29 Jul 2015

Ingram of the Irish- Angela Ewell Hunt

 The Knight's Chronicles #3, 314 Pages 
Kindle Edition, 2013

Learning of his Irish origins, a proud English knight seeks the secrets of his birth. But the truth shatters his illusions, leaving him struggling with God's purpose for his life. 

"This is an excellent scripting of people and events in England and Ireland during the third quarter of the twelfth century. The author has obviously read widely in the sources and has stuck closely to the exciting, passsion-laden sources of the era. In some ways it becomes extremely relevant as an assist in the understanding and interpretation of today's Anglo-Irish confrontations. . . [Angela Hunt] has a great gift for bringing the dynamic currents of an era together. 

 -- Thomas O. Kay, Chair, History Department, Wheaton College

My second book by this author was in some ways an imrovement on the last. No potatoes, Turkey and Hickory trees in twelfth century Europe this time- but this does not mean it was entirely accurate- as I will explore later.
I give it a highter rating in part because the story was well-written and it did keep the reader's interest. In some sense, it could be called a 'coming of age, or self-discovery tale, about a man seeking to find his family and place in the world.

It wasn't perfect- there were certainly some cliches, and rather 'black and white' characters- mostly either practically perfect, or diabolically evil, and sometimes making some very silly choices or decisions, and having sudden changes of heart. Yet they were mostly relatable, and the hint of romance I think helped add a lighter touch to a story that could otherwise be very 'masculine' and about just war and fighting.

There were some good themes about loyalty, following God and doing the right thing. I just worry about the idea reflected in a lot of stories like this, that this entails almost unquestioning loyalty to a particular faction or group- and the nationalist, sometimes very extreme nationalist, ideas that go along with that.
So if God wants Ingram to fight for Ireland- what does that mean- not just that he favours that side, as was a normal belief at that time- but that he hates the English- as would seem to be reflected by the way that at one point Ingram calls the Normans 'infidels'. A term usuallly applied to unbelievers or pagans at that time.

The subject matter was interesting, especially for one not acquainted with Irish history- however- I really felt that the author was looking at Irish culture and history with Rose-tinted glasses.
I understand that her background is Irish-American, so one would expect her to get a little nostalgic, but this novel almost presents the country and culture as some kind of egalitarian Utopia, and haven of modern, democratic, liberal ideals.

In the early part of the book, comparisons are contanstly being made between Ireland and Anglo-Norman England, where the hero Ingram grew up- and many seem to be based very inaccurate indeed. For instance, one passage reads:
"In Ingram's world, noble ladies did not argue with men, they were not bold or boistrous, and they never openly contradicted thier lords, masters or lovers.
In England, noble women were continuously gaurded or confined strictly to thier castle inventions and workrooms. Men did men's work, women tended to the castle the food and thier hours of sewing the garden"

So basically saying that English women were all downtrodden shrinking violets locked in towers. Yeah, right! Had the characters not heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most famously independant women of the Middle Ages, or the Empress Matilda, her mother-in-law, who led armies and claimed the English crown in her own right. Eleanor composed music, her daughter by her first marriage became a famous poet.
These are just a few examples of educated, intelligent, independent women who existed in contemporary England or France.
Considering that Eleanor and Matilda appear briefly in the story, such a generalisation appears all the more absurd. I mean seriously, considering that a number of historical tomes are listed in the bibliography, where the heck did the author get such an idea?

Yet the generalizations do not end here, elsewhere it is claimed that Irish customs regarding land-tenure, law and order, and the rights and duties of the King are so very much fairer and nicer than those which existed in England- so that Ingram naturally concludes Ireland was the more civilized state.
Again though, the proclamations of superiority are sometimes based on mis-information, and at other times just plain wrong. In one place it is claimed that the Irish custom of dividing lands amongst male relatives, and giving females a life interest was vastly preferable to the English system of primogenture. Yet even under primogeniture- women could, and frequently did, inherit in the absence of a son or brother. Something we are told Irish women could not do. So this raises the question, of wther thier system really so much better in every way.
Indeed, at the extreme one could argue that to promote such an idea of cultural superiority, with a shaky historical basis, is bordering on the xenophobic.
Hence, as is to be expected, the Normans (who really seem to be equated with the 'English' or the 'British') who evetually came to Ireland are vilified as evil tyrants and brutal killers- yet when the Irish - and especially the 'goodies' kill their political enemies, there seemed a palpable difference in tone, and a lack of condemnation.

