Medieval fiction

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The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

Published March 26, 2019 by bibliobeth

What’s it all about?:

Bringing sixteenth-century Languedoc vividly to life, Kate Mosse’s The Burning Chambers is a gripping story of love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets; of war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties . . .

Carcassonne 1562: Nineteen-year-old Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop. Sealed with a distinctive family crest, it contains just five words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE.

But before Minou can decipher the mysterious message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever. For Piet has a dangerous mission of his own, and he will need Minou’s help if he is to get out of La Cité alive.

Toulouse: As the religious divide deepens in the Midi, and old friends become enemies, Minou and Piet both find themselves trapped in Toulouse, facing new dangers as sectarian tensions ignite across the city, the battle-lines are drawn in blood and the conspiracy darkens further.

Meanwhile, as a long-hidden document threatens to resurface, the mistress of Puivert is obsessed with uncovering its secret and strengthening her power . . .

What did I think?:

When this book first came out, I have to admit, I hesitated. I love Kate Mosse’s writing when she turns her hand to the Gothic i.e. The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales which I’m currently reading for my Short Stories Challenge and her novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter. However, when I read the first in her Languedoc series Labyrinth, years and years ago, I was slightly underwhelmed and haven’t completed the series which is a shame as I’m usually quick to devour historical fiction. The size of this novel might also be quite intimidating to those who fancy a quick read – at 603 pages in my Kindle edition, it’s a book that may take you a fair while to digest, depending on how fast you read and how invested you are in the story. When I saw Richard and Judy put it on their Spring Book Club list here in the UK and as I enjoy following that list on a seasonal basis, I was keen to give the author’s historical fiction another bash.

Kate Mosse, author of The Burning Chambers.

Straight off the mark I must stress that Kate Mosse has a clear talent for setting a scene. The reader is dropped into 16th Century France where the political and religious tensions between the Huguenot and Catholic religions is explored intricately, which has startling consequences for our main character, Minou and her family as an old secret about their ancestors is unearthed. The small towns in France at this period of time are vividly brought to life through the author’s eyes and with the use of a likeable, strong female lead. There is certainly enough mystery and intrigue to keep the reader interested and turning the pages as the puzzle comes together and there are definite moments of excitement, particularly near the end where I found myself much more invested in the story.

The French medieval city of Carcassonne, the setting for The Burning Chambers.

Image from: http://fiveminutehistory.com/10-amazing-facts-french-medieval-city-carcassonne/

With all these amazing attributes to the narrative, I’m wondering why I’m struggling to make it clear how I felt about this novel? The fact is – it is highly enjoyable with great characterisation (particularly Minou and some of the more villainous individuals) and boasts a fascinating plot which is not difficult or laborious to read. Indeed, even though the novel is lengthy, it didn’t feel like I was aching to finish it either which is always a bonus. It’s hard to describe but I think it was purely a personal disconnect for me with the narrative in general. I found that whilst I liked Minou and was curious about her family history, I didn’t care enough about what happened to her. Perhaps the only way I can explain myself is that I found the novel perfectly pleasant but it didn’t light a fire within me? I hope that makes sense!

I find it really strange how I seem to have completely connected with the author’s fiction when she writes with a Gothic slant and twice now, I’ve felt less enamoured regarding her historical/medieval work. Her character development is always terrific, the element of mystery superb and as I mentioned earlier, the way she sets a scene second to none, making it quite clear the amount of research she has carried out to take the reader so expertly to that particular period of time. I strongly believe I must be in the minority with my opinion as I’ve already seen some overwhelmingly positive reviews for The Burning Chambers on Goodreads and I would still urge people to read this for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above. Saying that, I’d be interested to know if you’ve read this or any of Kate Mosse’s other work and what your opinions were?

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

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Plague Land – S.D. Sykes

Published April 20, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somerhill Manor. Despatched to a monastery at the age of seven, sent back at seventeen when his father and two older brothers are killed by the Plague, Oswald has no experience of running an estate. He finds the years of pestilence and neglect have changed the old place dramatically, not to mention the attitude of the surviving peasants.

