Tag Archives: Medieval

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2017 (2 November) | 547p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Last Hours by Minette WaltersIt is August 1348 and the pestilence has arrived in Dorsetshire. Sir Richard of Develish has ridden to the demesne of Bradmayne with a cart of treasure – the dowry for his daughter Lady Eleanor whom he wishes to see wed to young Peter of Bradmayne. But Peter is the first to be stricken with the Black Death and others soon follow. Sir Richard returns home to Develish but his wife, the Lady Anne, won’t let him or his men in. For this could be the saving of their lives. The manor is sealed within its moated banks, the surfs all brought inside, their fields abandoned. Lady Anne turns society on its head by bringing forward Thaddeus Thurkell, a slave, as her steward. Confined and with limited food, trouble is inevitable but its source is not what one would expect.

In these times of limited travel and communication, the quarantined inhabitants of Develish have no idea what disease this is that is sweeping the land. They don’t know how far it has travelled or when it will end – if it even will. Is it God’s punishment? But when they look to their priest, no comfort can be found there. Sooner or later they must look beyond the moat for nourishment, for salvation.

I have read and loved every one of Minette Walter’s novels and I was thrilled to learn that not only was a new book on the way, after a sizeable length of time, but that it would also be historical fiction. And what a period Minette Walters has picked – the Black Death of 1348. But she doesn’t look at it from the point of view of the important and all-seeing, instead we view these terrible weeks from the perspective of one small community that can have no idea what is going on a mere five miles from their manor. This is a fine story, a worthy subject for Minette Walters’ talents, and I was engrossed immediately.

These are remarkable people, all the more so because the majority of them are serfs or slaves, people usually ignored by history and fiction. Lady Anne is the foundation on which their lives are built but it’s the serfs who must face the biggest questions of the Middle Ages – why has God cursed us? how do we survive when we’ve sworn an oath to own nothing? what is our fate after the Black Death, should we survive it? will the pestilence give us our freedom? The person who contradicts all attempts of the peasants to examine their condition is Lady Eleanor and she is relentless in her medieval righteousness. Bridging the two worlds are Thaddeus and Lady Anne and the two of them have the power to change others. Watching them do so, whether it’s through the skill of literacy or the experience of travel, is fascinating and completely absorbing. Overshadowing them all though is the legacy of Sir Richard. This might be a tale of the medieval period but it is alive and vivid with real people.

Their situation is diabolical. The descriptions of the plague and the reactions of men and women to it are powerful and shocking. The land has gone silent but for the sound of weeping. While some try to work out what the cause might be, others are overwhelmed. We can’t forget that these are very different times to our own. The Black Death might make no distinction between the classes but feudalism certainly does. And the descriptions of villages, hovels, inns, abandoned sheep, stricken manors and empty, rutted roads are every bit as striking and memorable as the scenes of plague.

The Last Hours paints a wonderful portrait of one small section of medieval England and it is populated by so many interesting and distinct people facing the worst time of their lives, of their age. And yet the Black Death was the catalyst for such change as well as uncertainty, religious questioning and tragedy. All of this is captured so brilliantly by Minette Walters in a medieval apocalyptic tale that is beautifully-written, atmospheric and always gripping.

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‘The origins of The Vintener Trilogy’ – guest post by Michael Jecks

Last week, Simon and Schuster published Blood of the Innocents, the final part of Michael Jecks’ Vintener Trilogy, a series of books that takes us back in time to that most troublesome of centuries – the 14th – and the Hundred Years War. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a fascinating in-depth guest post from the author. In it, Michael looks at the origins of the trilogy, its historical inspiration and its growth into a series that is now complete.

Blood of the Innocents by Michael JecksFirst, a little of what Blood of the Innocents is about

France, 1356: Ten years have passed since the battle of Crecy, and the English fighters are still abroad, laying siege to cities, towns and even small villages. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales raids across France to draw King John into a battle for sovereignty.

Berenger Fripper, having lost everything to the plague, is now captain of a company of mercenaries, but treachery and deceit dog him when his travels with the company lead him to Uzerche. And then his path crosses that of Prince Edward and his men as they embark on their latest chevauchée to bring death and disaster to the King of France’s subjects.

