Tag Archives: Medieval

Lionheart by Ben Kane

Orion | 2020 (28 May) | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is 1179 and Henry II rages war against Ireland’s kings. Ferdia, more usually known as Rufus, is a young Irish nobleman who is now a hostage to secure the good behaviour of his family. Rufus is taken to Striguil Castle (now known as Chepstow) where he is put in the charge of the powerful de Clare family. As the years pass, Rufus becomes ever more distant from his homeland, tormented by a brute of a knight and distracted by his own desire to become a squire to a great lord. When Rufus saves the life of Henry’s son, the charismatic warrior Richard, Rufus’s life is changed forever and dictated by new loyalties and new battles to fight. This is an uneasy time. As the King’s health declines, his sons turn against one another in a scramble for power and land. Rufus has his part to play in a struggle that will divide the land and put a family at war with itself.

Ben Kane is known to many of us as a fine writer of Roman historical fiction and so it came as a surprise to me to learn that he was turning his attention to that other favourite historical period of mine – the late 12th century and the reigns of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, two of the most mesmerising figures in English history. Lionheart, the beginning of a new trilogy, tells the story of Richard through the fictional character of Rufus, whose own story is every bit as action-packed and dangerous as Richard’s.

Above all else, Lionheart is an adventure and it’s a thoroughly exciting one as we follow Rufus through his early, horrendous months as a hostage and his personal struggle against the cruel Robert FitzAldelm to his time in the service and retinue of Richard, then the Duke of Aquitaine. It’s told in the first person and this places us in the heart of the action and there is plenty of it, in England and on the continent where Richard must contend with not only his own brothers and their allies but also with the King of France. If there’s one person that seems to attract trouble even more than Rufus, it’s Richard, a man born to skirmish, besiege and battle.

But there’s more to the novel than fighting. We’re also taken inside castles where courtliness guides behaviour and squires pursue love, or something much less refined as they make their beds in the great hall. Rufus is a fickle lover, demonstrating how the ideal of chivalry and courtesy, exemplified by the greatest knight, William Marshal (who, I’m thrilled to say, plays a role here), wasn’t the reality for most. I enjoyed the moments spent inside castles just as much as I did those spent outside.

As usual, Ben Kane writes very well and the pages fly through the fingers. The story of Richard I is a familiar one but there is so much to it and it deserves another retelling, especially by an author who is clearly deeply immersed in the period and perhaps relishing the shift from Rome. Lionheart reads as if it was fun to write and this definitely rubs off on the appreciative reader. Historical fiction provides escapism during these difficult and strange times and Lionheart fits the bill perfectly.

And if you haven’t read any of Ben’s Roman historical fiction yet (and why not?!), take a look at the reviews below. My favourites are the Spartacus books and the Eagles trilogy.

Other reviews
Hannibal: Enemy of Rome
Hannibal: Fields of Blood
Hannibal: Clouds of War
Spartacus
Spartacus: Rebellion
Eagles at War
Hunting the Eagles
Eagles in the Storm
Clash of Empires
(and others) A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2019 (12 September) | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

It is 1152 when the wife of Diarmait, King of Leinster in Ireland, gives birth to Aiofe. Beautiful and clever, Aiofe will not only be much loved by her father, she will be prized by him as he uses her to help cling on to power in this most tempestuous of places in which to hold a kingdom. He has rivals on every side and his sons have become little more than bargaining pieces, held hostage to guarantee Diarmait’s oaths of loyalty, oaths he will never keep. There is a new powerful king across the water in England, Henry II, and he wants to spread that power westwards.

Henry also wants to control Richard de Clare, the Earl of Striguil (now Chepstow) and once the Earl of Pembroke. Richard had been on the side of the loser in the civil war that preceded Henry’s rise to the throne. Richard’s paying for it now but his influence is still strong. And it gets stronger still when Diarmit marries his young daughter to Richard, creating an alliance that will change the balance of power in this region. But Aiofe is no mere pawn. She owns titles and lands in her own right. She is a formidable woman, with three powerful men in her thrall – father, husband and King Henry. Aiofe is also deeply in love with this remarkable man, Richard, to whom she is so happily wed.

I cannot overstate my love of Elizabeth Chadwick’s writing and her novels. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who can immerse the reader so deeply in the medieval period, bringing to such vivid and colourful life kings and queens but also those other people whose names are known to history but so little else. Elizabeth Chadwick’s great writing love is William Marshal, The Greatest Knight, and here she turns her attention to his mother-in-law Aiofe, a beautiful Irish princess who was so much more than that. I knew nothing about Aiofe before reading The Irish Princess but now I am fascinated by her and feel that I’ve been given a glimpse into her extraordinary life in 12th-century Ireland and England.

