Earl of Huntingdon

42551630Earl of Huntingdon (Outlaw’s Legacy Book 3)* by NB Dixon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 418 pp

Publisher: Beaten Track

Year: 2019

Earl of Huntingdon is the third in the Outlaw’s Legacy series, a reimagining of the Robin Hood legend by NB Dixon. In this installation, Robin of Huntingdon, formerly of Locksley, is an earl, a former outlaw pardoned by King Richard for his lawless ways. He had married Marian, the heiress of Huntingdon, though his heart was given to one of his companions, Will Scathelock. Now, years later, Robin is facing an old enemy from his Crusading days, Roger of Doncaster, who had been promised to Marian in his youth and never forgave her or Robin for coercing her marriage to Robin instead. Roger is determined to do all he can to destroy Robin, whose only solace now is in the arms of the man whose heart he broke.

The action begins with a new group of outlaws in Sherwood. The difference here is that these outlaws are truly bad people, raping, pillaging, and plundering from the innocent. The new sheriff of Nottingham, Matthew Picard, is as inept as Guy of Gisbourne ever could have been, and does nothing to stop them. Robin takes matters into his own hands and dispatches the outlaws himself with the aid of his loyal men…and Will Scathelock. However, the outlaws were connected to a spy in Robin’s midst working with Roger of Doncaster to bring Robin down and killing the outlaws sets in motion a chain of events neither Robin nor his men could have anticipated.

This was an utterly unstoppable read. While I confess I’ll read just about anything labelled “Robin Hood,” that doesn’t mean all such are actually well written or entertaining; Earl of Huntingdon, however, is both. I enjoyed the rich historical details, such as the training the men did in the lists and at the tiltyard, or the ways in which castles could be besieged. Adding in the historical details in this way make these novels which are based on legend spring to life, making it seem that much more possible that people like Robin Hood really could have existed.

The characters were all interesting and well developed. I loved how very human Robin was – he was conflicted in wanting to do right by Marian and by what I think was his genuine affection for her, but also his desire for Will and wanting to be with the man he truly loves. He isn’t a perfect person, and never tries to be, and it makes him that much more believable.

Marian is not always likeable and her reasons are understandable. She’s endured many losses and suffered a lot of heartache, which makes her rather shrewish at first. We get to know her more as the book goes on and I grew to like her more. Having Marian be less likeable than she often is in more traditional versions makes this novel compelling and more relatable – it reminds readers that she is a woman of her time and subject to the whims of the men in charge of her, and yet she has endured it all as best she can.

All the secondary characters – Will, John Little, Tuck, John’s wife Daphne, Alan a Dale, and so on – have distinct personalities and foibles of their own. Daphne in particular is a woman to be reckoned with. She’s awesome, even though her role in this novel was relatively minor.

Roger of Doncaster is a complex antagonist. He is so incredibly hateful towards Robin that, without having read the previous books, I am left to wonder if he is supposed to have been closeted. He hates Robin and other gay men so much, and bases his hatred for them in his religious devotions, that it makes me wonder if the hatred isn’t really supposed to be a projection of his own self-loathing. That possibility wasn’t really addressed in this book, but it did make me wonder as I was reading.

My only quibble, and it is minor, is that a couple of the secondary antagonists are a little stereotypical. Picard, for example, is very good at being a stupid fop and not much else. It makes him a rather boring antagonist because he is one-dimensional. There didn’t seem to be much else going for him. Again, this is a minor issue and didn’t detract from the rest of the plot overall, other than it made a few things a little predictable.

I loved the queering of the Robin Hood legend. It’s always fun to read a reimagining of any beloved story, and to see it done in a way that is socially relevant is a treat. It brings new discussion into the mix and raises a lot of interesting new questions to the traditional story everyone is familiar with. The chemistry between Robin and Will is unmistakable and fierce, but not over the top. As a non-reader of romance in general, I appreciate it when the romance isn’t actually smacking me in the face. The romance and sex in this novel were, I felt, very nicely done for both the gay and hetero couples.

