A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 278
Year: 2014 (23 October)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie TidharReview
Herr Wolf is an immigrant in 1939 London, one of many Germans driven out from the Fatherland after the fall of fascism in the 1933 German elections. Wolf was once the leader of German fascism but, with his own country caught in the vice of a communist revolution, Wolf, as he now calls himself, makes ends meet as a private detective, living in London’s underworld, amongst its gangsters, thugs and prostitutes. Wolf would never choose to work for Jews unless desperate but desperate he is when Isabella Rubinstein walks into his office. Her sister Judith is missing, one of many immigrants smuggled out of Germany and now lost. Isabella knows exactly which buttons to press. Wolf is soon entangled and descends even deeper into the rot in London’s poorest streets and its racket clubs, so many of which are run by the men who once, years before, clicked their heels at Wolf.

But none of this is real. Shomer lies dreaming in the hell that the Nazis have created. He is in Auschwitz, his family slashed in two, his wife and children gassed, his own survival unlikely. Before the Holocaust, Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. Now he survives one day at a time by dreaming an alternate history, one in which Hitler never rose to power but instead has to hide himself in a foreign city under a different name, working for the very people he despises, pitied and repudiated by Britain’s own rising fascist faction, and reduced to something less than human by the the lust and hatred that has twisted his soul.

In A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar has created an extraordinary vision of a shifted, dark and rotted world. At its heart Shomer lies dreaming and throughout we are given brief and painfully graphic glimpses into his night and day. In the centre of his dream is Wolf and for most of the novel we watch Wolf move through his London, chasing the missing Judith while also working on his other mission to keep Sir Oswald Mosley, a fascist with dreams of becoming Prime Minister, safe from assassination. While at times we see Wolf through the omnipresent eyes of our narrator, there are many other times when we descend into Wolf’s mind though his journal entries. This is a nasty place to be and no attempt is made to win over the reader. Instead, the clever shifting narration keeps us at a safe distance as we sit and observe Wolf.

A Man Lies Dreaming is a most unusual book – our leading character is despicable and we are constantly reminded of this, by the condition of Shomer and by Wolf’s own condition. Wolf is a man immersed in sin and the evil he has created is his own reward as Shomer struggles to hold on to his own life and sanity. We watch Wolf unwind and the violence he suffers has the satisfaction of fate about it. A Man Lies Dreaming is about a man who cannot be saved; our empathy and feeling is reserved entirely for Shomer.

The other characters in the novel all have a purpose designed by the dreamer. Their function is to define, torment and disintegrate Wolf. The characters from Wolf’s past are there to remind him of what he’s lost while Mosley and the Mitford sisters taunt him with what could have been. Isabella Rubinstein and her father exert a justice that is painfully precise and justified. Other characters live in in the memories that Wolf recalls in his diary, so many of them now destroyed. Familiar names are thrown at us throughout and there is no little satisfaction in fitting them back into history as it actually happened. The London that it depicts is also well done. Both familiar and different, this is a London where fascism is on the rise but where the downtrodden, the beaten and the victimised are beginning to fight back.

A Man Lies Dreaming might be dark and powerful and at times painfully graphic (sex and violence – especially the sex) but I found the novel fascinating and extremely difficult to put down, reading it in a couple of sittings. It’s hugely clever, aimed at (and hitting) both the reader’s heart and mind, witty and completely absorbing. Lavie Tidhar is a writer with extraordinary flair and wit – as I already knew from his previous novel The Violent Century – but in A Man Lies Dreaming Tidhar takes extra steps and the result is an incredibly brave and imaginative novel, evoking in a such an unusual and effective way the trauma of the Holocaust, and without doubt it will feature in my top ten books of 2014. And what a fantastic cover.

