Welsh Princes #1: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 18 March, 2010

Joanna, King John’s illigitimate daughter, is married to prince Llywelyn Fawr of Wales to secure an alliance. But John didn’t count on his daughter falling in love. When the relations between the two men start to deteriorate, Joanna is caught between her love for her father and her love for her husband.

As Wikipedia points out, one of the draws of Here Be Dragons is that it’s virgin territory; there are very few novels out there about historical Wales and, I confess, it was a milieu that I knew almost nothing about.

The historical aspects of the novel were fabulous, but it did occasionally cross into the territory of romance. Fair enough, I realize that many do like that sort of thing, but I found it rather boring and frustrating. Apparently, it’s a staple of the romance genre that people who are in love absolutely refuse to communicate with each other and, instead, simply assume the worst of the other person. I’ll never understand how this sort of thing came to be called “love” in our culture, but there you have it.

I realize that I’m not one to complain given how wooden and choppy my own writing style is, but I found Penman’s style in this book to be rather difficult to read. She has the awful tendency to force what should have been several sentences into one, joining them awkwardly. For example, she writes: “He even tried to forget the atrocity stories that were so much a part of his heritage, tales of English conquest and cruelties.” It works fine for effect now and then, but she uses it nearly every other sentence!

The book is meticulously researched and Penman is able to really bring the setting to life. The story, although about a class that is all-but extinct living lives that are so unlike anything we are familiar with, is, at the same time, very accessible. The conflict of allegiance between one’s parents and one’s spouse is something that I think most readers would be able to sympathize with.

Despite it’s flaws, I’d put Here Be Dragons as one of the better historical fiction novels on the market, well worth the read for anyone interested in the Middle Ages.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #3: Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin

Read: 21 November, 2009

Two bodies have been found in Glastonbury, and King Henry II sends Adelia Aguilar to confirm that the two mysterious skeletons belong to King Arthur and his lady Guinevere. If Henry can prove once and for all that Arthur is nothing more than a pile of bones, it will crush the Celt rebellion for good.

But things are never quite so simple. What should have been just a short trip to identify some remains quickly turns into a life or death struggle for Adelia and her companions.

Grave Goods is another excellent addition to the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Adelia is still something of a Mary Sue, but the plot is so interesting that this is quickly forgotten.

Throughout the series, I’ve been particularly impressed with the portrayal of Henry II. It certainly isn’t one that I’d seen before.

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Justin de Quincy Mysteries #4: Prince of Darkness by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 10 September, 2008

This is the fourth in Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series, but the first of her novels that I’ve read. In some ways, it was a shame because it gave me the feeling of falling into the story mid-way. The novel is definitely readable without having read any of the previous books, but since a lot of the characters are reappearances, I fear that I might know too much should I ever decide to read the previous novels in the collection. For those terribly curious, I started with this book because I found it for $2 at a Chapters inventory liquidation sale.

The fact that the order in which fate had me pick up the series is the biggest complaint that I can make about Prince of Darkness is quite telling. It was a fantastic novel with great characters. It was definitely one of those “can’t put it down” books – so much so that I missed my bus stop by about 20 minutes today while finishing it up. Justin is a delightful character – believable yet naive – making his relationship with his daughter heartbreaking.

The only weakness of the novel is how it deals with climactic scenes. There are a few parts where potential action is skipped over entirely and the final “catch the bad guy” scene felt somewhat limp compared to the build up it received. Certainly, Penman’s strength is in character, exposition, and presenting a living and utterly plausible world. It was an added bonus I felt that I recognized some of the Gieses’ books in her descriptions.

It was interesting the way Penman skips travel narration altogether. Justin will say that he wants to go to X location and the chapter ends. When the next chapter begins, he’s in X already. I don’t think I’ve ever seen travel handled quite so abruptly and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. When the novel first opened, I found it confusing. I didn’t know if this was a flashback, a different set of characters, if I’d missed something. A couple times, I found myself having to read nearly a full page before I could confidently situate myself in the narrative. After the first couple chapters, though, I became accustomed to it and it no longer confused me. Once this happened, I somewhat enjoyed not having to let go of the action every time an exposition scene would have been found.

The mystery wasn’t as good as I would have hoped. There certainly was one, but there was no discernible method to the gathering of clues and the thinking out of the whoddunnits. It really didn’t matter all that much. I found myself so interested in the characters that I forgot about the mystery entirely.

In any case, it was a great novel. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Medieval historical novels, character driven novels, or political intrigue. Mystery lovers may be disappointed, however.

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Cadfael Chronicles Prequel: A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters

Read: 30 August, 2008

Overall, I didn’t like it quite as much as A Morbid Taste for Bones. I think that Ellis Peters might just be one of those authors who is better suited for the longer narrative format. That being said, these stories were still great fun to read.

I love that Brother Cadfael doesn’t always wrap up his cases by catching the perpetrator and turning him/her over to the authorities. Sometimes, he decides that the crime is legitimate and helps the criminal escape. Sometimes, he doesn’t reveal who did it at all. In other words, he solves the mystery and makes things right, even if that means being on the wrong side of the power structure (and, sometimes, especially if it means going against the power structure). He’s a great character and far more complex than the usual detective who just wants to restore order, whatever the moral situation.

I had expected stories that showed Cadfael before he joined the monastic order. Instead, only one story fits that, and I found that the Cadfael character didn’t come through very clearly until the end of that story – once he had decided that he would join Shrewsbury Abbey. The rest of the short stories are like the novels, following an already established brother of the abbey. So we never get a good look at Cadfael in his previous life (in fact, I got more of a sense of that life by reading A Morbid Taste for Bones!) and we never get to see him learning about the abbey and trying to fit in. It’s a whole area that would have been great to read, so it’s a shame that it was skipped over.

Either way, these were great stories and I highly recommend them for any Brother Cadfael fan. I would also like to say that the illustrations in my copy are absolutely beautiful. They are drawn in the medieval style, but have something of the modern to them – it’s hard to describe. But they did add a great deal to my enjoyment of the book.

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Medieval Pottery in Britain by Michael McCarthy and Catherine Brooks

Read: 22 December, 2007

A survey of Medieval pottery divided into two parts. Part one deals with shaping, firing, and decorating techniques as well as the uses for pottery in both the domestic and industrial settings. Part two has an in-depth look at each area of England and the pottery styles common to each.

Part one is very interesting and a fun read. The writing style isn’t too dry and it’s full of great information. If you’re looking for something to just pick up and read one afternoon and have some interest in pottery or Medieval life, it’s a great choice.

Part two is a much more in-depth study. It’s mostly sketches of pots with explanations that are written for brevity rather than readability. Basically, part one is the read bit and part two is the reference bit.

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The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

A big thank you to Alyson for suggesting and lending me this book.

Read: 17 December, 2007

The small English town of Midwich has had a largely uneventful history until one day, September 26th, when every living creature for a mile around fell asleep. When they awoke a day later, every woman of childbearing age found herself pregnant. The babies (31 boys and 30 girls), when born, seem strange. They have glowing golden eyes and seem to age at about twice the normal rate.

I’d seen both movie adaptations, but I had no idea there was a book. I very much enjoyed reading it. The writing style is absolutely delightful and the pure English-ness of Midwich comes through beautifully. It was interesting, too, that the novel is told from the perspective of someone other than the protagonist.

Anyways, I highly recommend it to any fans of Science Fiction, the English countryside, or just interesting writing styles. It’s a fairly short book, easily read through in an evening, so there’s really no excuse not to pick it up.

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