Wine of Angels, the first novel in Phil Rickman’s “Merrily Watkins” series appeared in 1998. Since then, the series has developed from novels mixing mystery with the occult and the spooky to novels using crime fiction plots to chronicle the increasing decline of the English countryside and its sense of community. Which was fine with me, as it was always Rickman’s sense of locale and his atmospheric description of British village life which appealed to me most about the series.
I do not know whether other readers had issues with the direction the series has taken, or whether Phil Rickman wanted to return to the series’ original concept, but in any case The Magus of Hay, currently the most recent installment (published in 2013), feels very much like a “return to the roots” novel. Merrily Watkins, who had rather kept in the background during the last few volumes, stands firmly in the centre of this one, both her daughter Jane (on an archeological dig with her boyfriend Eirion) and and her lover Lol (on tour with his music) are mostly absent, as is Gomer Parry. Frannie Bliss continues to be a point of view, however, and we see the return of Betty and Robin Thorogood from Crown of Lights – this, I assume, another indication that The Magus of Hay is written in the spirit of the earlier novels in the series.
In keeping with this, there are no corrupt councillors or greedy businessmen attempting to turn the English countryside into a Disneyfied version of Ye Olde English Village this time around, but instead we get an old man drowning and a policewoman disappearing, both cases possibly involving murder, and possibly connected in some way. All of this takes place in around the town of Hay, famous for its used bookstores and whose atmosphere Rickman evokes with the sure hand one has come to be used from him, painting a colourful picture of a a place combining tourist trap, genuine love for books and general British quirkiness. Although the author’s fondness for the town and its eccentric inhabitants shine through clearly, The Magus of Hay is not an idyllic book, in fact it might very well be the most gruesome of all the “Merrily Watkins” novels so far, some scenes spilling over into outright horror.
While not my favourite novel in the series (personally, I’d have wished for more Jane and Lol, and even more on the town of Hay and its cast of used books salesmen), I still thought The Magus of Hay was an enjoyable read and I’m finding myself feeling somewhat melancholy at having reached the (for now) end of the series. Hopefully there’ll be more in the future, and in the meantime I suppose I should take a look at Phil Rickman’s other novels…