Other review
The Violent Century

The Tudor Vendetta by Christopher Gortner

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 294
Year: 2014 (US: 21 October under the name C.W. Gortner; UK 23 October)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. GortnerReview
It is 1558 and Bloody Mary is dead. London rejoices as their young Queen Elizabeth takes the throne that almost cost her her life. This is the signal for her supporters to return from their enforced exile on the continent, among them spymaster Frances Walsingham and his assistant Brendan Prescott, Elizabeth’s most trusted spy, the man who keeps so many of her secrets. He’s a natural, having so many great secrets of his own. Brendon’s absence cost him much. He didn’t tell his lover Kate, Elizabeth’s lady in waiting, where he was going, anxious to keep her safe from his enemies while struggling with the memory of his previous mission in Elizabeth’s service. But Brendon’s return to court is not without its dangers. It means a reunion with Robert Dudley, Elizabeth’s favourite and a nasty bit of work if ever there was one, and then there’s the matter of the disappearance of Elizabeth’s closest attendant Lady Parry in Yorkshire. Elizabeth suspects foul play and so almost before Brendon has chance to reacquaint himself with London and all that he’s missed he’s despatched to the north on what will become a most troublesome and fascinating mission.

The Tudor Vendetta is the third and final book in Christopher Gortner’s Elizabeth’s Spymaster trilogy – the previous novel, The Tudor Conspiracy is a hard act to follow, bringing to life as vividly as it does the bitter and unwell court of Mary Tudor. But, if anything, The Tudor Vendetta is even better, demonstrating that Elizabeth’s life is in just as much danger as it ever was when she was heir to the suspicious Mary Tudor, giving us a mystery that is even more thrilling and atmospheric.

The novel is divided between time spent at Elizabeth’s court in London and Brendon’s travels to the house of Lord Vaughan in Yorkshire’s East Riding. While I thoroughly enjoyed the luxurious London scenes, the brittle happiness of Elizabeth, the tension between Brendon and Kate, and the confrontations with nasty Dudley, the novel came into its own for me during the Yorkshire chapters. As soon as Brendon arrives there, it is clear that something is terribly wrong. Lord Vaughan has just that day buried his son, the manor is almost emptied of servants, strangers are glimpsed on the estate, doors are locked, the darkness is oppressive, exceeded only by the unhappiness of the house. It’s as far from London and Elizabeth’s new court as it can be and of Lady Parry there is not a trace.

Christopher Gortner is such a good writer, showing great empathy for his characters, whether major or minor, as well as for their surroundings and animals. Here we have the growing and really tender relationship between Brendon and Shelton, his father, who is such an important and memorable figure in this novel. In The Tudor Vendetta Gortner’s powers reaches their height in the Yorkshire scenes. For me, the whole episode had something of a Hounds of the Baskerville feel about it – frightening, melodramatic and sinister but also strangely comforting and beautiful. I was captivated. On top of that the mystery itself is fabulous! It took me in completely and I never guessed.

The atmosphere, tension and mystery are the most important elements of The Tudor Vendetta, and a fine job they do, but I really enjoy the portraits of Elizabeth and Dudley in particular. These are complicated people, albeit glimpsed relatively fleetingly, struggling with past events and even though Dudley has bullied Brendon since they were children and his saving graces are near enough non-existent, there are signs here that there may be more to him. Although this is the final book in the trilogy, I would have enjoyed spending more time with Brendon, Dudley and Elizabeth in London.

Without doubt, The Tudor Vendetta would do very well as a standalone novel. There are more than enough hints of the difficult history that Brendon, Kate, Shelton, Elizabeth and Dudley are having to deal with and all of these characters, even Dudley, are changing as a result of the past. The novel is satisfactorily complete in itself while also looking ahead to the future of a glorious reign. Relationships are changing and events are moving on. Nothing will be the same again, thanks in no small part to the courage and honour of Elizabeth’s spymaster Brendon Prescott.

Other reviews
The Tudor Conspiracy
The Queen’s Vow (as C.W. Gortner)

Age of Iron by Angus Watson

Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 523
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Age of Iron by Angus WatsonReview
If you take a look at the banner above this post, you’ll find Maiden Castle looking down at you out of a frosty chilled sky. Always one of my favourite places, I jumped at the chance to read a novel about it, back in its Iron Age glory, populated by fierce warriors, terrifying druids and the finest craftsmen and women of the age. Age of Iron by Angus Watson delivered all that I asked for by the chariot load. Fiction it certainly is, there are no firsthand accounts of Iron Age Britain other than those written by Julius Caesar, the conqueror who couldn’t pull it off, and so Age of Iron is perhaps more fantasy than (pre)historical fiction. But how real it feels! The novel is set in the years immediately before Caesar’s much anticipated arrival and, as the preface states, ‘The following is what really happened’. And, after reading this bloody, thrilling and exhilarating tour de force of an adventure, who am I to argue?

