A Matter of Interpretation

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Pub Date 05 Sep 2019 | Archive Date 11 Oct 2019

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It’s 13-century Europe and a young monk, Michael Scot, has been asked by the Holy Roman Emperor to translate the works of Aristotle and recover his ‘lost’ knowledge. The Scot sets to his task, traveling from the Emperor’s Italian court to the translation schools of Toledo and from there to the Moorish library of Córdoba. But when the Pope deems the translations heretical, the Scot refuses to desist. So begins a battle for power between Church and State–one that has shaped how we view the world today.

It’s 13-century Europe and a young monk, Michael Scot, has been asked by the Holy Roman Emperor to translate the works of Aristotle and recover his ‘lost’ knowledge. The Scot sets to his task...

Advance Praise

Mac Donald has succeeded in making the art of translation centre stage in a thrilling, witty, violent and mysterious debut filled with scheming characters.’ – Jen Calleja, author and translator, Shortlisted for The Man Booker International Prize

The characters, setting and the issues at stake will all linger long after you’ve finished reading it.’ – Domitilla Campanile, Professor of History, University of Pisa

In lush historic prose, Elizabeth Mac Donald leads the reader on a complex journey, where all interactions are tinged with superstition and suspicion.’ – Nuala O’Connor, author of Becoming Belle

A fascinating sliver of history and a truly original book.’ – Alan Robert Clark, author of The Prince of Mirrors

Mac Donald’s style is crisp and captivating.’Biancamaria Rizzardi, Professor of English Literature, University of Pisa

A book to read with a glass of port and a dagger nearby.’George Szirtes, poet and translator

Mac Donald has succeeded in making the art of translation centre stage in a thrilling, witty, violent and mysterious debut filled with scheming characters.’ – Jen Calleja, author and translator...

Marketing Plan

Author Elizabeth Mac Donald will be appearing in the Edinburgh International Book Festival - https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/stefan-hertmans-elizabeth-mac-donald

Author Elizabeth Mac Donald will be appearing in the Edinburgh International Book Festival - https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/stefan-hertmans-elizabeth-mac-donald

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ISBN 9781912054701
PRICE $24.95 (USD)

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Featured Reviews

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 well-written story of medieval Europe, which is interesting in many ways -- the characters were well-formed, the plot kept me engaged, and tension of nearly everything said and done was fascinating. Recommended.