Enlisted as Vintener under Sir John de Sully, Berenger finds himself drawn into a new struggle. Can the English defeat the much larger French army, or will they find themselves finally overcome when their weary feet bring them at last to the field of battle near Poitiers…

The origins of The Vintener Trilogy

It was a surprise four years ago when my new editor at Simon and Schuster suggested I should consider a change of direction.

Until then I had been a cheerful writer of crime thrillers which happened to be set in the far-distant past – during the reign of King Edward II and his deplorable friend Sir Hugh le Despenser (and if all you know about those two was that Edward died in a particularly nasty manner in Berkley Castle, and that they were gay, then you need to read my books and prepare for a minor revisionist shock).

But no, my new editor wanted me to stop writing my Templar series, which had reached thirty-two titles at that stage, and consider a violent war series.

‘I thought you might have some ideas,’ she said, looking at me hopefully.

‘Medieval?’ I guessed. I knew she liked blood and stabbing weapons.

She smiled and nodded.

‘Um,’ I said.

Because starting out with a new concept is always tough. There are no rules, no existing plot-lines and characters – not even the outline of a landscape. Everything is open. Some people say that sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying when they are about to embark on a new novel; well, after thirty-two titles in a series in which I knew the landscape, history, people, legal issues, and already had a bank of seven or more different potential murders, I was happy to write more in that line. It was much harder to start from scratch.

And yet …

There was a period I had always wanted to cover: the Hundred Years War.

Fields of Glory by Michael JecksMany years ago – I’m guessing 1978 – I was a member of a mail order bookseller which specialised in history and warfare. One month there was a book with a wonderful write-up. It was The Hundred Years War, written by Desmond Seward. It gave only a brief introduction to the war, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind it covered so many events, but I was engaged by the colourful characters, from Sir Walter Manny, Lord John Talbot, Sir John Fastolf, the Duke of Bedford, to the Kings of both countries. Later I read Jonathan Sumption’s books for more detail, yet Seward’s book was so vividly written, the author so obviously enthusiastic about his subject, that I was gripped.

I would write about the Hundred Years War, then, but that was little help. When you are confronted with a new project, you have a series of difficult questions to answer: how should it be written, and from whose perspectives? Should it be a story about the rich and famous, about Kings and their avarice, or a tale about the scruffy fellows at the bottom of society? And which period of the war should I cover?

I wasn’t overly keen on Agincourt, since so many others have marched behind that banner – in fact I rather liked the idea of starting with Sluys, or one of the chevauchees launched by King Edward III, but then I had a stroke of luck.

If you love books, you tend to recommend them to others, and lend your copies. Often they don’t come back. One book I was very annoyed to lose was “Quartered Safe Out Here”, by George MacDonald Fraser. It was the story of his experiences during the Burma campaign. He fought under General Slim, stopping the Japanese and crushing them. A great warrior, Slim was an inspirational leader who had joined as an ordinary soldier in 1914, fought through the hell of Gallipoli, and rose through the ranks purely on the basis of his own merit and courage. The ordinary troops adored him: GM Fraser said, “he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”

“Quartered Safe Out Here” is the best war memoir I have read. MacDonald Fraser wrote about his platoon, Nine Section. Suddenly I had a vision of a vintaine of men, archers marching across France, rarely knowing what each day would bring, trudging ever onwards, cold, wet and bored – their hunger and thirst interspersed with flashes of pillage and drunkenness – and occasional bouts of terror. I could look at the motivations of each soldier, his background, his reasons for exchanging hearth and home and comfort for the dangerous life of a medieval soldier.

I loved it!

So I selected a group of men. I had a rich palette to choose from: Falstaffian characters, ruffians, the semi-sorcerers of the gunpowder-makers and gunners, and then, of course, the deplorable mercenary types. And as soon as I started I realised that my main issue would be writing this rag-tag group of men so that modern readers could identify with them.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the society that gave us Boccaccio and Chaucer was not so dissimilar to our modern version. People have not changed radically in outlook or behaviour, but murder is more frowned upon in the present age. The idea of depicting an army on the rampage, slaughtering all within reach, raping women and behaving with abhorrent disregard for others – and depicting them as sympathetic characters or heroes? That would be tough.

