To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

It’s 1348, two years after England’s victory over France at the battle of Crécy, which led to the capture of the French port of Calais. And it is to Calais that we are headed in James Meek’s latest novel, in the company of a large and diverse group of characters.

First, there’s Lady Bernadine, a young noblewoman betrothed to a man her father’s age. Dreaming of the sort of love described in her favourite poem, Le Roman de la Rose, Bernadine has run away from her home and her arranged marriage in pursuit of the man she hopes to marry instead, the knight Laurence Haket. Haket has raised a band of archers to send to the English garrison at Calais and they are all on their way to Melcombe in Dorset where their ship awaits.

The newest recruit to the company of archers is Will Quate, a young bondsman from Bernadine’s village, Outen Green. Will hopes that Bernadine’s father, Sir Guy, will grant him his freedom in return for serving with the bowmen. The other archers are rough, battle-hardened men who were together at Crécy and are not the most pleasant of people, as Will quickly discovers – but it seems that they will not go unpunished for the crimes they have committed.

Finally, we meet Thomas Pitkerro, a Scottish proctor who has been working at the papal court in Avignon and is returning there after carrying out a commission at Malmesbury Abbey in England. The Abbot has asked him to travel with the archers and to listen to their confessions as the nearest thing to a priest they will have. And they certainly have a lot to confess!

To Calais, in Ordinary Time doesn’t have a huge amount of plot – the whole story consists of the journey through the south of England towards Melcombe, but there’s still a lot going on. We get to know more about the archers and the girl known as Cess who has come back with them from France; the characters find themselves asked to perform in a morality play; and there’s an exploration of identity and gender through the story of Hab the swineherd and his ‘sister’ Madlen. Meanwhile, unknown to the characters, every step they take towards Calais is taking them closer to the Black Death, the great pestilence coming in the opposite direction. The choice of Melcombe as the point where they will embark for France is significant because Melcombe will become known as the ‘Plague Port’ – one of the first locations where the Black Death would enter England. You can find parallels with modern catastrophes (James Meek has said that he was thinking of climate change) but any comparisons are lightly drawn and they are more something to keep in mind rather than an important part of the story.

But the most notable aspect of this book – and one you’ll probably either love or hate – is the language. Meek uses three very distinct styles to convey the different backgrounds and social classes of each of the three main characters or groups of characters. Thomas Pitkerro’s narrative, mainly in the form of letters to his friends in Avignon, is written in very formal prose with long sentences and big words, evoking the Latin used by the clergy at that time. As an English noblewoman in the 14th century, Bernadine would have spoken a form of Norman French, so this is indicated by peppering her speech with words like the French negative ‘ne’ (‘you ne understand’, ‘ne speak his name’). The others – Will, Hab and the archers – speak in their local Cotswold dialect (‘they say steven in place of voice, and shrift and housel for confession and absolution, and bead for prayer’). They also say neb for face, which I found quite jarring as where I live it means nose!

While I appreciated the imaginativeness and cleverness behind all of this, I have to admit that I just found it a distraction. Ironically, instead of helping to immerse me in the setting and the story, it kept pulling me back into the present day and reminding me that I was reading a modern work of fiction. As I’ve said, though, I’m sure other readers will love the use of language and so will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did. It’s the sort of book I would expect to see being nominated for awards; it just wasn’t right for me personally.

Thanks to Canongate Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien

One of the things I like about Anne O’Brien’s books is that they tend to be about women who are not usually the subjects of historical fiction. I have read five of her previous novels, all set in the 14th and 15th centuries, which told the stories of Katherine of Valois, Elizabeth of Lancaster, Joanna of Navarre, Joan of Kent and Elizabeth Mortimer. Now, in her latest novel, A Tapestry of Treason, she brings another medieval woman out of obscurity and gives her a voice. She is Constance, Lady Despenser, daughter of Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, the fourth surviving son of King Edward III of England.

The novel opens in 1399. Constance’s cousin, Richard II, has reigned for over twenty years but another cousin, Henry of Lancaster, now has his eye on the throne. The York branch of the family – Constance, her father, her brothers Edward and Dickon, and her husband Thomas Despenser – must decide with whom their loyalties lie, knowing that if they give their support to the wrong man they could lose everything, including their lives. History tells us that Henry would be successful, taking the throne as Henry IV when Richard abdicates, but of course Constance and her family don’t know how things will play out and this leaves them with some difficult choices to make.