It’s an incredible story and it begins in Ireland, a place of war, violence and passion. This is stunning stuff, with battles, feasting, love and hatred, as well as great emotion and trauma. I couldn’t have been more engrossed. And then the novel moves to England as Aiofe marries the love of her life. Life becomes a struggle as her husband Richard de Clare is pitted against Henry II, although between the three of them there is a kind of friendship that absolutely fascinates.

Elizabeth Chadwick knows this period inside out and we reap the rewards of this knowledge with a novel built upon incredible historical details and insight. Objects, clothing, rooms, buildings, places are all described with such richness. You really feel as if you’re in the room with these people, listening to them speak, watching them move. It all feels so real even though this novel is set such a long time ago and these are lives so different from our own. And because it feels so real we care deeply for these people, especially Aiofe and Richard. Expect strong emotion. I cried ugly tears more than once. I was so involved in Aiofe’s story.

This marvellous novel is a fierce contender for my novel of the year. It completely immerses the reader in these lives lived so long ago. It’s an incredible story, extremely well-researched and very, very moving. Elizabeth Chadwick is a master at putting us in the room with people from the past – Diarmait is not a man to forget in a hurry. There is so much vivid colour but it all feels natural and real. I’ve loved so many of Elizabeth Chadwick’s novels and The Irish Princess is right there among the very best, equalling The Greatest Knight, which, considering how breathtakingly good that novel is, is high praise indeed.

Other reviews
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
Templar Silks

The Bone Fire by S.D. Sykes

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019, Pb 2020| 308p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Bone Fire by SD SykesIt is 1361 and plague has returned to England and it’s just as devastating as it was a decade before. The difference is that this time people know what to expect and they are terrified. Oswald de Lacy, Lord of Sommershill in Kent, flees with his wife, child and mother to the safety of a remote castle on an island surrounded by marshes, owned by his friend Godfrey who is about to seal off his fortress against the approaching onslaught of disease. But when the portcullis is shut, the small group sealed within are uneasy in each other’s company and it isn’t long before one of them is murdered. Oswald can either leave and risk the plague, already working its way through the villages beyond the walls, or stay inside and try and protect his family by catching the killer among them. Everyone is a suspect and the death toll is rising.

The Bone Fire is the fourth novel in the Somershill Manor series by S.D. Sykes and, as with the others, it is an excellent novel. The book works well as a stand alone historical mystery but I do think that the reader would benefit from knowing what Oswald has been through since the events of the first novel Plague Land. Set in 1350, that novel portrayed the dramatic impact that plague had on Oswald in 1350 and since then he has had much to endure, culminating in the previous novel City of Masks, in which Oswald travelled to Venice where events once more changed his life. It’s that life that Oswald must now protect in Castle Eden.

I love the setting of The Bone Fire within this crowded medieval castle, filled with servants, a jester, lords, ladies and children, a priest, even a clock maker. These are interesting times. Medieval feudalism is very slowly giving way to a more modern era of science and humanism. The castle’s owner Godfrey bridges both worlds. I enjoyed the descriptions of the castle itself as well as the scenes of daily life within its walls. When characters do venture outside then it’s as if they’re entering a world of horror, with the stench in the air of the festering remains of the plague dead.

The characters are a great bunch, from Oswald and his argumentative and really rather unpleasant mother (we’re spared the sister this time round), to the strange clockmaker and his even stranger nephew.

Above all else, The Bone Fire tells an excellent story very well indeed. Poor Oswald carries the weight of the world on his shoulders as he tries to protect his family against the plague, but there is just as much to fear from his fellow man. I love murder mysteries set in a confined, isolated location, with just a select number of suspects. S.D. Sykes adapts this to the 14th century so well, with the added horror and tension of the Black Death lurking beyond the castle walls. The Bone Fire is a hugely entertaining novel which could well be my favourite book of the series so far.

Other reviews
Plague Land
The Butcher Bird
City of Masks

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2018 (4 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Turn of Midnight by Minette WaltersThe Turn of Midnight follows on directly from The Last Hours and concludes this two-part series, so you’ll need to read them in order. This review assumes you’ve read The Last Hours.

