Book Bag: ‘The Spirit of Fire’ and ‘The Mozart Conspiracy’ by Susanne Dunlap

Published: 12/27/2019 9:27:17 AM
Modified: 12/27/2019 9:27:07 AM

THE SPIRIT OF FIRE

By Susanne Dunlap

Bellastoria Press

susanne.susanne-dunlap.com

orphansoftolosa.com

Northampton author Susanne Dunlap, who writes historical fiction, has had a busy year. She’s published three new books, including the second of a trilogy called “The Orphans of Tolosa,” a series set in 13th-century Languedoc, a region that is now part of France but in that era was an independent kingdom, just to the north of the current French-Spanish border.

The just-released “The Spirit of Fire” follows the first book in Dunlap’s series, “Listen to the Wind,” and traces the fortunes of Azalaïs and Azemar, two young people and friends since childhood, as they make their way through dangerous times. Languedoc, also know as the Midi, is home to a number of different groups including the Cathars, people who had once lived free but were attacked as heretics in the 1200s by the Catholic Church and French mercenary forces because they had different beliefs about God.

At the beginning of “Listen to the Wind,” Azalaïs and Azemar are children who have been separated from their parents for unknown reasons and are living in a forest. Early on, they are forced to part but then are reunited as older teens amid mounting danger. Azalaïs ends up betrothed to a nobleman, the Baron de Belascon, whose scheming mother wants to connect the family lands to France, in large part because of her hatred of the Cathars and her desire to see French knights and the Catholic Church wipe them out.

Azalaïs, however, is actually only posing as a noblewoman and wants to escape her marriage. When she’s reunited with Azemar, now training to be a knight, the two escape from the baron’s castle and make their way south to the fortress of Montsegur, where a large party of Cathars have been living under siege from Catholic and French forces.

In “The Spirit of Fire,” the two friends, now drawn together romantically, make their way through wild country — hills and mountains, forests and tumbling streams — as they try to discover something of their own past. In the years 1243-1244, what is their connection to the Cathars themselves? Also en route to Montsegur are the fiery young noblewoman Jodane de la Moux d’Aniort and her damozel, Johana, as well as the Baron de Belascon, his mother, and the evil Fraire Martin, a Dominican monk and inquisitor also dedicated to rooting out heretics — and Azalaïs, against whom he’s long held a grudge.

“The Spirit of Fire,” like “Listen to the Wind,” is aimed at young adults but can also be read as an enjoyable adventure story by older readers. Dunlap brings a vivid sense of the very distant past to the story, where all travel is by foot or on horse, peasants toil in vineyards, and damp and drafty castles overlook tiny villages and towns. She also explores the complicated history of Languedoc (also known as The Midi), the unique music of the era, and the surprisingly open attitude in the region to all religions.

Dunlap also makes clear the way religion and spiritual concerns dominated day-to-day life, and how the Cathars were willing to face execution — being burned alive — to stay faithful to their vision of God (they considered themselves the true Christians). “The Spirit of Fire,” though never bogging down in violence, also has its share of sword fights, soldiers taken down by arrows and other carnage, including the French use of a siege engine, a “trabuca,” to batter the castle of Montsegur with huge boulders.

As in “Listen to the Wind,” the new volume in this trilogy would have been aided by a glossary (most people in the novel speak Old Occitan, the language of Languedoc, which has a connection to French as well as Catalan). But Dunlap maintains an extensive website, orphansoftolosa.com, where this and other information can be found.

Dunlap also has a third volume in the series, “A Song of All Time,” in the works, a “prequel” that will trace the origins of the story to the period of 1229 to 1240.

THE MOZART CONSPIRACY

By Susanne Dunlap

susanne.susanne-dunlap.com

Another new offering of historical fiction from Dunlap is “The Mozart Conspiracy,” a follow-up to her 2010 book “The Musician’s Daughter,” a Young Adult novel in which a teenage violinist, Theresa Schurman, living in 18th-century Vienna, investigated her father’s death and the theft of his valuable violin. In that book, Theresa ended up working as an assistant to the famous Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn, finding herself in a world full of palace intrigue and deceit.

In “The Mozart Conspiracy,” Theresa, now 17, returns for more adventures in Vienna, circa 1781. During the day, she lives at home with her mother and teaches violin to a number of students. This isn’t enough to help the family pay its bills, though, and by night she disguises herself as a young man, Thomas Weissbrot, and performs in pick-up orchestras across the city, playing the music of Mozart and Haydn.

But on her way home one night, first-person narrator Theresa stumbles onto the scene of a murder; the dying man’s last word is “Mozart.” Theresa is nothing if not a feisty young heroine, and she’s soon caught up in a complex mystery that shakes up the musical world.

The book also explores issues of gender inequity, anti-Semitism and the swirl of classical music in the late 1700s. When Theresa decides she has to report the murder, she must do so in her guise as a young man, opening herself up to new dangers. But when she’s told not to interfere with the case, she only becomes more determined to discover what’s going on.

There’s some budding romance, too, with a a dreamy guy names Zoltan, and Mozart himself pops up in the book. The story is in fact subtitled “A Theresa Schurman Mystery,” and on her website, Dunlap writes that part of her interest in writing a sequel to “The Musician’s Daughter” — and possibly writing additional books in the series — stems from wanting to see the main character develop.

“Theresa ... doesn’t just solve mysteries, she encounters and tries to overcome systemic injustice of different kinds,” Dunlap writes. “This is the engine for her personal growth. And believe me, there was systemic injustice enough to go around in 18th-century Europe. Who knows, maybe Theresa will take a voyage to America at some point.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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