Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

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Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: The horrors of the other English civil war (Stephen & Matilda) are merely a backdrop to this story that could have been more powerful than it is. Instead we have a 'rescue romance' as the battle-hardened mercenary Gwil, takes on the protection of a young girl brutalised by his former comrades.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 357 Date: October 2014
Publisher: Bantam Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780593070611

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In the autumn of 1180 the Abbott of Perton Abbey is dying, and like any man who has lived through tumultuous times, particularly one who might have had a close-up view of those times, he decides to set down his own version of events. To this end he calls a scribe to him.

The scribe is incredulous that a history about ordinary people should be told - for this is to be for the most part about the ordinary people who lurk on the edges of our history books - and as the story progresses finds himself in need of cold showers and hair shirts for the thoughts in conjures in him.

Fret not however dear reader, that says more about the innocence of the scribe than the nature of the telling. There's nothing in here that would cause so much as a frisson in the modern sensibility. It may not be the current fashion historical retellings to remain so chaste, but our author stays resolutely outside the bedroom door. Hints are all we get about what went on behind it. There's precious little romance of that kind in this 'romance' and what there is dutifully contained within the imaginings of the people involved.

I'm not sure we needed the scribe. He adds nothing at all to the telling.

To be honest, I'm not sure we even needed the Abbott – except insofar as he does a neat but un-needed knot-tying job at the end and insofar as he serves as the voice-over man to explain to those who don't know their history, but care enough to want to know how this all fits in, yet not enough to go look it up for themselves.

He's not too intrusive. It's just that it is a bit of an authorial cop-out. In stronger hands, enough information would have been filtered through the thick of the plot without needing a greek chorus, dragging us off-stage every now and then.

I'm not familiar with Franklin's work, so I don't know if this is how she envisaged the final product. She died before delivering the work and it was completed by her daughter. So maybe with more time, things might have been different.

But we are where we are…. And where we are is Perton Abbey listening to the Abbot as he takes us back to the dark days of Stephen and Matilda. Empress Matilda (a title she was no longer entitled to, having been widowed by the Emperor of Germany and subsequently remarried to the Angevin Geoffrey Plantagenet) was - titles notwithstanding - the stated heir of Henry I of England.

Legitimate or not, Empress or not, sharp-eyed strategist and canny business woman she was, she held numerous estates and was shrewd enough to give away the worst of them when a noble needed rewarding, but when all was said and done, she was a woman.

Mediaeval barons were nothing if not mediaeval. That's the easy answer.

In fact, it was more a complex game of what's in it for me? that led Matilda's cousin Stephen to lay claim to the throne with the support of many of the barons who had sworn allegiance to Henry's daughter.

Over the next few years many of them would switch sides again and again as the tide of civil war ebbed and flowed across the country. And of course where there are political games to be played, you can bet your life the church-folk would be in on it too.

For poor country-folk living in the Fens of Cambridge this was all just so much market-place gossip. The 'war' was something happening 'out there'. In the literal back-waters of the fens they didn't need to think of it. If the worst came anywhere close St Etheldreda, the Anglo-Saxon saint enshrined in Ely cathedral, the ship of the Fens, visible from everywhere around would protect them.

St Ethel was having an off-day when the mercenaries came riding through the men were press-ganged, but there was worse to follow. Villages put to the flames and women and children hunted down in the reed-beds.

One particular red-haired child turned out to be particularly brave…and she ran. Away from her mother, away from her younger sister, pulling the mercenaries after her. Unfortunately, in amongst that particular band was a monk with a particular fondness for red-haired girls, and an even greater need for his prey to know how to run…

One of those mercenaries has had enough. Gwil has done some evil things in his time, but what haunts his conscience is those he did not do, but stood by and let happen. He'd have been with them still, but for a mistake and the betrayal that left him bowless and horseless and having to seek shelter in the open depths of a fenland winter.

And so he and the girl come together. Both hard-used by the war. One with a conscience to assuage and the other with a memory completely closed down even unto her own name.

Meanwhile… down in Oxford the doughty Maud of Kenniford is being married off, yet again. She's seen two husbands into the grave already (not intentionally), and his hopeful that this last one – the worst of the lot – might keep up the tradition. It looks like she's to be disappointed this time… Sir John is for Stephen and he'll take them to war over it, even if it cost him his own son…

And so we'll follow Gwil's attempts to protect the ruined waif that has come under his care, and Maud will try to keep her castle… and Stephen and Matilda will continue to fight… and the church-men will do what they always did in times such as these.

Winter Siege is an oddly titled book, since there are a number of sieges, none of which are told with the power to make them seem as awful as the reality would have been.

That lack of powerful reality was in the end the shortcoming of the book for me. None of it feels awful enough. The plot is sound, and played out with skill enough to keep you interested, but for all I loved the portrayal of Maud and Matilda (and even our red-headed child) as strong women with minds and morals of their own, they were allowed to become insipid and 'girly' in a way that annoyingly cut through the strength of character: as though a strong woman can't be 'feminine' unless it comes across as being fond of fancy clothes and going weak at the knees when a handsome knight catches her waist in the dark.

The battles are fought too quickly and too easily. The sieges don't stretch into pain. And the women… to be fair, most of the women were allowed to let me down. I'm sure there are those who will love this book, but for me it all got a bit too 'Mills and Boon' when I'd rather have had more of the grit of a Mary Gentle.

Perhaps because so little was written in the time, there are few books about it. The 11th & 12th century may be the next 'big thing' in romantic fiction, meanwhile slake your thirst with the likes of Philippa Gregory and her take on the 14th & 15th.

Buy Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman at Amazon.com.


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