It is late 1348 and the southern counties of England have gone quiet. Towns, villages and hamlets have been mostly silenced and emptied, by death and by the flight of those too terrified to stay and face the same fate as their loved ones, only to die somewhere else, friendless, instead. The small community at Develish in Dorseteshire survives within its moated enclosure due to the care and protection of Lady Anne. Their strict quarantine has kept them safe from the Black Death that killed Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard, a vile owner of land and souls. The serfs and slaves of Develish have been given the equality Lady Anne feels is due to all, and an education to go with it. One peasant, Thaddeus, a giant among men for his height and good sense, has risen to become Lady Anne’s most trusted friend but now he continues his travels across Dorseteshire seeking out the truth of what the pestilence has left behind. With him are five boys, fast growing into young men, and their journey will lead them to Blandeforde where everything that they, and Lady Anne, have achieved is put at the most terrible risk.

The Last Hours was such a welcome book – a new novel after many years by the fantastic Minette Walters in a new genre, historical fiction. And what a time she picked in which to set it. 1348 is such a pinnacle year in English history, not just for the Middle Ages but for all periods. England, like so many other places, was transformed by the torment of the Black Death and it could never be the same again for this de-populated land. To all intents and purposes, The Turn of Midnight opens in a post-apocalyptic world, a world that must be rebuilt, and the debate here is how that new world will be ordered – what will be the place of the peasant? and why did God allow so many to perish in such agony? Why did I survive?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, which completes its story, is every bit as good. As it continues into the spring of 1349, the plague, at least in this part of England, has been left behind. Many survivors continue to hide in the most terrible conditions, imprisoned as much by their status as by their fears. Sheep roam free and ownerless but some peasants are too frightened to eat them and would prefer to starve. This is what centuries of feudalism have done to them. Other peasants, though, especially in the towns, are beginning to speak out, albeit cautiously. And it’s these beginnings of society’s transformation that is portrayed here with such colour and feeling.

The Turn of Midnight is on one level such an entertaining historical adventure as it recounts the journey of Thaddeus and his companions across an empty landscape. Many peasants would hardly have travelled and so I loved the section in which they encountered the sea for the first time. The joy of freedom is offset, though, by the desolation of some of the places they pass through. There are sights here that nobody should have to see.

Less time is spent in this novel in the Develish manor as the feeling grows that the time to cross the moat might be approaching but what we have is so well presented. There is change within, new people enter, so brilliantly observed by Minette Walters, while others are not the people they once were. As with Thaddeus and the boys with him, and all of the various people they encounter, everyone in this novel is beautifully brought to life. There are so many little touches that remind us that, although there are similarities between this world and our own, this is a very different, remote and possibly ultimately unknowable period of history. Language, for example, was almost a tool of oppression – the rich spoke in a different tongue, the poor of one area might be completely understood by the poor of another area, and the written word was the privileged knowledge of the few.

Then there is the role of priests, Christianity and religion in general. There is much talk of the deserving poor, the deserving dead, the role of mercy, charity and kindness – practical Christianity is put to test. Power, whether it’s in the hands of priests, stewards, lords, peasant elders or just men in general, is also another fascinating theme.

There is so much to be found within these two books. 1348 must surely rank among the worst of years of any age and Minette Walters brings the horror, desolation and terrible grief of it to life, while reminding us of its legacy for future generations. This is compelling historical fiction, which combines a thrilling story of adventure with some really big themes, all told with Minette Walter’s customary splendid flair.

Other review
The Last Hours

The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson

HarperCollins | 2018 (31 May) | 531p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Tudor Crown by Joanna HicksonIt is 1471. The Lancastrians have been defeated in battle. Edward IV of York is back on the throne once more and his great rival, Henry VI, is dead, presumed murdered in captivity while Henry’s queen has fled. The last hope and heir of the Lancastrian cause, Henry Tudor, must do likewise and so, in September 1471, Henry and his uncle Jaspar, the Earl of Pembroke, run for their lives, setting sail from south Wales for the continent. Their ship is hit by storms and they barely survive the crossing, arriving destitute on the shores of Brittany, an ignominious start to Henry’s exile. And there he must bide his time, coping with the absence from his mother and friends, dependent on the animosity between Brittany and France for his safety and upkeep.

Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother, must endure as best as she can in the court of her enemy, Edward IV. A widow, relatively young still, she is too valuable and noble a prize to be left to her own devices. Edward marries Margaret to his advisor Lord Stanley and keeps her close where he can keep an eye on her. Margaret swears to obey her king but she walks a tightrope – she never stops manoeuvring for the return of her son, Henry. Both Margaret and Henry must be prepared to sacrifice everything for their cause. They know their time will come.

