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.