Winter Pilgrims: Toby Clements

★★★★

Kingmaker: Book I

Toby Clements’s novel opens in the bitter cold of the winter of 1460, in the midst of the Wars of the Roses, in a country teetering on the brink of anarchy. In the wake of the battles of St Albans and Ludford Bridge, the weak and unstable King Henry VI and his wife, the virago Margaret of Anjou, cling to the last threads of their power, while the armies of the Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick winter for safety in Calais and plot their next move.

But the affairs of lords, ladies and kings are of little real consequence to Thomas of Everingham, a monk at the Priory of St Mary near Lincoln. All Thomas knows is that the countryside is slipping into chaos. With many strong hands absent, ambitious local lords are taking their chances to settle personal scores and carve out little kingdoms for themselves. And Thomas comes into personal contact with this brand of arrogant, ruthless lordship early on a winter’s morning when he is sent out by his prior to kill a fox, caught in one of the priory’s traps, whose screaming is disturbing their rest. As Thomas returns across the fields to the priory, he stumbles into an event that will change the course of his life: two nuns from the priory’s sister convent have come across a band of armed, bored soldiers who are looking for some diversion. In protecting the nuns (one of whom, Katherine, is doing quite well on her own account), Thomas seriously wounds one of the soldiers and unwittingly launches himself into a private feud with the man’s lord (and father), Sir Giles Riven.

Forced out of the priory, Thomas and Katherine find themselves on the run: as apostates, exiles and (at least one of them) murderers. The Church authorities would be glad to recapture them for any of these reasons; but they are also being hunted by Giles Riven and his men, who have a blood debt to claim; and Thomas himself itches to kill Riven and settle his own scores. Cast into a cold, unwelcoming world of which neither of them knows anything – having been hidden behind convent walls for years – they struggle to orient themselves in the midst of a confusing political situation. For the commons of England, it matters little which head wears the crown, and the wars mean little beyond imbalance and constant, debilitating fear.

As they come to terms with the startling reality of life beyond the cloister, fate, destiny, or God’s will leads them to Calais: as part of the affinity of Sir John Fakenham and his son Richard, who serve with Warwick. Here Thomas rediscovers his youthful skill with a bow and gradually becomes accepted into the rugged, cheerfully vulgar company of archers; while Katherine, cutting her hair and disguising herself as the boy Kit, finds that her healing skills can carve out a place for her in this teeming world of men. Together they immerse themselves in their new lives, as the coming of spring – and the renewal of war in England – looms ever larger, bringing with it the horrifying obligation to kill their countrymen, but also the chance to settle scores with Riven.

We’ve seen a lot of the Wars of the Roses recently, largely thanks to Philippa Gregory’s books and TV series, but Clements makes the refreshing choice to step away from the court intrigue, the heaving bosoms and the overly-familiar names, and to look at what life was like for ordinary people. (Assuming that you can call a skilled archer and a talented healer ‘ordinary’.) And he does this remarkably well. Not only does he make Thomas and Katherine both fully-rounded, believable and sympathetic characters, he also manages to make them feel like authentic products of their time. The whole book, in fact, resonates with that sense of conviction.

As I’ve said before, I like my historical fiction to be convincingly grubby and tattered round the edges, and Clements succeeds in this with a vengeance. His battle scenes take up large parts of the book (perhaps a warning for those who aren’t so keen on such) and are written extremely well, with what seems to be a thorough understanding not only of the practice but also the impact of war. It’s brutal and harsh, and a necessary corrective to the kind of novels in which commanders move pieces on a board and disappear to have victories off-stage. Here is the mud, the stench and the desperate terror of war: the fear and camaraderie of men who know that half their number (at an optimistic estimate) will be dead before the day is out, and whose fates can be dictated by nothing more than the strength or direction of the wind. Clements has apparently had some practice with the bow, and it shows in his descriptions of the physical hardships of using the weapon, which I’m sure must have grown from personal experience at some point.

This is the first in a series and I’m looking forward to seeing how things develop from here. Clements has created some very engaging characters, not only in his two protagonists but in Sir John Fakenham and the rest of his little affinity, and I’ve grown fond of them all. And, even though I believe this is his debut novel, he’s managed to successfully blend real feeling for his historical period with strong characterisation and the kind of momentum that drags you breathless through the churned-up mud of the battlefield. I’ve read long-established novelists in the past who haven’t come anywhere near to doing it this well. If you also like your fiction with a bit of grit and swagger, this is really something you should try.

Buy the book

Next in this series: Broken Faith

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley, in return for a fair and honest review.

4 thoughts on “Winter Pilgrims: Toby Clements

  1. Helen says:

    I've received a copy of this from Netgalley too but haven't read it yet. I'm hoping to get to it in the next couple of weeks. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite historical periods and I like the idea of a book that looks at the lives of ordinary people during that time. I'm not really a huge fan of battle scenes but I don't mind them as long as they're well written!

  2. RT says:

    Belatedly reading your review – so pleased you enjoyed it too. I found it the best historical that I have read for a long time. Thoroughly agree how refreshing it is to read about “ordinary people”. Though battles aren't what I read such books for, these were certainly very well done: for example the exhaustion of those fighting, and small touches such as how ordinary soldiers have little idea about what the commanders are up to or what is happening on another part of the battlefield … am very much looking forward to the sequel. Hope it does well!

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