Catherine, Called Birdy, is a Newbery Award winning book set in the English Middle Ages. It is the purported diary of the titular character (fortunate...more Catherine, Called Birdy, is a Newbery Award winning book set in the English Middle Ages. It is the purported diary of the titular character (fortunately literate), the daughter (about 12) of a very minor noble. The diary covers the course of a year as we learn about Birdy’s everyday life, her hopes and fears and her plots to avoid marriage to undesirable men. Birdy is a good character. Sometimes she’s thoughtful; sometimes she’s good. Sometimes she’s bratty because of the unendurable pressures she faces. Sometimes she’s bratty for no reason at all.
The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cromwell is set in Britain, pre-Norman invasion. It begins with the childhood of Uhtred, a young Saxon noble captured and...moreThe Last Kingdom by Bernard Cromwell is set in Britain, pre-Norman invasion. It begins with the childhood of Uhtred, a young Saxon noble captured and raised by the Danish invaders who murdered his father and brother. The youngster grows to enjoy his new, more violent life and despise his origins, even after he is eventually “rescued.”
This novel is very well written, certainly. The setting was interesting and the portrayal of Alfred the Great intriguing. However, I did not enjoy it much. The story is told through Uhtred’s eyes and he is arrogant, self-centered, very cynical, and unlikeable. Maybe this is a stylistic choice, one that paves the way for growth in the sequels, but I didn’t care about him enough to find out. (less)
Captive Queen by Alison Weiss treads familiar ground. This oft-told tale is a popular mine for historical fiction. Jean Plaidy, Sharon Kay Penman, and...moreCaptive Queen by Alison Weiss treads familiar ground. This oft-told tale is a popular mine for historical fiction. Jean Plaidy, Sharon Kay Penman, and many other lady authors have fallen for this melodramatic true tale of lust, love, and betrayal. It tells the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who divorces her first husband (the king of France) to marry Henry (king of England). It tells of their many children and their tragic estrangement.
Once again, it’s the same story with the same characterizations and the same modern interpretation of historical events. King Louis is an unsatisfying wimp so she leaves him for hot Henry and they enjoy each other in graphic detail. Henry, being a man, keeps her submissive and cheats, so Eleanor rebels because she is a strong woman. Henry retaliates by locking her away. Henry eventually dies and the children fight over their inheritance. This version involves painting Eleanor as a heartbroken mother and Thomas á Becket as a jealous drama-queen.
For readers who are not well acquainted with the period Captive Queen would be a good introduction, as long as they don’t mistake it for actual history. (less)
I do not know whether or not I liked The Sword in the Stone. For that matter, I'm not quite sure I like the entire Arthurian canon. On the one hand th...moreI do not know whether or not I liked The Sword in the Stone. For that matter, I'm not quite sure I like the entire Arthurian canon. On the one hand there are duels, quests, lady fairs, and chivalric adventure. On the other hand there is the detestable Guinevere, despicable Lancelot, and eye-rollingly tragic ending. In any case, The Sword in the Stone happens before everything went gloomy, so I thought I'd give it a try.
The Sword in the Stone, part one of The Once and Future King, is a novella concerning the education of a young Arthur, growing up with kindly Sir Ector. The plot is episodic in nature, as Merlin tutors the future king by turning into various kinds of animals. There is also a boar fight, and an adventure with Robin Wood (not Hood).
The characters are decent, if a bit stereotyped, and serve the story well. Merlin is, like Willy Wonka, an eccentric kook. He exists mainly to crack jokes about the future and whisk young Wart away on fantastical adventures. Wart is curious, polite, helpful, deferential young boy, much like those "Gee Whiz" kids on Mr. Wizard, and about as interesting.
Kay is slightly more realistic. He is something of a bully, but not really a bad sort - just insecure and spoiled. He likes to tease and disparage his foster brother, but deep down is quite fond of him. Sir Ector is a caricature of an illiterate, good-hearted country squire. He blusters on about his boys' "eddication," and has never been to London, yet is a generous host, good father, and takes care of his peasants (Incidentally, feudalism is grossly romanticized, just in case you are bothered by that sort of thing).
My personal favorite was Robin Wood (not Hood), but then, I'm partial to him anyway.
The Sword in the Stone is set in a mishmash of the post-Norman era, fairy tale land, and eighteenth century Britain. Sir Ector lives next to the Forest Sauvage, which contains dragons, fairies, and witches. Then again, there are also references to Saxon rebels, 1066, and the Tower of London. This is not meant as a serious Arthurian tale.
The narration is half joking and half whimsical. As the jacket says, it is a story of "beasts who talk and men who fly." It also contains pot-shots at communism. The language is decidedly contemporary and the humor very British.
Though not exactly to my taste, The Sword in the Stone is a decent book and should please certain audiences. (less)
Set in the reign of Henry III, the Green Branch is a sequel to The Heaven Tree. The last book ended with gifted mason Harry Talvace being executed by...moreSet in the reign of Henry III, the Green Branch is a sequel to The Heaven Tree. The last book ended with gifted mason Harry Talvace being executed by Sir Ralf Isambard, while his family escaped over the border into Wales. Now Harry's son (also named Harry) has grown up under the protection of Prince Llewellyn and he has vowed vengeance. Harry attempts his revenge on Isambard, helped and hindered by Welsh border politics and the twisted character of Isambard himself.