In The Tudor Crown, Joanna Hickson picks up where the marvellous First of the Tudors left off. You certainly don’t need to have read the earlier novel first (although I think you’d want to anyway as it’s so brilliant) because The Tudor Crown begins afresh with Henry’s story, covering his years of exile, his journey from boy and squire to knight and diplomat, through to 1485 and that most famous of battles, the Battle of Bosworth. It’s hard to imagine a more fascinating period of British history – the close at last of the Wars of the Roses and the rise of that new dynasty, the Tudors. The end of the medieval world, perhaps, and the beginning of the modern age.

I love how Joanna Hickson tells the story of these remarkable fourteen years. The chapters alternate between Henry and his mother Margaret, each speaking in the first person (and, happily, in the past tense) and the result is a vivid and immediate tale of lives lived in such perilous circumstances. I couldn’t tell you which narrative I preferred because I think they’re both equally good. I enjoyed watching Henry grow into manhood, his ambition growing alongside his increasing realisation of his potential significance. This isolates him in many ways but it makes him strong, which is just as well as he has much to deal with in this war zone that is late 15th-century Brittany. We meet so many fascinating people in these exile sections and each has to decide whether to help or hinder Henry in his cause.

Margaret’s story is just as intriguing, with the added appeal of observing the court of Edward IV and his infamous queen. This is an unhappy place. Never has a royal family been so divided. It’s enthralling, it really is, and there’s Margaret in the middle, viewed with suspicion by all and paying the price for it. The relationship between Margaret and her husband Lord Stanley is so well portrayed. It’s hardly a domestic paradise but both Margaret and Stanley know the rules of how to make an arranged marriage palatable.

Scattered throughout are letters between Henry and his mother, their only form of contact for so many years. I love what these added to the story and to our feel for their relationship.

I really enjoyed the shifting focus of The Tudor Crown – we’re well aware of the significance of Henry and of his mother’s plotting for the future of England but we’re also shown them as fully rounded people, albeit people who know that they are far from ordinary. They must deal with their absence from one another, their enforced relationships with people they don’t trust, and their precarious positions. Henry is left almost friendless while still just a boy. His resilience is extraordinary. He is most certainly a king in making.

Henry’s destiny hangs over the novel from the beginning and when it finally arrives I couldn’t read these pages fast enough. This is a fantastic telling of the Battle of Bosworth. Respect is given to all sides, including Richard III whose courage on the day is not in doubt.

The Tudors are the most famous family in British history and their story is an extremely familiar one. But in The Tudor Crown the origin of the Tudor dynasty is explored with such colour and warmth. This is a complicated story but it’s brought together very well and Joanna Hickson demonstrates how the success of Henry VII was every bit as dependent on cunning as it was on victory in battle. And Henry was certainly in debt to his mother whose influence was crucial for his success.

I’ve always enjoyed Joanna Hickson’s novels but I suspect The Tudor Crown could be my favourite. It’s such a wonderful story and Joanna Hickson does it full justice with her engrossing, lively and engaging prose. I wonder if she will return to King Henry’s story – I do hope so.

Other reviews and features
The Agincourt Bride
The Tudor Bride
Red Rose, White Rose
First of the Tudors
An interview
Guest post – What’s In a Name?

Templar Silks by Elizabeth Chadwick

Sphere | 2018 (1 March) | 496p | Review copy | Buy the book

It is April 1219 and William Marshal, England’s greatest knight, is nearing the end of his long and eventful life. As he lies in his home, surrounded by his family, William sends one of his knights to his property in Wales to retrieve the silks that he brought home from pilgrimage to Jerusalem many years before. William always intended to be buried in them. And so now his thoughts drift to that adventure, to his pilgrimage which was conducted as a promise to, and in the name of, William’s master – Henry, the Young King and eldest son and heir of Henry II, who died with a stain on his soul. Only William could wipe it clean.

In 1183 William Marshal was in his prime, celebrated for his military prowess and lauded for his chivalric values – a true and great knight indeed. But he was still a landless knight, dependent on the patronage of others, especially the family of Henry II and the imprisoned queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. When the Young King makes William swear an oath to undertake the pilgrimage to Jerusalem on his behalf, to lie his cloak before Christ’s tomb, there is nothing to stop William from leaving England behind. And what an adventure it was.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Greatest Knight is one of my all time favourite novels – it is the perfect tale of a medieval knight and none were greater than William Marshal. And nobody in my opinion brings the medieval world to life in full colour like Elizabeth Chadwick. I was so pleased to hear that she was returning to William’s story. This time, though, the focus is on the three years that William spent on pilgrimage. And, apart from the fact that he went, very little is known about this period of his life, which gives Elizabeth Chadwick free rein to use her imagination drawing on her enormous insight and knowledge of the medieval period. The result is a gloriously exciting depiction of some of medieval Europe’s dangerspots, where peril lay around almost every corner and in every town, and most particularly in Constantinople and Jerusalem. The chapters set in Constantinople are such a traumatic highlight of the novel!

