The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

There are so many really good books written about the Middle Ages, both general and specific which, collectively, are fabulous resources for students of history, writers and those with just a general interest in a long and fascinating period. This book came with huge and exciting claims by a well-known writer of fiction, so I was thrilled to get a hold of it and, even though it is slightly out of the period I am homing in on at the moment (the mid to late 1300s), I hoped it would provide a solid general overview of the previous two to three centuries.

In some ways, the book does exactly this. It covers roughly the eleventh through to the end of the thirteenth century and examines topics such as religion, literature, education, music, women and men’s roles, trade etc. However, where some general books also give very specific and detailed examples of the information they are relaying, sadly, this book did not. Or, rather, when it did, it was superficial to the point of not being very helpful. It was also very dry in parts. While I did enjoy some aspects of it, I have found other books on this period (eg. anything by the Guises, Judith Bennett’s works, Paul Strohm, Terry Jones, Alison Weir, Liza Picard, Barbara Hanawalt – just to name a few), to be more in-depth, better written and, frankly, far more useful as both starting points for developing an understanding of this era but also for advancing it. Where it did serve well was as a reminder of the most important and significant aspects of this era.

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Second Son by Pamela Taylor

The first book in what promises to be a terrific series, Second Son: Volume 1 of the Second Son Chronicles, by Pamela Taylor, tells the story of a prince of a Renaissance-style realm, Alfred, a young man who because of his birth, might have royal blood but is also destined for an ordinary if privileged life. All that changes when he is captured and held to ransom in a long-held feud born of revenge and a desire to crush the current monarch, Alfred’s grandfather. But Alfred, a kind, intelligent and compassionate young man, is more than he seems and throughout his ordeal, the lessons he’s learned from his grandfather, father and various mentors, put him to the test in ways he never anticipated…

This is a carefully crafted, well written story that really immerses the reader in Alfred’s life – the complicated simplicity of it – and how, as a “second son” the expectations placed upon him are mainly self-imposed, which requires a self-discipline not all in his family possess. There is drama, romance and all the ingredients of a good story with the added bonus of historical accuracy within a fantasy realm, albeit one based on our actual past. It’s also an excellent first book in a series in that it sets up the geo-politics of the world, the social structures and, of course, the main characters and their various relationships as well as a nice “hook” at the end. You really believe in Alfred, his family and the world and root for them. I also really enjoyed the fact that everyone’s motivations were plausible – there were no Machiavellian-style villains (though there were those out to please themselves at any cost, including kidnap and murder) and Taylor didn’t steer away from having decent people shine and exploring the type of qualities that make an excellent leader or person.

Overall, this was a lovely read that shows Taylor’s skills as a wonderful storyteller – one that knows how to lure the reader into wanting to continue with Alfred’s tale. I certainly will be!

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Bruny by Heather Rose

I don’t know where to begin with this book. It was so wonderfully unexpected. A thrilling, outrageous and clever tale about family, politics, betrayal, deceit at the highest levels and the people who really pay for that – and all set in Tasmania. What’s not to love?

The book opens when a bomb explodes, almost destroying a new and ridiculously expensive bridge that has been built by the Tasmanian government using federal and international funds and which connects the beautiful island of Bruny to the rest of Tasmania via a six-lane roadway. Overkill anyone? Heralded by the sitting government as an essential piece of infrastructure that will invite more tourists and thus money to Tasmania and advance the island fair, there are many who doubt the efficacy and legitimacy of the project. Vested interests, splinter groups both combine and implode as debates over the bridge – especially now it needs to be repaired – escalate.

Enter Astrid Coleman, member of a famous political family currently working for the U.N., whose twin brother is not only the Premier of Tasmania, but her older half-sister is leader of the Opposition. An expert in conflict resolution, it’s believed Astrid will not only be able to pour oil over troubled waters by tempering the mood of those against the bridge, but prepare locals for the government’s solution (one backed by the Federal government) to ensure the bridge is repaired by the rapidly approaching opening date: by bringing in hundreds of Chinese workers.

Astrid arrives home to find not only the island and, particularly Hobart and Bruny in turmoil, but her family as well. Her father is suffering from dementia and quoting only Shakespeare, her mother is dying of cancer and while the family can come together and give the appearance of unity in their personal lives, in their professional, political lives, it’s a very different story.