I do feel I would have enjoyed the book even more had I read the previous two in the series. However, I do not feel like I was lost, plot-wise, for having missed them. Enough of the backstory was given so that any gaping plot holes were filled in, though I do feel like I missed out. I enjoyed the book enough that I went and purchased the first two in the series, and will quickly remedy that deficiency. Even without having read the first two in the series, I still happily recommend this book even as it is, and am looking forward to reading the whole series in order.

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Column of Burning Spices

43458335The Column of Burning Spices: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams

I read it as a: digital book

Source: my own collection

Length: 370 pp

Publisher: Iron Knight Press

Year: 2019

The Column of Burning Spices is the second in PK Adams’s duology about the renowned medieval holy woman, Hildegard of Bingen. This picks up right where the first book left off and covers the latter part of Hildegard’s life, when she was writing and creating the works for which she is most well known.

Where the first book had given Hildegard an interesting background and a plausible history that filled in gaps in the historical record, this second book continued with what is known of her and fleshed her out in a human way. I don’t feel that there was quite the depth of character as there was in the first book, but I think this is simply because there was so much that Hildegard did in her life that it is impossible to capture it all in the scope of one novel. Authors have to make a choice – are they going to focus on her music or her scientific writing? On her struggles with the men of the church or on her charitable work? Adams is no different, and she did exceedingly well with what she chose to include. I thought the details were sufficient for Hildegard fans like me while also serving to whet the appetite of readers who may not be as familiar with her, hopefully inspiring them to go out and learn more about her.

How Hildegard dealt with the troublesome men of the church was handled deftly, and accurately. One of my favorite parts of the book, as well as actual events of her life, was how she handled the question of the burial of a man who had been excommunicated and then forgiven. He was buried, then the canons demanded that he be exhumed and reburied in unconsecrated ground. Hildegard refused because she said his sins had been forgiven. The canons told local authorities to exhume the body, so Hildegard and her nuns went around and removed all the grave markers from the cemetery. I love that so much. She sounds like my granny, a salty old crone. The canons placed Hildegard, her nuns, and the abbey under interdict, so no Mass could be performed and, worse for Hildegard, no songs could be sung. But eventually, she won and they could have their Mass and music back.

I enjoyed how the relationships between Hildegard and others were developed. Volmar, who was her confessor in real life, was given a deeper place in her life. It is not part of the historical record, but the way it was written in the book was believable and still within the scope of acceptable behavior for a Benedictine nun, and raised a poignant “what if” for them both. Similarly with Ricardis, Hildegard’s personal assistant. The two women had a close bond in real life, prompting some scholars to speculate that Hildegard was actually a lesbian. Maybe she was, but I also think that is a stupid assumption; she lived almost entirely in the company of women from the time she was 8 years old and most of the men of her acquaintance were her adversaries. It is no wonder that she formed her closest bonds with other women. It should have no bearing on her sexual preferences. I disagree, however, with how the author handled Ricardis leaving the convent. There is no indication in the historical record that she left because she’d been spying on Hildegard to Abbot Helenger or that she was in the church only to advance her family’s standing. If that had been the case, I doubt very much Hildegard would have continued to write to her after she left, asking her to come back, which she did several times. That part of the novel required too much of a suspension of disbelief, and didn’t fit with the existing historical record, for me to buy.

Overall, the duology was very pleasing – Hildegard of Bingen is hands down my favorite medieval holy woman, and favorite medieval woman second only to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first installment was stronger, and I would rate it 4.5 stars, but the second still offered a solid performance and I would rank it at at 4 stars. I heartily recommend both books to anyone interested in this fascinating woman, or to anyone who has never heard of her and would like a starting point to learn about her.

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Greenest Branch

40331955The Greenest Branch: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams

I read it as an: ARC

Source: my own collection

Length: pp/time

Publisher: Iron Knight Press

Year:  2017

In the early 12th century, a young girl was given as a tithe to the church with the intention that she would be enclosed as an anchoress at the abbey of Disibodenberg. That girl was Hildegard, known to history as Hildegard of Bingen. This novel tells the story of her early years at the abbey of Disibod and attempts to fill in a gap in the historical record.

