What fans of good historical fiction mysteries weren’t devastated to hear about the death of the writer Ariana Franklin (pen name of Diana Norman) in 2011? She did leave us a wonderful gift, however: a final novel, completed by her daughter Samantha Norman, and it is a very good work indeed.
This book is not part of the series featuring the medical examiner Adelia Aguilar but is a standalone novel in the same time period, i.e., the mid-12th Century, and also set in England.
During this era, England was torn by a civil war between supporters of Stephen (grandson of William the Conqueror), and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, for the throne of England. Occupants of cathedrals as well as castles were forced to take sides. One stronghold in particular, the fictional Kenniford Castle, is desired by both sides in this story, because it is on the site of a key Thames crossing. The castle’s mistress is 16-year-old Maud, a ward of King Stephen. We first meet her when she is being forced to marry the much older, crass and barbaric John of Tewing, who arrived at the castle for the wedding with both his son and his mistress.
In alternate chapters, we also follow the fate of a young girl from the Fens who had gone out fetching fuel with her family. She was caught by a group of men led by a sadistic rapist and killer (also a monk), who had a penchant for red-headed children. Little Em was left for dead, but was found by Gwilherm de Vannes, a mercenary who had his horse stolen by the very men who ravaged Em.
Gwil nurses the girl back to health. She remembers nothing of the trauma that almost killed her, nor of her life before it, nor even her name. Gwil calls her Penda after a Pagan warlord. They cut her hair and disguise her as a boy, and Gwil teaches her to defend herself with a bow. The two travel through the countryside earning money by giving archery exhibitions. What Gwil doesn’t share with Penda is his determination to track down and destroy the monk who brutalized her. In addition, he suspects the monk may not be done yet with Penda, because when Gwil found her, she was clutching a valuable parchment that the monk would want to recover.
Events take a turn when Mathilda and two protectors, Alan and Christopher, stumble upon Gwil and Penda during a snowstorm, and take shelter with them. They beseech Gwil and Penda to help them get Mathilda to safety, and the five of them end up at Maud’s castle. Before long, the castle is besieged by the much larger and better armed forces of Stephen.
Discussion: The depiction of life in the 12th Century, especially the daily concerns of a castle chatelaine, is excellent. The growing relationship between Gwil and Penda is something you will want to hold onto; it is incredibly touching, as are the relationships between Maud and those she comes to love.
Evaluation: There is plenty of action and suspense in this book; a lot of good period background; and marvelous characterizations. Stock up on kleenex.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015