How exactly did I get to this age without reading a biography of Matilda??
Well… it’s not entirely my fault, because there just haven’t been that many. And oh, couldn’t we talk about the reasons for that. And in fact Catherine Hanley does discuss some of the reasons for the lack of historical focus on this astonishing woman, and puts in the historical context for how she was discussed 900 years ago as well.
Let me say upfront: it may be 900 years ago, but the THEFT of the English crown from Matilda by her cousin Stephen STILL MAKES ME MAD.
Matilda: oldest child of the English king; married at 8 to a foreign emperor; widowed; named her father’s heir (because her brother had drowned); crown STOLEN by Stephen; spends many years fighting Stephen for the right to be monarch of England; eventually manages to have her son named Stephen’s heir, lives to see her son crowned king (although not literally, because being present would have made all the menfolk feel a bit uncomfortable). Matilda was amazing.
Matilda’s epitaph places her in the context of three Henrys: her father (Henry I of England), her first husband (with a complicated set of titles but eventually crowned emperor of ‘the Empire’; his lands included what is today Germany and various other bits), and her oldest son (Henry II of England). This epitaph is not surprising given 12th century attitudes. It’s probably also not the surprising that she has continued to be placed in this context.
Hanley does a really great job of using the existing contemporary documents (all histories written by men, mostly monks, as well as charters and other such legal documents) to give a reasonable suggestion of what Matilda was doing, Matilda was responsible for; reasons for Matilda’s actions and how she worked within, as well as bucking against, 12-century expectations of a royal daughter/wife/mother.
This is why a feminist, and now gender, lens is so important for history. Matilda was often described as ‘haughty’ and other such words… for doing exactly what her father, in particular, was praised for doing. She makes a really nice point of how when Stephen’s queen (…also Matilda, it was as bad as Henry) acted in a masculine way on behalf of Stephen, it was praised; but do so for your OWN benefit, and you’re a ranting virago.
Filling in a gap in my knowledge, this book was priceless (my MA was on this Matilda’s grandmother, also Matilda; this Matilda’s daughter-in-law is Eleanor of Aquitaine). As a thoughtful look at a hugely important part of English medieval history, I think it’s accessible to general readers who are prepared to deal with the Henrys and Matildas.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in November, 2022.
As a Jill-of-all-trades when it comes to history, I feel like “the Mongols” is one of those topics that a lot of people have vague ideas about but don’t really know what they’re talking about, or any details at all. Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, greatest land empire of all time… done.
Yeah. This book has made an enormous difference to the way I see the Mongols as a group, as an empire, as an historical force.
In his Introduction, Morton promises “a multi-perspective history of the Mongol invasions constructed from many different viewpoints”. And that’s definitely what the book delivers, as the way that the movement of Mongol troops – in and out of territory, sometimes staying, sometimes just installing new leadership after dismantling entire areas – impacts on a variety of pre-existing governments. The thing that surprised me is just WHERE that is happening… because it’s the “Near/Middle East” (which is a stupid term for an Australian to use, but there we go). The book is focussed on how the Mongols impact on everything from Egypt, through the Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem, to Byzantium, and to Syria and Georgia and Armenia. I don’t quite know where I thought the focus would be – I knew the Mongols had briefly penetrated Europe and made everyone crap their pants – but this was not it. And the thing is, the Mongols are a significant force for DECADES. There are events in this history – across the 13th and into the 14th centuries – that I already knew but that I had NO IDEA were at least partly as a result of the pressure coming from the east, via the Mongols: either directly because of the Mongols’ actions, or because of the movement of people driven out by the Mongols (directly or through fear). How is it I had no idea of this?? I’m going to say it’s at least partly racism, and also partly the occasionally narrow focus of some histories – in trying to narrow down the historical story, some things get chopped. (Rant could be inserted here about how choices are made, etc… but I’ll spare my reader.)
One of the slightly odd parts of this book is that it is NOT as focussed as I had expected. There’s entire sections about the politics of the Franks in Jerusalem and the Crusader States… with no apparently connection to the Mongols. Morton gets there eventually, but it does sometimes feel like there’s a lot of extraneous detail that wasn’t required to actually understand the point of the book – the Mongols. Not that I didn’t enjoy the detail! It just wasn’t necessary.