Cold, ambitious and determined, Constance is not an easy character to like, but the fact that the story is told from her point of view allows us to have a certain amount of sympathy for her. She makes some terrible mistakes and, despite having grown up in a world of shifting politics and court intrigue, she judges the situation wrongly on several occasions and pays the price for it. It’s frustrating to see her at the heart of one plot or conspiracy after another and she never seems to learn from her mistakes, but as we get to know Constance better we understand that she is only trying to look after her family’s interests and help them to advance in any way they can. In this respect she reminded me of Elizabeth Mortimer, heroine of Queen of the North, who is actually involved in some of the same conspiracies.

Constance’s hard and emotionless exterior can probably be explained by the lack of love she has experienced throughout her life. Her parents have shown her very little affection – and although her husband, Thomas Despenser, is not a cruel man, their marriage took place at a very early age and was definitely a political match rather than one based on love. There is a chance of romance for Constance later in the novel, but she makes mistakes here too and risks having her heart broken.

There are two other relationships in this book which interested me more than the romantic one. The first is Constance’s relationship with her elder brother, Edward of York, a man who is as ambitious and ruthless as Constance herself, but unlike his sister, thinks only of himself. He shows no real loyalty to anyone and is ready to betray his family and friends if it means saving his own skin, yet Constance always gives him the benefit of the doubt and it is never quite clear whether he cares for her even a little bit or not at all. The other is the relationship between Constance and her young stepmother, Joan Holland. At first they make no secret of the fact that they dislike each other but as the story progresses they settle into an uneasy friendship.

A Tapestry of Treason is not my favourite Anne O’Brien book; although this is a fascinating period of history, I felt that for a long time Constance was plotting and scheming in the background, watching events unfold from afar rather than taking an active part in her own story. Not the author’s fault, but an indication of the limitations and constraints placed on women at that time. It’s only from the middle of the novel onwards that Constance begins to play a bigger role and becomes more directly involved in carrying out her treasonous plots.

I did still enjoy the book, though, and it was interesting to read about the origins of the conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York which would later intensify and lead to the Wars of the Roses. Now I’m wondering if there are any other fictional portrayals of Constance of York; if you know of any please let me know!

Thanks to the publisher HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A King Under Siege by Mercedes Rochelle

I have previously read Mercedes Rochelle’s Heir to a Prophecy, a historical novel inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and her Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, which tells the story of Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and his children in the period leading up to the Battle of Hastings. With this new novel, A King Under Siege, she moves forward in time to 14th century England and the reign of the young Richard II.

The first part of the book deals with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when a series of rebellions break out across the country, partly in response to the excessive collection of poll taxes. Richard is still only fourteen at this time (having come to the throne at the age of ten) but he shows a maturity and courage beyond his years in riding out to meet the rebels at Smithfield in an attempt to negotiate and bring an end to the violence. Unfortunately, Richard is unable to keep the promises he makes that day and he is left feeling that he has let his people down.

There is more trouble to come for Richard later in the novel as tensions grow between the king and his noblemen, with his uncles – particularly John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester – gaining in power and influence. Richard’s reliance on a small circle of friends and advisors, such as Michael de la Pole and Robert de Vere, also causes conflict and leads to a group of noblemen known as the Lords Appellant seizing control of the government. These events are covered in the final two sections of the book, finishing at a point which sets things up nicely for the next book in the series.

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters, allowing us to see both sides of the story. The account of the Peasants’ Revolt is very well balanced, with the viewpoint switching between the king and the rebels, showing us the anger and discontent that led to the rebellion as well as Richard’s response to it. Later, we are given some insights into the thoughts and actions of both the Lords Appellant and Richard’s allies. There are interesting parallels between the way Richard is being treated and the fate of his great-grandfather Edward II, and there is a sense of Richard’s frustration as he feels that power is being taken away from him.

I don’t think this is one of my favourites of Mercedes Rochelle’s novels, but that is entirely due to the fact that I don’t find this particular time period quite as interesting as the one covered in The Last Great Saxon Earls and no reflection on the quality of the book itself. She has clearly carried out a large amount of research for this novel and does a good job of making complicated history easy to follow and understand. A map, character list, author’s note and bibliography are included in the book, providing additional information and ideas for further reading. I think this would be a good introduction to the period for readers who are unfamiliar with the details of Richard II’s reign.

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

I can’t remember when I first read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; it was possibly in the early 2000s – long enough ago to have forgotten most of the story, but recently enough that certain scenes have stayed quite clearly in my mind. I knew I hadn’t understood everything the first time, so when I saw that Annabel of Annabookbel was hosting a readalong in January I thought it would be interesting to read it again. Unfortunately, it was a busier month than I expected and I fell too far behind to be able to participate in the readalong, but I have been re-reading the book anyway and finished a few days ago.