If I have a rule as a historical writer, it is that I will not lie. I could not ignore the baser acts of the English in France. I wanted to show them. For that I hit on the idea of writing from the perspective of a French woman dragged into the fighting, who wanted only to escape. Bringing her into the story balanced it, allowing me to look at the war from the point of view of those affected by it. We are used to pictures of refugees trudging their way across the countryside trying to find safety. The Second World War had many images of peasants with overfilled carts; the Vietnam War, the Bosnian War, the Russian attacks on Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, the wars in Iraq and Syria all have their victims. I wanted to show that none of this is new. History repeats itself.

There was one thing I was determined to do with this first novel, and that was to exclude the King and his top advisers. I wanted this to be a story of ordinary soldiers. However, there was one aspect I had to look at.

Historians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who believe Edward had no intention of fighting a major battle – he was a terrorist bringing a wave of brutality to the French countryside, and did all he could to evade the French when he realised they were hurrying to catch him; or those who say that he had a deliberate war plan – that he force-marched his men to Paris to torment the French into joining battle, and led the French to the field he had chosen many years before: Crécy.

I had to try to show how Edward III was thinking.

My immediate thought was to pick a servant who could listen with brazen impudence to what his superiors were planning, but that didn’t quite hack it for me. A cheeky servant is rather a cliché nowadays, and I didn’t think that a man who spent his time obviously listening in to the King’s war-planning meetings would have a good life-expectancy. I had to think up a new character.

Blood on the Sand by Michael JecksI didn’t get my man until I recalled a grave in Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross and The Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon. Up at the far right-hand side behind the altar there is a tomb dedicated to a Sir John de Sully. He was a knight of that period. He fought in his first battle, possibly, at Bannockburn in 1316. After that he had a starring role in almost every major battle of the 1300s, rising to become one of the Black Prince’s most trusted men, still fighting with his Prince in 1367, when he would have been in his 80s (I assume more in an advisory capacity than as a warrior). He was so famous and respected that he became one of the early knights of the Order of the Garter, and died greatly honoured at the age of about 106. Yes, that isn’t a typo.

With Sir John I had a character whom I could use to great effect as a link between my vintaine force of archers and the main plans and issues of the English King on the march. My archers would be a vintaine serving under him in this book, and he would give the perspective of the commanders without actually being a part of them. Through him my archers would get their view of the campaign and planning.

I had my men, I had their commander, and now I was leaning towards the march to Crécy for my book. That would make a good climax. Job done, I thought.

But as I planned and outlined my story, it became clear that there was more for me to look at. For example, when the battle of Crécy was done, the English marched on. Edward was determined to take a port to facilitate further incursions into France and chose Calais to be his bridgehead. He would take it and hold it for England. Clearly the capture of Calais would have to become a sequel to the first book about Crécy. And again, after Calais, there was the horror of the Black Death, and the subsequent return to battle that ended in the battle of Poitiers.

So my book would have to become a trilogy, and a trilogy more about a small group of men and how they coped with life in the army, but later on, how they coped with the most appalling tragedy Europe has coped with – the plague.

There are always a lot of problems when writing, such as the difficulty of knowing when to stop researching and start writing. I have always firmly believed that it’s essential to visit a place before trying to write about it. One thing I always try to do is paint a specific area, because by analysing a scene as a painter, I find myself looking more carefully at individual features of the landscape.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Poitiers on holiday in 1315 while planning Blood of the Innocents, and there I found the main battlefield and memorial, which was very touching – it’s dedicated to the fallen of the French, Gascon and English armies. I took a lot of photos all about the area, and planted it firmly in my mind by making a few sketches.

The trilogy is a strong story of how war affects victors and victims, the soldiers, but also the refugees. I don’t gloss over the way that the English treated their enemies or the local populace. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. But I try to give a feel for how the English thought, felt, and reacted which is, I hope, fair. At the end of the day, it’s up to the readers to give their opinion – so, I hope you enjoy the books, and hopefully that they inspire you to find out more about this astonishing period of English and French history.

Happy reading!