The year is 61 BC and the southern tribes of Britain are dominated by King Zadar, whose power spirals out from Maidun Castle (as it’s called here) to enclose all of the neighbouring tribes and hillforts. While many pay him an annual tribute of slaves, metal and crops, others are stamped out by his fierce army of male and female warriors, archers and charioteers. As the novel begins, Zadar has reached Barton. The inhabitants trust that he will march on by but Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary who was on his way to enlist in Zadar’s army but somehow got stuck instead with the responsibility of knocking Barton’s ‘army’ into shape, knows differently. And as Zadar’s fearsome elite female archers strike the first blows, Sealskinner knows there is nothing to do but run. Slaughter ensues.

This is the world into which Angus Watson throws us. It is violent and life is short but he gives us three people who each have the power to make a difference. Dug, the ageing warrior who fights against all his kind instincts and occasionally wins, finds himself rescuing a young child scrambling around on the battlefield. Her name is Spring and she is extraordinary, surely one of the most enjoyable and three-dimensional children in recent historical fiction. Dug’s next new comrade is Lowa Finn, one of those very same female archers who fought and won for Zadar only for the band to be wiped out by him in jealousy. Lowa is the only survivor. She is fiercely independent, strong and fierce but even she realises that in order to claim vengeance for her murdered sisters she needs help. With the hammer of Dug, the cunning of Spring and the deadly precision of Lowa, this is a band that can do some harm to Zadar. He’s not just going to stand around and wait for them, though. Zadar is a formidable opponent and by his side he has the most dangerous and skilled of all of the druids. Protecting them both are the walls, ditches, gates and lethal traps of the impenetrable Maidun Castle.

Age of Iron is one of the most exciting novels I have read in a long time. From start to finish there is never a pause in the action. Dug, Lowa and Spring take us on a journey across Iron Age southern Britain as they travel in pursuit of Zadar, honing their skills, getting to know each other, fighting their way from fort to fort, town to town. Their trip is marked by numerous memorable adventures, many of which it’s a miracle anyone can survive, and the people they meet prove time and time again that Dug is right in his philosophy of life – never trust anyone and never help anyone – that he can never keep.

The action, though, is matched by the characterisation. I absolutely adored all three heroes. Each has a unique personality and voice, and dangerous and nasty as all three can be and often are, I was egging them on through every page. Spring adds something very special indeed. She is a most unusual child and the mystery and skills she carries with her adds an extra valuable layer to the novel. It is so hard not to like Dug. We arguably get closer to him than to anyone else and he’s a source of worry for much of the novel. The reader can only guess at what he’s endured during his relatively long and difficult life.

There is little here that is fantastical (although the tribes have fictional names) but the druids inevitably raise the promise and menace of dangerous magic. There is not too much of that but the real threat of the druids in this novel is shown in their utter brutality and venality. There is a suggestion that not all druids are mad and bad but there is horror by the ton not to mention gore, violence, pain, and a vivid imagination.

Angus Watson writes so well. His powers of description are excellent and he keeps more than one wry eye on the future, too. The mention of festivals by the tor made me chuckle and there are lots of lines that raised a smile, just as there were plenty of gory, bloody moments that made me glad I was sitting down. Another aspect I enjoyed is the frequent speculation about what will happen when the Romans invade, as everyone is so sure that they will. This Iron Age society is a relatively equal one, with female warriors and rulers. These women are under no doubt that their value will drop in a Britain ruled by Roman men.