Obviously, I learned an enormous amount from this book. About the Mongols themselves – how they were organised, how they viewed themselves (as having a mandate from heaven to rule, and that all religions were fine because they were all subsumed within their own), and how they dealt with subject people. I also learned a huge amount about what was going on in Egypt around the period of the Mamluks coming to power, and to the east I finally learned something about Georgia and Armenia, which hadn’t previously come across my radar in this period. Also more about the Crusader States, and generally how all of these states interacted with each other. Which is also something that I feel like has been missing from my knowledge here. Of course rulers were in contact, of course they were making deals and alliances, including across religious and ethnic lines… but I don’t really kn0w about them.
The book itself is well-written. I found it engaging – perhaps because I was already invested in the general period and area. As with all such books, I did sometimes find the names hard to follow… if only everyone in the past had differentiated their names more (did there need to be more than one Bohemond?). Morton has structured the book well, largely chronologically and within that, geographically. There are also some useful maps that make locating the changing circumstances of the various polities easier. Overall, definitely a good addition to my understanding of the world.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out on 22 March, 2022.
I love the Normans. I have been fascinated by them as a group for a pretty long time now. The conquest of England! Randomly being in Sicily! The First Crusades! Occasionally popping up elsewhere!
I also love a good interrogation of sources. And asking new questions, or using new information to contribute to questions already asked.
Therefore, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
Given the above, I can’t say how easy this would be to read for someone with zero knowledge of the Normans. Even I found it hard to follow the Roberts and Rogers and various families (honestly I kind of stopped caring about whether I was completely following who was related to who; it didn’t seem to matter in some instances, and Green often reminded me when it did). It should also be noted that there is more historiography than I think is usual for a purely narrative sort of history, so if learning what specific historians (medieval and modern) have said about specific issues is not your cup of tea, you may well find this book a bit annoying. For the rest of us… this is a really great, and thorough, examination of the Normans in the 11th century.
I really liked how Green examined what was going on in Normandy, England, Sicily/Italy and Antioch/the First Crusade as a way of trying to see if there really is something to the very IDEA of ‘being a Norman’ – which honestly is a brave thing when you’re entire book is about ‘the Normans’ – but that’s exactly the point of it. Some people at least claimed the Normans as Very Special People with a Very Special Place in the World (via God or character or whatever else). Is that actually true? Is it even possible to speak of “Normans”? Gosh I love these sorts of questions. I also quite like that Green doesn’t entirely come to a complete answer. She has some suggestions – that maybe Normans themselves in the 11th century weren’t alway seeing themselves as ‘Normans’ – and also proposes a whole bunch more avenues for investigation. Which is the other awesome thing that Green does – she’s not just using the old Williams of history (Jumieges, Malmesbury, etc), but adding in archaeology and DNA and various other sources to make a way more interesting and complete picture.
Overall, not My First Introduction to Medieval History, but a really great work on a group of people who had a fairly hefty impact on medieval Europe (and beyond).
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in March 2022.
1. This has pretty much everything I love about a history book.Rediscovering, or repairing, or reframing, previously maligned historical figures.
1a. In particular, women. And here, Puhak does it to not one but TWO women, living at the same time, with lives that were interwoven and had an enormous impact on each other.
The late 500s in what is now France was a remarkable time: it was, as Puhak points out, a time of “dual female rule” – Brunhild and Fredegund, one a Visigoth princess and the other a former slave, were regents for their grandson and son respectively. Together they controlled nearly as much land as Charlemagne would a few centuries later. This dual female rule wouldn’t be repeated in Europe for another thousand years. And why don’t we know about it? Because, Puhak claims – with some pretty strong evidence – there was a concerted effort at damnatio memoriae; getting rid of all memory of the actions of these two queens from history. A lot like what happened to Hatshepsut in Egypt. Either expunge the actions of the women, or cast them in as completely evil or irrelevant light as you possibly can. Because how embarrassing to remember that women had been instrumental in leading and shaping your kingdom for decades!
2. I learned many new things.
A lot about the Merovingians, of course – which I had no knowledge of, except for the name, and (as Puhak ruthfully notes) as the name of a character in a Matrix film. But I also learned that the Latinised version of ‘Clovis’ – whose name I did know – who was the first Merovingian king – is LOUIS and there you get the beginning of, what, 17 kings with the same name.
