Historical

“Agincourt” by Bernard Cornwell

 

Book cover - Agincourt copy

Set in the 1400s, “Agincourt” delivers a graphic account of one of the most important battles of the age. Underfunded, overconfident and thoroughly lucky, the English king, Henry V, decides he needs to conquer Agincourt in order to claim the French crown and maintain his dominance of the Normandy coast. He must overcome formidable odds and expensive, incredible losses on hostile foreign soil, and yet he marches on. Any real battle strategy is thrown to the wind as the French forces keep outwitting the English. If you don’t already know the actual story of Agincourt, the book will keep you guessing until the end.

 

The tale is told from an archer’s viewpoint. It’s not a new storytelling technique to have a warrior relate the action, but interesting in this case because the skill of English archers was feared throughout the world. If you had a few hundred archers on your side, you would most likely win the battle. They were the early medieval equivalent of our modern day artillery, yet their quivers only held about twenty arrows at a time. Think about it. Twenty ‘shots’ before having to be resupplied from a packhorse shared by other archers. Survival depended on having quick, deadly aim and well-made arrows that flew true.

 

As always, “Agincourt” is meticulously researched, and Cornwell accomplishes a literary feat few authors can claim – he makes a battle fascinating, while at the same time never letting us forget about the violence. From the description of exhausted men slogging through muddy tracks to the subplots of personal bickering over lands, women and food, war is depicted as grim, hard work accomplished for the glory of the nation and king.

 

Body armor and weapons of the era are discussed in terms of their merits for particular campaigns, and in very human terms – “armored men on foot were less vulnerable to arrows than horses…”

 

I keep coming back to Cornwell for more, wishing that my school history books could have made the events of that century come to life in the way he does. If Cornwell ever gives up the mighty pen for the more prosaic life of an ancient history professor, his classes would be standing room only.

 

For more information about Cornwell and his work, please visit www.bernardcornwell.net

Read the review of Cornwell's "Sword Song" here.

 

 

“Mother Earth Father Sky” by Sue Harrison

 

Book Cover - Mother Earth Father Sky

 

 

The time is 9,000 years ago. Chagak lives a simple life beneath “Mother Earth Father Sky” in the Aleutian Islands. She helps the other women skin seals, smooth the hides with volcanic rock, sing songs to praise the hunters, and weave curtains and sleeping mats from grass that grows in the area. Her mother creates a special suk for her from bird skins and cormorant feathers to celebrate her transition into womanhood. Chagak is about to be married to a young seal hunter she likes and life is as it should be. Her routine is one that all the women in her village have always had, against the constant background of the roar of the wind and the sea.

 

One day, while Chagak is gathering berries and grass, her village is attacked and unknown warriors butcher everyone in it, including her betrothed. Her own group is not a war faring tribe; they hunt seals, not people, so she cannot understand the why. As the lone survivor (except for her infant brother) she has the gruesome duty of burying everyone, saving their spirits for the travel to the afterlife. Harrison’s expressive writing reveals the emotional trauma that Chagak endures while dealing with the worst parts of life.

 

Chagak knows her best chance of continued survival is to summon all her strength, take an ik (small canoe) and find the Whale Hunters village of her mother’s family across the open water. She hopes that her grandfather will take her and her brother in. During her journey, she stops at a beach to rest and encounters an old man, Shuganan, a renowned ivory carver who persuades her to stay. He cares for her as a granddaughter, keeping her safe when he can. Their relationship becomes precious to both of them and they use it to defend against unwelcome visitors who may have been the attackers at Chagak’s former village.

 

What follows is a saga of ancient rituals of the prehistoric Ice Age, descriptions of infinitely different roles of men and women, splendid tales of the origin of the world as understood by the First Men, and the awakening of a young woman’s spirit. Harrison has created a moving story of jealousy, betrayal, devastating loss, courage, murder, and greed surrounding the beautiful, gentle Chagak. Despite the harsh realities of Chagak’s life dependent on men, some of whom could be (and were) brutal, she learns to survive and even triumph.
 

“Mother Earth Father Sky” is meticulously researched, with incredible detail about the customs and implements used at the time.  A beached whale is reduced to bone and steaks and blubber on the page. We read that fat is carefully simmered, then separated into use for cooking and oiling skins. We learn how ulaqs are constructed and why the ikyaks stay afloat. A recent visit to a Natural History Museum was made more ‘real’ by having read Harrison’s debut novel. 

 

Chagak is only 13 in “Mother Earth Father Sky,” but we can surmise from archeological digs that she would have been considered of marriageable age as soon as she entered puberty. When young children developed enough dexterity/strength to hold a spear or weave a mat, they were trained to acquire life skills that supported the group in some way – skin seals, gather roots and eggs, collect driftwood for roofs, clean bones for clothing and housing. It was a harsh life by today’s standards of dishwashers and big box stores and restaurants, but for them, it was merely life. Chagak had long been a contributing member of her clan.

