October 9th, 2014
My local library
1141 a.d.: King Stephen is warring with his cousin Empress Matilda over the throne of England. Every cathedral, every castle, every seat of power will swear fealty to one or the other—but not every stronghold is as strategic or as valuable as Kenniford Castle in Oxfordshire. Its mistress, sixteen-year-old Maud of Kenniford, swears fealty to Stephen, but Matilda’s forces have decreed that she marry the odious John of Tewing.
Life in the fenlands carries on as usual—that is, until the mercenaries ride through the marsh, and a small red-haired girl named Em is snatched and carried off. After the soldiers have finished with her, they leave her for dead. But fenland girls are not easy to kill.
Although she has lost all memory of her past life, including her name, Em survives and falls under the protection of Gwyl, a Breton archer. Together Gwyl and his new protegé—now crop-headed and disguised as a boy—travel through the countryside giving archery exhibitions. But there is one man who hasn’t forgotten the little red-haired girl. He has some unfinished business with her, and he is determined to see it through.
And one freezing winter in an Oxfordshire castle completely besieged, he might well get his chance…
The Siege Winter was Ariana Franklin (a.k.a. Diana Norman)’s final novel, co-authored by her daughter after her death. And although I’ve been sad at the absence of more Mistress of the Art of Death novels, this one was an excellent balm.
The time period is a turbulent one in British history- their worst civil war. And boy do you feel it, especially for the first half of the book. This novel pulls no punches on the limitations of women and the poor during the period. Parts of it do get graphic in violence, and only the presence of stubborn and kindly, flawed but honorable, characters keep it from miring there.
Once you get past the violence (there’s a truly evil antagonist in there, after all), this story is about redemption. Not only in the “main” story but within the framework story surrounding it, of a dying abbot relaying the story to his rudely naive scribe. And for all the heartbreak, there’s also some happy endings.
Overall, it’s a sweeping historical epic that’s very character driven, set in a tumultuous period. I highly recommend it for fans of Ariana Franklin, of course, but also fans of historical fiction (especially gritty and realistic ones), and British history (especially the twelfth century). And I do recommend the audiobook, which was very well narrated.