The prehistoric landscape of Britain is a magical place, its clues are all around us in its monuments, hillforts and metal hoards, but it is both familiar and strange, and always fascinating. In my archaeology days, I dug more than my fair share of enigmatic Iron Age remains. There is so much we cannot know. But Angus Watson makes a stab at it and, fiction though it may be, during the time I was immersed in Age of Iron I was willing to believe every word of it. I cannot wait for the next stage in the adventure – Clash of Iron.

The Returned by Seth Patrick

Publisher: Pan
Pages: 468
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Bought copy

Seth Patrick The ReturnedReview
The Returned is the first of two (or more?) novels to be based on the French supernatural TV series of the same name which was also a hit on Channel 4 when the first series screened in 2013. Seth Patrick’s novelisation covers the events of this first series while the second novel will be published to coincide with the screening of the second series, possibly next Autumn. It’s worth saying that I didn’t see the TV series and so I read the book largely because I am such a fan of Seth Patrick’s excellent and chilly thriller Reviver and I’m having a hard job keeping my impatience in check for its sequel.

A young girl walks along the wall of a dam, making her way to her home in the quiet town below. She is unaware that she is just one of many children mourned by that stricken town, killed in a terrible disaster that saw a coachload of children crash to the ground below, destroying families in an instant, including her own. Camille returns to her twin Lena and her parents, now separated. She knocks on the door, eats a snack and goes upstairs to her bedroom that has become a shrine while her mother watches, unable to believe her eyes. But Camille is not the only lost soul who returns to the town that night. There are others and when they arrive doors shut behind them – relieved or frightened families keeping the secrets safe. But it’s not long before the truth emerges, aided by the preacher Pierre, an inquisitive and suspicious man, who believes that the end is coming and these walking dead are its harbingers.

The Returned is an addictive read. It’s one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in a long time. It approaches 500 pages but I read it in just 24 hours, resenting any attempt to take me from it, such as work, food and sleep. It succeeds as a work of suspense for a number of reasons but not least because it is divided into brief chapters which move between the families affected. We have Camille and her family, the young boy Victor who is taken in by Julie, a nurse who somehow managed to survive a murder attempt some years before and is now so desperate for someone to love, and then there is Serge, an evil man who can now continue where he left off when his life violently ended years before. Finally, there is Simon, a young man who died on his wedding day and now has to cope with watching his fiancee marry someone else, the town’s police chief.

The stories are held together by a number of key individuals in the town, such as the police chief, one of his inspectors, the preacher, the dam keepers and the pub landlord. But the strongest emotions are left for the returned themselves and for their families who, as time goes by, realise that something beyond the work of God is taking place. As the town loses its power and the reservoir loses its water, for no explicable reason, it is clear that a terrible force is watching over this town. The intensity escalates, the tension rises and the horror explodes. This is an exhausting and exhilarating read from start to finish.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Returned but I think it worked well for me because I had no experience of the TV series. If I had, then this would simply have been a reminder of the stories I’d already been told and I probably wouldn’t have read it. It most definitely has the feel of a dramatisation. It is richly visual and very episodic, full of cliffhangers and significant pauses. It is also not a complete book in itself. It is clearly waiting for the second book – and the second series. I’m not a fan of cliffhanger ends to novels and so I felt the usual frustration when I reached the one that ends this novel.

But, as I was all too aware throughout, this novel is not conventional. It follows the rules of the TV series and makes no apologies for it. Fortunately, it is written by a hugely talented author who has real flare for spinning a supernatural tale. I cannot wait for Acolyte, the provisional title of the superb Reviver sequel and, if I have to wait, then I’m very happy to fill the time with such a well-written and truly unputdownable, jawdropping novel as The Returned.