 

I ‘met’ Sue Harrison on Twitter and looked into her work, discovering that the prehistoric series, ‘The Ivory Carver Trilogy,’ was out-of-print and hard to find. I persisted in my search because of my interest in the Pacific Northwest and the Aleuts and acquired “Mother Earth Father Sky” through a used book dealer. Now that Harrison has been able to have the novels published as ebooks, I can share the review of this marvelous title.

 

 

Please visit www.sueharrison.com for more information about this bestselling author, her other series and projects.

 

 

“The Red Queen” by Philippa Gregory

 

the_red_queen

 

Internationally bestselling author of “The Other Boleyn Girl,” Gregory has been renowned for the quality of her historical fiction, with richly drawn female characters determined to reach beyond their expected roles in life in order to direct the course of the English monarchy.

 

In the NYTimes bestseller, “The Red Queen,” Gregory travels back to the War between the Roses and views the conflict from the vision of the would-be queens behind the thrones of the family of Plantagenets. The first in the series, “The White Queen,” told the story of Elizabeth Woodville. “The Red Queen” reveals the life-long ambition of Margaret Beaufort, the heir to the House of Lancaster and her son, Henry, who was second in line to the throne of England.

 

In the 1400’s, even women from important families were merely chattel; their hands in marriage (and therefore lands and wealth) given as a reward for loyalty to the king in battle. Beaufort was unable to identify with the life planned for her and after hearing about the exploits of Joan of Arc, wanted to devote her days to prayer. Her mother ridiculed her faith and engineered a politically and economically advantageous marriage instead.

 

Married, pregnant and widowed by the age of fourteen, then widowed again and bequeathed a great fortune, Beaufort was married a third time to Lord Stanley, a man even more calculating than she. She had no say in the management or distribution of her wealth, but her maniacal single-mindedness to place her son on the throne drove her life, and her fanaticism kept her focused for over twenty years. Stanley’s ambition mirrored her own and their scheming defined their loveless marriage.

 

Gregory deftly illustrated the changes in Beaufort’s life by describing the worktable: “…once covered with books of devotion, it (was) now covered with maps and codes for secret messages.” Beaufort herself recognized her sins of ambition and greed, but placed blame for all her problems on the mother of two boys who had an equal claim to the throne.  Boys who mysteriously died a treacherous death in the Tower of London, clearing the way for Henry to return from exile and fight against the usurper, Richard III, to claim his birthright.

 

Murder, intrigue, bribery, war – actions committed for the right to wear the crown. More bloodthirsty and politically savvy than most of the hardened warriors she sent off to champion her cause, Beaufort fervently engineered it all.

 

Visit www.philippagregory.com for more information about her books, the new ‘Order of Darkness’ series, and TV shows based on her work.

 

 

“After the Rising” by Orna Ross

Book Cover - After the Rising

 

This lovingly written novel deals with the underlying subject of The Easter Uprising, a turnaround time in Irish politics. Ireland had been under English rule since 1169, an uneasy union at best, and at its worst, a blood-soaked thorn in the English side. Many in Ireland resented having to work in virtual servitude for English Lords who robbed them of their land or sent resources back to England. That resentment exploded in Dublin on a sunny Easter Sunday in 1916.

 

“After the Rising” begins in 1995, with Jo’s notification of her mother’s death. Jo travels to the village of Mucknamore, Ireland, all the way from San Francisco in the USA, filled with guilt and grief and anger. Jo hasn’t been back in twenty years. She hears the Will and at first, refuses to follow its directive: create a family history from the notes and letters left behind in a blue suitcase. Jo doesn't want to be in Mucknamore, let alone write about the very people that drove her crazy. But, she needs to exorcise her demons and the story begins in earnest, drawing us in as Jo tries to break free.

 

Three generations of women from Jo’s family tell their stories in the letters. Stories of the war between the Irish and the English, the formation of the IRA as well as other Irish  factions, the role of strong women in the fighting. This is a profoundly personal political book, bringing to life an aspect of 'the troubles' accepted, but not usually discussed: the divisions of families, lovers, neighbors, and neighborhoods. Best friends take sides and become enemies, each passionate about their view, each well meaning. Disagreements about the ‘English problem’ divide a nation within and blood is shed for decades.

 

Ross has woven a mature tale of forbidden love lost and remembered in sometimes explicit detail, of women who yearned to have a larger role in the fight for Irish freedom, of three generations frustrated by the fact that they had so few options in a male-dominated Irish culture. Each of the women faces a challenge unique to her generation and has to make a heart-rending decision.

