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A Matter of Interpretation

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An engrossing story, well-written and interesting.  This is not a period of history with which I am familiar, and I was  completely gripped by this book.
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I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald is meaty, in-depth historical fiction, recounting the life of a lesser known historical figure from the Middle Ages (my favorite time period). This rather somber tale is the type of historical fiction I love. The action is subdued, but the psychological picture of the man it portrays is vivid and compelling.

Canon Michael Scot was one of the most learned men in the court of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Scot was born in the wilds of Scotland (so he was always an outsider in the south) but he was educated in Paris, the foremost Christian intellectual center of the day. The depth and breadth of his learning was so impressive that he was chosen to be one of the young King Frederick’s tutors. Their relationship flourished over the years, fortunately for Scot, as the King/Emperor’s patronage not only allowed him to pursue studies in far-flung locations but also lent him protection when the subjects he chose to study offended the Church.

Scot was fascinated by philosophy, in particular Aristotle (unfortunately pagan) and the commentaries on Aristotle by Averroes (unfortunately Muslim). He lived for a time in parts of Spain under Islamic rule so that he could translate the Islamic studies into Latin. He studied not only philosophy, but mathematics, natural history, medicine and astrology. Although I usually find depictions of the occult distracting, the otherworldliness of Scot’s astrological predictions and their frightening accuracy fit in so well with the storyline that it was all believable. 

Because of Scot’s knowledge of medicine and his skill in healing, the emperor chose him for his chief physician. Scot’s own medical and mental torments made him an even more sympathetic and interesting character.

Although he was a monk himself, his unorthodox interests and his close work with Muslims and Jews earned him the enmity of his fellow churchmen. His friendship with Frederick also made him a target for ambitious courtiers. His life was one long struggle to learn and to disseminate what he had learned, despite the opposition. The details of his studies seemed well-researched and were presented in enough detail to convince without becoming burdensome to read.

A Matter of Interpretation takes us into Canon Scot’s world with all its intrigues, prejudices, and opportunities. The author does a superb job of bringing Michael Scot to life and pulling the reader into the story. I’ll be looking for more by this author!
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Stupor Mundi

Michael Scot, Twelfth Century scholar and monk is remembered today, if he is remembered at all, as a wizard, necromancer and magician. His appearances in literature, film or computer game tend to focus on the sensational. Not so in this elegant and stately novel, which is a genuine attempt to portray the historical Canon Michael in the context of his own times, warts and all.

That said, the novel has a dramatic opening:  Canon Michael attends mass in his monastery, removes the metal cap he constantly wears just in time for a lump of masonry to fall from the roof and strike him a near fatal bash on the head. Back track to Michael’s difficult childhood in Scotland, his success as a mathematician in the Paris universities, his position as tutor to the young Frederick II, king of Sicily and later Holy Roman emperor. The young king, in thrall to the papacy, commissions Michael to seek out and translate the Arabic versions of Aristotle, a task Michael relishes, enthused as he is by any new knowledge.

So far, so good; Aristotle may not have the pope’s stamp of approval, may even hint at heresy, but as Michael studies and discovers more, he enters more deeply into the arcane in his pursuit of astrology and alchemy. Indeed he appears to gain magical powers over others, perhaps through hypnotic suggestion, and also to predict individual fates accurately through his knowledge of astrology. The metal cap, worn at all times, is an attempt to avoid the fate he has revealed for himself.

