Ariana Franklin (a pen name of Diana Norman) was the author of the Adelia Aguilar mystery series, of which I’ve still only read the first, Mistress of the Art of Death. As you may know, she sadly died in 2011, leaving Winter Siege unfinished, but the book has now been completed by her daughter, Samantha Norman. Winter Siege is not part of the Adelia Aguilar series, but a standalone novel set during the period of English history known as the Anarchy.
It’s 1141 and the country is in the grip of a civil war as King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, are battling for the English crown. In the Cambridgeshire Fens, an eleven-year-old girl is captured by a passing band of soldiers, raped and left for dead. The child’s way of dealing with her trauma is to wipe the whole incident entirely from her mind, so that by the time she is discovered by Gwil, a kind-hearted mercenary, she can’t remember her name, where she lives or anything about her past. Gwil renames her Penda and allows her to accompany him, disguised as a boy, while he builds a new career for himself as a travelling entertainer.
Moving from place to place, the two of them impress the crowds with their displays of archery while Gwil continues to search for any signs of Penda’s attackers – his only clues being a scrap of parchment carrying a message in Greek and the knowledge that the soldiers were accompanied by a monk smelling strongly of an unusual herb. Eventually, fate will take Gwil and Penda to Kenniford Castle, home of Maud, a sixteen-year-old ward of King Stephen.
To ensure the safety of her castle and her people, Maud has been forced to marry a man much older than herself – the brutal, drunken Sir John of Tewing, a supporter of Stephen’s. But when Sir John is struck down by illness and the Empress Matilda arrives at Kenniford asking for protection, Maud must decide whether to switch sides. This is a decision that will place the castle at the heart of the civil war and all of Gwil’s and Penda’s archery skills will be needed to help defend it.
I really enjoyed this entertaining medieval novel. As with Mistress of the Art of Death, I found it very atmospheric and evocative of the time period. The mystery aspect of the novel following Gwil’s search for the evil monk was slightly disappointing, but there was a second mystery that I found more interesting – and this involved the identity of an old abbot who is dictating the story of the Anarchy to his scribe, several decades into the future (in 1180). These sections provide a sort of framework for the rest of the novel and help to explain some of the historical background, while also making us curious as to who the abbot really is and how he knows so much about what happened at Kenniford Castle.
The book is called Winter Siege and so far I haven’t mentioned either winter or sieges, but I can assure you that both do play a part in the story. Snow is falling throughout much of the novel and one particularly snowy night forms the backdrop for one of the book’s most memorable scenes, when Gwil and Penda meet Matilda for the first time. Later in the book, our characters find themselves trapped in a besieged castle, which is when the various threads of the story are brought together.
Bearing in mind that this novel was written by both Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, it all seemed like the work of one author to me; it never felt uneven or disjointed. I don’t know how much Franklin had managed to complete before her death or if she would have taken the story in a different direction…but I think she would be pleased if she could read the finished version.