 

Wexford County, Ireland, is beautifully described: a mix of new apartment blocks, old bungalows and cemeteries “with patchworks of crosses and slabs of stone staring over a low wall at the sea.” Ross’s word pictures happily reminded me of a road trip I had taken through that area a number of years ago.

 

“After the Rising” is remarkable in the spot-on glimpse into how we regard our own parents and grandparents. (Could my gray-haired great-grandmother who could barely take care of herself, ever have been a freedom fighter who carried grenades under her coat?) As Jo reads through the contents of the blue suitcase, she begins to understand her mother’s decisions, but grieves anew at the love left unspoken, at the memories never shared. She is staggered by the unbearable family mysteries revealed for the first time.

 

I downloaded an early version of “After the Fall,” initially self-published only in ebook form. My copy had formatting glitches, but Ms. Ross has re-issued the ebook and has promised that the problems have been corrected. A paperback version is now available as well. A sequel, “Before the Fall,” which continues the saga of Jo and her family, has been published in both ebook and paperback form.

 

Orna Ross, an Irish author, is the founder of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors. For more information about Orna Ross, her work in self-publishing, and her novels, visit www.ornaross.com

 

 

 

 

“Sword Song” by Bernard Cornwell

Book Cover - Sword Song

Drama, blood, gore, and a few maimings are all a part of best-selling author Bernard Cornwell’s series (the Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories) dealing with the birth of England in the 9th century. “Sword Song” is the fourth in the series and continues the story of Uhtred, a renowned and respected warrior of King Alfred the Great. Uhtred, a dispossessed Northumbrian Lord who was raised by Vikings, shifts allegiances as war and his ambition require. We are never quite sure where Uhtred’s sword will wind up, but we know it will be a rousing good read while the battles unfold.

 

Cornwell is a master of making historical fiction come alive, by writing interestingly flawed central characters who must live by their wits and skills in a time when nice guys died early. Each of his books is thoroughly researched to ensure authenticity, but the reader feels as if the details are part of the story, not minutiae to fill the page. Battles are for the most part historically accurate and only altered when needed to fit a particular storyline. It is one of the fascinating aspects of reading the series that one can come away with a strong understanding of the chronological changes in the nature of war. 9th century strategies are explained, weaponry both large and small is described and ancient armor can be easily envisioned. In my case, a visit to an exhibition of 12th-14th c. armor at the Met in NYC was enhanced by having read Cornwell’s books.

 

“Sword Song” (2007) was followed by “The Burning Land,“ (2009) and “Death of Kings” (2011).  A friend of mine, a student of the ‘art of war’ in both non-fiction and fiction platforms, has purchased every title in the series, disappointed only by the fact that he had to wait between each publication for the next.

 

If you don’t yet have your own copies, go forth and seek some. The gauntlet has been thrown!

 

For more information about Bernard Cornwell and his many internationally famous books and series, visit www.bernardcornwell.net

Read the review of "Agincourt" here.

 

 

“The Preacher’s Bride” by Jody Hedlund

Book Cover - The Preacher's Bride

 

The power of Twitter can be remarkable. I ‘met’ Jody Hedlund a year ago while following a respected agent, Rachelle Gardner. Rachelle mentioned that “The Preacher’s Bride” was about to be released and I went to Jody’s blog, read it, then bought her book.

 

“The Preacher’s Bride” is an award winning, debut novel set in the time of Cromwell. I hadn’t read historical romance in a long time, and it was a pleasant surprise to return to that crowded arena with such a great, faith-based story. Elizabeth Whitbread defies the misguided leaders in her church in order to help a recently widowed man and his young children. John Crostin is determined to spread the Word of God throughout the countryside, but needs help with his household in order to do so. The two meet and despite many obstacles, help each other and unexpectedly fall in love.

 

The fight for religious freedom was a dangerous one in those days and being on the wrong side in politics sometimes landed you in jail (or worse) because of your religious beliefs. Hedlund based her novel on an actual couple, Elizabeth and John Bunyan, remembered in history because of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” John wrote this important piece of literature while sitting in jail for many years. It dealt with holding on to faith in the midst of incredible hardship, a tenet repeated in “The Preacher’s Bride.”

 

This book was a departure from what I usually review, but the memorable writing made “The Preacher’s Bride” a standout from the rest of its genre. It won the Colorado Romance Writers Award as well as the Inspirational Reader’s Choice Award. I looked forward to reading Hedlund’s second book, “The Doctor’s Lady,” (it took First Place in The Golden Quill awards) and I was not disappointed. “Unending Devotion” came out this year and “A Noble Groom” is scheduled for 2013.

 

For more about Jody Hedlund and her books, visit http://jodyhedlund.com/

 

 

 

 

 

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