The Name of the Rose is set in 1327 and is narrated by Adso of Melk, a Benedictine novice from Austria. I think the best way I can describe the book is to quote directly from the back cover of my old Picador edition: “Whether you’re into Sherlock Holmes, Montaillou, Borges, the nouvelle critique, the Rule of St. Benedict, metaphysics, library design, or The Thing from the Crypt, you’ll love it. Who can that miss out?” It probably misses out quite a lot of people, actually, but at least that gives you a good idea of the range and number of different topics and influences found in the novel.

The story begins with Adso accompanying a Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville, to a remote Benedictine monastery in the Italian mountains. In a few days’ time, this monastery will host a meeting between an embassy from Pope John XXII and a group of Minorites, but preparations are not going according to plan…Adelmo, a young illustrator known for his beautiful illuminated manuscripts, has been found dead, having supposedly fallen from a window of the Aedificium, the large building which houses the abbey’s renowned library. Was it suicide or was it murder? William, who has already impressed the abbot by successfully locating a lost horse, is asked to investigate.

There’s a reason why Eco has given William the name ‘Baskerville’ – as he moves around the abbey asking questions and uncovering the circumstances behind Adelmo’s death, he uses his powers of deduction just like Sherlock Holmes. Adso, of course, fills the position of Dr Watson, needing William to explain things to him as he goes along (which benefits the reader as well). But when a second death occurs, this one more gruesome than the first, William knows that if he is to have any chance of solving the mystery, he will need to gain access to the library – the secret, forbidden library which only the librarian and his assistant are allowed to enter.

As a murder mystery, The Name of the Rose is quite a good one. Reading it for the second time, I remembered the solution and the culprit, but not every detail of the plot, so I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. There are clues – physical and spoken – there are secrets to uncover, complex relationships to untangle and red herrings which point us in the wrong direction for a while. There are also some wonderful descriptions of the library, a genuinely eerie and sinister place; the scenes in which William and Adso explore its labyrinthine passages and chambers are some of the highlights of the book.

But The Name of the Rose is much more than just a medieval mystery novel. It is also a very detailed and erudite study of the religious history of Europe in the early 14th century, which I think is why some people love the book while others struggle with it. At the time of our story, the papacy has moved from its usual home in Rome to Avignon during a period of conflict between the church and the kings of France. From the very beginning of the novel, we are given page after page of information on the divisions within the church and the various orders and sects, such as the controversial movement led by Fra Dolcino, as well as lots of theological discussions on subjects ranging from poverty to whether Jesus ever laughed. The first time I read the book I found myself skimming over most of this to get to the murder mystery parts; this time, I tried to concentrate and understand the religious detail, but Eco’s style does not make it easy to absorb the facts and I admit there was still a lot that went over my head.

I enjoyed my re-read of this book, although I’m not sure whether I really got much more out of it than I did on my first read. I did love revisiting the library scenes, the descriptions of monastery life, and the characters of William and Adso. I have never tried reading any of Umberto Eco’s other books, but maybe I should. Does anyone have a recommendation?

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

This is the sequel to The Last Hours, which followed the fortunes of a group of people during the Black Death which reached England in 1348. When I finished the first novel last year, I wasn’t sure whether I had liked it enough to want to read any more, but in the end I couldn’t resist finding out how the story would conclude.

The Turn of Midnight picks up where The Last Hours left off, with the people of Develish in Dorsetshire living in quarantine while the plague rages across the land. The reason their community has survived largely intact while others around them have been wiped out is because of the precautions taken by Lady Anne, who gathered her people within the moat that surrounds her manor house and burned the bridges, cutting them off from contact with the outside world. Now that winter has come and food supplies are running low, Lady Anne’s loyal serf Thaddeus Thurkell, accompanied by several other young men from Develish, has crossed the moat and ventured into the countryside to see what he can find.

Despite the strong leadership skills of Lady Anne and the intelligence and courage of Thaddeus, Develish has no lord, Lady Anne’s husband Sir Richard having succumbed to the plague early in the previous novel. This has left the demesne in a vulnerable position, so together Thaddeus and Lady Anne come up with a plan to protect the people of Develish…but if they fail Thaddeus could find himself in serious danger.