MacDonald’s novel is a genuine historical novel, a fiction born of close research, an attempt to reconcile the apocryphal with the truth. The context is exciting, the court of Frederick II with its potential for the new combined with scheming courtiers who attempt to subvert scholar and emperor. This is a Europe on the cusp of change, knowledge guarded until the time is right versus those who would reveal and disseminate without concern for the consequences. This is a novel of ideas, which those who love language, science and freedom of expression will enjoy. Its thrills come from the revelation of human potential both for good and evil.
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The author brings out a book set in  Europe of the early 13th century.  Her painstaking research into material available from sources based on actual writings of the pertinent characters is quite evident.  The period is shortly before the time of the Italian Renaissance and heralds later events that gave rise to major art, sculpture and literary breakthroughs.  It was a period that still promoted crusades attempting to capture Jerusalem opening it for journeys there by many worshipers.  In spite of the invasions Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side by side all over southern Europe freely intermingling with each other while avoiding the wars going on around them.
     Michael Scot, a young monk has the fortuitous luck to meet Charles II who is the Holy Roman Emperor while both are young men. Michael has become interested in translating the work of Aristotle and Charles charges him with making these translations a full time job.  The thought is to regain via the translations the knowledge lost during the centuries since Aristotle lived. Michael travels and works in centers located in both Italy and Spain.  His findings include information that give rise to advancements in medicine among other disciplines that move these forward.
     Unfortunately during his work Michael incurs the ire of some clerics that feel that translations taken from Arabic are blasphemous and should not be used in publication of the work.  Charles does continue to protect Michael and the work he is doing which allow publication and circulation of his findings after his death.  This is a novel involving  people that lived and worked in a bygone period.  The author has  put words in the mouths of the individuals described.  There is, of course, no way to divine actual conversations, but these are set up so that they reflect Ms MacDonald's efforts to tell the story of a man that actually lived, worked and contributed to the advancement of knowledge during his lifetime.
     An interesting book dealing with an historically interesting man making a contribution to the acquisition of knowledge seemingly lost in time.  The principal persona are as fleshed out as is really possible at this later date. I'm sure that we will see more novels from Elizabeth MacDonald in the future and if they are set in a past will show as much actual research as this one did.
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I had such high hopes for this book.  The synopsis really drew me in as it takes place in medieval Italy, heavily involving monasteries and monks; a time in history I throughly enjoy reading about.   The book started off great; the first third of the book was interesting and fast paced.  However, it became bogged down with many historical facts, most which seemed irrelevant to the story and made reading confusing and arduous.  Also, many characters were introduced, making it difficult to keep everyone straight.

I commend the author for her research efforts, but unfortunately the style in which it was implemented did not work for me. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Fairlight Books for the ARC.
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My thanks to Fairlight  Books for an eARC via NetGalley of Elizabeth Mac Donald’s ‘A Matter of Interpretation’ in exchange for an honest review.

This work of literary historical fiction is set in late 12th-early 13th Century Europe and recounts the life of Michael Scot. As a young monk he discovers manuscripts by Aristotle on Natural Philosophy in a Saracen translation. They had been “hidden away out of sight like a shameful secret”. His pupil, Frederick, soon to become the Holy Roman Emperor, encourages him to translate these into Latin so these teachings will be available to Christendom.  However, the Pope declares the translations heretical triggering conflict between Church and State.

While I had previously heard of Michael Scot as the legendary Wizard of the Scottish Borders, I wasn’t at all aware of his broader career. This proved a restrained fictional biography rather than the more romantic works of historical fiction that take significant creative license to increase the elements of drama. I felt that Elizabeth Mac Donald was exploring territory between historical fiction and academic nonfiction. 

I enjoyed it very much for the rich characterisations and the level of research that clearly went into writing it. I felt that I had entered into Scot’s world for the duration of the novel. 

While living in London I attended some lectures given by The Kabbalah Society on the Toledano Tradition, and welcomed this further exploration of the all too brief period of the Convivencia where Christians, Jews, and Muslims had come together in order to promote scholarship and learning across religious divides. 

In her Author’s Note she provides her key sources for the life of Michael Scot and the time he lived in.

A fascinating novel that I highly recommend.
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The synopsisof this book is very enticing, based on the true story of Michael Scot, a mathematician and scholar in the Middle Ages who translated into Latin the works of such eminent figures as Aristotle and Averroes. In pursuing this task, he finds himself in conflict with the church which seeks to restrict access to such knowledge,

There is a huge amount of research and knowledge in this novel and people with a keen interest in this period of history will find much to enjoy. However, the prose is overblown and sentence construction is rather clumsy. If the writing had be a little moe spare and less relian on florid prose, it would have been a much more enjoyable read. Instead, it was rather a trudge.

Disappointing.
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Deliciously written, I loved this very well researched and exciting mystery/thriller. I wouldn't naturally choose to read a book set in the medieval period, however I found this book very comfortable to read. The author clear knows this period well and is generous in sharing her knowledge and understanding. Thanks for the ARC netgalley x
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This could have been a terrific book, if only Mac Donald had had a stronger editor. The pacing is uneven, many characters are not well-defined, the prose style shifts around quite a bit, and some sections are even dull. A difficult book to stick with, and to finish.

Still, there are some gems here, enough to show how good this could have been. Mac Donald's research is outstanding, with many fascinating details, some expounded perfectly, most either too much or too little.

In the entire book there are not many quotable passages, sadly. And particularly the last 1/4 of the book is a mess.


Notes and quotes -

Chapter 3 is staggeringly good! Well done Mac Donald! Great prose and narrative power, particularly in the remembered confrontation between The Scot and delle Vigne. There are 3 or 4 other brief encounters in the book which are full of magic and power, not enough to rescue the book, sadly.

