The Last Hours: Minette Walters

★★★

Minette Walters is best known as the author of crime novels, but her new book strikes out into fresh territory: historical fiction. She introduces us to the 14th-century village of Develish in Dorset: a prosperous, contented place despite the depredations of its arrogant lord, Sir Richard. His more thoughtful wife Lady Anne has quietly worked behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for their serfs, and received their love and loyalty in return. As Sir Richard rides out to deliver their daughter Eleanor’s dowry to her intended husband, Lady Anne’s abilities are about to be tested to the full. For it is 1348 and the countryside is troubled by rumours of a great pestilence, which kills with no respect for rank, age or piety. As Lady Anne and her serfs gather behind the manor’s defensive moat, the certainties of an entire age are about to be turned upside down.

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A Morbid Taste for Bones: Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I

In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.

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By Blood Divided: James Heneage

★★★

The Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires): Book IV

A word of warning before I get into my flow: this is marketed as a potential stand-alone, but will make much more sense if you’ve read the previous three books in the Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires) series. I have not read these and consequently found myself floundering at first. Once I found my feet, however, I thought there was much to enjoy in this novel which takes us into rarely-mined historical fiction territory. Books set in the 15th century rarely make it further east than Venice and, indeed, we do spend some time in Venice here. But much of the story unfolds at Monemvasia and Mistra in the Peloponnese: two tiny outposts of the fading Byzantine Empire, standing proud against the looming armies of the Ottoman Turks. The true decline and fall of the Roman Empire is at hand, and it will be bound up with the story of two courageous men and the woman who is loved by both of them.

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The Outcasts of Time: Ian Mortimer

★★★

There’s a modern trend for historians to try their hand at fiction. As far as I can tell, it started with Alison Weir’s Tudor novels; more recently, Lucy Worseley and even Neil Oliver have jumped on the bandwagon. Now it’s the turn of Ian Mortimer, a brilliant medieval historian and the author of the various Time Traveller’s Guides to British history. You can understand the appeal. After all, historians have immersed themselves in the modes and manners of their specialist periods and should be perfect guides to fictional recreations of those worlds. But, but, but. Knowledge alone isn’t enough to make a good historical novel. Mortimer’s speculative time-slip moral fable is packed with instructive observations about daily life in the past, but does it work as a story?

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A Wind in Cairo: Judith Tarr

★★★★

For some reason, I always had Judith Tarr down as an author of historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt. However, though she has written some books with this setting, it turns out she’s a prolific author of historical fiction more broadly, as well as historical fantasy. I discovered this book completely by chance thanks to a post Tarr wrote at Tor.com on C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy, and have been utterly charmed by it. It’s an Arabian-Nights-style fantasy, set in Cairo in the 13th century during the rule of the young sultan Salah Al-Din: a tale of enchantment, arrogance, romance, and self-realisation, with a fiery young heroine and a most unconventional hero.

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The Half-Drowned King: Linnea Hartsuyker

★★★½

The Norway Trilogy: Book I

This rollicking tale of Viking adventure opens with oar-dancing in the first sentence, which boded very well for the rest of the story. Based on the sagas of Harald Fairhair written by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla in the 13th century, it looks back to the Norway of the late 9th century, a fragmented peninsula of petty kings and ruthless raiders. Focusing on the stories of a brother and sister fighting to realise their destinies, it’s an engaging tale spiced with the beliefs of medieval Scandinavia.

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Pope Joan: Donna Woolfolk Cross

★★★

I’d been keen to read this novel for over a year, so it felt like destiny when I spotted it in my local second-hand bookshop. The shadowy figure of Pope Joan has intrigued me ever since I first heard about her at university: the woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to the highest, most sacred position early medieval Europe could offer, before being unmasked when she gave birth to a child. Cross’s novel, set in the 9th century when Europe was still being forged out of a struggling mass of tiny princedoms and counties, takes in the wild snowy forests of the north, Rome’s faded glory, battles, Viking attacks and a protagonist who had the potential to be one of the most gripping characters I’ve read about for a long time. But unfortunately it never quite gelled into a satisfying whole.

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Kristin Lavransdatter: Sigrid Undset

★★★★

This is not the longest book I’ve ever read, though it comes close – trailing just behind World Without End and War and Peace, and probably The Lord of the Rings too, if we count that as a single book – but it certainly feels like the longest. I started it back in October, and since then it’s been flowing quietly along beneath the other books I’ve been reading like some great leviathan. Now and then I’ve put it aside for a bit, but its shadow has always been there, flickering at the corner of my eye. Finishing it feels like a major accomplishment. If I had a spare bottle of champagne, I’d be tempted to open it.

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Millennium: Tom Holland

★★★★

The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom

My goodness, it’s been a busy couple of weeks. Now at last the winter frenzy of work has been wrapped up; and today I experienced that most blissful of feelings: clearing my desk, closing down my computer and leaving the office for Christmas. No doubt the holidays will fly by very quickly, but I hope to spend a good proportion of them curled up with a good book. Luckily I have more than enough of those to choose from (though one of the novels on my to-read list is the kind of thing you might be rather surprised to see here; but more of that soon). For the last week or so, however, I’ve been kept occupied by a gripping, dense and rather enjoyable history book – a sweeping panorama of Europe in the two centuries which straddled the end of the first millennium.

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Lionheart: Sharon Penman

★★ ½

The Angevin Series: Book IV

This is the fourth instalment in Sharon Penman’s series about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their squabbling sons, following on from When Christ And His Saints Slept, Time and Chance, and Devil’s Brood. I’ve read all the earlier novels, and I enjoyed them too, but unfortunately Lionheart didn’t quite live up to my expectations. It’s hard to know whether this genuinely is a heavier, more stilted book than the earlier instalments or whether it’s just that I’ve become more demanding about historical novels since I read Devil’s Brood in 2009.

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