World without end by Ken Follett

In the forest just outside Kingsbridge four young children witness a battle between the young knight Thomas Langley and his two pursuers. Langley is saved and decides to take the vows in Kingsbridge priory. In the coming decades, Caris, Gwenda, Merthin and Ralph all try to find their way in the world, never talking about the incident again. Caris desperately wants to become a doctor after her mother’s death but only monks can study medicine. The younger brother Ralph becomes a squire into the household of a knight while the older Merthin is left behind to be a carpenter’s apprentice. And Gwenda is trying to make end’s meet while pursuing an impossible love.

This is an epic story following the descendants of the characters we know from ‘Pillars of the earth’ through the cruel 14th century. The fictitious town of Kingsbridge is again the setting of the book where the cathedral is still towering above everything but the first flaws are discovered in the structure of the building.

Edward II has just been deposed and possibly murdered by his queen Isabella of France in favor of her son Edward III. A war with France is looming around the corner. Serfs are working the fields for their lords. If the harvest is poor, many of them will die of starvation. And then there’s a pandemic which we now refer to as the Black Death. These really are the Dark Ages. Full of war, filth and disease.

If you’ve recently read Pillars, you will discover the characters of World without end are very alike. A character is either bad, like Ralph or Godwyn, or good, like picture perfect Merthin. There seems no in between. Caris and Merthin remind us of Jack and Aliena, but in some way these characters felt more lifelike. Especially Gwenda who suffers a lot, she was my favourite of the lot.

I read Pillars years ago, so I didn’t mind the similarities. Follett uses the same recipe but it works for me. I was absorbed in this cleverly built medieval story about four people and their families. I read Follett for the first time in English but his writing is so easy to read that I was looking forward to my reading time at night. It’s a big book but it didn’t feel like that at all. I wish there were more books like this.

The next book in the series ‘A column of fire’ takes place during Tudor times and is already sitting on my shelves.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Ken Follett?

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy returns to his elderly home at Somershill manor after the plague killed his father, his two older brothers and half of their tenants. At eighteen, he’s to become lord of the estate. But raised in a monastery, he’s untrained in the many responsibilities such an office holds. When a young girl is found murdered in the woods and the local village priest is talking about dog hounds and the devil, Oswald starts looking for the real murderer. A few days later, a second girl goes missing.

Plague land is the first book in the Somershill Manor Mystery series and introduces us to Oswald the Lacy, the third son of a noble family in Kent. It’s 1350 and the Black Death has been killing peasant and lord alike. The whole estate now turns to Oswald as their lord and after the body of Alison Starvecrow is found, Oswald is charged with finding the culprit (as the constable himself has also died from the plague).

Oswald is inexperienced in many things but gets help from his mentor brother Peter, who has a drinking problem. There’s a wide range of other characters, such as Joan, the local village whore, Oswald’s talkative mother and his sour sister Clemence. Apart from the characters, the medieval atmosphere also comes alive. You can smell the filth and disease from the pages. There’s a lot of superstition and talk of the devil and witches. These really were the Dark Ages.

I had my suspicions regarding the murder mystery but there are enough turns and twists to keep you hooked until the end when everything is revealed. This is not the best historical mystery. Sykes is no Sansom. But it’s entertaining and Oswald has a lot of potential as a main character for the coming books. He will have a lot more mysteries to solve it seems. And I’m looking forward to meet him again in ‘The butcher bird’.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Any other medieval mystery recommendations?

The vanishing witch by Karen Maitland

Wool merchant Robert is one of the richest men in Lincoln. But trade has become difficult as cargo starts to disappear and Flemish merchants are offering to pay for wool at higher prizes. Still, the beautiful widow Catlin seeks Roberts advice to invest her money and he quickly becomes enthralled by her. In the meantime, one of Robert’s tenants is struggling to make ends meet. When king Richard II imposes a poll tax for every head of the family above 15, they have no idea how to come by the money. Suddenly, peasants are revolting against the king and people start dying of unnatural causes in Lincoln.

I’ve never before read anything by Karen Maitland so The vanishing witch was my first acquaintance with her work. The novels opens around 1380 when king Richard II sits on the throne and times are hard. Especially for Gunther and his family. The unrest with the lower classes at the heavy taxation will lead to the peasant’s revolt. Maitland will even take you to the bloody streets of London during the revolt. The peasant’s revolt is the reason that I picked up this one up, but it isn’t the focus of this book. The storyline around Gunther is only secondary to the main plot.

The main story evolves around merchant Robert, his family and the widow Catlin. Robert falls in love with Catlin but soon his oldest son, Jan, smells there’s something wrong about her. Especially as people start to die in strange circumstances and the word witchcraft is uttered. Also a strange hooded fellow is seeking out Robert, Jan and the rest of the household to warn them about Catlin, but nobody listens until it’s too late. I didn’t really care about Catlin and Robert as I found them both annoying at times but the flip in perspective contributed to understand all that happened. There are a range of other characters such as Catlin’s children Edward and Leonia and Robert’s servants Beata and Tenney, and I found these side characters more of an interest to me.

