Morality Play: Barry Unsworth

★★★★

Being footloose and fancy-free is a fine thing to imagine, but the reality is rather less splendid when it’s the mid 14th century and winter is coming. Errant cleric Nicholas Barber thinks Fortune might be looking kindly on him when he stumbles across a group of travelling players in the woods, who are burying one of their number. They need a sixth man in their company, and Nicholas can sing and read and write, as befits a clerk. Perhaps he can hold off starvation a while yet, and enjoy some adventure along the way. And yet, as the group moves northward, hoping to reach Durham by Christmas, Fortune has a few more tricks up her sleeve. When circumstances divert them to a country town, they find the community buzzing with news of a murder, and the forthcoming execution of the culprit. But is the supposed murderer really guilty? Nicholas and his colleagues are about to find that a very simple murder is anything but… and in trying to come to the truth of the matter, they might be courting grave danger.

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The Follies of the King: Jean Plaidy

★★

The Plantagenet Saga: Book 8

Last summer I had a bit of a run on Jean Plaidy in second-hand bookshops. She seemed to be the great historical novelist whom I hadn’t yet read (with the exception of Madonna of the Seven Hillswhich I read in November 2017). Having furnished myself with the vast majority of her works, I settled down a couple of days ago with The Follies of the King, the lamentable tale of Edward II. It’s the eighth book in her Plantagenet Saga but each seems to be pretty much self-contained and this just happened to be the first my hand landed on. Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve made a mistake; or perhaps this and Madonna of the Seven Hills were just duff choices. Published in 1980, this feels as if it dates from the 1950s instead, full of stilted melodrama, needless repetition and one-dimensional characters. While it jogged memories from my history degree, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but I fought the good fight and struggled through to the end.

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Silk and Song: Dana Stabenow

★★★★

There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.

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The Table of Less Valued Knights: Marie Phillips

★★★

In the darkest, least distinguished corner of the Great Hall at Camelot is a table they never speak of in the songs: the Table of Less Valued Knights. Here the retired and the also-rans live in the shadow of their glamorous peers on the famous Round Table. Sir Humphrey du Val is one of these past-it paladins, banished from the first division for an unchivalrous act and resigned to spending the rest of his life in the company of toothless has-beens. But then, one Pentecost, Fate throws Sir Humphrey an unexpected chance to distinguish himself once again. Before he knows it, he’s out on the road, riding to avenge a damsel in distress; but little does the poor knight realise that his trials are only just beginning. Cheerfully silly, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail crossed with A Knight’s Tale, this is an all-out medieval romp.

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The Western Wind: Samantha Harvey

★★★

It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.

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The Light Beyond the Forest: Rosemary Sutcliff

★★★½

The King Arthur Trilogy: Book II

I haven’t yet read The Sword and the Circle, the first part of Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the legends of King Arthur, but the trilogy really doesn’t need to be read in sequence. The Light Beyond the Forest is a children’s novel, yet it’s one written with grace and poetic sensitivity (as is everything by Sutcliff), telling the story of the Grail Quest. Thereby it tackles some fairly weighty issues: trust, honour, truth, loyalty, temptation, sacrifice and evil. If I’d read it as a child, I think I’d have been deeply impressed by its grandeur; reading it now, I’m struck by its lyrical simplicity and by the way it boils down a complex mix of Christian and pagan legends into a highly readable story.

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Smile of the Wolf: Tim Leach

★★★★

I was absolutely thrilled when I was offered a review copy of Tim Leach’s new novel. His first two books told the story of the Lydian king Croesus, a lyrical tale of a man who falls from majesty to slavery, and learns to live again, drawn from the Histories of Herodotus. This third book takes a new direction, unfolding among the icy crags and rolling valleys of 10th-century Iceland. It’s a tale of revenge; blood; vindictiveness; loyalty; and honour; but, more than anything else, it’s a story of friendship. This is the tale of the farmer Gunnar and the poet Kjaran, recounted with the tragic grandeur and poetic cadence of the great sagas, prickling with ice and flame.

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The Belt of Gold: Cecelia Holland

★★★★

When Hagan and his brother Rogerius arrive in Constantinople in 802, on their way home to Frankland from Jerusalem, they see it only as a stop on their journey. They have fulfilled their pilgrimage and now look forward to resuming their lives among the mists and forests of their native country. But when an accidental encounter with a beautiful young woman and a gang of thugs leaves Rogerius dead, the heartbroken Hagan vows revenge. Little does he realise that this vow will draw him deep into the midst of the literally byzantine plots unfolding in the Queen of Cities, and entwine his future with that of the beautiful, charismatic, dangerous Empress Irene.

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The Voyage of the Short Serpent: Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

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Hereward: James Wilde

★★★

Hereward: Book I

It’s been a while since I spent some quality time with a murderous early medieval Englishman. Unfortunately I don’t have any more Uhtred books lying around just at the moment, so I’ve had to transfer my allegiance to an equally bloodthirsty kinsman of his: Hereward. In this first volume of a series, James Wilde tells the story of the legendary Saxon warrior who became the figurehead of rebellions against the Normans after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s pretty sound sword-and-shield stuff, with bloody battles, an odd-couple pairing at its heart and a maverick hero. It doesn’t ever transcend that, but it’s an engaging way to encounter this rather dark period of English history.

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