Author PK Adams does a lovely job bringing a young Hildegard to life with her clear and elegant prose. The setting of the medieval Rhineland is well described and gives readers a vivid image of life during the Investiture Controversy. The conflicts brewing between the Church and secular authorities were complex and distressing to people at the time, and Adams captured these emotions plainly in her characters.

I have, at times, railed against authors of historical fiction who take liberties with historical fact for the sake of telling a story. I think if they can’t tell a good story without embellishing the facts then they aren’t good storytellers. However, Adams has found a sweet spot with regard to Hildegard’s story, and she’s run with it. Little is known about Hildegard’s life after she initially entered the abbey until Jutta’s death. Adams uses that gap in knowledge and creates a detailed and plausible version of her own, enhanced with excellent and accurate details of medieval life. We may not know about what Hildegard’s life was really like for a number of years, but this novel presents us with a viable option for consideration.

Adams wove in many lyrics from Hildegard’s songs, which was a nice touch. A vital touch, in my opinion. I don’t think one should write about Hildegard without including some of her songs, given that she wrote SO MANY of them. I do wish there had been more about herbology, such as recipes she might have used, but that’s just because I am super interested in herbalism. There was enough on that front to appeal to most readers who aren’t as interested as I am, I believe.

The characters are nicely developed overall. I would like more development with Helenger; right now, he just seems like the flat archvillain, mean just for the sake of being mean. I would also like more development with Volmar, particularly since he played such a large role in Hildegard’s real life. Maybe that will be in book two. The issue with Jutta and her bodily mortification left me a little wanting – I wanted to know more about Hildegard’s thoughts behind it. But overall, these were minor issues and didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

I am excited that I don’t have to wait to read the next in the series – thanks, Netgalley! It will be interesting to see how the next book handles the later parts of Hildegard’s much more well-documented life. Hopefully, Adams will continue Hildegard’s story with the same eye for detail as she has begun.

*Amazon affiliate link.

Age of Saints

43925261Age of Saints: Druid’s Brooch Series: 7* by Author

I read it as a: galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2019

Connall had promised his father that he would take care of Lainn, his little sister. Then his father went away and Connall, despite his best efforts, failed spectacularly in every way to uphold his promise. He and Lainn endure an abusive stepfather; a neglectful mother; starvation, terror, imprisonment, and torture in the land of Faerie; and literal insanity in both human and fey realms. Connall tries to draw on the power of a magic brooch, passed down through his family for generations, to help him and Lainn survive, but in doing so, is he saving them or only delaying the inevitable?

This is the seventh book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, and as with the others, it can be read as a standalone. I have read most of the others in the series and with each installation, I appreciate anew how well Nicholas crafts her characters. Each one has depth and vision to them, even minor characters who are only on the page a moment.

Equally appreciated is Nicholas’s deep understanding of Irish legend and lore. Her books are rich with these, and they bring the culture and people within the pages to brilliant life. This novel features the early days when the old ways of the Druids and the new ways of the Christians were still able to live together peaceably, though by the end of the book, the two religions were showing the strain. The Age of Saints refers to the 5th and 6th centuries when the Church was working especially hard to convert the Celtic countries, often using converted Celts to do so, such as St Patrick or Columba, who is referenced in this novel. It was interesting to see the interplay between the two cultures in this way.

I also loved the theme of protection that wove throughout the book. Connall cares for and protects Lainn as best he can, even when he fails utterly. He tries to keep his father’s words in mind as a way to protect himself as well, because at the end of the day, Connall is still a very young man, still in need of protection himself in a variety of ways. He learns how to protect himself, but also how to accept it from others when needed. The raven companion provides protection of a sort as well, and teaches a hard lesson. Connall protects his mother even when he doesn’t really want to. Even though most of the hardships in the book were because of a bad decision he made, Connall was still a sympathetic figure. He honestly did what he thought was best, or at least tried to. He never did anything out of maliciousness, just out of simple naivety or lack of experience, and he never whined about it, unlike some characters in other books. He Had his issues and his flaws, and he had an epic meltdown at one point, which I think was entirely understandable, but he was not an unsympathetic figure at all. He just needed someone to protect him but he had no one to do that, and so he did the best he could.