The novel is told from Catlin, Gunther and a third person perspective who tells the tale of Robert. From the first pages onwards you sense that the narrator is a ghost but it’s only explained at the end who this person is and what his relation is to the rest of the characters.

This dark atmosphere is a big part of the book. Every chapter starts with a real medieval text fragment about witchcraft. I found them very funny to read. I challenge you to find out yourself if there is a real witch in this story or not… It’s up to you ;).

In the end, I can say that this is definitely my type of book. It has an interesting historical background, a great cast of characters and a gothic undertone. But in some ways, I found it slow to read. Something in Maitland’s writing style forces you to to take it all in.

This is book 1 for #20booksofsummer

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Karen Maitland? Do you know of any other books dealing with the peasant’s revolt?

Queen of the north by Anne ‘O Brien

Elizabeth Mortimer has royal Plantagenet blood and is married to Harry Hotspur Percy, the heir to the greatest earldom in the north. She believes her young nephew Edmund Mortimer to be second in line to the throne after the childless and unpopular king Richard II. But many don’t want another child king and support her other cousin Henry Of Lancaster instead. When Henry sets foot in England again after years in exile while Richard has suffered grave defeat in Ireland, the battle for the throne is on. Elizabeth’s husband and stepfather join forces with Lancaster and abandon the Mortimer cause. Will there ever be Mortimer king?

This is the second book I’ve read from Anne O’ Brien after having enjoyed ‘the shadow queen‘ about Joan Of Kent a few years ago. Queen Of The North is one of the books she has written around powerful women during Henry IV’s troubled reign. The novel opens with Henry of Lancaster returning to England to gather support to defy king Richard II. The Percy army in the north is preparing to join him.

We meet Elizabeth Mortimer, the wife of the famous Harry Hotspur. The Mortimers are the heirs of Lionel, second son of Edward III, but through the female line of Elizabeth’s mother Filippa Plantagenet. This weakens the claim of her eight-year-old nephew Edmund should Richard die childless. I’ve never really understood why the Mortimer didn’t try harder to get on the throne. They have a stronger claim (if you ignore the female part of it), but history will be forever talking about Lancaster and York. So I found it really interesting to read this story from a Mortimer point of view.

Elizabeth is also a Percy and thus future ‘queen’ of the north. We meet her ambitious stepfather, the earl of Northumberland, and her husband Harry “Hotspur” as he is referred to by the Scots. The marriage between Elizabeth and Harry is quite happy, although there are some serious clashes between them in this novel, not in the least about the succession. Their relationship is the most compelling part of the book in my opinion. I really could love and hate Harry at the same time.

I had hoped that the rebellion would be the biggest part of the novel, but it happens quite fast and the second half focuses even more on Elizabeth’s development as a traitor to the crown. Near the end of the story, I had more and more sympathy for her feelings.

We also meet Queen Joan Of Navarre and Constance Of York in this novel. About both women O’ Brien has written a separate novel. I have the one about Constance ready on my shelves and am curious if I will like her more than in I did this book.

O’ Brien focuses on the story of women, this also means that the main character is far from the action that happens at the battlefield. There are also some serious time jumps adding to the pace of the novel. All things together, I find O’ Brien’s writing style a bit too dry and distant. She lacks the flair of a Joanna Hickson or Elizabeth Fremantle for example. But she writes about forgotten women with a unique story, so I’ll continue to read her books.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read any books set during Henry IV reign?

The last hours by Minette Walters

1348. A strange and deadly sickness kills whole villages near Dorsetsire in England. When Lady Anne of Develish hears of this so called ‘Black Death’, she decides to bring all the serfs inside the walls, much against the will of her daughter Eleanor and her Norman steward. Lady Anne even refuses her husband Sir Richard entrance when he comes back from a journey and carries the sickness with him. But while in quarantine the social order between serfs and their lords is overturned. A dramatic event and the fear of starvation forces a few of them to leave, unsure about what they will find outside.

I picked this one up in the library hoping to discover an excellent and bulky historical story. Reading about a pandemic seemed appropriate now and the Black Death is one of these almost mythical illnesses we still don’t know a lot about today.

We meet Lady Anne of Develish who was educated by nuns and has different views on social class and hygiene. She is much beloved by her serfs but hated by her daughter Eleanor because she favors the bastard serf Thaddeus Thurkell.

I had hoped this book would tell me more about the plague, but actually the focus is on the little community of Develish and its underlying secrets. I did not really like one of the main characters. Especially Eleanor is the kind of person you want to be the first to perish from this new disease :D. There is also a strong sexual abuse theme and I’m still not sure what to think about that storyline.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel Thaddeus goes outside with five companions looking for food. And from that moment I started scanning through the pages as I found their journey quite boring. I couldn’t get all the names and wasn’t interested in the boys’ childish worries. I did read the parts within Develish as I liked to read about the social order during this time and how the quarantine turned it all over.

The novel has an open ending, the story is not finished yet. Luckily, the sequel ‘the turn of midnight’ is already out, but I won’t read it. I believe I was just too disappointed about the story itself and expected a more gripping read about the devastating consequences of a pandemic.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read a good novel about the Black Death?