The novel falls into roughly two halves, with the first detailing the situation in Wales and the second following Harry and Isambard's interactions.
Pargeter mixes some of her favorite historical personage (notably, the Welsh royal family) with the fictional Harry, who is hotheaded, naive, and likable. Ralf Isambard is a fascinating villain. His motives are remarkably unclear. He is always one step ahead of Harry, always knows what buttons to push, always the master of the situation.
Pargeter has a drier, less emotional, less soapy feel than many other authors who write in the same era (Penman, I'm looking at you), which may make her prose slow going for some. There is a refreshing lack of angst.
As is usual, Parteger's creates a wholly believable medieval world, whose inhabitants act thoroughly of their age and time, and yet whose motives and feelings are easily understood by a modern reader. I enjoyed it very much and am eager to read the follow-up. (less)
The Plantagenet Prelude by Jean Plaidy is the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It begins with her as a 15-year-old girl, a wealthy heiress who is “ripe...moreThe Plantagenet Prelude by Jean Plaidy is the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It begins with her as a 15-year-old girl, a wealthy heiress who is “ripe for marriage.” She marries the gentle, pious, naïve King Louis of France and they have two daughters. Yet Louis does not satisfy the passionate Eleanor. So she haves affairs with her uncle and an infidel. Then she meets the future King Henry of England, falls in love, divorces Louis and marries Henry. Their marriage creates a powerful empire and many children, but it falls apart because Henry cheats on her.
There are many versions of this tale by many modern lady-authors. I have read this story a half-dozen times, by such other authors as Alison Weir and Sharon Kay Penman. They are all very similar.
This version of Eleanor’s story is older than the others, so includes less sweaty details and takes a sterner line with the heroine. Plaidy’s Queen Eleanor is a selfish lady, crueler and shallower than her more modern counterparts. Henry is still a jerk, but Eleanor also reaps what she sows. Louis is more sympathetic, and Thomas a Becket is his traditional, saintly, noble figure.
The Plantagenet Prelude does not tell Eleanor’s complete story. It cuts off at a turning point – the murder of Thomas a Becket. (less)
Near the beginning of One Corpse Too Many, the reader is treated to a (politely) grisly scene. Ninety-four prisoners of war are e...moreSetting: Summer 1138
Near the beginning of One Corpse Too Many, the reader is treated to a (politely) grisly scene. Ninety-four prisoners of war are efficiently and mercilessly hanged to death. The people are saddened by the cruelty, but resigned to it. They cannot complain about it, nor is any better way of life known. This is the Middle Ages.
Then Brother Cadfael discovers one extra, unknown corpse hidden among the mass execution. A young man has been murdered for the fortune he was carrying. It falls to the detective-monk to return the fortune to its rightful owner. Helping (and hindering) him are several pairs of young lovers, who are connected with the case. The setting of England's first civil war lends weight to the narrative. However, outside of the opening scenes, the bones of the story could be set nearly anywhere and nearly anytime with rival parties. The backdrop could be the wars between the Montagues and the Capulets, Democrats and Republicans, or two rival computer companies.
I am happy to say that Brother Cadfael remains sturdy, dependable, skeptical but not cynical, and as engaging as ever. He is a soothing, dignified detective as he seamlessly mixes his monastic and detection duties.
Most of the supporting characters are typically stock. They are serviceable, even touching, but ultimately not remarkable. There is Aline Siward, the saintly young heroine; Godith the strong, young heroine; and Torold, the strong, young hero, to name a few. Colorful beggars, loyal old servants, and traitorous second-bananas are scattered about recklessly. Hugh Beringar, however, is the exception, in his debut performance. He first appears here as a morally ambiguous, highly ambitious, and serenely intelligent young nobleman. Matching the good brother step for step and clue by clue, he becomes Cadfael's worthy competitor. Naturally, Hugh is beaten, but, he takes his fate like a man, and is rewarded by the status of recurring character. (less)
The book opens sometime after the first Crusade in the Shrewsbury Abbey. Prior Robert has decided that their cathedral needs a patron saint - badly....more The book opens sometime after the first Crusade in the Shrewsbury Abbey. Prior Robert has decided that their cathedral needs a patron saint - badly. When one of the brothers has a vision of St. Winifred, the prior leads a small group of monks to Wales to collect the poor martyr's bones. Unfortunately, when the brothers reach Wales, they discover that St. Winifred's corpse belongs to Lord Rhisiart, and he's not about to let her go. Soon after, Lord Rhisiart is a corpse himself. The accused murderer is Engelbert, Rhisiart's servant and the rejected suitor of his daughter. It is up to Brother Cadfael (a retired crusader) to prove the young man's innocence. The plot, similar to many an Agatha Christie, is serviceable; it is the setting that makes it really worthwhile. It is irresistible to spend a few hours in 12-century England, wandering among cathedrals, fields, castles, and graves. There is just enough local color to make it interesting, but not enough to be pretentious. Most of the characters are stock, but like the plot, still serviceable. There is the bluff, hearty landlord, the single-minded bureaucrat, the strong woman, the love-sick (and wrongly-accused) young man. There are two minor characters break a bit from tradition, though: Peredur, who is weak enough to make a mistake, yet strong enough to admit it; and Griffith ap Rhys, of the law, who knows when to let well enough alone. Brother Cadfael himself is genial, observant, and nearly unflappable. He is, all in all, a good detective. (less)