novels have continued in one way or another to explore the idea of life transformed. Sometimes it's through mental illness (The Limits of Vision), in the world of the surrealists (Exquisite Corpse), through mind-altering drugs in the 60s (Satan Wants Me) or even through erotic Arabian fantasies (The Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh). In most cases however, the Scheherazade power of storytelling is the underlying force that relates, alters and transforms life, and Wonders Will Never Cease may be the author's greatest and most convincing treatment of this constant theme yet.
Even though Irwin characteristically heads off in a different new historical fiction direction here in Wonders Will Never Cease, which incorporates many real-life characters and actual historical events, it's the relating of those events and the building of them into legendary adventure that attests to the power of storytelling and the imagination as a way of transforming reality. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and Robert Irwin's stories are prepared to consider all possibilities, making his novels quite unlike anything else you will read.
"People prate about how wonderful life is, but I swear to you that reading is better. Search how you may, you will never find happy endings in life. It is only there in books", John Tiptof, the Constable of England tells Anthony Lord Scales soon after the Yorkish knight he has returned from the Battle of Palm Sunday at Towton in 1461, and it seems that Anthony has cheated his own ending by returning from the dead. Thereafter the world seems somewhat changed and subject to alteration where the boundary between reality and fiction is not so clear.
Nor indeed is the boundary between the living and the dead. Anthony's mother Jacquetta de St Pol, who according to legend is descended from a dragon and has fairy blood, believes that the recent battlefield slaughters in the on-going war between the houses of York and Lancaster have filled the Kingdom of the Dead beyond capacity and they are now overflowing into the mortal realm. Certainly Anthony's experiences would seem to confirm this, finding a living-dead man covered in gore in his wife's bed, and then being chosen by the gerfalcon of another dead courtier while in service to King Edward following Henry's defeat.
Thereafter things continue to get even stranger as Anthony's life becomes filled with incident and horror as it becomes difficult to tell friend from enemy and reality from fiction. George Ripley, the King's alchemist spins elaborate legends of Anthony's exploits and adventures, but also manages to learn about the events to come from a Talking Head that is able to consult the Secret Library of the future. And although Anthony is selected by Edward to be England's champion, fighting the Bastard of Burgundy in a jousting contest, he still fears attacks from unknown enemies, and even from within the court in the form of the Earl of Warwick.
Wonders Will Never Cease completely lives up to its promise, expertly and meaningfully blending myths and reality in a way that the author hasn't done quite as spectacularly since The Arabian Nightmare. Irwin draws from the Arthurian legends of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (Thomas Malory himself a significant character in the novel) and from The Canterbury Tales, but also from a Burgundian version of the Wagnerian legends of Tristan and from the Saga of the Niebelungs. Wonders Will Never Cease is a dazzling compendium of a golden age of storytelling, that not only celebrates a time of heroes and legends, but as Irwin's writing here testifies, as long as we have words to tell stories and have the imagination to relate to them, wonders will never cease.
Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin is published by Dedalus Books.