Like it was somehow okay for characters like the Irish King O'Rourke and his allies to execute thier hostages and prisoners, but if the other characters do it, it was near enough regarded as a war crime. Also, what is it with this idea that knighthood was some kind of sacred vocation whose practitioners had to be near enough beyond reproach?
Historians of recent times have demonstrated that weakness of this idea, such how chivalry did not often apply to peasants. Even Edward Bruce of Scotalnd had few qualms about killing Irish peasants- his supposed 'Celtic brothers' with impunity, for instance, and the rules of war could allow even for massacres of the population of towns and cities.

Perhaps with sounds like a rant, but I am finding such representations of history in novels to be increasingly fustrating and objectionable- to the point that I am not entirely trust such novels when they are written by Americans.

It is unfortunate really, and the events in question could not really be overlooked in a book set at this time, and there was a good story, but once again I think it could have been done better.

15 Jul 2015

The House of Mercy- Alicia G. Ruggieri

Kindle Edition, Published 2013
A story of justice, love, and mercy in post-Roman Arthurian Britain.

When a hailstorm ruins her father's crops, Bethan goes as a kitchen servant to Oxfield. There, she intends to work off her family's debt to Lord Drustan before returning to marry the fervent son of a local priest. Yet, in her first days at the old Roman fortress, Bethan meets two men who are very different from the priest's son, friends who have dark histories... and shrouded futures.

In his twenty years, Deoradhan has swallowed much of sorrow’s cup and found it bitter. Haunted by his father’s murder at the hands of one he trusted, distanced from the Roman God who betrayed him, burning to obtain his rightful throne in the rugged north, the young exile returns to Logress, where High King Arthur holds together a frail confederacy.

There at Oxfield, Deoradhan's friend Calum seeks absolution for a deed he committed many years ago... a deed that ended in the death of one dearest to him and drove him from his home.

Will Deoradhan stop at nothing to gain his rightful position? Is atonement possible for Calum after so many years? And what of those - including Bethan - whose lives have become interwoven with theirs?
     Christian alternative historical fiction, appropriate for young adult/adult readers

The House of Mercy was a clean Christian story, and a ‘clean read’. Considering some of the recent cinematic offerings, it was something of a welcome change to have a story set in the Arthurian period that more than acknowledges Christianity in that time period. I did feel that there was not always a great ‘sense’ of period, and that much of the story could have happened at any time- although in other places this was stronger, and the reader could really 'get into' the story and the time.

Also I’m fairly sure there were no druids in sixth century Britain (at least the areas that had been ruled by the Romans) for one simple reason- the Romans wiped them all out in the first century, and outlawed human sacrifice. 
Perhaps the Arthurian legends, characters, and politics of the age could have been incorporated more into the story, as it provides such fertile ground for storytelling- but enough of the historical criticism. 

This was a solid story which explored sympathetically and represented the important themes of redemption, hope, grace and mercy in often almost impossible circumstances. I will say that the characterization of Deoradhan, as the hardened lapsed Christian who lost his faith because of ill-circumstances is something of a cliché in this genre. 
This aside, I would say that this is almost a tale of the faith journeys of the characters, whose lives are wound together. In this regard, it works well, and generally flows well, with the characters having to come to terms with the past experiences, flaws and weaknesses, and overcome them. The conclusion of each person’s story was not (usually) predictable too easy or clichéd. 

Generally, for those seeking a decent historical ‘adventure’ story that is relatively short and easy to read, but meaningful, this is probably a good choice.

