Murkmere is the story of 15-year-old Aggie, who is summoned to Murkmere Hall from her village to be companion to the Master's ward, Leah. Aggie's mother was once a maid at the Hall, but she doesn't know what to expect when she arrives, and she finds a strange, dilapidated house dominated by the compelling Silas Seed, the crippled Master's steward and right-hand man in everything. Not only is he in charge of all the Master's affairs, he oversees the moral welfare of the servants, ensuring that the dictates of the Ministration are adhered to. At first Aggie is overwhelmed by the charismatic Silas, but gradually, as she tries to meet the challenges posed by her position as companion to the troubled, wayward Leah, she begins to question his actions and, almost despairingly, her own beliefs.
What lends this book a haunting quality is its setting in the English fenland, and its bird-inspired religion. Although there's not the technology to make it fit into the category, there's a darkly steampunk feel to it nonetheless, perhaps because we don't really know how the world came into being - there's a hint that it might be our world, changed after humans had somehow transformed themselves into the mysterious and reviled avia; the hypocritical Ministration, constantly on the watch for rebellion, certainly have resonances of the post-civil war period in England and the puritan protectorate. And the author makes clear in a brief note at the start: "The superstitions in this novel are found in British folklore", which makes it, for me at any rate, all the more powerful, harking back to first hearing of the story of the Children on Lir, and the hair rising on the back of my neck, because it seemed more like a memory than a new story. Elliott says of writing the book:
all I had at first was the image of a girl, painstakingly sewing a swanskin back together. I had to find out why. Who was the girl, and why was the swanskin in pieces?The winter fenland, the swans that Leah must be kept away from, the Master's painful yearning after forbidden knowledge, the Ministration's duplicity and decadence - all combine to create a lyrical, wistful novel.
There is a sequel, Ambergate, which I shall have to read. I'm sort of afraid that I shan't love it as much, because I find the sere countryside of the setting so compelling in the first, and I know that the second moves to the city. But the Ministration is tantalisingly portrayed in Murkmere, something nasty but intriguing, so I have to know more...