16 Nov 2014

New Release- The Princess Spy- Melanie Dickerson


Zondervan Fiction, November 4th 2014
304 Pages,  

Margaretha has always been a romantic, and hopes her newest suitor, Lord Claybrook, is destined to be her one true love. But then an injured man is brought to Hagenheim Castle, claiming to be an English lord who was attacked by Claybrook and left for dead. And only Margaretha---one of the few who speaks his language---understands the wild story. Margaretha finds herself unable to pass Colin's message along to her father, the duke, and convinces herself 'Lord Colin' is just an addled stranger. 

Then Colin retrieves an heirloom she lost in a well, and asks her to spy on Claybrook as repayment. Margaretha knows she could never be a spy---not only is she unable to keep anything secret, she's sure Colin is completely wrong about her potential betrothed. Though when Margaretha overhears Claybrook one day, she discovers her romantic notions may have been clouding her judgment about not only Colin but Claybrook as well. It is up to her to save her father and Hagenheim itself from Claybrook's wicked plot.

The latest of Melanie Dickerson’s ‘Hagenhiem’ stories, as I call them, draws together the two settings with the protagonist as the grandson of Ranulf and Annabel from The Merchant’s Daughter. In some ways, I liked this better than the previous books, particularly at the start with the storyline of the stranger who didn’t speak the language, and the mystery behind Claybrook and the young girl lacking in confidence with her social hangups about talking too much and her believed inability to keep a secret. Some readers may really relate to this.
Perhaps also, I took a certain pleasure in the hero being English (like me) and the novel not vilifying all English people as some tend to- despite one or two cultural stereotypes. I don’t think England is anymore rainy or foggy than Germany, for instance, as Colin says, the North Sea which separates the two countries is not an ‘ocean’. 
Aside from this, the device of spying and the sinister plot against Hagenhiem worked well as a backdrop for the story and the actions of the characters. 

It could perhaps be said that Marguerite was well-drawn than some of the other heroines, or Gisela in particular, for whom the praise as being strong and courageous did not always seem deserved. Marguerite seemed more able to think, plan, and act independently, and get out of difficult situations- or at least attempt to do so. Colin was as usual fantastically good looking, strong and virtuous- but there was a certain neediness about him (at least initially) which could be endearing and make him seem more realistic and less perfect.
His relationship and attraction to Marguerite seemed more genuine and less fluffy than before- although the fluffiness did remain, expressed with a certain preoccupation with kissing and physical beauty towards the end. One can understand how the circumstances could draw the characters together – but do they need to keep on dwelling on how beautiful one another were?

My historical gripes were few, and perhaps a little pedantic. Colin saying he was not trained for war when all noblemen’s sons would have been- the style of armour the characters wore seeming decidedly old-fashioned- by a century or more, and the idea that subjects of the King of England could go to a foreign country and commit criminal acts against the subjects of a ruler he was allied with without him even seeming to notice and assuming they could just get away with it. That and Marguerite wanting to have the chance to get to know her potential suitors as if this was something out of the ordinary- when it was actually the normal expectation for courting couples of high social circles at the time.
Also, perhaps one of the drawbacks to the story being centred on the same fairly small geographical region and family is that the some elements of the stories can seem repetitive, with lots of wanderings through forests and being chased by baddies in them that seem to have dominated the last three books. 

Overall The Princess Spy was a good story with a sound Christian message about hope, forgiveness, and doing the best in difficult circumstances, and an interesting spin on the Frog Prince fairy tale. There seemed to be less Americanisms in the language of the characters than in previous stories, and I think Mrs Dickerson’s writing style is developing. It would certainly appeal to Young Adults and grownups with only a few reservations. I look forward to Melanie Dickerson’s next book, and the first in a new series The Huntress of Thornbeck Forest due out in May. 

Grateful thanks to Booklookbloggers for providing me with a free ebook for review purposes. I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own.

10 Nov 2014

The Captive Maiden- Melanie Dickerson

 Zondervan, November 23rd 2013 
302 Pages

Happily Ever After...Or Happily Nevermore?

Gisela's childhood was filled with laughter and visits from nobles such as the duke and his young son. But since her father's death, each day has been filled with nothing but servitude to her stepmother. 

So when Gisela meets the duke's son, Valten--the boy she has daydreamed about for years--and learns he is throwing a ball, she vows to attend, even if it's only for a taste of a life she'll never have. To her surprise, she catches Valten's eye. Though he is rough around the edges, Gisela finds Valten has completely captured her heart. 
But other forces are bent on keeping the two from falling further in love, putting Gisela in more danger than she ever imagined.

I decided to read this before Mrs Dickerson’s latest book The Princess Spy to ‘catch up’- although her titles are really standalone books and you don’t need to know what happened in one to follow the other. As what it is advertised to be a Young Adult Fairy Tale romance it generally delivers well- though it must be admitted that some parts seemed corny or else the characters and decisions just seemed silly to the point of being almost painful for the audience, simply because they fell for ploys that were so glaringly obvious.

As with the others the setting is Medieval, this time the second decade of the 15th century (1400s), yet another reviewer remarked that the setting did not seem as authentic as it did in the others. In some ways, I’m inclined to agree, but not for the same reasons. The mention of ‘coachmen’ was the main ones that seemed out of place- more at home on the seventeenth or eighteenth century that the fifteenth. Now carriages did exist in the Middle Ages- but they were really little more than covered wagons and quite cumbersome affairs- not like the smaller, lighter and faster ‘coaches’ of later centuries, which is what the description of them in this novel made them sound like.