3. Utterly readable.
Puhak says that this is “not an academic history; it is a work of narrative nonfiction based on primary sources”. And I think this is a really intriguing way of putting it. I guess the ‘not academic’ aspect is strictly accurate, although I do think Puhak is underselling herself. There aren’t footnotes – but there are extensive references at the back, and my goodness her bibliography is incredible and IF I HAD THE TIME (and access to them) I could glut myself on following them all up. I love the use of the primary sources here; she uses the various histories from the time, and later, judiciously – weighing up their perspectives and their intentions and figuring out what makes sense. And it ends up being absorbing and riveting.
4. What a story.
Honestly, you could present this as fiction and people would believe you. Marriages brokered, broken, and occasionally seen through; so many murders and possible-murders; kingdoms divided and reunited; treason, scheming, bargaining… Puhak argues that Cersei from Game of Thrones is inspired by these two women, in some sense, and I’m not quite convinced of that but it tells you something about their lives.
What a fantastic book.
I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.
This was… completely bonkers.
Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.
Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).
The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”
(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.
I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).
I read this book courtesy of NetGalley.
I loved this book.
I already love medieval manuscripts and the stories that go along with them – about marginalia and the sheer effort that goes in to making one. What Wellesley has done here is look at manuscripts to understand the people who made them, used them, saved them, and occasionally caused their destruction. I read this in uncorrected proof, as an ebook (and there’s some twisty lineage there from hand-written sheepskin to pixels), so I’m not sure whether the published version will have images, but that’s about the only thing that would make this even more of a joy to read.
An overview of the chapters will show just why this is such a fabulous book.
Chapter 1: Discoveries. aka “near heart-attack-land at the idea that the Book of Margery Kempe was nearly not found.” She uses just a couple of manuscript discoveries to show just how contingent our 21st century knowledge of, awareness of, and possession of such manuscripts is.
Chapter 2: Near Disasters. Imagine me having heart palpitations at the fire in Ashburnham House, home of the Cotton collection and various other rather important bits of parchment. As above with the contingency, with added flames.
Chapter 3: Patrons. Who wanted stories written about themselves, and who wanted their own copies of particular books (Henry VIII annotated his Book of Psalms. I have no problem with this, other than it reveals his colossal ego, equating himself with David.)
Chapter 4: Artists. The images added to some manuscripts make them incredible works of art. Wellesley examines what is known about some of the people who did this work, their inspiration and their methods.
Chapter 5: Scribes. Who did the physical act of writing… and that some of them were women.
Chapter 6: Authors and scribes. Probably one of the hardest things for moderns to grasp is the lack of the concept of ‘author’ in the medieval period. If a student copies a quote without a reference, they’re in trouble; 700 years ago, someone could copy out a story from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and stick it in their own collection of stuff with nary an acknowledgement (yes I am aware this happens today; it was less of a cause for hue and cry back in the day, for various reasons). Figuring out exactly who was the author of various things is the work of a lifetime for some historians.
Chapter 7: Hidden Authors… basically carries on a similar idea from Chapter 6, but in particular looks at works written for (and by?) anchorites – people who had decided to get themselves walled away, to devote themselves more fully to Christ.
The book’s intrigue – who wrote it? who sold it? why do we only have one copy? It’s got feminism – women wrote and read and commissioned and created. It’s suffused with a love of books and reading, it’s a celebration of books as objects, and it ends with Gutenberg and that weird interstitial period where some manuscripts were created by copying out the text from a printed book. And the author’s voice is present throughout, which I found a lovely touch: what it was like to view a manuscript at the British Library, or a discovery as an undergrad, or an experience learning about the making of parchment.
This is a wonderful book about books. Entirely accessible to the non-medievalist, in fact a great entry for those with no real conception of the medieval manuscript.
I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.
I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).
I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.
Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.
What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).
The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.
Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.
I received this book to review via NetGalley.
The good things:
- The very concept. I love the idea of a book that covers all the Plantagenet fellas from Henry II to Richard III. Seeing their wildly varying careers one after the other points up just how outrageous and sometimes amazing and sometimes dreadful this lot could be. So great.
- Some of the context given. I appreciated the broader comments about the Crusades, for instance – and this lot were involved right up to Crusade #8, which I didn’t know before this. The book starts with a very general intro to the concept of being a knight, and then gives an overview of the first couple generations after the Conqueror. I didn’t need these, but for a reader less familiar with the era I’m sure it would be very welcome.