I also liked the exploration of his sexuality here, and how he was concerned about how Christians would think of him as sinful or unnatural to want to lie with another man, but the Druids had such members within their ranks and thought nothing of it. The conflict in him didn’t feel forced, like Nicholas was just trying to do something new or make a point. It was nicely done and flowed well within the narrative of the story.

One of the things I really love about this series is that it works in reverse time – the books begin in a more recent time and are gradually working back toward a time when the magic is newer and closer to the surface. I hope that, in the final installment of the series, readers will finally understand the genesis of the story, the event that caused the brooch to be given to the humans from the fey, and to see the full circle of all the novels in the series thus far. It has been a finely crafted series to date and I look forward to reading more. Highly recommended.

*Amazon affiliate link. 

Margery Kempe, a Pronoun, and her Earthly Associations*

*I wrote this paper something like 15+ years ago in grad school, in one of my Middle English courses. My instructor was the amazing Dhira Mahoney, who recently passed away. I wanted to repost one of my newbie grad student papers that I wrote for her as a tribute to the mentoring she gave me and the lessons I learned, both from her and since then because of her. 

Margery Kempe, a Pronoun, and her Earthly Associations

Margery Kempe is a woman of many titles. She is a wife, a mother, a mystic. Her contemporaries termed her a nuisance, a heretic, a saint. One scholar accurately calls her ‘the woman who would not go away.’1 But how does one woman fall under so many titles? Regardless of how people regard her, it is Margery’s use of language that defines her identity to various individuals. This paper will examine how Margery uses language and tone in her dialogues between earthly men and women in her Book to define her relationship with and authority to the people in her life.Read More »

In the Shadow of the Enemy

42070912In the Shadow of the Enemy (A Christine de Pizan Mystery) by Tania Bayard

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

In late-14th century France, Charles VI “the Mad,” rules. Probably a lot of people would like for France not to be ruled by a guy who is off his rocker, including his brother, the Duke of Orleans. Then, at a masquerade ball, the king and several of his friends decide to cause some mayhem and dress up like wildmen. To do so, they stick fur and leaves to themselves using pitch. This turns out to be a spectacularly bad idea, because a spark, presumably from the Duke of Orleans’s torch, catches on one of their outfits, causing four of the men to burn to death and the king to narrowly escape the same fate. Everyone suspects the Duke. However, some other people attending, including Christine de Pizan (yes, that Christine de Pizan) see something others didn’t – another torch, which was thrown from a spot far away from the Duke’s location. He still had both of his torches and yet there was a third torch on the floor, in the middle of the burning men. The Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, asks Christine to find out who wants the king dead, for she is certain that he was the target of an attempted assassination. Aided by a colorful array of sidekicks, including a prostitute who actually makes her living at embroidery, a dwarf who works for the Queen, and a deaf girl who takes care of the King’s lions, Christine undertakes an investigation. It leads her from the twisted politics of the court, to various potential targets and culprits with different reasons to want the victims dead, and straight into the sights of a killer.

In the Shadow of the Enemy is actually the second in the Christine de Pizan series, but it was the first one I’ve read. That made no difference to my utter enjoyment of the book, though, as this story is a standalone. The first book was referenced enough that it filled in any gaps there might have been, sometimes a little too thoroughly – there are totally spoilers for the first book, so I didn’t think that was very well done at all. I’m still going to read the first book, though, and just hope that I’ve forgotten what the spoilers are by the time I actually get around to it.

I adore the fact that Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics), is the protagonist here. I love it when real women from history are the stars in literature interesting new ways. She is a complex character, and all the secondary characters are multifaceted as well. Marion the prostitute was my second favorite, with her big personality and capacity for warmth and generosity and her inexplicable reluctance to tell people she isn’t actually a prostitute anymore. Christine’s mother, Francesca, was also a fun, minor addition. She reminds me of my grandmother in a lot of ways. The one thing I thought was weird was Klara’s utter and sudden change of heart regarding her husband Martin and her views on her brother, Willem. Those both seemed too convenient for me, but in the scheme of things, I can overlook this minor quibble.