Yet some things never change. Oswald’s mother remains the powerful matriarch of the family, and his sister Clemence simmers in the background, dangerous and unmarried.

Before he can do anything, Oswald is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious village priest claims that Alison was killed by a band of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is nonsense, but proving it by finding the real murderer is quite a different matter. Every step he takes seems to lead Oswald deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

And then the body of another girl is found.

What did I think?:

First of all, many thanks Love Reading UK and Hodder & Stoughton for giving me the opportunity to read this intriguing debut novel in exchange for an honest review. S D Sykes delves into the realm of medieval fiction and takes the reader back to the 14th Century, where the bubonic plague or “Black Death” had swept England with horrific consequences leaving many dead – in some accounts, up to one third of Europe’s entire population. Oswald de Lacy is preparing to take holy orders but when the plague strikes, claiming his father and brothers as its victims, Oswald is sent back to his home very reluctantly to take his position as Lord of Somerhill Manor.

Oswald was never prepared to be Lord – after all, he had two older brothers, but at the tender age of seventeen must take command as trouble is brewing and his people are looking to him for decisions, leadership and comfort. A young girl has been brutally murdered and the local priest, Cornwall, who has a lot of sway over the local villagers is insisting that she has been killed by demons with the heads of dogs. Oswald is a sensible man and does not believe in the existence of such creatures but understands the superstitious worries of the peasants and is determined to solve the mystery and ease the fears of his people. When a second girl’s body is found, Oswald realises he has become part of a dark and grisly puzzle that he must get to the bottom of. Yet is he fully prepared for what he may unearth?

S D Sykes writes a compelling piece of historical fiction that takes the reader back to a different time where you can experience the 14th Century in all its unadulterated glory. It is obvious how much research the author has carried out to convey this period of time so distinctly and I loved being part of Oswald’s journey as he tried to solve the mystery. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about his character at first as he appeared a bit too reluctant to assume his position but he acts just as a seventeen year old apprentice monk would do if his whole world was turned upside down, I suppose! The author also writes some fantastic “love to hate” characters such as Oswald’s mother and sister, whom I just wanted to shake at times and the intriguing and pompous priest Cornwall. Many characters are not what they seem and the ending reveals a wealth of secrets that I certainly wasn’t expecting. As a debut novel and a work of historical/medieval fiction this is a fascinating read that I think fans of Karen Maitland will enjoy and I look forward to seeing what this author does next.

Plague Land is out in hardback now and available in paperback from 21st May 2015 from all good book retailers.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

3-5-stars

Author Interview – Karen Maitland on her new medieval novel A Raven’s Head

Published March 14, 2015 by bibliobeth

 

Karen Maitland

KAREN MAITLAND – A BIOGRAPHY

Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before she began writing in 1996. She lived for many years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, an inspiration for her writing. She is the author of The White Room, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, The Falcons of Fire and Ice and The Vanishing Witch. She has recently relocated to a life of rural bliss in Devon.

Don’t miss Karen’s regular blog at www.the-history-girls.blogspot.co.uk and visit her website www.karenmaitland.com for a treasury of weird and wonderful medieval facts and superstitions.

Interview with Karen Maitland

I’d like to welcome Karen Maitland to bibliobeth today and thank her for her time for this interview.

1.) In The Raven’s Head, the raven is a powerful superstitious symbol that causes many to shrink away with fear. As with all your previous novels, the amount of meticulous research you must have had to do is obvious but what is the most shocking or surprising medieval superstition you have discovered?

When I first discovered this it sounded quite harmless – When they were building a cathedral, church, manor or castle, they would trick some unsuspecting man into standing so that his shadow fell on the ground where they intended to lay the foundation stone. Innocent enough, except that medieval builders believed that person they’d tricked would die within the year, because they had stolen his soul and built it into the foundations to keep the building from collapsing. The victim’s spirit would be forced to guard that spot alone for all eternity. When you think about it, if they really believed that was what they were doing, it was almost worse than murder.