- Eleanor of Aquitaine. Any time I get to read about her, it’s a good day.
- It’s pretty straightforward to read.
The less good things:
- The author mentions an historian who claims the Bayeux Tapestry must have been designed by a man because there are penises embroidered on it. And just… leaves that comment sitting there.
- The author repeats that old saw about spices being used to cover the taste of rotting meat. Pretty sure that’s been debunked.
- The editing. Most significantly, the editing. First, there’s some odd things going on here with the structure. Clearly I read a review copy so I don’t know whether it’s still got some editing to go. But there were bits where I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or deliberately presenting variant spellings (Saladdin, and then Saladin); and there were several occasions where it felt like sentences were in completely the wrong place. Like, he would have a paragraph about an event; then the next event in the next paragraph, but suddenly the first event is mentioned completely out of context. And this got more frequent as the book progressed. Really quite confusing. And then additionally, several times there would be two men mentioned as being involved in something, and then “he” made some final gesture… and it was often unclear which “he” was being referenced.
Overall, I did enjoy this as a history of the family. It presents the princes in their context, shows how they’re connected and how they variously win and lose bits of their empire-not-an-empire. I suspect it would be a bit hard for someone with absolutely zero knowledge of the early Middle Ages, but then again if you’re picking this up you must have at least an ember of a passion for that time. The editing problems came close to killing the enjoyment a couple times, but I was able to bull past it.
I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.
I am ambivalent about this book.
The good things:
- Reclaim the women! I am always in favour of a book that highlights a woman who has either been forgotten, or whom history has portrayed in an unfavourable-because-patriarchy light. This book largely does that, going into details about Marie’s life, highlighting the reasons for the decisions that she made as well as the importance of those actions, not just her womb. These are really important things.
- It’s accessible. This is intended for a general readership: there are no footnotes, it opens with a list of people the reader can refer back to when the titles etc get to be too much, and it usually balances complex foreign policy decision-making with ease of reading.
The slightly uncomfortable things:
- The lack of footnotes etc means it’s not the most detailed of historical research: there’s not that many primary sources directly used, and no other historians are referenced, which makes me a bit queasy.
- There are some editing mistakes. Sentences that lack of a primary verb, probably because there are so many clauses that it’s easy to get lost; sentences where it’s unclear whether one person with multiple titles, or several different people, are being discussed.
- Marie’s apparently deliberately decision to remain single after James V’s death is lamented as sad for a woman in her 30s. But… she’s a widow twice over, she has the disastrous example of her mother-in-law to show how badly things can go for a widowed queen with an infant monarch. Why couldn’t this be a sensible political choice? Why couldn’t this be a relief to a woman whose life has been tied to the idea of marriage for more than two decades, usually not at her own decision? No evidence to suggest that she regretted this, and so… attributing emotions is a fraught business. It shouldn’t be done.
The negative things:
- At one point, Clegg describes Marie’s daughter Mary as having various ailments, and suggests they may be dismissed as nothing more than an anxiety related disorder. Uh. That’s… not good.
- The way Marie’s whole life is framed around men. Now I understand that to some extent, with the biography of a powerful woman in the sixteenth century this is unavoidable; her male relations were always going to play a huge part, especially early on, and any husband likewise. However, it felt like a lot of space was spent on men and their doings, sometimes only tangentially connected to Marie’s life. Perhaps this was for added context, but it just served to detract from making Marie the focus. The greatest example of this is the title. In a book of nearly 220 pages, Henry VIII dies on p140. Marie was on a list of possible wives but got away; she got in his way to some extent around the issue of young Mary marrying Prince Edward… but to call her the Scourge of Henry VIII is ridiculous. I guess it made a good title? But I was expecting to discover that she had actively, and over a long period, skewered Henry’s ambitions in the north. Yeh not so much.
Look, overall, for people wanting to find out more about Marie of Guise, this isn’t a bad option – not bad at all, in fact. Just beware that it’s by no means perfect.
This is the April book for the Women in SF Book Club. I’ve been trying to read each book a month ahead of time, here at the start of the year, because I just know I’ll fall behind at some point… and those who know me know that I am nothing if not a completionist and a perfectionist. It’s a failing. Eh.
