The Lion Ascendant (The van Raveyck series)

Written by John Biggins
Review by Susie Helme

Flemish surgeon’s apprentice Frans Michielszoon van Raveck enters the Polish-Swedish 1626-29 War in the service of King Gustav.

Biggins’ “fascination with “the pathology of decaying empires”, as claimed in his author’s biography, is evident throughout. Frans’s life story reads like a comedy of errors, as he assists in one bumbled project after another.

Over-wintering on a frozen hummock on the Vistula River, Frans becomes assistant to an Italian architect charged by King Gustav to construct an overpriced fortress and sluice-gates. He earns a medical scholarship by successfully operating on the Swedish king, while studying at a miserably equipped university in Uppsala. In Stockholm he assists in the construction of the ill-fated folly, the Vasa warship, which sank less than a mile into her maiden voyage.

Peppered with classical and biblical references, the writing admits to having “drunk deep at the spring of Pericles [and] Cicero”. It is a rich, erudite style which is very much to my taste. Even apart from the frequent vocabulary in Dutch, Polish, Swedish and Latin, I found almost 20 words I have never before seen in usage, such as “obloquy”, “clyster” and “gallipot”.

In places the language is so flowery as to be humorous. For example, a fellow who doesn’t love Amsterdam “would certainly starve in the midst of Dame Abundantia’s larder and lack salt to his boiled egg beside the very brine pans of Cadiz”. The language is believable for the 17th century, something which I consider essential for historical fiction.

This is Biggins’ sixth novel. See, for example, A Sailor of Austria (HNR 34) and Tomorrow the World (HNR 42). This is the sequel to The Surgeon’s Apprentice and ends with Frans travelling, so we can expect Volume III.