Seeming to go along with her brother’s plans, when Astrid discovers what’s really going on, it’s game on. For what no-one knows is Astrid has her own agenda …

This novel is such a searing, intelligent and often funny (in that kind of I cannot believe this, but I sort of can way) read, I couldn’t put it down. The world and politics Rose constructs are utterly recognisable and just as infuriating and frightening. There’s a right-wing President in the USA who’s a buffoon, Brexit has caused long-predicted chaos, Australia is creating closer ties with China. Current prominent Australian political figures make an appearance – albeit with different names but not characters and you’ll have fun discerning who is who and enjoy Rose’s take on them. Not only is the politics scary and cause for despair (including the various groups who align with one side or the other and either represent or resist “progress” – mind you, Rose cleverly investigates this concept too – are they really resistant to progress or simply wanting to preserve the environment and the standard of living that comes with a pristine eco-system for the future? The answer is overt and satisfying – of course!), but the personal relationships in the novel are really well drawn as well. But, and maybe I am biased here, it is Tasmania and especially Bruny that shine. The locations are wonderfully drawn and even if you don’t know the area (I live in Hobart, so am very familiar with all the locales), you breathe the air, walk the streets, cross the channel with Astrid and the others, delight in and shudder at the quirkiness of (some) Taswegians, and become appalled at the entire project underpinning this novel – and that’s before the kicker twist.

Unashamedly political, but not one-sided, this is a great read that will have you suspending your disbelief and, hopefully, like me, enjoying every single word. Have already recommended it to everyone I know and bought multiple copies for gifts as well!

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Queens of the Sea (Blood and Gold #3) by Kim Wilkins

I have so enjoyed the first two books in the Blood and Gold trilogy by Kim Wilkins and felt ambivalent about reading the final one, Queens of the Sea, because I knew that on completion, my time with the amazing warrior queen, Bluebell and her dysfunctional and fascinating family must come to an end. But what a magnificent closure it has been.

In this concluding novel, the simmering war between the followers of the old gods and those of the new, violent Trimartyr god, comes to a brutal and bloody conclusion. The time for “mad” Willow, one of Bluebell’s sisters and Ivy’s twin, to rise has arrived and she grasps her opportunity with wild and unforgiving hands, turning on those she once called her people and even her own kin in a murderous grab for power at all costs.

Having lost her city through terrible deceit and betrayal, Bluebell and her remaining sisters, some of whom have their own personal demons and burdens to carry, must turn not only to the gods they know and love, but place their faith in what has always been believed to be myths and legends in order to even have a chance of defeating Willow and the Crow King, Hakon.

But with Ash divested of her powers, and Rowan, Rose’s estranged daughter uncertain whether she should embrace hers or not, and Ivy struggling to find the strength to leave her abusive lover, and arguments and tensions erupting among remaining tribes, Bluebells allies are no longer as dependable as they should be. Forced to seek help across the seas, Bluebell’s voyage is not only fraught with personal risks, but with the very real chance she could lose her kingdom and, worse, the faith of her people, forever.

As the Trimartyr’s unleash a reign of terror upon Bluebell’s people, promising more if their queen dare retaliates, time and trust – in herself and others – is running out for Bluebell and the kingdom that is her legacy.

Beautifully written, this is a page-turner par excellence from the mistress of the cross-genre tale. The pace is perfect, the characters alternately flawed and formidable but always possessed of a realness that makes you invest in them in a myriad of ways. A combination of fantasy and history, in this series – and this final instalment especially – Wilkins has drawn on her own deep knowledge of Celtic and Nordic history and myth to give readers a thrilling story that will live in the mind and satisfy the senses long after the last page is finished. Brilliant.

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Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd

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I have always thoroughly enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s work. It is well written, researched and erudite. This shortish book on the medieval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is no exception. Able to succinctly portray what was a varied life and view it through the lens of both contemporary sources and, at times, the man’s own works, Ackroyd gives the reader a well-rounded portrait of the man who earned the trust of royals, the loyalty of the most powerful house in the kingdom (Lancaster), the love of English people for his prose and earned, as a consequence, literary longevity.

Ackroyd also makes some delicious suppositions about Chaucer’s life, which were original and convincing (especially to do with the paternity of his second son, Lewis and the “raptus” charge against him brought by Cecily Champain). There are also fascinating titbits, such as the fact Chaucer is credited with introducing St Valentine’s Day to Britain. I also confess to enjoying the occasional bits of gossip Ackroyd presented and which you can’t help but feel that someone like the Chaucer he presents, a man with great insights and tolerance for human nature in all its foibles, would also have enjoyed.

An engaging and fascinating read. Highly recommended.

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