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Kingmaker: Kingdom Come by Toby Clements

Century | 2017 (24 August) | 441p | Review copy | Buy the book

Kingdom Come by Toby ClementsKingdom Come is the fourth and final novel in Toby Clements’ superb chronicle of the Wars of the Roses. The series, Kingmaker, focuses on the years between 1460 and 1471, from the Battle of Towton to the Battle of Tewkesbury, years that transformed England while tearing it apart. Kingdom Come completes the story of Thomas and Katherine and so you’d be well advised to read the series as intended, from the beginning starting with Winter Pilgrims. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure and that you don’t mind hearing about things that have happened before on Thomas and Katherine’s journey.

The year is 1470 and all is going well for Thomas and Katherine Everingham. Their son Rufus thrives and another is on the way. Their manor, Marton Hall in Lincolnshire, prospers, expanding even, providing a home, not only for Thomas and his family but also for the men and women who have endured with them through years of war and restlessness. There are so few left. With Edward IV on the throne and the old King Henry VI in the Tower, the country seems to be at peace at last. But, of course, it isn’t. It just seems like that on the surface. The Earl of Warwick, once such a close ally of Edward IV, is plotting against him, attracting to him men that Edward believes he can trust. They’re waiting for the perfect moment to set the trap and, unfortunately for Thomas, it’s he who discovers the plot and it’s Thomas who has to brave Edward’s wrath by revealing it.

But that’s not all. The manuscript that has been both the curse and blessing of Thomas and Katherine’s life for so long continues to threaten their very lives. Thomas’s secrets are about to be revealed. There is only one thing they can do. They must run. But the time will come when the call to arms will be heard once more and Thomas and Katherine won’t be found lacking as the armies gather for an almighty battle on the outskirts of Tewkesbury.

I have followed the Kingmaker series since it began and, without doubt, it is one of the finest historical series around. It’s successful for so many reasons, not least of which is the private and constant story of Thomas and Katherine Everingham. They have endured so much and deserve even more but it’s never easy and in this final book they must suffer again. This might be a series about war but Katherine is no less important than her soldier husband. War affects them both equally and her perspective matters just as much. This is refreshing, to say the least, in a novel about medieval warfare. There are scenes in Kingdom Come which are so painful to read. Life is far from easy and death, betrayal, illness and hunger come all too frequently. We care deeply for these two and, by the time of this fourth book, we cannot wait to see what happens to them in the end. But we know this is no fairytale. Happing endings are not guaranteed.

Katherine’s character is particularly fascinating, not least for her medical skills. Toby Clements always makes sure that each novel has at least one scene in which Katherine is up to her eyeballs (or at least her elbows) in blood, gore and disinfecting urine. Once read these scenes cannot be forgotten. You might even want to read them with your eyes shut – they’re most certainly gruesome and…. thorough. Kingdom Come is no different. I must admit that I anticipate these scenes and rather enjoy them but perhaps I shouldn’t admit to that!

The surrounding characters are so wonderful and it’s good to keep returning to old friends, although they are now much reduced in number – and even in body. John Stumps is an extraordinary personality and Toby Clements portrays him beautifully. But we still miss some of the figures from the earlier novels. Kingdom Come contains an intriguing look at Edward IV while in exile. There is so much more to Edward in these days of trial and punishment. The quality of the author’s writing and historical insight and imagination means that it really does feel like we’re there. Toby Clements also excels with his use of present tense. I’m not always a fan of present tense, especially in historical fiction, but it really works here.

As always with this series, Kingdom Come is such an exciting and dramatic novel that grips the reader tightly. I must admit to having grown wearisome of the manuscript, which has haunted these books from the beginning. I sensed that the author may have been feeling the same way. It was good to see the back of that. This series has moved so far ahead of conventional devices, such as secret manuscripts and lost memories that occasionally popped up in the earlier books.

Kingdom Come is powerful and vigorous historical fiction, combining the horror and brutal energy of the battlefield with the more intimate drama of a family on the run and surviving as best that they can. All set within the vividly realised setting of the 15th century, a place where no one in their right mind would wish to be but how glorious it is to read about it. I don’t know where Toby Clements will take us next now that Kingmaker is done but I do know I’ll be there every step of the way.