From Michael's time in the Cathedral School
The vagaries of human nature had visited themselves on him with daily monotony as he battled with the ambition, pride and petty spitefulness of his fellow students- to say nothing of the masters-in the suffocating confines of the Cathedral School. He remembers it all very well, and it still rankles. Out in the world it is easier to suffer human failings, as there is less of the chafing that concentrated contact with deluded consciences leads to.
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For man is ever ready to be stirred up in the abomination of the allegedly scandalous rather than setting himself to an analysis of the facts.
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Andrés Alfaquir’s response chilled Michael Scot, for he cursed his father’s stupidity. Merely because the family had been living in Toledo for generation after generation, from time out of mind, did not make them an integral part of this society. Everything his father said about Jewish learning and expertise was true. But, he added, what his father failed to see -what his overriding need to feel accepted would not permit him to see- was that the Jews were indeed everywhere needed. But nowhere wanted.
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And the best quote in the book; I will be using it now and then in RL -
‘His training has been good,’ said Michael. ‘His grasp of matters is not bad. But as a person, he will always be an obtuse oaf.’

(Amazon.co.uk posting only allowed after publication)
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A most interesting and thought provoking life story of Canon Michael Scot a 12th century monk. The story provides an insight into the culture and the political events of that time.	Under the control of the church the centres of learning is confined to the theology of Christianity. The centres of learning within Islam are open to free thinking and the translation of Greek and others on mathematics science and medicine are available. The monk is on a mission to translate these works into Latin for study by Christians. Fearing that the rise of reason could lead to the undermining of faith the Pope tries to ban the translations as being heretic. How the Monk battles through these obstacles and what he finds in his travels to Muslim centres of learning and what he achieves with aid of a Jewish scholar makes the story. The story prompts the thought of how it has led to present day culture and was the Pope right in his fears. Today it is clear that reason in the form of science provides our material needs and well being and faith and religion deals with the well being of the soul. The Popes fears were proved to be well founded when into the 20th Century Darwin with his theory of evolution dealt a seaming death blow to faith. The world became secular and if man just evolved it then man could be made in any image desired which gave rise to the appalling atrocities of Hitler and Pol Pot. Nowadays with increasing mental health problems people are becoming to realise that human relationships are just as important as material well being. As it is said Man cannot live by bread alone
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This book was a very good example of Medieval historical fiction. I love this genre and this was surely an enjoyable, well researched and well written example of it. 
The plot was captivating. I enjoyed the characters as well. 
So, if you like historical fiction set in this time period, this is a gem.

Thanks a lot to NetGalley and the publisher for this copy in exchange for an honest review.
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The book is well-written and well-researched, dealing with a historical era and subject matter that I personally find fascinating. Unfortunately, neither the plot nor the characters managed to hold my attention and I found myself struggling to finish the book. 
The narration centres on the monk Scot’s recollections of his life in Paris, Sicily, Toledo and Cordoba, but none of the characters truly convince or made me want to know more about them, and I found the unquestioning depiction of Scot’s prophetic powers and astrological skills more than a little irritating.  He must have been a charismatic figure, and I would have liked to have known more about his motivation and feelings, and less about the various treatises he translated.
So mixed opinions on this one, and ultimately I cannot fully recommend it unless you have a specific interest in this period of history.
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I found this a difficult read, and the knowledge that it is based upon historical facts, didn't help much. It was very well researched and scholarly in its approach, but there was so much detail and names to remember in the first few chapters alone, that although I was taking notes. I felt overwhelmed and lost. 
The research is good, very detailed, and monks and Monasteries usually get the detective juices flowing. I did love the character of Michael Scot, a monk, who has been charged with translating the works of Aristotle,and recovering his lost knowledge for the Holy Roman Emperor. When the Pope denounces these translations as heretical, Michael refuses the safe option of compromise, and a battle ensues between Church and State, that continues today. 
Translation depends upon the language and politics of the country, or Ruler, of that time. A tolerant, religious country, offers the chance of free thought, and the opportunity to explore original texts. A dictatorship, or a Catholic country, intent upon the suppression of such religious documents, take scholars and translators, very close to charges of heresy and necromancy. This is the basis of this story, some people and states have their own agendas and biases, and although a knowledge of this particular time period would be useful, that wasn't the reason I found it so difficult a read. It lacked a spark, as much as it concentrated upon history. It was dry and worthy, and while detail is good, more interesting details would have made this novel really sing. 
Not my type of read I'm afraid. It didn't hold my attention. Thank you for my advance copy, in return for this honest review.
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What a terrific book! What a fantastic cover!