Then there were the jousting scenes- which others have criticized for various reasons- such as them being themed around a Queen of Love and Beauty. That was not an issue for me, I suppose as someone who has been adaptations of Ivanhoe which these passages were inspired by.
My main gripe, as an Englishwoman who has seen ‘real’ jousting and tournaments a number of times, was the mention of combatants’ helmets flying off.
I have never seen such a thing happening at a joust- it would seem to defeat the protective purpose of helmets if they came off with one blow. From what I have seen they were quite securely fastened- and jousters of the 15th century usually wore padded doublets under their armour for extra protection- so the notion of stabbing naked skin under joins in the armour did not entirely ring true either.

The problems aside, and without wanting to sound too critical The Captive Maiden was a good story, which clearly echoed the Cinderella fairy tale, and sometimes resembled Ever After with Drew Barrymore and Anjelica Huston- but without the fake accents. It was good to see Valten, eldest son of Rose and Wilhelm, finally coming into his own, confronting some of his demons, and finding happiness, as well as some important messages about overcoming pride and bitterness. Gisela was a typical heroine- though I felt she did not always live up to what Valten said about her being brave.

There were, inevitably, kissing scenes, but the characters didn’t seem quite so consumed or obsessed with it as they do in some stories, so it was perhaps a little less ‘fluffy’ on the romance side than other such novels. There was enough romance, excitement and intrigue to keep even an adult wanting to read to the end. I did like the way that issues surrounding Medieval marriage laws and customs were dealt with towards the end (albeit in in the manner or a rather sudden realization), rather than the author just falling into the trap of assuming forced marriage was normal or acceptable.

Overall, this was a sweet inspirational story, with a few issues, but generally worth the read. I would recommend for younger reads above the ages of 11 or so, with adult discretion.

1 Nov 2014

Historical Sunday - Like a horse and carriage...

Carriages and coaches in the Middle Ages seem to have become a common trope in movies and TV shows. I don't know if other readers have noticed a proliferation of them in the BBC Robin Hood series (in fact in many versions of Robin Hood), in First Knight, Young Ivanhoe and many other productions the wealthy always seem to have a carriage handy- which is almost invariably attacked by some miscreant, or even a target for the hero if he wants to apprehend some enemy. 

Yet, according to a recent discussion I had with author Dina Sleiman the very existence of such vehicles in the Medieval Era is a source of debate amongst historians.
In such cases, it can perhaps be wise to allow whatever evidence as does exist to speak for itself- and perhaps surprisingly- there is visual evidence that attests to the existence of simple carriages- from manuscript illustrations- a wonderful medium that can testify to aspects of Medieval life that may have been passed over in written material. So here are a few examples I found:

1. 15th century

The word carriage might conjure up images of the coaches and hackneys of the 18th century, or of Austen and Dickens novels- maybe even the fairytale like Coronation Coach of HRH Queen Elizabeth II- yet Medieval carriages, as the images seems to show, appear to have been little more than glorified wagons. Covered wagons, decked out with cushions perhaps, but in style and design little different from their rather less romantic cousins.
According to one source, carriages were known from the 12th century, but were not widely used until the 14th and 15th- and were not called 'carriages'1. Another historian suggested that because of the cost of making them and using them, they were few and far between.2 

3. Fifteenth Century

I'm not sure about my readers, but it doesn't look as though these carriages were the cosy, enclosed affairs of later centuries which accorded those who rode in them a good deal of privacy- except perhaps the one above which seems to have been fitted with something that looks like curtains. 

Other images show five or so horses harnessed to carriages, suggesting perhaps that they were heavy and cumbersome vehicles, requiring more pull-power than the usual cart or wagon. One almost feels sorry for the unfortunate beasts.
 Another interesting feature that all the images seem to have in common is the apparent lack of a coachman- or at least the type of coachman we would be used to seeing guiding the horses from from a sear or platform.
Instead these carriages seem to have been steered and directed by the fellows sitting on horses in front of them. 
So the images above suggest that something akin to carriages did indeed exist in the Middle Ages, but there were very different from the carriages and coaches of the popular imagination, improved perhaps by the developments of later centuries. 
So if Marion or any other High Born Medieval Lady did ride in a carriage it might not have been very much different to wagons driven by the pioneers who colonized the American West in the nineteenth century, like the one shown in the fourth image, below.

4. Early 15th Century, France
The irony is that wagons like theirs may seem anachronistic to modern readers, but are actually far less so than the coach Jane Eyre occupied for days in Charlotte Bronte's classic. 
Personally, I don't believe it would have been a very bright idea to travel through a bandit-infested forest in a covered wagon like those above, yet has anyone noticed that in Robin Hood movies the sheriff or any number of other wealthy nobles seem to do just that.....
1. Keri Peardon, 'Today's History Lesson bought to you by Nora Roberts (or not): When a Cariiage is not a Car', Keri M. Peardon Presents- Vampires, Ladies and Potpourri, accessed 2nd November 2014, http://keripeardon.wordpress.com/2013/01/02/todays-history-lesson-brought-to-you-by-nora-roberts-or-not/

2. Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century (London, 2008) p133-4
Image References  
2. http://rkgregory.cmswiki.wikispaces.net/Middle+Ages. Manuscript: De casibus (BNF Fr. 226)
4.https://www.flickr.com/photos/myladyswardrobe/galleries/72157629128003723#photo_5606990299/ From manuscript Harley 4431, British Library.

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