Other reviews
Winter Pilgrims
Broken Faith
Divided Souls

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

Head of Zeus | 2017 (6 July) | 397p | Review copy | Buy the book

Court of Lions by Jane JohnsonKate Fordham has left her old life, and much that she loves, behind her, driven from her home by brutal circumstances that have left her scarred and living under a new name in the beautiful city of Granada in Spain. Kate works in a bar in the city but her heart is most at home in Granada’s Alhambra, the palace of the Moors, with its stunning architecture and luxurious gardens. One day while visiting the site, Kate discovers in one of the walls a screwed up piece of very old paper marked with words written in no known language. And a door into the Alhambra’s past opens before us.

It is the late 15th century and the last act of the Sultans’ rule in Granada and southern Spain is about to play out. Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammed stands on the verge of the throne. The prince’s father, the Sultan, is unpopular, his cruel uncle hated even more, but the Sultan seals his fate when he puts his Sultana, the prince’s mother, aside in favour of Isobel de Solis, his beautiful Spanish war captive. But war within the family almost pales beside the threat from outside Granada. Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain are resolute in their determination to drive the Moors from Spain once and for all and they will show no mercy. But safe within the defensive walls of the Alhambra, the young prince shows another side. His closest friend is a child called Blessings. Blessings was sold from a desert tribe of North Africa to be the prince’s companion. Blessings finds the unexpected: painful unrequited love for the prince known and loved as Momo. Their story will play out against the drama of Granada’s last stand.

Court of Lions is such an enticing read! It’s a beautiful looking book with that fine hallmark of a Head of Zeus hardback – a ribbon – and just looking at it made me want to read it. I’m so glad I did. Jane Johnson richly evokes the last days of what must have seemed an Eden on Earth, the Alhambra, and brings it alive in colour, scents and fountain waters, though the involving story of Mumo and Blessings. The descriptions of the Alhambra are gorgeous, reminding us how hard it must have been for its Moorish inhabitants to give it up. This is a novel about war, though, and there are plenty of action-packed scenes as Mumo and his family fight each other for supremacy before Isabella and Ferdinand exert their own cruel influence. But the most wonderful parts of Court of Lions are those which take us within the walls of the Alhambra.

The novel moves backwards and forwards between the later years of the 15th century and the present day in which Kate struggles to escape and then confront her past. I enjoyed Kate’s story, particularly her interaction with the modern inhabitants of Granada, a city in which cultural differences still exist. But the heart of the novel, and the source of its greatest pleasure, is in the chapters which carry us back into history. Kate has little connection with this past beyond a sensitivity to the Alhambra’s history – this isn’t a timeslip novel – instead we’re given a sympathetic, atmospheric and elegant portrait of the Alhambra and its people through the centuries, focusing on characters past and present who capture our imagination wonderfully.

I’m delighted to post this review as part of the blog tour to celebrate the publication of Court of Lions by Head of Zeus on 6 July. For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.
Court of Lions blog tour poster

City of Masks by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (13 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

City of Masks by SD SykesIt is 1358 and some years have passed since the events chronicled in The Butcher Bird. Oswald de Lacy, the young Lord Somershill, is not the man he once was. He is pursued by demons and they have chased him to Venice where he waits for passage on a vessel to the Holy Land. Pilgrimage is Oswald’s hope but Venice is at war with Hungary and this is keeping all ships in harbour. It’s also not doing much to help the mood in this naturally suspicious and paranoid yet pleasure-loving city. Executions and torture are common, and among the masked gamblers, drinkers and lovers, lurk spies, thieves and murderers.

As the novel begins, we’re not sure what has happened to Oswald to drive him from England in such despair but he’s in need of diversion. But this comes from an unfortunate source. A friend is found murdered outside the house where Oswald is staying and Oswald, who has brought from England a bit of a reputation as being a solver of mysteries, is hired by the dead man’s exceedingly unpleasant grandfather to find the young man’s killer. The pursuit of the murderer throws Oswald into the heart of this lively and misbehaving city of secrets. Most have something to hide. It doesn’t help that the belligerent Venetian authorities have Oswald in their sights – a foreigner asking questions stands out. But Oswald isn’t on his own. His mother has accompanied him to Venice. Oh dear.

City of Masks is S.D. Sykes’ third Somershill Manor mystery and it’s very different from the previous two. The obvious difference is that this novel isn’t set in England but Oswald, our young hero, is not the man he was before, due to tantalising reasons that only become truly known in the second half of the novel. We’ve moved away from the devastating impact of the Black Death on Oswald’s manor and tenants but Oswald is clearly in pain. Discovering the reasons for this adds both power and poignancy to a novel that is also a thoroughly satisfying medieval mystery which throws a curious light on life in Venice during the mid 14th century.

