29 Nov 2015

New for 2015- Sword of Forgiveness- Debbie Lynne Costello

Winds of Change #1
344 Pages, February 27th 2015

When her father died, she had promised herself no man would own her again, yet who could defy an edict of the king?

After the death of her cruel father, Brithwin is determined never again to live under the harsh rule of any man. Independent and resourceful, she longs to be left alone to manage her father's estate. But she soon discovers a woman has few choices when the king decrees she is to marry Royce, the Lord of Rosencraig. As if the unwelcome marriage isn't enough, her new husband accuses her of murdering his family, and she is faced with a challenge of either proving her innocence or facing possible execution.

Royce of Hawkwood returns home after setting down a rebellion to find his family brutally murdered. When all fingers point to his betrothed and attempts are made on his life, Royce must wade through murky waters to uncover the truth. Yet Brithwin's wise and kind nature begin to break down the walls of his heart, and he soon finds himself in a race to discover who is behind the evil plot before Brithwin is the next victim.

  I honestly did not know what to expect from this book before I read it (I actually thought it was set in the 1100s from the style of the armour shown on the cover when I first heard of it). For a first full length novel, it is certainly a good effort, with plenty going for in in terms of storyline, Romance and suspense.

What I could say, however, it that sometimes the Historical Romance genre hampers the progress of stories like this....and for the genre, there was not a lot in this novel that was not untypical. I'm going to say right now that the trope of 'forced marriage' in medieval stories really annoys me, and can be a big turnoff. It’s totally inaccurate (forced marriage was in fact illegal) and it’s an awful cliché.
I really thought that the marriage in this one was not supposed to be 'forced'- but it was described as if it was, and Brithwin's belief that she could be executed for refusing to marry the person the King wanted was just absurd.
Seriously- that's another pet hate of mine- characters who are supposed to live in a certain society or time period- but are totally unfamiliar with the laws, norms or customs of that society. Medieval English noblewomen could not be killed for refusing an arranged marriage- even one that the King wanted. In fact, the evidence shows they did things like that on quite a regular basis.

On the plus side, the characterization was pretty strong for the most part, and the element of conflict and intrigue was well done. There was enough, I think to keep the audience guessing and the story moving on, and enough human drama to make for well-rounded, imperfect characters and a strong central theme. Who doesn't love a story the age old story about a tough guy trying to win over his Lady?
The geographical location (the Northern English county of Cumberland, just shy of the Scottish border), also made an interesting background for some of the events, with the tendency towards instability, lawlessness and raiding that was common in the late Medieval period.
That said, the characters did seem to do some very stupid things at times (which was usually necessary to bring them into some kind of situation of danger or conflict), which on, reflection, they really ought to have learned not to do. Why did they keep on leaving the castle without an escort knowing there were enemies in the area, or someone trying to kill them?

Other reviewers have said this story is 'anti-Catholic'. I don't think it is that necessarily- but I will say there was some inaccurate details about the Lollard movement and its founder John Wycliffe. For instance, the Lollard priest claims that many of his fellows had been killed for their beliefs- but historical records make it clear that no Lollards were killed until after 1401, when the law was changed. There was persecution of the members of the movement, yes, but no actual executions- and certainly not by secular rulers. 

Also, the historical note describes John Wycliffe as a 'lay preacher', when he was in fact an ordained Priest and a Canon- perhaps these errors were due to some deficiency in the sources that were used for research (there are certainly a lot of incorrect ideas around about Medieval religious movements), but its unfortunate.

Overall, this was a worthwhile story. I would say that I would almost certainly have purchased it for myself if I had not won a free Kindle copy in a competition, and I will certainly keep it to read again. I just think it could have been better- maybe more use could have been made of the political situation of the period, and some situations felt a little clichéd or improbable.

9 Nov 2015

New for 2015: The Abbess of Whitby- A Novel of Hild of Northumbria- Jill Dalladay

Lion Ficton/Kregel, October 2015 (US) 
352 Pages
The dramatic story of a seventh-century evangelist
Chosen as handmaid to Eostre, the Saxon goddess, Hild would spend a year serving the goddess before she was wed. Her future was mapped out - until her father was murdered, and King Edwin claimed her as kin. Hild’s first love was given a key command in Edwin’s forces, and vanished from her life, wed to her elder sister. That same day, the court was baptised, ending the people’s fertility religion and Hild’s role. 
Life looked bleak – even more so when the husband to whom she was given was killed, along with her child. Hild resented the compulsory baptism, but became intrigued by the Iona priests, and eventually converted.  Aidan, the charismatic figure who taught, and lived, a new kind of love, persuaded Hild to help spread the new faith. In thanks for a significant victory, King Oswy ordered her to found one of his new monasteries at Whitby. 
She would see the men she trained appointed by the Pope as missionary bishops, carrying the faith across Britain.
When I saw Lion Fiction (Kregel in the US) the Publisher of Edoardo Albert's fantastic Northumbrian Thrones Series, set in seventh century England were bringing out another book about a major figure from this time, I snapped it up. I confess to a long-enduring love for the Anglo-Saxon era, and the seventh century was a golden age for the famous Kingdom of Northumbria.