It is also the physical cruelty of some superstitions that I find shocking – To prevent witches or their spells entering the house you had to pull the guts and organs from a living dove and hang them over the door of your house. If you thought someone had cast a spell to make your chickens sick, or your cows’ milk dry up, then you were advised to take chicken from that flock and roast it alive or bury a calf from the herd alive to break the spell.

I suppose compared to the torture, burning and mutilations inflicted on human felons and prisoners of war by medieval kings and bishops, this was no worse. And, sadly, watching the news makes me think we are still often as cruel today.

2.) One of the main characters in the novel is a seventeen year old boy called Vincent, a librarian’s apprentice who plays a large part in the novel’s proceedings. How easy did you find it to get a 13th century young male voice right?

Bizarrely, I always find writing male characters easier than female and I know many male authors who find it easier to write women, perhaps because writing fiction is like acting. You have to become the character and think yourself into the character’s mind. It’s easier to do that when the character is very different from you. If they’re too similar you tend to self-censor your writing and stop yourself revealing certain thoughts or feelings.

I read as many medieval records as I could about the relationships between masters and apprentices in the Middle Ages, and what struck me that medieval adults used to complain about young people turning up late, skiving off and hanging around on street corners getting drunk. Sound familiar? The difference was that medieval masters were allowed to beat their apprentices and if they committed a serious crime they could even be hanged, which means Vincent would have had all those feelings of teenage resentment and rebellion – human nature doesn’t change – but he couldn’t rebel openly at first, not until he had a hold over his master. So I thought he’d confide to the readers exactly what he thought of that crabby old librarian.

3.) The descriptions of certain foods in the novel are so evocative and include things like roasted sheep’s feet, roast lark’s tongue and sea-swine. If you were at a medieval feast, what food would you be curious to try and which would have you running for the hills?

The coffin of lampreys would definitely put me off, knowing that it was made by drowning lampreys in their own blood, before baking. Medieval nobility loved strong flavours and birds such as cormorants were very popular on wealthy tables. But having once been a cottage in Scandinavia where a dead cormorant was being burned as candle, and remembering its nauseating oily-fish smell, I think I’ll give that cormorants a miss too.

And I don’t think I could manage to keep down slices of brawn made from pig’s fat and brains, dipped in extremely sugary batter, deep fried, then tossed in more sugar. And we worry about the fat in modern diets!

But many of their sauces had a more interesting flavour combination. One version of Sauce Madame, generally used for birds such as goose, included parsley, hyssop, savoury quinces, roasting pears, roasted grapes, wild garlic and onions, all seethed in wine, seasoned with salt and vinegar and thickened with egg yolks.

And Rosee sounds beautiful. It was a pudding made from the petals of sweet-smelling white roses, pine nuts, dates, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, almond milk and thick cream, cooked till it was like whipped cream, then served cold, decorated with fresh flowers.

(bibliobeth: “Mmm, sounds yummy!”)

4.) I loved the ending of this novel and felt it really left things open for a potential return of the characters. Would you ever consider writing a sequel for any of your books?

‘The Raven’s Head’ is the first book I’ve written for which I would like to write a sequel. Several of the characters are quite young at the end of the novel, and as an author and, by training, a psycholinguist, I am curious to find out what effect the traumatic events they’ve battled through will have on them. What kind of adults will it turn them in to? They each have potential they never had at the beginning of the story, but will it turn out to be for good or evil. For at least one of them, I think the future they might shape for themselves could be darker than the past they have lived through. But I don’t as yet know which of them that will prove to be.

5.) Are you working on anything at the moment and can you tell us a little bit about it?

Yes, I’m writing a brand new medieval thriller set in the 14th century. But it is too soon to talk about it, as I am still getting to know the characters and discovering where the plot is leading. Talking about a novel before it has been properly fired and hardened can destroy it. It’s like trying to pick up a spider’s web in your hand.

But I can tell you is it is set in on the coast in a real medieval village near Exmoor, a village which has a strange history. So, this time I am researching superstitions and folklore to do with the sea and also Exmoor ponies. I’ve learned that they weren’t called ponies until the 17th Century and were known locally as widgebeasts. Isn’t that a great name for those shaggy little animals?

(bibliobeth: “Absolutely! Ooh, very intrigued now.”)

