Book Review: The Wayward Apprentice by Jason Vail

Recommended to me by a good friend after I placed a social media call-out for books set in medieval times that I haven’t read (it’s becoming harder!), I purchased The Wayward           Apprentice by Jason Vail, not really knowing what to expect. At 99 cents on Amazon, it’s beyond a bargain and, I have to say here (as both a writer and reader), that it astonishes me that boThe Wayward Apprenticeoks can be sold so cheaply – especially when you consider the labour and love, the research and time that goes into the production never mind the fact that there are writers out there trying to make a living from this. I do become concerned that when something like a book is sold so cheaply, it isn’t really valued and consequently that impacts on the perception of all books, writers, publishers and, ultimately, the act of reading itself. The Wayward Apprentice is certainly worth valuing as a well-written tale and for the knowledge and history underpinning the story.

OK. Off my soapbox now and onto the review…

Part of a series featuring an injured knight, Stephen Attebrook, who takes on the role of Deputy Coroner in Ludlow, The Wayward Apprentice introduces us to the main character, the town he lives in and some of the colourful characters who inhabit the area. Called to investigate the death of a man found in a field and who it’s assumed was so drunk he stumbled into a puddle and drowned, it’s only later that Stephen discovers his initial misgivings about the manner of death may yet prove to be right. When, along with his clever friend, Gilbert (a former priest who now runs an inn with his wife), Stephen is asked to find an apprentice who has absconded before finishing his contract, he finds connections between the dead man and the missing youth.

The further Stephen examines both cases, the more trouble he finds himself in as dead bodies, attacks, distressed damsels and mayhem ensues.

A medieval who dunnit (and that, and that), it faithfully recreates the period but without being didactic or obvious in its detailing. The prose is stark but effortless and while the mystery isn’t complex, the characters, for all the brevity of the novel, are. There are shades of light and dark to the melancholy knight, Gilbert and his long-suffering wife as well as the apprentice and the other women who populate the novel. Faithful to the social and gender mores of the time, this book isn’t complex or confusing (as some mysteries are wont to be) but it doesn’t sacrifice a sense of reality either and as a consequence, is very entertaining.

If you like the Sister Frevisse mysteries, then you will like this too. I also have to add that I’d have been very happy to pay more for this book.

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Book Review: Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies

I love anything written by this couple; always entertaining, always educational, they do their research, combine it with their sound knowledge of the era or people they are writing about and produce something that history buffs, writers, or just those with a healthy curiousity about the past will thoroughly enjoy.

Women in the Middle Ages is no exception. A concise book it starts with a working definition of the Middle Ages (around 600AD to the end of the Fourteenth Century) before explaining popular misconceptions and some facts about the role women played in these fraught and fascinating times. They then explain the primary models against which women were measured – Eve and MaWomen in the Middle Agesry – sinner and saint, mother and whore, basically. Reductive they might be and yet they set the framework against which women lived, worked, loved, worshipped, ruled, and died.

The second part explores specific women, using contemporary sources, in more detail. We are introduced to (or reacquainted with) Hildegarde of Bingen, one of the most highly educated and clever women of the Middle Ages, an Abbess; the magnificent Queen Blanche of Castille a canny ruler who, despite enemies seeking to capture her throne managed to rule beside her husband and later, as a regent, handling the power thrust upon her with courage and intelligence; Eleanor of Montefort, sister to Henry III, devoted mother, wife to the courtier and warrior Simon de Montefort (their relationship is beautifully and sympathetically explored by Sharon Kay Penman who, though working in fiction does extensive research and she paints a softer portrait of Eleanor), and someone very aware of and prepared to fight for her rights. We also meet Agnes Patiniere of Douai, a woman who lived in a city and who had a successful trade, negotiating the politics of the guilds. Then there’s Margherita Datini, an Italian woman who became literate later in life, helped run her husband’s business and avoided succumbing to the plague. Finally, there’s Margaret Paston, member of one of the most successful families of the Middle Ages who rose from crofters to wealthy landowners (and later, Earls) and who are survived by abundant correspondence (the book of their letters, The Pastons, is enthralling) that reveals their daily lives, enmities, private and more public relationships and even their ambitions for themselves and each other.

While it seems sad that there are so few women to draw on in order to explore their diverse roles over such a long stretch of time, when considering the division that occurred in medieval lives – men = public, women= private, and the fact most females were confined to domestic space, it’s fortunate we have anything. The Gies’ also ensure they compare and contrast the women they discuss in relation to place and class and draw analogies with literature (eg. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) as well demonstrating how women’s role altered (for better and worse) over time.