The mix of medieval attitudes towards people, including those deemed “defective”, such as dwarves or deaf people, and even towards Christine herself, is so realistic. People thought Loyse, the deaf girl, had demons because they didn’t understand that she acted as she did simply because she couldn’t hear or understand others. The dwarf, Alips, was viewed with deep suspicion and hatred because it was thought that dwarves bring bad luck, or that the way they look on the outside reflected a corrupt soul.  And, of course, women were viewed as second class citizens and were treated as such. So much religious bullshit. The research that clearly went into the novel is apparent and appreciated. The imagery brings to life medieval France in an immediate way, from the descriptions of the court and its kitchens and gardens to the streets and their various inhabitants. The plot was pleasingly complex and included a lot of history about French warfare, or at least one battle in particular. Overall, this was a fast, fairly light read and I happily recommend it. I even went to the library and got the first one in the series. I’ll read a few other books before I read that one, though, to see if I forget the spoilers for it that were in this book. Hmph.

*This is a much longer and more detailed review of the one which was originally published by the Historical Novel Society.

Rereading Mordred

I have a paper due tonight, 3000-4000 words. I started writing it yesterday, which is the absolute earliest I could find time to sit my butt down and start writing. It is no reflection on the calibre of my instructor, the course, or the institution, though, which are all excellent. 

Rereading Mordred

Once upon a time in literature, a boy pulled a sword from a stone and Arthurian literature was born. However, there is no one genesis of the Arthur legend. Correspondingly, various changes take place throughout the canon, from the way the knights’ armour looks to the way the characters themselves are portrayed. A character who has undergone a great deal of change over time is Mordred. From various medieval texts to J.R.R. Tolkien’s interpretation, Mordred’s competence, approach to leadership, and relationship with Gwenhwyfar are woven together to create a highly complex, often misunderstood character. Read More »

Misfortune of Time (Druid’s Brooch #6)

40176383Misfortune of Time by Christy Nicholas

I read it as an: egalley

Source: Helen Hollick at  Discovering Diamonds. 

Length: my file only gave Kindle locations, not page numbers. Super annoying.

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2018

*Minor spoilers ahead. You have been warned.*

In this sixth installment of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, Etain, a 12th century Irish woman, has the ability not to age thanks to the magic she draws from her Druid’s brooch. The brooch is an heirloom inherited from her mother, passed down the family line, first given to her family by a Druid in thanks for saving his life. Etain is able to change her appearance at will, so she can age herself appropriately over the years, but her natural appearance is of a woman around 30 years old. In truth, she is around 150. She has had many husbands, many children, and has had to leave them all behind in her long life to avoid being discovered and killed as a witch or Fae. Her current husband, Airtre, is a mentally and physically abusive putrescence of a man, a Christian priest whose primary goal is to move up in the Church to a bishopric. Etain stays only to protect her young grandson, Maelan, from Airtre. When events explode, Etain is forced to flee, getting help from some unexpected allies, including other priests and monks, as well as a few kindly Fae.

I have read several books by Christy Nicholas, including some in the Druid’s Brooch series, and I must say I think this is my favorite one so far. The characters were all multidimensional and interesting, for the most part, and I enjoyed seeing a variety of people mingling together in the villages Etain traveled to, even if life wasn’t really like that in 12th century Ireland. I think she captured the fear and ambivalence of an abused woman well, though I hope I never truly understand that. Etain had a horrific life and it speaks to the strength of her spirit that she kept going and trying to survive rather than just giving up and letting some mad horde kill her as a witch, for the brooch can’t protect her from death.

I loved the theme of tolerance woven throughout, as well as the Gaelic hospitality. There were many instances of travelers or even old friends being offered food, drink, and washing water the moment they set foot indoors. I loved that because that’s how I was raised and it felt like home to see it reflected on the page. As well, the tolerance was a thread throughout. Etain has lived long enough to know that belief isn’t what is important, it is people who are important. She tells Maelan that “a little kindness can have unexpected rewards,” and often she herself has to remember her own lesson and take the kindness of others. Later, Maelan’s wife, Liadan, tells her, “Before I met [Aes], I didn’t realize pagans were just normal people like you and me.” Learning that people have more similarities than differences is a vital life lesson that many people today still need to learn.