The Venetian setting is marvellous. Its places familiar to us today mix with those lost in history but all are filled with colourful, lovely characters, many of whom are up to no good. There is a theme of religious pilgrimage running through City of Masks but this is skin deep, as shown in the city’s hypocrisy and unkindness to the poor, ill and vulnerable. I loved the descriptions of the waterways and islands of Venice, its palaces, grand houses, prisons and inns. It is richly evocative, both glamorous and seedy, wealthy and squalid. In a way, Oswald himself sums this all up – he might be a lord but he is living on the edge of respectability.

I have to admit that I was wary when I heard that City of Masks would be moved away from its setting in medieval England. Medieval Venice didn’t have the same appeal to me. But I needn’t have worried. S.D. Sykes is such a fine writer who really knows her subject and history and she makes Venice seem so real – a mysterious place in which one can be lost so easily. The mystery is a fascinating and gripping one, even more so because it throws such light on Venetian society at this time. S.D. Sykes is also great with people – I loved the characters in City of Masks. Oswald’s mother drives me mad at times (poor Oswald) but I’m rather glad she came along.

Oswald’s character and story dominate the novel and deservedly so. He is always likeable, flawed though he undoubtedly is, and we care for him. City of Masks works well as a stand alone novel but I think much can be gained for having read the three books in order. Watching Oswald grow from boy to man is well worth doing and a lot of this culminates in City of Masks. I also really enjoyed the way in which the mystery behind Oswald’s troubles is revealed.

I have loved each of the three novels in this wonderful, brilliantly written historical series but, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be City of Masks. From start to finish, it is nothing less than mesmerising and engrossing.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird

The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer

Simon & Schuster | 2017 (15 June) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Outcasts of Time by Ian MortimerIt is December 1348 and the Black Death ravages England’s terror-stricken population. God has turned His back. The bodies of men, women and children fill great death pits in the towns and cities while more corpses rot where they fell – on streets, on country roads, in their houses, in each other’s arms. Brothers John and William are travelling by foot to Exeter, a place that both know well but is especially meaningful to John, a stone mason, who carved some of the brand new cathedral’s statuary, incorporating representations of himself, his brother and his beloved wife into its carvings.

But they see the work of pestilence everywhere and know it is only a matter of time before they too are stricken. And when the inevitable happens, they seek to make peace with God in a sacred place. But instead they are made an offer: they can either return home to live out the six days remaining to them or they will experience each of those six days, 99 years apart from the one before. They would move through the centuries with all sign of the plague removed. But at the end of those six days they will face the Final Judgement.

And so begins an extraordinary journey for two men whose lives have been lived firmly within the medieval world of the mid 13th century. Men for whom God is central to their existence, just as the Earth is the centre of the universe. Both John and William fought for Edward III in France, determined if necessary to die for their beloved King. As they make the first leap – to 1477 – they realise that everything will change, that they will stand out more and more. Not just for their clothes and their accents, but also for their faith, their convictions and their morality. All of these elements of life are fickle. All of them change through the centuries as John and William experience such times as the rise of Protestantism, the English Civil War, culminating in the early 1940s. While their world expands across seas, some things remain the same. War, above all else.

The Outcasts of Time is an astonishing novel, not least because it combines a fascinating, irresistible Faustian tale with a clever scrutiny of the transition from the medieval to modern worlds as it would have affected an unexceptional everyman from the 13th century. It’s a personal story, as told through the words of John, and, as such, it is moving, heartfelt and often tragic, especially as he misses his wife and children. But it also tells the broader tale of humanity’s progress (or lack of it) through seven hundred years. The judgement on how well we have done comes from John as he struggles to make sense of it all, or at least some of it. Hanging over it all, though, is the memory of the plague and the descriptions of this are powerfully repulsive and painful to read. We all know about the Black Death and how it eliminated so many villages and devastated towns and cities but this novel reminds us of the countless human tragedies that combined to create the disaster. What John and William and others had to endure is appalling.