The contradictions in women’s roles are evident in this book, as is how women worked within and against popular and religious expectations, how they managed, sometimes against impossible odds, to find and create their own spaces and lives – some more successful than others.

Overall, this was an interesting and enjoyable read.

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Book Review: Falls the Shadow Sharon Kay Penman

FFalls the Shadow  (Welsh Princes, #2)alls the Shadow is the second book in The Welsh Princes series and mainly focuses on Simon de Montfort and Henry III (father of the future Edward Longshanks) – their relationship, families and the clash of wills and subsequent terrible conflict that arises between them and sweeps England and other countries in its wake. Parallel to their story is that of Leilo – Llewelyn ap Gruffyd, a young Welsh prince who suffers the alienation of his immediate family but is rewarded with the love and trust of his grandfather, Llewelyn Fawr, the man who united Wales against the British and achieved elusive peace – but for how long?

Beautifully told, the novel segues in point of view and place, taking the reader from the Welsh highlands to Westminster, to a particular castle in England, the Tower of London, and France, as well as, later, bloody battlefields. What I adore about Penman’s writing is that she brings these well-known (and some obscure) historical figures to life, painting them in rich and vivid detail. The women particularly, often rendered absent from the pages of history, burst from the novel, their passion, intelligence and sometimes vanity, as well as their commitment to their men, children, cause and country is fabulously explored.

Simon de Montfort, arguably, the central character of this novel, is sometimes painted as a brusque and cold commander by history or as a saint. In this book, he’s revealed as a deeply religious man, devoted to his wife, Nell (sister of Henry III) and family, and even though he has a wicked sense of humour, as someone who didn’t suffer fools gladly. That Henry III is perhaps the greatest fool of all (and in this novel, not simply in de Montfort’s eyes), causes constant strain and pressure as Henry makes poor decision after poor decision, costing lives, allegiances and honour.

Characters either love or loathe de Montfort and the kingdom is pretty much divided along lines of supporters of him or the king. Betrayal lurks in every corner, bribery and corruption are currency and who to trust and when becomes much more than a deadly game.

Spanning years, the book covers de Montfort’s meeting with young Nell (a widow who, at 15 swears herself to the church), their swift courtship and wedding and then years pass as sons are born to them and grow.

Likewise, Henry also raises a family, and the cousins become close; favourites are quickly identified and relationships develop, all against a backdrop of the huge schism growing between their parents and the kingdom’s disenchantment with the liege.

In the meantime, Henry makes inroads into Wales with the help of the cunning Marcher lords (the English aristocracy who owned lands on the borders of Wales and England and who were mostly related to Henry through marriage- which caused no end of resentment) and drives a wedge between Llewlyn Farr’s sons, leaving Wales in disarray and fighting over leadership. Out of this mess, young Leilo, now a man, rises to meet his destiny.

Torn between loyalty to the king and the rights of the men and women Henry rules, de Montfort has to make an important decision – one for which he could, potentially, pay a terrible price – one that, should it go wrong, will cost his family and their future as well.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot (though those familiar with the history already know the tale), but I am in awe of the way in which Penman not only juggles perfectly the telling of history through fiction, but keeps the plot bubbling and the characters fascinating even when “what happens next? is foretold. It’s testimony to her skill as a story-weaver that you invest so heavily in the men and women who populate this tale.

Penman also has a knack for recreating the period – her rendering of life in medieval times – from the religiosity, to the food, dress, manners and interactions is remarkable. As character rides through the snows in Wales, or listens to the bells chiming throughout London, or smells the sweet scent of heather in the breeze from a field in north England, so too do you.

The battles that are described in this book, just like the daily rhythms of the peers and royal house, are also graphic and so very real. Blood, fear, violence, ridiculous bravery; the search for honour through death is represented unflinchingly. I know some other readers found these parts a little long if not tedious – I didn’t. I felt they were an essential part of the story – the price that had to be paid, the toll that’s exacted from these remarkable people who believed in an ideal and were prepared to sacrifice anything to see it achieved.

This is where Penman completely excels. She captures the essence of humanity through her words – in all our glory and shame, our false pride and fearlessness, our courage and spirit. She also manages to show flaws in the most noble of characters and strengths (even if it’s simply through the love he or she bears for a child) in the most weak or repugnant of individuals.

I finished this book and moved straight onto the last in the series, which, so far (I am almost halfway through) is equally magnificent. “They” say “truth” is stranger than fiction. When you have both brought together in such excellent hands, the combination is intoxicating and a reader of novels’ absolute pleasure.

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