The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem was extraordinary, alive with the most astonishing and disturbing personalities, all a gift to fiction, especially the Leper King Baldwin, Guy de Lusignan, the Patriarch and his mistress, the beautiful and charismatic Paschia de Rivieri. It’s wonderful watching William Marshal interacting with all of these people, a witness to the danger of the times, the threat of Saladin, the deception and the plotting. Marshal throws himself into the heart of it all, as you’d expect, and has experiences to last a lifetime. Much of this is speculation, but the result is a grand romance of chivalry, intrigue, violence and passion.

The relationship that I probably enjoyed the most here is that between William and his younger brother Ancel. Little is known about Ancel but Elizabeth Chadwick brings him to such life. I loved these sections. Despite their military prowess, both brothers are shown to be sensitive and refined, the model of knightly values, and so it’s extremely easy to fall in love with them. But we know how this novel must end – it’s set on William’s deathbed after all – and so there are also scenes of great tenderness between William and his wife, children and grandchildren. Expect emotion.

Elizabeth Chadwick has such a gift in the way she surrounds her reader in the past. All the little details of daily life in the Middle Ages are made solid. This is more of a romance than the other William Marshal novels. Much of it is set in an exotic, strange land so far from home and this adds an air of something that touches on fantasy. But, in my favourite sections, it is grounded with these extraordinary historical figures – the story of the Leper King is incredible and extremely distressing. His court’s political intrigue is so fascinating, made even more dangerous because we know Saladin is just waiting for his moment to seize the Holy City. It’s a great setting for William Marshal, who begins as an observer but is soon at the centre of affairs. There’s a strong sense that this is William’s last fling before he returns to England, marriage and ennoblement. He’s determined to make the most of it as he’s let off the historical leash by an author who understands inside out this best of men and the age in which he lived.

Other reviews
Lady of the English
The Summer Queen
The Winter Crown
The Autumn Throne
The Greatest Knight
The Scarlet Lion
The Time of Singing

Scourge of Wolves by David Gilman (Master of War 5)

Head of Zeus | 2018 (8 February) | 446p | Review copy | Buy the book

Scourge of Wolves by David GilmanScourge of Wolves is the fifth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackstone in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.

It is the winter of 1361 and the Hundred Years War has drawn to an unlikely and reluctant close. Or so it seems. The French King John, captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 and held hostage in England ever since, has now been ransomed and returned to Paris. But the terms of the release are harsh. France has been brought to its knees. Whole towns must be handed over to England. Many are resisting and the situation is aggravated even more by the bands of lawless routiers or mercenaries who scour the defeated land for what gold is left, fortifying towns for their own evil ends. It’s a mess. Edward III and his son the Black Prince need a man they can trust to sort it out and claim their promised towns. Who better to ask than Sir Thomas Blackstone? And Sir Thomas and his men will have to fight for every step they take.

Scourge of Wolves throws us, and Sir Thomas, immediately into the throes of action. Without the support of a standing army behind them, Thomas’s men are in trouble from the very first page. Their enemy is more desperate and cruel than ever, the walls of France’s fortified towns are more daunting than ever. Not all of Thomas’s swordsmen and archers will survive. This is hard for us. We’ve been following their adventures for several years. We’ve lost so many already. There’s a sense that it can only get worse.

The novel is full of action, there’s barely time to draw breath. There are walls to scale, skirmishes to fight, monsters to punish. And Sir Thomas is not quite sure who he can trust in these lawless days. David Gilman really knows his stuff. The novel is fully immersed in medieval warfare – in its weapons and soldiers, horses, armour, executions and injuries.There’s gore by the bucketload. Medieval war wounds are not a pretty thing and we’re given a detailed depiction of the treatment of one particularly nasty injury. David Gilman presents a fascinating portrait of these terrible times, when plague is still recurring (just to compound the woes of the poor peasantry) and war seems without end. We’re given moments with the powerful – notably the king and dauphin of France – but on the whole Scourge of Wolves keeps us firmly in the field of battle. I must admit to missing the Black Prince in this novel.