The one thing I wish was different was that some of the narrative felt rushed. When Etain left Faerieland and settled in the ringfort, working in the kitchens, for example, little time was spent there, little real detail. The same happened before she entered Faerieland, when she was in the village and traded all her herbs for a cow. I wanted more detail and time spent in those places. Doing so, I feel, would give more of a sense of loss, of fatigue, because Etain was happy in both of those places and then was forced to go again. But these are minor quibbles in my overall enjoyment of this very engaging historical fantasy.

Also, it totally made me think of Dar Williams’ song The Christians and the Pagans.

The Deepest Grave

51x-w2n9cgl-_sx318_bo1204203200_The Deepest Grave by Jeri Westerson

I read it as a: galley

Source: Netgalley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2018

In this latest installment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, the timeline skips ahead about a year from the previous novel, Season of Blood. The Deepest Grave opens (haha, see what I did there?) with one Father Bulthius coming to Crispin, seeking answers to the mystery of revenants – corpses rising from the grave and walking at night – in the small church of St. Modwen. Naturally, Crispin is skeptical but he takes the case. While he is out, a person from his past comes calling for aid. Philippa Walcote, Crispin’s former lover, comes begging for help, for her young son stands accused of murdering a neighboring fabric merchant and competitor to his father’s business. Crispin is reluctant to become entrenched with Philippa again in any way, but as his apprentice Jack Tucker reminds him, a client is a client, and the Walcotes are wealthy clients indeed. Crispin and Jack embark on a quest to solve the case of wandering corpses, save a child from the hangman’s noose, and figure out why the relic of St. Modwen herself keeps following Crispin around, to his supreme consternation. Read More »

Llywelyn the Great

170px-llywelynfawr

Yesterday was the 776th anniversary of the death of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, also known as Llywelyn the Great. Born in 1173, he began to take control of North Wales when he was about 14 years old. By the time he was about 28, he was effectively the ruler of all Wales. He unified Wales, historically a nation often divided by war and clan fighting, and held the land in peace. Even during the difficult years when he was at odds with King John, Llywelyn eventually managed to regain lands he lost, and he held the respect of his retainers and the nobles. He is one of only two Welsh kings to be given the title Fawr, “the Great.”

As a lover of historical fiction, in particular, medieval historical fiction, some of my favorite novels feature Llywelyn Fawr or his contemporaries. The best novels bring his time to life in the most vivid ways, transport me to his castles at Dolwyddelan, on his campaign trail, at his feast table. It takes a special kind of talent to make history come alive and not turn it into a dry, boring textbook. I’ve ready plenty of historical fiction novels that read like straight history textbooks, and it was awful. All I could think of while reading those was that I hoped other readers didn’t pick those particular books up as their first exposure to the time period. Otherwise, I just couldn’t see how they would ever be intrigued enough to want to learn more about it, and that makes me sad. For those who have not yet discovered good historical fiction based on Llywelyn ab Iorwerth, below are some of the very best.

220px-herebedragons

Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. Rich not only in (highly accurate) historical detail, but also in the complexities of medieval politics, kingship, and interpersonal relationships, Here Be Dragons is my favorite novel of medieval Wales. One of my favorite scenes in the whole book was the wedding night of Llywelyn and Joanna, the daughter of King John. She was young and scared, and Llywelyn, wanting to earn her trust, offered to delay consummating their wedding and opted instead to cut his arm so that she could show a bloodstained sheet to those wanting proof of her viginity.

61ws0ldb2bdl-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet by Edith Pargeter. This series is about the grandson of Llywelyn Fawr, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, also called Llywelyn the Last. It is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Llywelyn’s scribe and friend Samson. I rather like the first person account since it gives an immediacy to the story and an intimacy into just one aspect that we might not otherwise get to see. After all, we only can see life from our own perspective.

What others have you read?