I just finished A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth Mac Donald and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in "real" historical as opposed to "romantic" historical fiction. She has very obviously done her homework and it shows on every page. 

A Matter of Interpretation takes what may seem to some (but not me) a dry subject (translation) and little known people taking place in the very distant past. Some of the names may be more familiar than others and some of the situations may not be well known but that is part of the attraction. This is such an entertaining way to learn about another time.

I feel unequal to the task when it comes to explaining the storyline. So much happens that I worry I may not so it justice. Essentially Canon Michael Scot was born in Scotland, went to University in Paris and tutored King Frederick II in Sicily. Frederick and he were close and Scot travelled to Spain on Frederick's behalf to translate Aristotle's writings. That is where it really gets exciting as the Church and many in it do not approve nor do they approve of Scot, in general, or the translators with whom  he works. There is quite a bit of political intrigue afoot and accusations that include necromancy and heresy.

Ms. Mac Donald has created an engrossing tale with well written characters. I tried to read slower in order to stretch out my reading time; I didn't want the book to end. The novel played like a film in my mind as I read it. If this is an example of her usual writing talent, the sky is the limit! I am anxious to read any and all other works by the very talented author.

My thanks to NetGalley and Fairlight Books for allowing me access to an advance copy in exchange for a honest review. 

 #MatterOfInterpretation #NetGalley
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This was not quite the novel I expected. It is based on real histrionic people and events, with lots of details about life across Sicily, Paris and Spain in the early 1200s. Without much previous knowledge of the period, I would have preferred a focus on the everyday life and the translations that Michael the Scot produced, whereas the author concentrated on details of the struggle between the holy Roman empire and the papacy, and the difficulties these posed to his life and work. Michael experiences visions and prophecies, which was an interesting addition to the more academic side of the book. It reflected how people at the time might have thought, but I found it a bit mystical and jarring. I didn't really find the main characters very engaging, although I learned quite a lot about the history of this period in Europe. Generally a book for people who prefer history and non fiction, rather than a thrilling story.
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For some reason, probably based on the publisher’s blurb and the eight or nine reviews that existed when I chose to read it, I expected this book to be very similar to The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  Both seemed to center on monks and monasteries, feature vivid medieval settings, and develop tension between those who pursued knowledge and those who worshipped the status quo.  There would be intrigue, conflict, and unlikely fraternity.  And both books would be ponderous tomes whose first one hundred pages or so would winnow out its readers.  (Yes, Eco admitted as much in the epilogue to an anniversary edition of his book.)

Of course, once I finished reading A Matter of Interpretation, I discovered it was a much different book than what I had expected.  In a good way.  For one, this book was based in historical fact.  Michael Scot, Frederick II, and a host of minor characters existed at the time and place of which the author wrote; of course, she used her imagination to spin a compelling tale from the paucity of facts about these men.  Additionally, this book did not require one hundred pages of penance.  The action starts in the first or second chapter when a stone falls from the ceiling of a Sicilian hermitage.  The plot progresses through prolonged flashbacks until the past and present are seamlessly sewn together.  From there, it is a quick sprint to the conclusion.  The plot in this book was not contained by the medieval monastery; it gallivanted to the corners of Christendom and wove a colorful tapestry of minor characters as it did.  Finally, the narrative alternated between the first person narrative of confessions and letters and the third person objective storytelling.  This added a dimension of richness to the novel.

Unfortunately, this novel was missing the deft hand at intrigue and drama that made The Name of the Rose such a compelling read - one worthy of a Sean Connery/Christian Slater movie.  That’s not to say that the novel lacked intrigue and drama; it just never felt tense or climactic.  And the level of detail was not equal to Eco’s imagination; although that was probably more of a blessing than a curse.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who appreciates a well-written medieval drama.  This is set a little over one hundred years before The Name of the Rose, which was precisely set in 1327; however, that subtlety might only matter to students of that epoch.
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A really interesting view of an important piece of history.  Not only is the cover gorgeous, but the writing is fabulous, and I eagerly look forward to reading future works of Elizabeth MacDonald's.  Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to review this book!
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Speaking as someone who usually reads nonfiction and history works, I found this to be an extremely enjoyable read. Not only was the plot itself an engrossing tale, but I was also very happily surprised to be taken across so much of an accurate 13th century medieval Europe. This is definitely a fiction work I will recommend to friends who likewise have a bit of difficulty stepping out of their history-centric reading bubbles.
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A very good Medieval historical fiction.
The plot is engrossing and entertaining, the cast of characters are well developed and the historical background well researched.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.
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A Matter of Interpretation is a good medieval historical fiction. The storyline keeps you entertained and interested.
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