Other review
Reviver

TimeBomb by Scott K. Andrews

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 336
Year: 2014 (9 October)
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

TimeBomb by Scott K. AndrewsReview
Time isn’t quite what we’re used to at Sweetclover Hall in Cornwall. It pulls people to it, through centuries, leaving them puzzled and afraid and, in the case of our three young heroes, caught in a puzzle that may cost them their lives to solve. Jana is from our future – New York city in 2141. Something made her jump from a skyscraper, knowing that time could be rewritten, but what made her take such a terrifying step? Dora is from our past – Cornwall in 1640. She is a serving girl, newly arrived at Sweetclover Hall. But when she sees the apparition of a distressed burnt woman, Dora reaches out to help her and she is cast into the Hall of the present. Who is this woman and what does she want? Kaz is from our present day, drawn to the Hall for shelter and warmth but soon caught up in the dangerous secrets of its laboratories and cells but needed by Jana and Dora to make leaps between the years. Watching them, supposedly helping them, but really just chasing them, is Lord Sweetclover himself, a man in possession of answers, not to mention a past.

TimeBomb is the first in a series and so don’t expect many answers. You can, however, expect more than enough mysteries, time paradoxes, anachronisms, unidentifiable people from unidentifiable times, lots of menacing armed thugs in black, characters who may be good but are probably bad – all of this and more. Jana, Kaz and Dora don’t have much of a clue what’s going on, not do they know that much about each other, and so we can be assured that we’re as much in the dark as they are. One thing we all learn is not to trust anyone.

The heart of the novel takes place in Dora’s time and place, Sweetclover Hall back in 1640. Now, though, Dora sees it all so differently, having experienced futuristic wonders such as chocolate, electricity and packaged sandwiches. But time has played an evil trick on Dora. Her day or two away was four years to her poor parents and this introduces a genuinely moving and quite tragic element to the novel. Dora’s father in particular is such a memorable figure, brave and loving, dealing with a young daughter who all too quickly has learned the future’s way of ordering her father around.

Dora and the others are on the hunt for the mysterious Quil, a woman who they believe is responsible for the distortion of time and for affecting their own place within it. The clues to her presence are everywhere, not least in the 17th-century kitchen’s fridge. But it’s not long before the townspeople are caught up in the conflict and it is then that Dora shows the stuff she’s made of.

TimeBomb is a rocket of a timeslip adventure, designed to appeal to adults young and old and it most certainly succeeds. Andrews never talks down to his readers and he pulls no punches. Gore and violence are mixed liberally with the thrills and screams and I just did not want to put it down. This novel very much belongs to Dora – and Quil – but I was especially intrigued by Jana who continues to remain enigmatic. I am so keen to find out more about her and I’m sure as time and pages and books pass I’ll want to know more about Kaz, too.

As a huge fan of TimeRiders, Alex Scarrow’s series which draws to an end this year, I have been looking for another quality timeslip series to follow and TimeBomb definitely looks to be that series. Well-written, funny, sad and exciting, with a whole load of mysteries and paradoxes to puzzle over, it will appeal to all ages. Long may it continue.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton

Publisher: Macmillan
Pages: 750
Year: 2014 (9 October)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. HamiltonReview
It is 3326 and Nigel Sheldon, a legend in the Commonwealth that he helped to create so long ago in his interminable existence, takes the next step in his extraordinary life. The Raiel, self-appointed guardians of the mysterious and inexplicable Void construct at the centre of the Galaxy, invite Nigel to enter the Void to look for clues to the survival or otherwise of a number of colony vessels that years ago entered the Void and were lost. The Void has become a place of enchantment to those outside it thanks to the dreams of its Waterwalker which somehow, through the medium of Inigo the Dreamer, have been transmitted to eager listeners throughout the Galaxy, drawing them in to the Void. Nigel needs little encouragement. He makes the journey and the Void seals itself behind him.

At the heart of the novel and Nigel’s experience lies Bienvenido, a planet populated by the descendants of starship crews. But thanks to the distortions of time in the Void, decades become centuries. Bienvenido has been settled for 3,000 years. And its not just time that differs. Humans within the Void are changed. They have innate abilities to control their thoughts and even those of animals. They read the minds of others and they live long lives. These lives, for many, are mystical and the masters of their religion are the skylords who claim their souls at death and carry them into the essence of the Void. But this is a world terrorised by the Fallers, an alien species that lives in the orbit of the planet and drops its eggs onto the surface of Bienvenido, where they seek life to kill and replace. Many humans spend their time seeking out the eggs of the Fallers, among them our hero Slvasta and it is his wonderful heroic story that fills much of The Abyss Beyond Dreams, captivating this reader at least from the moment we meet him.