Whilst many other works set at this time are very masculine with an emphasis on battles, war and politics it was interesting to find a story that looks at the time from a female perspective focused on everyday life, family relationships and the management of estates.
Such a woman was Hild, sometimes known as St Hilda, born to a royal Saxon father and British mother. Little is known of her early life and adulthood, before she assumed the leadership of Whitby Abbey- in its day one of the most famous religious houses of Northern England.

As such, much of the novel is what I would call speculative history (based on likely circumstances of what might have been but we cannot know for certain), recounting Hild's journey through marriage, life the turbulent political circumstances of the time and place, and ultimately to faith.
After her conversion, and entry into a religious house, Hild has been lauded as one of the most powerful and influential women of her time- Kings and clerics came to her for advice, and her Abbey trained men who would one day become Priests, Bishops and Missionaries- even a poet.

Her story and those of her fellows are told with honesty, compassion and is compelling enough to hold the reader's interest. My only complaints were the writing style. Somehow, in the narrative passages it lacked the descriptive, almost poetic beauty of Edoardo Albert's novels which evoke Tolkien and the Epic Literature of the age, instead a rather informal conversational tone is used.
At times, this resulted in language that seemed too modern for the time, and certain turns of phrase which might have been unique to Northern England which might pass over readers from other backgrounds. I did spot a few anachronisms, and in places the writing seemed a little 'rushed', and I found myself reading passages again as within a sentence or two the characters would leave to a different room, place or situation. Sometimes it could be hard to keep up.
However, the author's note suggests that much sound research had gone into the story, so maybe what felt like a lack of a 'sense of period' in some parts can be put down to personal opinion.

Aside from the above, this book had many positives. It is a wonderful spiritual biography of one of the most important women in Early Medieval Christian Britain. I would certainly recommend to any interested in women's history or this fascinating, formative era of England's past.

Thanks to Lion Fiction for the copy they gave me for review. I was not required to write a positive one an all opinions expressed are my own.

7 Nov 2015

Historical Saturday- Another Word on Medieval Marriage....

I know, another post on a subject done before might be enough to induce an eye-roll, but I think that my reading habits have shown that this subject is misunderstood, and to a certain extent, misrepresented so much that another word is needed to clear things up. 

The continuing problem is that so many Medieval Fiction stories still feature forced marriage, or inevitably unhappy arranged marriages that the ancient Canon Law prohibition on the former seems null and void. In fiction do we get the idea that this sort of thing was somehow normal, because of the common fiction trope of the pretty young girl married to a horrible, ugly or abusive man....you get the picture.
Christian Fiction books are treading in very risky territory by portraying any kind of adultery or sexual immorality- as a novel I recently encountered did in a similar scenario, and I am almost inclined to think that is a good thing. There are standards, which I think should be upheld.

Yet conversely, many if not most Romance type stories of this genre set in the Medieval period will feature a girl or young woman who is either threatened with or subject to some kind of forced marriage. 
The age old trope over again. Now don't get me wrong, I understand the need for drama and conflict in stories, but it seems to me that time and time again authors are ignoring a fundamental aspect of Medieval law and custom- namely that the church banned forced marriage very early on- from the late twelfth century in fact. 
Very often though, in fiction, the ban is either not mentioned at all, or is simply brushed aside, as something that made to real difference, and it is made out that forced marriage was pretty much the norm anyway (at least for the noble classes). The cynic in me is inclined to think that the reason for this is that authors simply want to write about forced marriage- because its seen as more interesting or dramatic, and don't want to let an inconvenient fact get in the way of the story. 

Sometimes, though, I encounter specific reasons why the ban is not addressed or is not considered relevant.
It might be said families or guardians could put pressure on children, regardless of what the law said, to accept a marriage that they did not want, or that they dared not defy a royal edict (a common scenario). Otherwise, it might be made out that clerics and priests could easily be harassed or even bribed to turn a blind eye to a less than legal marriage ceremony.
I for one am inclined to think that the level of 'corruption' in the Medieval church, and the English church through the ages has been grossly over-stated, by some of the early supporters of the Reformation- and, perhaps controversially, by Modern Americans making sweeping generalisations about British history and culture- but that is a different matter. 

Whist it is not implausible that families could put pressure on their members- the historian in me rails against the idea that it was so easy to just ignore or get past the ban on forced marriage, as we often see in fiction.