I really appreciate the advanced copy for 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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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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I thank NetGalley and Fairlight Books for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
This is a case of a historical figure whose life is so gripping and fascinating that we would find it difficult to believe in if he was a fictional character. Although I must confess to not having previous knowledge of Michael Scot, the setting of the story in the XIII century, the variety of locations, and the endeavours of Scot attracted me to the book, and I’m happy that was the case.
Although the story is seemingly simple (a monk, particularly gifted for academia, pursues his objective of getting to the source of knowledge wherever it might be and in whichever language, in XIII century Europe, travelling, translating, accumulating knowledge, and having to fight against conspiracy and orthodoxy), there are many different strands woven into it, and reflecting the complex push-and-pull of the politics of an era in which religion and faith wars played a huge part in the struggle for power and combining that with Scot’s quest for knowledge is a mighty task. In my opinion, MacDonald does a great job, but I am not sure everybody will appreciate the way the story is told, and it is not one for people looking for a plot that moves along quickly and is full of adventures. There are journeys and adventures, but some of the most interesting parts of the book come from philosophical discussions and disquisitions as to the nature of truth and knowledge.
The book is written in the third person, from an omniscient narrator’s point of view, and even though we read the story from what appears to be Scot’s perspective most of the time, this is not always the case, and even when we are following his adventures and are privy to his thoughts, we might learn about the way he appears to others and get comments and observations from others around him as well. There is also some first-person narrative, a “Confession” Scot is writing, interspersed with the rest of the novel, which, for me, was the part that made Scot appear more sympathetic and human (at points he is so obsessed with his studies and his project, that he seems unaware of the human beings around him, and he made me think of Captain Ahab from Moby Dick, although he seems to also have his “humanities”). The story starts close to what we later find out (and most readers might already suspect) will be the end, with an event that hints at a mystery, and then most of the rest of the story is told in something akin to a flashback, offering readers a chronological account of Scot’s lifestory. Although this did not bother me, I suspect readers approaching the story with the expectation of a standard mystery (and no, this is not The Name of the Rose either) might be disappointed. Yes, there is a mystery, or several, but the book is not about that. It is about Scot and his time, and how his figure was more important and his pursuit worthier than he and his contemporaries realised. I’d recommend possible readers to check a sample of the novel to see if they feel the writing style would suit them.
Scot’s life has all the elements that would mark him as a heroic figure (and as I said, one that we’d struggle to believe possible if he were fictional). He has a traumatic childhood, with the loss of his mother (who was a healer and suffered because of it); he proves himself a great scholar despite his humble beginnings, and although he faces opposition from the start, he also gets some help and assistance, manages to become Frederick’s (later to become Holy Emperor Frederick the II) tutor, and with his patronage, he sets off to find and translate Aristotle’s old texts. His journey towards knowledge makes him face dangers, come into contact with other countries and cultures (in Toledo and Cordoba he studies closely Arabic texts and his main collaborators are Jewish scholars), and be faced with the strict opposition of the Church, which at the time saw much knowledge (other than approved Theology) as a likely source of heresy and inherently dangerous.
As I read the book, I felt as if I was immersed in the different countries, smelling the spices, contemplating the landscapes, touching paper for the first time (an amazing discovery for Scot), and was captivated by Scot’s goal. As a person who regularly does translations, I appreciate how hard his self-imposed task was and enjoyed learning a bit more about the process and the difficulties he faced. If I missed something, though, was hearing a bit more about the texts themselves. Perhaps that is only me, and many people would think there is enough detail, but I felt many of the discussions about Aristotle and about the work of some of his other interpreters and commenters was very vague and general —either assuming that all readers would already know, or that they would not be interested— especially when compared to more detailed accounts of Scot’s use of astrology and his dreams/visions. At some point in the novel Scot makes peace with his interest in Medicine (something he had tried to avoid due to his mother’s fate), but although he manages to avoid the worst of the church’s ban on Aristotle’s works and on translations by studying Arabic texts on Medicine, I missed a more detailed account of his work on that subject. (I studied Medicine, so perhaps this accounts for my interest more than any gaps in the novel itself).
There are many characters, as is to be expected in a novel covering so much ground and where many of events are of great historical importance. We have several popes, bishops, abbots, we have the crusades, we have kings, scholars, politicians… It is not always easy to keep straight who is who (especially if you don’t know much about the era), and I wonder if the final version will contain some charts or even a timeline to clarify matters for readers who are not experts on the topic. The political intrigue, corruption, battles, and jostling for power and influence make it as gripping a read as modern political thrillers can be.
I have mentioned the distance imposed by the point of view of the narration. I must also confess to feeling more intellectually interested in Scot than connected with him at an emotional level. Only towards the end of the story he seems to come to reflect and appreciate the importance of engaging with people and the help others have given him through the years, but there is little in the way of connection to other human beings, and that perhaps is where he fails (for me) in the role of hero. His weaknesses seem to come only from his illness and, perhaps, from his single dedication to knowledge, that results in others less qualified getting into important positions likely to influence events more than he can. (There are warnings about the risks he faces from early on, but he dismisses them and only comes to realise they were right later in his life). Women also play very little part in the story (apart from mentions of his mother —the most significant— and the wives of some of the characters, only in passing), and other than a comment about their role according to a philosopher, towards the end, this is not a book about them, and we learn close to nothing about their lives.
We know what the end will be from the beginning, but most people will enjoy seeing Scot get some redress (even if it is a case of too little, too late). The author’s note at the end of the book explains her interest and reasons for writing the book, and also her sources, which I am sure, will be useful to many readers who will want to explore the topic in more detail.
Overall, this is a book I’ve enjoyed, and I recommend it to people interested in XIII century European history, especially in the struggles for power and knowledge, the interaction between the different religions, and the influence of the various centres of learning. It is sobering to realise that attitudes have changed so little in some scores, and how even the seemingly most enlightened civilisations are (and have been) afraid of intellectual enquiry, knowledge, and research, as if, indeed, they believed it to be a poisoned apple. Attempts at keeping the population under control by limiting their access to knowledge (or by manipulating the information they are given access to) are not new and, unfortunately, never seem to go out of fashion. Not a light read, but one sure to make readers want to learn more about the period and the man.

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