3 Jul 2015

New for 2015- A Stranger's Secret- Laurie Alice Eakes

Cliffs of Cornwall Novel #2, 352 Pages
Zondervan, April 1st 2015 

As a grieving widow, Morwenna only wants to make a life for herself and her young son at her murdered husband’s estate. Until an unconscious man washes up on her shore, entangling her in a web of mysteries that threatens everything she holds dear.
Still grieving the loss of her husband, Morwenna Penvenan fills her days preserving her son’s heritage: the dilapidated estate his father left them. But all attempts at restoration are thwarted when she is accused of deliberately causing ships to crash on her shore in order to steal their cargo. While seeking clues to the true culprits, she finds an unconscious man wearing a medallion with the Penvenan crest enameled upon it.

Upon learning of his father’s death, David pursues answers to the many questions left in his father’s wake: Why was his father in Cornwall when he said he would be in Scotland? Why did he die in possession of a medallion belonging to a prominent Cornwall family? Why did his father take money from the family’s ship-building business? And why did someone kill him? Only after waking up at the Penvenan estate under Morwenna’s care do the pieces start falling together.

As David recovers in Morwenna’s house, they grow to care about one another, while knowing each have reasons to distrust the other. The closer they work together, the more they learn how their lives—and mysteries—are entwined. As the past continues to intrude on their lives, they must learn to ask the Lord and others for help or risk losing each other and maybe even losing their lives.

A Stranger’s Secret is the sixth book I have read by this author. In some ways, I might say it was better than the previous title in series, with its somewhat worn characterization of the superfluous and wonderful American hero. Morwenna was an interesting character in the last book, and is the protagonist in this one, which made things somewhat more interesting to see her come into her own, and her perspective on events.
I am sure though that her son’s name was changed- I’m sure I remember her calling him Conan after his father in the last one- but now he’s called Mihal- some kind of Cornish version of Michael, apparently. As for the hero- well like most in romance novels is was hugely handsome- though not as annoyingly sanctimonious as Rowan Curnow from the last book, and was at least credible. Except perhaps his Somerset accent.

There were also some wonderfully evocative and realistic depictions of the Cornish landscape, with some exiting scenes- but- I could say the first part of the novel was better. By the end I felt that the mystery was drawn out for too long, and events as well as the characters actions and responses became too predictable and repetitive. I mean David was poisoned something like three times- and the device of every chapter, or almost every chapter, having to end with some dramatic event or cliff-hanger just didn’t always work for me. Could this reader be forgiven for mentioning Drama at the expense of other aspects of good storytelling? 

Sadly also, this novel seemed to have a lot of the clichés of romantic fiction, with characters kissing and touching at really inappropriate or illogical moments- including in company- beating themselves up about how it was totally unseemly- then doing it again. I also found some of the characters attitudes annoyingly inconsistent.   
Morwenna’s grandparents for instance seemed to be presented as loving and having her best interests at heart one minute- then shortly after she would be griping about how ‘authoritarian’ they were. I have noticed that a few other books by this author seem to level the same accusation at authority figures such as parents- and it times it seems to be for no other reason than that they won’t let the protagonist do what they want- even if it’s dangerous, stupid or illogical, because it goes against their ideas of personal ‘freedom’. 

On a personal level, I did not appreciate the passage in which one of the characters was scornful of the idea of freedom and equality- saying another character who believed it was as bad as an American- which seemed to be implying that such ideas were alien and abhorrent to ‘proper’ high-born Brits. To me, this seems a very arrogant notion, suggesting that Americans invented freedom and had some kind of monopoly on it. American readers might attack me for this- but I don't like seeing such ideas in a work of fiction- not least when they are inaccurate.

Gripes aside, I would say this book was a marginal improvement on the last one, which annoyed me for several reasons which were mostly not present here. It is honestly not a bad novel, I just don’t think it’s that brilliant or has much to make it stand out from the crowd. Certainly worth reading as a decent regency with an interesting backdrop and a solid Christian theme. This series and author are not personal favourites, but others make like them better. 

I received a free Kindle Edition of this book from Zondervan via Booklookbloggers for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.
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