One reason was the nature of the law itself. Canon Law did not directly say 'Forced marriage is forbidden'. Rather, it stated that both parties had to give their free and willing verbal consent in front of witnesses for any marriage to be considered legally valid. (Which is probably why we still have the 'I do's' today). 
Now, you might be thinking, it would be easy for the superlative tyrannical and abusive father to simply make his daughter give her verbal assent- but, forced consent is not free or willing....and, here is the key point.
Lack of free consent was one of only a few basis on which a person could secure a divorce in the Middle Ages.
That is right. If little Mary's father ordered her to give her consent in the part of the wedding service which asked her for this, she could, later on take the matter to the church courts that were common in the Medieval period, and dealt with most matters relating to marriage and morality. If she could prove that she had not given this consent freely, then she could, at least in theory, get the marriage annulled because it was not legally valid. 

Perhaps the idea of a repressed Medieval woman going to court  to fight for her rights seems implausible,  (I can almost hear shouts of '.....but Medieval women had no rights!') but its actually not so far-fetched at all. 
In England, the Medieval court system produced extensive records- sometimes literally almost everything pertaining to proceedings and cases was written down- (expect sometimes the final verdict), in Latin of course. This is wonderful for historians, as so many records have survived, and then can give us some intriguing insights into Medieval law, and how it related to people at all ends of the social scale. 

One thing the records show is that women went to court on a regular basis- and often as the Plaintiff rather than defendant. Yes indeed, Medieval ladies were inclined to sue if the need arose. When it came to cases related to marriage in church courts women frequently crop up- but they also appear in cases related to the secular courts as well. 
Here is the interesting thing- there were many cases of guardians taking their wards, or former
wards,  to court over 'unauthorized' marriages- namely marriages to persons not of the guardians choosing entered into without their permission and consent. 
In other words, it would seem that young people of the nobility and gentry were frequently ignoring the wishes of their guardians where marriage was concerned, and freely choosing their own spouse. 

Hardly the picture that we have of forceful elders bullying and cajoling the younger generation to marry someone that did not want. In fact, the legal records also reveal something else- the number of cases pertaining to marriage and property ownership suggests that Medieval men and women were fully aware of their legal rights, and were more than willing to go through the courts to secure and defend them. 
There are even cases of wives complaining to the courts about mistreatment at the hands of their husbands. In other words, abuse of women was not something that was necessarily legally accepted or condoned in the Medieval period. In extreme cases, abuse could be grounds for separation. 

I think, as time goes on, the above is one thing that I am learning to love about what I do. The past is not something that is dead, dull and boring (though the records can be tedious). It has left behind traces and sources which can give us vital evidence about the lives of past people, as well as their culture and society. 
Very often, what is revealed by the evidence can defy or expectations and preconceived ideas about what life was like in that past, their actions, attitudes and beliefs. 
In this case, the evidence seems to reveal that Medieval women were assertive, knew their rights, and had the support of the law- and I for one rather like that idea more than seeing them as repressed and passive pawns in the hands of other people.

1 Nov 2015

New for 2015- By Divine Right- Patrick W. Carr

 The Darkwater Saga # 0.5 
E-book only, Bethany House 
September 1st 2015, 119 Pages
Willet Dura ekes out a living as an assistant reeve in the city of Bunard, the royal city, investigating minor and not-so-minor crimes in the poor quarter. Ever since a terrible battle, Willet's been drawn to the dead, and has an uncanny ability not only to solve their crimes, but even to know when one has been committed.

When a gifted singer is found dead in the merchants' quarter of the city, everyone assumes by the signs that the old man simply died of a stroke, but Willet's intuition tells him better. When he learns that this is the second death within the last month of one of the gifted, those with a rare inherited ability, he begins to suspect that something more is afoot, and he soon finds himself chasing a mystery that could bring down the very kingdom of Collum.

 A couple of years ago I read A Cast of Stones, the first book in this author’s original fantasy trilogy, and I was probably in the minority for not being very impressed. I just found it unrealistic in a lot of places, and the writing style rather sloppy and undeveloped. As it was a first novel, however I decided to give Mr Carr’s books another try, and purchased this prequel novella to his new trilogy.

Generally, it did not disappoint. The setting seemed generally more credible and detailed, the characters more memorable and writing much improved. Like his previous trilogy, the author takes a fairly generic medieval type fantasy setting, and gives the characters some kind of special power or ability that provides the major basis of the plot. In this story, the elements of political intrigue and a mystery were also cleverly worked in and the ‘gifts’ endowed on certain character provided an original twist.
As someone who does not do in for sword, sorcery and dragon type fantasy stories, its always good to find what I call 'human' fantasy and historical fiction that is does not go in for the unnecessary and excessive sex references that one finds in those made by so much of the mainstream media today.
Although this is usually required by most of the major Christian publishing houses anyway.

I did have a couple of issues, generally with some of the language and minor historical details. I know that some will argue that fantasy does not have to be accurate or authentic.
Yet I argue that if the setting is reminiscent of a certain historical period (even if it’s in a fictional country or place), there should be some degree of authenticity and world-building, something that transports the audience into that world, without it feeling too much like the society inhabited by the author. What is the point of fantasy otherwise?

This was a great introduction to the background, setting and characters of the full length novel. I had already  The Shock of Night on Netgalley and look forward to reading that one, hopefully later his year.
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