The first thing to mention about The Abyss Beyond Dreams is that this is a most beautiful and fitting title for a very fine novel. Any new novel by Peter F. Hamilton is something to be anticipated and welcomed but this is especially true of The Abyss because it takes me back to the place I have most enjoyed spending time in the realm of science fiction – the Commonwealth. The Abyss follows the original magnificent duology of Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained and exists in approximate parallel time to The Dreaming Void, the first of the three Void books. There is some overlap but in The Abyss we see a different side to the Void although, if you’ve read all three of the Void trilogy, it’s quite likely that you will appreciate the added context. However, so far I’ve just read The Dreaming Void and far from making me feel that I’ve spoilt the trilogy by reading The Abyss it actually made me want to complete the trilogy more than ever. The Abyss takes what’s good about The Dreaming Void and magnifies it.

As with the Void trilogy, and perhaps to an even greater degree, The Abyss splits science fiction with a more fantastical portrait of life on what is a very alien world despite its human population. The vast majority of the novel is landbound, following Slvasta and his followers, his growing army, as they begin to rise up against the tyranny of the ‘captains’, combined with the utterly absorbing and perilous account of Nigel’s own efforts to understand the Fallers and to escape the pull of this world. Normally, I could get restless in this kind of planet-bound science fiction tale but here we are in the hands of the master storyteller Peter F. Hamilton who knows exactly how to draw me in with the most accessible and light-filled prose, fabulous characterisation and dialogue, and the gift of hiding wonders throughout the pages, all of which are a delight to discover. I love both stories – I loved the men and women with Nigel and Slvasta, even those who weren’t entirely or even a little bit human. There are plenty of fascinating tangent stories, always a treat in a PFH novel, and I especially enjoyed Kysandra, the young girl that Nigel selects to be his helpmeet. What a life she would have endured otherwise!

The beginning of the novel, however, contains one of those space stories that I doubt I will ever forget. The story of Laura and her crew caught in the Void is stunning and horrifying. We learn more about this as the novel continues and thank heavens we do because it is outstanding and what we discover is gobsmacking. I can say nothing more about it, just read it. But this also applies to the whole novel – there are so many stories to find, so many people to follow.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a large book of approximately 700 pages, not quite the brickbook I’m used to with Peter F. Hamilton but it is immensely satisfying and captivating. It mixes its genres and is packed with surprises. I came to care very much about the planet and people of Bienvenido just as I was terrified by the Fallers and mystified and stunned by the skylords. Nigel Sheldon is a great companion through the Void. He is so old he is almost ageless and the wisdom and humour that he has learned along the way stands him in good stead here. Paula Myo makes a welcome cameo but she has some stiff competition in this novel.

The Abyss, and its sequel Night Without Stars, could, no doubt, be read without prior knowledge of the Commonwealth but I would definitely suggest that reading Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained first would add so much to the experience. I’d also say that because Pandora’s Star is my favourite novel so I never tire of urging people to read it. Not having read all of the Void trilogy, however, did nothing to mar my enjoyment or understanding of The Abyss and, as I mentioned, it actually inspired me to complete the series. There are also elements here that reminded me why I love the Night’s Dawn trilogy so much.

I love science fiction that makes my jaw drop and my mind soar and time after time Peter F. Hamilton fulfills and expands my hopes. I am so pleased that he has returned to the Commonwealth and given us a novel that I want to shout about. The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a fabulous novel that I can’t even attempt to do justice to. I want to give as little as possible away. My only regret is that it isn’t twice the size. I must be patient and count the days until Night Without Stars.

Recently, Tor UK kindly asked me to write my Ten reasons to love and read Peter F. Hamilton – you can read that here.