And now for some quick-fire questions…

E book or real book?

Real book. Never read an e-book. Don’t exist in my world which is the Middle Ages.

Series or stand-alone?

Stand-alone. Except for Harry Potter, and Susan Cooper’s – ‘The Dark is Rising’.

Fiction or non-fiction?

Both. I always have one of each in my bag.

Online shopping or bookshop trawling?

Bookshop addict. I never shop online.

Bookmarking or dog-earing?

Bookmark with old envelopes or bus tickets, but never with kippers.

Once again, a big thank you to Karen for her efforts in making this interview possible and I’m incredibly excited now for the next book.

The Raven’s Head was published on 12th March 2015 and is available from all good retailers NOW.

The Raven’s Head – Karen Maitland

Published March 13, 2015 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, author of the best-selling and much-loved Company of Liars, will delight fans of Kate Mosse or Deborah Harkness seeking a new, dark fix.

Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.

Any attempt to sell the head fails … until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain – unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural, The Raven’s Head is a triumph for Karen Maitland, Queen of the Dark Ages.

What did I think?:

Full disclosure time – I’m a massive fan of Karen Maitland and have been since her excellent book Company of Liars which introduced her readers to the dark and gritty world of the Middle Ages. I was therefore very excited to receive a copy of Karen’s new novel, The Raven’s Head from Karen’s publicist in return for an honest review, many thanks to Caitlin Raynor and Headline Books. The story is set in the 13th century and involves a number of intriguing characters, one in particular may win the grand title of Villain Of The Year.

Vincent is a seventeen year old boy who is apprentice to a scribe in the household of Philippe, le Comte de Ligones. He fulfils the role of general dogsbody, running around after the whims of the elderly Gaspard whilst trying to avoid his ferocious stick, beds down on a smelly, uncomfortable and very inadequate pallet at night and dreams of a life out of drudgery. When he happens upon a secret which Philippe is attempting to hide which could have drastic consequences for his family, he grasps the opportunity to try and blackmail his master in return for a better life. The tables are turned, however when Philippe gives him an important mission – to carry an intricate and valuable silver raven’s head to one of his contacts.

Our next main character is a young girl called Gisa, who also hasn’t had the easiest life. She works as an assistant in her uncle’s apothecary shop whilst also tending to her bed-ridden aunt’s every desire. There’s nothing wrong with her aunt really, but she enjoys making the girl run circles around her (and occasionally rub a bit of lotion on her..ugh!). Gisa is almost relieved but very apprehensive when she is sought out by the notorious and much feared Lord Sylvain to be his assistant and help him with his “laboratory work.” However, things start to take a more sinister turn when she realises exactly what his experiments entail…

Lastly, we have a group of priests known collectively as the White Canons, headed by the mysterious Father Arthmael that takes boys away from their families at a young age in order to settle a debt with the assurance that they will be teaching the children and that they would fare better away from their poverty-stricken home. One such boy is Wilky, taken from his penniless and desperate mother and father and given a new name – Regulus. We must question what is happening in the middle of the night however, when a young boy is chosen and taken from his pallet and more often than not, never returned.

There are so many different threads to this story and believe it or not, they are all connected and come together in the end to produce a darkly magical (literally) and spell-binding (also literally) tale with a nail-biting finale that kept me on the edge of my seat. I loved everything about this novel – from the quotes that begin each chapter which are from a genuine alchemical textbook to the scene-setting that Karen Maitland envisaged. This period of history was an incredibly superstitious one and if you did fall ill, the apothecary was usually your best bet, even if their strange concoctions seem slightly irregular (or even psychopathic?) to modern society. The author invokes the smells, sounds and sights of the medieval age so beautifully that it seems effortless although you have to appreciate the amount of research that must have been undertaken to produce a novel such as this. Finally, the characters in the story are superb, no matter how minor a role they are to play. From the wonderfully innocent Gisa to her hideous aunt, from the dastardly villain and ultimate bad guy Lord Sylvain to the cocksure lad with a heart Vincent – I really enjoyed reading about them all. In this novel, Karen Maitland has cemented her role as Queen of the Dark Ages and I truly believe she’ll earn herself a lot more followers with this offering.

