The Magus Of Hay

“The castle was moonlight-vast, all its ages fused together by the shadows, chimney stacks like the backs of hands turned black…

Hay-on-Wye : an eccentric medieval town known for its dozens of secondhand bookshops… and for having its own king. Now in the grip of recession, Hay is fighting for its future. Not the best time to open a bookshop, but Robin and Betty are desperate, and only Betty worries about the oppressive atmosphere of the shop they’re renting.

Merrily Watkins, diocesan exorcist for nearby Hereford, knows little about Hay until a body is found in the dark pool below a waterfall on the outskirts of the town and the police ask her to assist. The dead man’s peculiar interests will open a passage to the hidden heart of Hay and a secret history of magic and ritual murder.

And Merrily is alone and vulnerable as never before…”

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The latest novel that I have read was written by British author Phil Rickman. The twelfth book in a series featuring the character of Merrily Watkins, a vicar based in the fictional Herefordshire village of Ledwardine.

Some years ago I had tried to get into “The Wine Of Angels” (published in 1998), the first in the series, and at that time couldn’t get into it. More recently, however, I picked up a copy of book ten “To Dream Of The Dead” (from 2008) in the local library and was instantly hooked, leading me to read book eleven “The Secrets Of Pain” as soon as it was released in 2011.

I think as I have got older and felt more of a connection with nature and an interest in the ways of our ancestors I have been able to identify more closely with some of the ideas in Rickman’s books. It doesn’t hurt that Merrily and her pagan-leaning archaeologist daughter inhabit a part of the country not too far from that in which I live, also close to the River Wye and England / Wales border.

“The Magus Of Hay” finds Merrily having to spend some time alone as boyfriend Lol Robinson is on tour and her daughter Jane is away on a dig. It’s at this time that police detective Francis Bliss gets in touch to get Merrily’s unique insight – as diocesan exorcist for Hereford – into the home of an old man whose body has been found in the river close to his home at Cusop Dingle.

Phil Rickman
Phil Rickman

The story is set entirely in and around the border town of Hay-On-Wye, with its many bookshops suffering from the effects of recession and the rise of the e-book, where a pagan couple, Robin and Betty Thorogood, have taken the decision to open a bookshop, devoted to pagan books, in a vacant shop.

While Merrily digs into the background of the dead man, Bliss finds that one of his colleagues, a young PC who lived near where the body was found, has gone missing.

Meanwhile Robin and Betty begin to find out that there is a hidden history to their new shop which man not be terribly positive.

I really enjoyed this book, and would say that it is certainly the best of the series that I have read so far (I will, in due course, be going back and reading books one to nine in this series). Rickman’s depictions of both character and locations are excellent. So much so, in fact, that I am looking forward to revisiting Hay itself as well as discovering Capel-y-ffin and some of the other places in the story.

With ingredients including ghosts, castles, stone circles, paganism, girls disappearing, magic, murder, Nazi occultism in World War II and a neo-nazi group going by the name of the Order Of The Sun In Shadow, and the addition of real-life characters including Richard Booth (the “King Of Hay”), author Beryl Bainbridge and artist Eric Gill, there is plenty to get your teeth into and to keep the old grey cells ticking over.

81ZlGQkAy9LIn my humble opinion this is a fabulous book, with a superbly plotted story. I very much look forward to book thirteen, to be titled “Friends Of The Dusk”, which is due later this year…

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