The novel is rich in themes but it is also packed with the most fascinating historical details, as you’d hope when considering the credentials of the author historian Ian Mortimer. I loved all the details about dress, houses, the shifting form of the city of Exeter and the changes to the use of the countryside, as well as the gradual introduction of developments in technology, the sciences, the arts. Imagine seeing trains for the first time, or a clock, or hearing a piano or Mozart, or a line from Shakespeare, seeing a movie. Or learning that man’s position to the universe and God is not what you thought. That morality can shift, even the nature of good and evil. Yet you can look into the night sky and the stars are still there. Whenever I visit a historic place I always think about the people who trod those stones before me – what did they see? What did they think? The wonder that history holds is everywhere in this novel.

The Outcasts of Time is one of those novels that I think would actually benefit from a second reading. It is so richly layered with themes that it is only when you (or at least me) reach the end that you fully realise what an achievement this book is, how much there is in it to discover. At the time of reading it, I was caught up in each of the episodes and I didn’t make all of the connections between the centuries. At the end I realised that I had missed some of the ‘clues’. This is most certainly a novel that deserves and rewards a close reading and your full attention.

The ideas in The Outcasts of Time are huge but they are also wholly accessible because they are planted in a story about two brothers who, when faced with a most terrible and frightening death, have to make a personal choice. This marvellous novel engages the heart and mind and, when finished, it’s not one you want to forget.

What inspired me to write about Joan of Kent? Guest post by Anne O’Brien, author of The Shadow Queen

The Shadow Queen by Anne O'BrienThis week, on 4 May, HQ publishes Anne O’Brien’s latest historical novel: The Shadow Queen. To mark the occasion I’m delighted to host a guest post from Anne in which she writes about what inspired her to write about Joan of Kent, the wife and widow of the Black Prince and mother of Richard II.

First, here is a little of what The Shadow Queen is about:

From her first clandestine marriage, Joan of Kent’s reputation is one of beauty, rumour and scandal. Her royal blood makes her a desirable bride. Her ambition and passion make her a threat. Joan knows what she must do to protect her reputation… the games to play, the men to marry. She will do anything to get what she wants: The Crown of England. A tale of ambition, treachery and desire, The Shadow Queen tells of a woman’s ascent through the court to command royal power alongside her young son, King Richard II.

What inspired me to write about Joan of Kent?

Who was she?

Joan of Kent, during her eventful life, was Countess of Kent in her own right, Princess of Wales, Princess of Aquitaine and ultimately King’s Mother. She was a woman of royal birth and unsavoury reputation. What was it about this woman who made an impact on the court circles of the late fourteenth century that appealed to my imagination?

A Plantagenet princess, she was first cousin to King Edward III, a woman of royal status although her father’s name was tainted with treason. Joan was by tradition beautiful, raised in the royal household, but was salaciously notable for her three marriages, two of them clandestine and one certainly bigamous. Thus she has intrigued readers of history as much as she has invited condemnation. Was she ‘the most beautiful lady in the whole realm of England, and by far the most amorous’. Was she ‘beauteous, charming and discreet’? Or was she ‘given to slippery ways’?

But scandal was not the only element of fascination in Joan’s life. So was her ambition. As wife of Edward of Woodstock, later to be known as the Black Prince, she blossomed as Princess of Aquitaine where she made as many enemies as friends. As King’s Mother to the boy King Richard II she succeeded in the early years in keeping a firm grip on the power behind the throne. But her past scandals could undo all that she had achieved, threatening to destroy her secure hold on power. Would it, because of Joan’s marital history, be possible to accuse Richard of illegitimacy and so dethrone him?

How was the proud woman to be able to protect herself and her son? Always subtle and carefully manipulative, Joan exhibited a range of talents drawing into her political net the Royal Council and the powerful prince, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

There is so much here to entice the lover of medieval historical fiction. Was Joan simply a pawn in the pattern of royal alliance-making, forced into marriage with a powerful family against her personal wishes, or did she take her future into her own hands? Was she a woman of perfect compliance, or did she have a will of iron? Was her marriage to Prince Edward one based on a childhood love affair, or were Joan’s motives far deeper in her bid for personal power?

A character of much notoriety, some charm and considerable ambition. This is Joan of Kent, The Shadow Queen.

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien is published 4 May by HQ (£12.99 hardback)

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