Reviewed by Harriet
I had not heard of Ariana Franklin until a few months ago, when I was given her Mistress of the Art of Death as an early birthday present. Seeing that it was a crime novel set in the early middle ages, I wondered if I’d enjoy it – I’ve not been drawn to fiction set in this era before. I needn’t have worried, though. Franklin manages to make the period come alive in the most remarkable way – no ‘forsooths’ or ‘gadzooks’, or whatever they said in those far off days, just perfectly recognisable people going about their business as people have always done, but wonderfully combined with obviously spot-on historical accuracy. So I was greedy for more Franklin, and when I saw that Winter Siege was coming out, I was happy to have a review copy.
Of course I had discovered by then that Ariana Franklin was the pen name of the journalist Diana Norman, wife of the well-known film critic Barry, and I knew that this, her final book, was left incomplete at the time of her death. Her journalist daughter Samantha Norman took on the task of finishing the novel. Just to clarify, this is not another book in the four-volume series that started with Mistress of the Art of Death. It is a standalone novel, and not even strictly speaking a crime novel, though a crime is committed at the start and its effects resonate throughout the story.
Winter Siege is set in 1141, less than a hundred years after the Norman conquest of England. The country is at war again. After the death of King Henry I, the crown has passed to his nephew Stephen instead of the king’s own choice, his daughter Matilda. Matilda, who has been living in Normandy, has brought an army over to overthrow Stephen and gain what she believes is rightfully hers. The war has forced many to take sides, and many castles to be besieged. One such is the Castle of Kenniford, in Oxfordshire, whose sparky young chatelaine Maud has recently been forced into a marriage with an elderly and drunken husband. When Matilda and her retinue arrive at the castle and ask for protection, Maud has to agree, but this means greatly increasing the number of armed men who will defend the place against Stephen’s powerful army.
Meanwhile, in the Cambridgeshire Fens, a young girl is raped, brutally attacked and left for dead. She is found by the aging mercenary Gwilherm de Vannes, who rescues and cares for her, something very necessary as in addition to her physical damage she has completely lost her memory. Reluctant at first, Gwil soon becomes her surrogate father and mentor. Given the dangers of the wandering life they must lead, he dresses her as a boy, calls her Penda, and trains her in his own craft of archery. By the time they are taken on to help defend Kenniford, Penda has become a highly skilled archer, and the two of them play a large part in the defence of the castle.
This is more than an exciting adventure story, though. Throughout the novel, Gwil is not only trying to protect Penda from the possible effects of recovering her memory, but he is also aware very early on of the identity of her attacker, a murdering psychopath who also happens to hold a very high position in the church. Together with Kenniford’s resident priest, he has to make some difficult decisions to protect his ward from the possibility of another, fatal, attack. Maud, meanwhile is fending off the advances of her disgusting husband and slowly falling in love with an attractive Frenchman who is part of Matilda’s Norman army. Then there’s Matilda, imperious and beautiful, who demands absolute loyalty from Maud and her retinue, and angry, powerful Stephen outside the castle walls with his large and powerful army.
Once again, as in Franklin’s earlier novels, the period is evoked with wonderful clarity. The bleakness of the fen landscape – he saw flatness, just flatness, extending into mist, and reed, marsh, black water – in which Gwil and Penda must survive a long period of snow and bitter cold contrasts vividly with the luxuries of the castle, Maud’s glorious clothes, and the huge elaborate meals that are produced every day to feed to hoards of people who are helping with the defence or simply, in the case of the villagers, taking shelter from the battering and fast advancing army outside the castle walls. There’s no sentimentality here – life is dangerous, grim and bleak, but there’s also love and compassion, and a happy, or at least satisfactory ending for most of the protagonists.
Winter Siege is being marketed as an adult novel, but to me it seemed as if it would be perfect for a YA readership. I must admit I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Franklin’s crime series, but that’s probably a reflection of my taste for the genre rather than a reflection on the quality of the novel. It’s excellent stuff, and I learned a great deal about history both political and social as well as just enjoying the plot.
Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and is quite glad she doesn’t live in 1141.
Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, Winter Siege (Bantam Press, London: 2014). 978-0593070611, 368 pp., hardback.
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