Coming up – don’t miss my interview with Karen Maitland where I quiz her about superstition, medieval food and, most importantly…would she ever “dog-ear” a book?!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

stars

The Vanishing Witch – Karen Maitland

Published October 23, 2014 by bibliobeth

21353509

What’s it all about?:

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland, author of the hugely popular Company of Liars will thrill fans of CJ Sansom and Kate Mosse with its chilling recreation of the Peasants’ Revolt. The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It’s a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust? The dour wool merchant? His impulsive son? The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes? Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones? And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it’s time to fight back, it’s all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.

What did I think?:

This review comes with many thanks to the lovely people at Book Bridgr and Headline Press for allowing me to read the latest novel by one of my favourite authors, Karen Maitland. As fans of the author will know, she is a wonder at combining the turbulent times of the Middle Ages with a little bit of the supernatural, a recipe that always results in a gritty historical mystery that never fails to keep me on the edge of my seat. This latest offering is set in the 14th century in the city of Lincoln against the backdrop of the Peasants’ Revolt. Richard II is on the throne and poverty is rife across England so what does our King do to assist those in need? Well, listen to his trusted advisor John of Gaunt of course and introduce a new tax to be paid for every person over fifteen years of age in a household. Furthermore, the way in which the King’s Commissioners went about checking to see whether someone was over fifteen years was so lewd and crass that it is no surprise the peasants revolted!

Our foray into the medieval involves a host of wonderful and wacky characters, laid out for us at the beginning of the book by the author under the heading Cast Of Characters (obviously). This always fills me with slight trepidation as there seem to be so many to contend with, but like her other novels, Maitland tends to focus in depth on a select few. In The Vanishing Witch we learn about two families on either side of the poverty scale, the first a boatman called Gunter, happily married and living with his family just outside the city. He ekes a living by transporting cargo from place to place with the help of his son. The new tax really hits his family hard, being in quite dire straits to begin with, and their quest for survival is prominent throughout the novel.

The head of the family on the opposite side of the scale is a wealthy wool merchant called Robert who is married to Edith and they have two sons, Jan the elder, confident and brash, who will take over the family business in time and Adam, scholarly and quiet. Robert’s troubles first begin when he is approached for advice from recently widowed Caitlin. Poor Robert practically bursts with pride at the attention Caitlin shows him and as Edith becomes seriously unwell, torn between his loyalties to his wife and gullible to her womanly wiles, he allows Caitlin to slowly worm her way into his life, eventually becoming his wife when Edith dies. She brings along two children of her own, Leonia and Edward, the former casting her own spell over Robert’s young and impressionable son, Adam. Can Caitlin be trusted? What is her motive for integrating herself with Robert’s family? Is there something a bit spookier i.e. witchcraft going on?

I have so much praise for this novel I hardly know where to start! I loved the way that the author transported us to medieval England with so much authenticity that I could almost smell the streets, hear the noises and taste the swill. Prior to every chapter Maitland gives the reader a glimpse back into history with anti-witchcraft charms and spells that come directly from medieval writings and grimoires (medieval spell books). Here’s a taster of one of many that stood out to me:

“If a family member goes on a long journey, a bottle of their urine or their knife is hung on the wall. If the urine remains clear, or the blade bright, they are well. If the urine becomes cloudy or the blade tarnished, they are ill or in danger. If the urine dries or the knife falls or breaks, they are dead.”

I enjoyed every character in this book for different reasons. Some were so damn unlikeable, like Edward, that I had to keep reading to see whether they would get their come-uppance. Others, like Caitlin’s daughter Leonia, or the strange man dressed as a friar who begins to follow Robert, I was so intrigued by that I had to know their story. Friend or foe? You get the picture, I just had to know. The author certainly does not make it an easy journey for the reader and I was continually confused (in a good way!) over who to trust as page by page, a different secret emerges. Medieval England comes to life all over again in the safe hands and imagination of a fantastic author who not only knows what she’s talking about but makes it so exciting too!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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