It’s undoubtedly exciting! There are many breathless scenes in which survival seems an impossibility. This is military historical fiction, the war leaves little time for anything but fighting, and so this is largely a male history with one notable and rather unpleasant exception. Scourge of Wolves is more action-based than the others, or at least that’s what it felt like to me, and so I did find myself being rushed along from one danger to the next with little time to draw breath or look around – this novel does rely on the reader knowing the characters from the previous books – but I continue to enjoy following the adventures of Sir Thomas Blackstone and his men. One of these days I hope he will find some peace but I sense those days are far off.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I do love Head of Zeus hardbacks with their ribbons!

Other reviews and features
Master of War
Defiant Unto Death (Master of War 2)
Gate of the Dead (Master of War 3) – review and interview
Viper’s Blood (Master of War 4)
An extract of Viper’s Blood
Guest post – War in the Last Horseman

Pilgrim’s War by Michael Jecks

Simon & Schuster | 2018 (8 February) | 552p | Review copy | Buy the book

Pilgrim's War by Michael JecksIt is March 1096 and the people of Sens in France gather to hear the crusading call of Peter the Hermit. The Holy City of Jerusalem is in the hands of the Saracens, the Christians within persecuted, the places and rituals of Christ forbidden. The Emperor of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire is begging for help from the west and, in return, the Pope has promised that the sins of all crusaders shall be forgiven. Among the crowds who hear the call there are many who stand up to follow it, including Sybille and her husband who sees earthly riches at the end of his pilgrimage, not heavenly ones. Likewise, brothers Odo and Fulk have their different reasons for taking the cross – Fulk sees opportunity and adventure while Odo feels the stirrings of a buried faith. And then there are the women. Jeanne and Guillemette have been treated badly, finding refuge and independence as prostitutes in a brothel. For them and the other women and children on the pilgrimage there will be particular dangers.

And still they come. Many more of all walks of life, of every age, take the cross and are faced with a journey, mostly on foot, across lands that have no idea how to deal with this flood of humanity. Knights and preachers urge them on, pressing them to fight when necessary, even when they go hungry and can hardly walk another step. There are almost as many motives as there are pilgrims but one thing is sure – not all of them will reach their goal and even fewer of them will live to return home.

Pilgrim’s War is a fabulously rich chronicle of the First Crusade, which brings the events of 1096 to life through the varied experiences of a small group of individuals. Often the strands of the stories come together as people meet, hate each other or fall in love. They’re such a wonderful mix of people and all are given their time in the spotlight. I particularly enjoyed how both male and female pilgrims are given equal footing, showing how this crusade isn’t at all how crusades are usually perceived. This one, the first, was a madly disorganised affair, mostly undertaken by ordinary men and women with their children, and this spirit of hope, of a new age, of people being on the move for the first time, is all captured so brilliantly by Michael Jecks. As is the age’s absolute dread of the Saracen and the barbarous cruelty that was carried out in the name of Christianity against anyone perceived as different.

Of course, it might start off with dreams of glory and victory but soon the reality hits and it’s fascinating watching these people transform. The stories of Odo and Fulk are particularly powerful. There’s a real agony in watching what happens. And there’s also tragedy. The stresses and anxieties of this extraordinary, unprecedented pilgrimage kept me gripped.

I thoroughly enjoyed the mix of action and romance. Pilgrim’s War is in many ways a sweeping historical epic. Many lives move through its pages, each with their own dreams, and the structure of the novel dramatically moves backwards and forwards between them. There are some great battle scenes, including my favourite – sieges! – and these are complemented by the quiet moments of friendship and love. As the novel (and the pilgrimage) moves on we meet new people, this time from the East, although not necessarily originating there – I really liked the character of Alwyn.

Pilgrim’s War is the beginning of a new series, which is such good news because when I finished it I was so ready for more. It’s a substantial novel but I gobbled it up in only a couple of days. It moves around so quickly, there’s so much to look at, and the historical setting is wonderfully described and evoked. The movement from the known to the exotic is especially well done. The First Crusade was a disastrous affair for many – and catastrophic for many that they encountered along the way – and this novel gives us a good idea why and it makes for glorious reading. Pilgrim’s War is the first novel by Michael Jecks that I’ve read which is plain daft because he’s clearly a fantastic storyteller. I can’t wait to see where this series and its pilgrims take us next.

Other post
Guest post – The origins of the Vintener Trilogy by Michael Jecks

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.

‘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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