Saturday, June 28, 2014

What we do not have...

Alright, so it may be presumptuous for me, who is not a fiction writer to give advice and tips to those who are, but I beg my readers a boon.

As someone from 'the other side', that is a British person who reads a genre dominated by Americans and Canadians I credit myself with having something of a different perspective and noticing things that might pass by others.
One such observation is the references to flora and fauna not indigenous to the British Isles in books set in the land of my provenance.
Now I don't profess to be a botanist, or a gardener, I can't even tell most kinds of flowers apart, but I do know the basics.
So, when I notice references to Medieval English folk consuming turkey or potatoes, using wood from hickory trees to fuel their fires, the alarm bells of anachronism ring.

Some years ago I got on my soapbox in a review to criticise the references to 14th century English peasants eating potatoes, remarking that a simple Google search would have been enough to reveal that they would not have done so for the reason to outlined below.
Admittedly I was a little- forthright (but not rude)- in the review, and later edited it, and the author explained the error. Yet my objection was grounded.

Although potatoes might to associated with the 'Old World' by my American readers, those delightful and versatile little brown tubers we call potatoes, consumed by their millions by Britons today originally hail from across the pond. As do turkeys and tomatoes- so Medieval people didn't avoid these because they believed them poisonous- they didn't have them at all.
Consequently, none of these plants or their resultant foodstuffs were present in Britain until the 16th century.

Hence, for Brits (at least those like me) having Medieval Peasants eating potatoes is a glaring error that really should not be made by any historical fiction author who wishes their work to be even broadly accurate. To my mind its equivalent to having a novel in which George Washington satiates his hunger on a MacDonald's cheeseburger and medium fries.
My (and perhaps your) medieval European forbears didn't eat spuds, we didn't know what they smelled like, or how much a sack of them weighed. Period.

How about animals? Well that can be something of a grey area, as a number of species have become extinct
as 'recently' as that last few centuries. At one point Beavers, Wolves, Lynx and even Bears (to my surprise) were present in the forests, lakes or mountain fastnesses of Britain. Yet it would be anachronistic to include these beasts in some periods.
Wolves are reckoned to have been hunted to extinction in England by the 1300s, but held on in Scotland for another two centuries. So a novel set in 17th century England really shouldn't have them, and they may never have been especially numerous.

Bears from Caledonia (probably of the European Brown species) were apparently exported to the continent by the Romans for the arena 'games' but were gone from Britain by the tenth century, and probably much earlier, by the time the Saxons came in the 400s.
So a 12th century knight having boasted of killing a bear in the English countryside would likely not have been believed.
However, the skunk and racoons present in the London and the surrounding countryside in Disney's 101 Dalmatians were a decidedly foreign aberration. If the little critters were to be seen in such places, they would in all probability have escaped from captivity.

So, no matter how much a writer might want to wreak a smelly punishment upon the villain of their tale, set in the shores of this isle, a skunk is not the best instrument to use. If you're in need of a black and white creature with stripes on its back- maybe stick with a badger.

This is not so say Britain is lacking in interesting and beautiful wildlife, or nutritious plants, but the earth has much 'fullness' and variation of such things. Perhaps its best not to assume that because we're used to seeing or eating the flora and fauna of our own country, that the people of centuries past in another were too...

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Widow's Redeemer- Philippa Jane Keyworth

★★
November 2012, 290 Pages (Kindle)
A penniless young widow with an indomitable spirit. A wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation.

London, 1815: After her husband’s untimely death, Letty Burton comes up from the country with her domineering mother-in-law. Hiding a past she wishes to forget and facing an uncertain future, all she wants is to navigate London Society as a silent companion.

A chance meeting with London’s most eligible bachelor sets in motion a series of events that will bring her quiet life under the unfriendly scrutiny of the ton. With the net of scandal, debts, and rivals closing in, will she let her dark past dictate her life forever? Will she learn to trust again? And most importantly, will she allow herself to love?
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I’ve read a fair few Regencies in the past couple of years, and I would rank this amongst one of my favourites. The notion of a retelling of the Book of Ruth set in the Regency period was clever and generally well done, with a realistic and accurate historical setting, and a stock of well-drawn characters. Letty /Lettice(which I imagine was short for Letitia), a hurting woman whose abusive marriage destroyed her belief in love struggling to survive in society. Major Deverill, the dashing and honourable war veteran who quickly befriends out heroine and leads and defends her through many trials, and Viscount Beaumont, the rakish nobleman who is not all he seems.

There are enough balls, hobnobbing with high society and glamorous dresses and period delights to please fans of Regency. I enjoyed the story itself on one level for what it was not- it was not what I call ‘fluffy’ romance in which the protagonists are constantly dwelling on the physical attractiveness of the other, or kissing at every given opportunity. Admittedly Beauford is smitten with Letty (but not she him), but in came across in a way that seemed almost- chivalrous- not soppy or silly.
The struggles, attitudes, outlook and language of the characters seemed to fit in with the time period, and did not seem too Americanised, which is something of an issue for me. No doubt the reason was that the author is British, so it’s pleasing to find a British author with a successful work Christian Fiction genre.