I’m glad I decided to read this book because I enjoyed it quite a bit more than The Last Hours. It feels faster paced, with more going on, and of course, being the second of a pair of two novels, it has a much more satisfying ending. Where the previous novel was set mainly in and around the manor of Develish, this one has a wider scope, concentrating less on Lady Anne and her family and more on Thaddeus. Towards the end of The Last Hours I felt that Thaddeus and his companions were wandering aimlessly in the countryside without much happening, but this time they have adventure after adventure as they explore desolate towns and villages, make new friends and new enemies, and carry out charades and deceptions.

My main criticism of this book is that I still couldn’t really believe in either Thaddeus or Lady Anne as realistic 14th century characters. As I mentioned in my review of The Last Hours, I found their attitudes and thought processes far too modern and wasn’t at all convinced that they, unlike the rest of the population, could have had such an accurate understanding of how the Black Death was spread and how to protect themselves from it. I was also disappointed that Lady Anne’s stepdaughter, Lady Eleanor, is reduced to such a minor role in this book. Eleanor was very much the villain of the previous novel, but near the end some reasons were given for her terrible behaviour and there were hints that she might have been about to turn a corner. She is certainly much more likeable in this second book, but sadly the transformation of her character is not explored in any depth which I thought was a wasted opportunity.

This is such an interesting period of history to read about, though, and I did find the portrayal of a country devastated by plague vivid and convincing, even if the characters were not. Minette Walters is much better known as a crime author and has moved into new territory with these two novels; I’ll be curious to see whether she writes any more historical fiction in the future.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Lady Agnès Mystery Volume 1 by Andrea Japp – #WITMonth

I hadn’t made any plans for taking part in Women in Translation Month, but when I came across this book which had almost disappeared into the black hole of my Kindle, I decided to join in. Andrea Japp is a French crime novelist and this, the first volume of her Lady Agnès Mystery (originally published in 2006), has been translated into English by Lorenza Garcia. Japp herself is also a translator and produced the French translations of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels, which I think makes her a perfect choice for Women in Translation.

There are actually two books included in this volume – The Season of the Beast and The Breath of the Rose – but they do not stand alone and although they can be bought separately, there is not much point in reading one without the other. Together, the two books tell the story of Lady Agnès de Souarcy, a young widow living in 14th century France with her eleven-year-old daughter Mathilde and ten-year-old Clément, a servant’s child whom she has raised as her own son. Left with only a small dowry to live on, Agnès is struggling financially and reliant on the support of her half-brother, Eudes de Larnay. Unfortunately she and Eudes have always had a difficult relationship and when Inquisitors arrive in the area to hunt down heretics, Eudes sees this as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of his troublesome sister.

Agnès may have some powerful enemies but, unknown to her, she also has some powerful friends who are prepared to do everything they can to protect her from the horrors of the Inquisition. But is there any connection with the murders that have been carried out on Agnès’s land – dead bodies which have been discovered with the letter A marked on the ground beside them – and with the poisoning of several nuns at nearby Clairets Abbey? It seems that all of these things must be linked..but how?

The Lady Agnès Mystery is a book with many layers. First, there’s the richness of the historical setting. Set in the Perche region of France in 1304, the story takes places at a time of religious conflict and of power struggles between King Philip IV the Fair, his various advisers and their rivals, and the two religious orders, the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller. We meet characters who belong to each of these groups and are given a range of different views and perspectives. It’s exactly the same period of history as I’ve previously read about in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series and I loved revisiting it here. If you’re not familiar with this period, though, it shouldn’t be a problem; everything you need to know to understand the story is clearly explained in the text – and if you do want to know more, there are several appendices at the back of the book which provide definitions, explanations and brief biographies of historical figures.

This is not a dry, heavy read, though. There’s always something happening – a clandestine meeting in a dark tavern, a coded message being deciphered or a hidden room being explored, not to mention the vivid scenes depicting Agnès’s ordeals at the hands of the Inquisitors. My favourite aspect of the book was the mystery surrounding the deaths of the nuns…I particularly enjoyed watching the apothecary nun Sister Annelette using her knowledge of plants and herbs to try to catch the murderer.

So far so good. However, there is another storyline involving the Knights Templar, a secret prophecy and a missing manuscript which didn’t really interest me at all. I thought there was already enough going on with Agnès’s personal story and the murder mystery…and I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to read this sort of storyline without making comparisons with The Da Vinci Code.

Volume 1 ends, not on a cliffhanger exactly, but with some of the many plot threads still unresolved. I would like to know what happens next to Lady Agnès and her family, and I would love to see more of the nuns of Clairets Abbey, but I have a feeling Volume 2 will be dominated by the prophecy storyline. Will I read it? At the moment I don’t think so, but I could change my mind.