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
The Dreaming Void
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)

Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 357
Year: 2014 (9 October)
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

Winter Siege by Ariana FranklinReview
It is 1141 and England endures Anarchy – civil war between King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I. As mercenary forces move through the countryside from castle to castle, swapping sides for money with no regrets, no-one suffers more than the poor. Em lives with her family in the Fens, a secluded area that rarely catches history’s interest. But on this particular day, luck runs out and there can be no escape for the young child with her flaming red hair. A small troop of soldiers and their companion, a monk with a sickly stench, leave the girl for dead, which, in effect she is. Unable to remember her name or what has happened to her, this brutalised child is found by Gwil, a mercenary with a conscience, who renames her Penda and raises her as a boy. His mission is to identify the mystery behind the scrap of parchment he found clasped in the child’s hand and to track down and kill the people responsible for this terrible act, conducted in the name of war.

Maud is another young woman in peril, a sixteen year old ward of King Stephen and chatelaine of Kenniford Castle in Oxfordshire. Forced to marry a man many years older, Maud has then to watch as her castle becomes embroiled in the Anarchy, besieged by lawless soldiers, switching sides, helpless, but strong and determined nonetheless to do the right thing by the people and villagers under her command.

Winter Siege follows the stories of Penda, Gwil and Maud through several years of war. We’re with Maud as she endures her marriage to Sir John while growing close to his young son William, and we follow Penda and Gwil as they make their way and living as entertainers, famous for their skills with the bow. All the time, Gwil keeps his eyes open for the monk, always afraid that Penda’s memories will return, while not realising that perhaps the monk is watching out for them. Fates bring the lives of all three together during the winter siege of the title and from that point on the reader is thrown head first into the fray of the Anarchy.

Winter Siege is the first novel by Ariana Franklin that I’ve read and so I had little idea of what to expect. What I found is a powerful and moving tale that focuses more on character than it does on events, despite the dramatic and horrendous circumstances in which our three heroes find themselves. This means that it’s the people who drive the novel forward and it’s the people who one remembers the most, at least this reader did. It’s easy to become quite heavily involved in the sincere and strong bond between Gwil and Penda, this young boy/girl who shoots a bow like a devil but is slowly coming to terms with the world around her. Maud, too, is an immensely likeable character and I must confess that she – and the Empress Matilda, who makes a remarkable cameo appearance – is my favourite of the novel. For me, the male figures (with the exception of the boy William) are less real – Gwil is relatively two dimensional while the monk and Maud’s unpleasant husband are more the stuff of cartoon villains. So while the battles rage on around the heads of our heroes, and at times it gets extremely close and perilous, it is the experiences and lives of the female figures that stand out and are really rather spellbinding.

The mystery of the parchment promises to play a significant part but I don’t think it did. It added little to the novel other than to provide Gwil with an impetus to continue his hunt. Similarly, the murder mystery element of the novel played second fiddle throughout to the relationships between the characters and their plight.

This is a wintry novel indeed. You can almost feel the chill on your skin as we read what was for me the most fascinating and compelling section of the book, the flight of the Empress through the harshest of conditions, an event in which Penda and Gwil are caught up. These chapters are superbly written and carry the momentum through to the castle siege.

Liberties are taken with history and here I’m perhaps let down a little by knowing this period of history particularly well. There are lines and events taken straight from the life of William Marshal while the story of the Empress is not exactly as history recalls.

The historical background to the period is given to us by an old abbot who, on his deathbed, recounts the story of the Anarchy to his scribe, a blushing youth who needs to dip his head – and other parts of his anatomy – in icy water almost every time the abbot mentions a young woman. While this is a well-tried and tested technique, it works here because the Abbot is an engaging figure and I rather enjoyed the infrequent chapters in which we returned to his sickbed. The mystery of the identity of the Abbot is the mystery of the novel that works.

Ariana Franklin tragically died before she could complete Winter Siege. The novel was finished by her daughter Samantha Norman. Samantha clearly knows her mother’s writing and style better than anyone and I certainly couldn’t see the join. It’s impossible to tell how differently the novel may have turned out if its original author had finished it but I think Ariana Franklin would be proud of what has been achieved. Winter Siege is an entertaining, thrilling and yet harrowing and moving account of a painful period in English history. There is sorrow and tragedy but there is also love and hope. I will remember Maud, Penda and the Empress for quite some time.