I did have one or two complaints. One was the lack of religious commitment on the part of the male protagonist, who is meant to be the Boaz character of the story, (for those unfamiliar with the Biblical account he was the faithful Jewish landowner who married Ruth- the non-Jewish woman who embraced their faith and people) which was a fact that did not seem to change towards the end. Perhaps it’s not a wholly founded complaint, but it seemed to me that for Christian Regency, there was not a lot that was ostensibly Christian.
I think perhaps the author was trying to make the change in his character more subtle, in line with the theme of redemption though love central to the story. Finally, there was some of the language- in the sense of swear words, yes they were understandable in light of the circumstances and the feelings of the characters- but I somehow thought it seemed distasteful to keep saying ‘damn him’ of a person who was already dead.

Generally, a solid and enjoyable story it’s easy to get lost in, with faint shades of Austen. I would certainly be interested in reading Mrs Keyworth’s next novel, due out in September.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Behold the Dawn K.M.Weiland

PenforaSword Publishers 2009, 332 Pages 
Marcus Annan, a tourneyer famed for his prowess on the battlefield, thought he could keep the secrets of his past buried forever. But when a mysterious crippled monk demands Annan help him find justice for the transgressions of sixteen years ago, Annan is forced to leave the tourneys and join the Third Crusade.

Wounded in battle and hunted by enemies on every side, he rescues an English noblewoman from an infidel prison camp and flees to Constantinople. But, try as he might, he cannot elude the past. Amidst the pain and grief of a war he doesn’t even believe in, he is forced at last to face long-hidden secrets and sins and to bare his soul to the mercy of a God he thought he had abandoned years ago.
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Overall, the book left me with mixed feelings. It was undeniably well-written with vivid and evocative descriptions and realistic and exhilarating battle scenes- at least at the beginning. Towards the end the kidnappings or attempted kidnappings), attacks, narrow escapes, rescues and almost inevitable accompanying fight scenes seemed to become a little repetitive, predictable and dare I say, overdone or over reliant on action?
Also, the apparently invincibility of the hero Marcus Annan and his servant Marek seemed to stretch credibility- with the former able survive numerous wounds, to fight with broken bones or other injuries, and the latter surviving being thrown off a balcony- all of when other characters are killed with far less (Was really that easy to cut through chain mail?)
Another scene in which one of the villains broke into a castle guarded by precisely one man at the main gate seemed decidedly implausible. Seriously, I doubt a castle in the Middle of potentially hostile territory would have been so poorly defended, especially after being broken into once.

The hero Marcus Annan could be a frustrating character. His actions were sometimes inconsistent or hardtop work out- wanting to be rid of the monk Gethin one minute then riding off to save him shortly after. Also, the characterization of a Crusader cum pilgrim with religious doubts is perhaps not the most original, as similar protagonists can be found in other books and movies. Like them, Annan’s skepticism, apparent bias against the Crusaders, and some of his other beliefs and attitudes seemed rather too modern.

There were also a number of historical issues- the most notable being the depiction of events that took place after the capture of the city of Acre in 1191- the controversial order given by Richard the Lionheart to massacre 2700 Muslim prisoners. In the novel it is made out that Richard gave this order after only a few days when Saladin hadn’t produced the sum of money demanded as part of the negotiated terms of surrender- and he is made out to be the bad one for having broken his oath to Saladin to deliver the prisoners and acting dishonourably.

Yet in reality, Richard made no oath to Saladin, and the impetus was on him to fulfill the terms of surrender, who acted just as duplicitously as Richard by playing for time, trying to change the terms, and draw the Crusaders into battle.
Also, over 30 days elapsed, the agreed deadline for fulfilling the terms of surrender, before the order was given. Finally, it is claimed that women and children were among those massacred, when this is not mentioned in any contemporary sources, and at least two modern historians have asserted those slain consisted entirely of fighting men. Admittedly, the origin of this inaccurate depiction was in the sources the author used, not she herself, but given the capacity of historical fiction to influence people’s perception of history, it bears mention. One other inaccuracy was ironed out towards the end, and further historical details suggested a good amount of research.

I also seriously do wonder whether the leading characters would have been allowed to get away with murdering or plotting to murder, their fellow nobles, or the rape of a noblewoman, right under the king’s nose- so to speak. Medieval nobles were generally quite assertive in defence of their rights- to the point that they even rebelled against Kings who abused their power. So I certainly think the nobles would have acted to defend themselves against the villains of this story, or complained to the King
My final complaint was some of the language such as repeated use of the nineteenth century nautical slang term ‘bucko’. I think this and other phrases might have been used because they sounded ‘British’ but I’m a Brit, and I’d never heard of it.

Overall Behold the Dawn was a worthwhile - and I might say somewhat compulsive read, and was certainly an engaging story with solid Christian and well-presented Christian themes of redemption and forgiveness , but d required perhaps more suspension of disbelief then I like. On the other hand I probably would read it again. 
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