I’ve never read a Connie Willis. I know, I know; another failing. Anyway, I picked this up from the library without knowing anything about it. The first thing I thought was OMG THIS IS HUGE (669 pages, to be exact). The second was HEY, this is actually a medieval book! I didn’t realise that… and it made me a bit wary, to be honest. I’ve just finished a masters in medieval history, and while that by no means makes me an expert in the time, it does make me wary when I don’t know how expert authors are, and whether I can trust them or not. I knew a few of my friends – especially Tansy – thought she was a wonderful author, so I wasn’t entirely dubious, but… you know…
So, I began. And to be honest, the first chapter did not work for me. I don’t mind being thrown into a world headfirst, but this was a bit nuts. And I’m not sure why, but none of the characters were immediately engaging, so I neither knew who they were nor (immediately) cared to find out. I was worried that this was going to be another book to struggle through so that I could an informed and scathing commentary when the Book Club came around (which is what will happen with Darkship Thieves tonight…ETA: now!).
But I kept reading.
At the end of the first chapter, Mr Dunworthy has seen his star pupil, Kivrin, sent off to the Middle Ages via a time machine (basically). In the second chapter, Dunworthy and his friends go off to the pub, concerned but trying to be positive about Kivrin’s chances; there’s some worry over how the whole event has been organised. And all of a sudden… I cared. I don’t know why. I can’t pinpoint a moment when the people began to matter, or when I began to be engaged with the individuals and their concerns. But I think it was in this second chapter, with the minutiae of life in Oxford; and then the third chapter, with Kivrin recalling how she got the gig to be sent back in time and then waking up in the Middle Ages. And the description of the environment, Kivrin’s reactions to it… it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and forced me to keep reading. And keep reading. And I read the 669 pages in two days.
I really, really enjoyed the book. Obviously.
I initially expected that after the sending-back-in-time experience, there would be occasional flash-forwards to Dunworthy, but that mostly the book would be focussed on the medieval. I was wrong, of course. I’m not positive, but I think the book is almost evenly split between the near-future (from our perspective; it’s set in 2055, or so) and the past. I think I may actually have enjoyed the near-future section more than the medieval. It is riveting because there’s an illness – an influenza, perhaps the most obvious modern corollary of plague – rapidly taking hold of Oxford. When I first read the book I thought it was a much more recent publication than it actually is (1992) because of the way it imagines a population dealing with disease; it feels exactly like a book written post-swine flu. At any rate, it’s fascinating because although the disease is taking over the city, Willis is most interested in a couple of individuals and how they go about trying to ignore the disease and carry on with life – and, particularly, trying to figure out what has happened to Kivrin 700 years in the past. I enjoyed Dunworthy, and sympathised with his attempts at dealing with bureaucracy, and his concern for his student – although quite why he was just so concerned was unclear, and in fact a couple of times it made me a leedle uncomfortable, because it almost skirted the bounds of propriety. (Maybe that’s just me….)
The other reason I liked the near-future sections was for their utterly normal feel. The futuristic elements were quite muted: “the net”, whereby Kivrin was sent back in time (and others, too – it’s regarded as nearly normal); some aspects of government, such as the quarantine measures; and a few medical things that hardly warrant much attention. But it would be easy enough to ignore those, and read it as set in our contemporary world. It’s very believable and enjoyable.
Of the medieval sections I was, as mentioned above, more suspicious. I was beyond annoyed, by the way, with my copy of the book, which says on the front “Kivrin wanted to study the Black Death, not live it…” because actually NO, she was not interested in the Black Death, and by the way SPOILER!! since she only realises that she’s in the 1340s – twenty-odd years off the time she was expecting – MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH. Gah.
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with the medieval village Willis created. She didn’t try to do too much: staying in one village, with a fairly small number of people, and not really getting into the politics or anything was sensible on many levels, not least of which was allowing the reader to get to know and care about a smaller number of characters. I liked that Kivrin’s interpreting software didn’t work perfectly and that there were many surprises, large and small, about the realities of medieval life – things that historians do squabble about. Kivrin as a character didn’t really do much for me; she was likeable, and I sympathised when things went badly, but I didn’t ever entirely identify with her. Of the others, the only one for whom I felt much sympathy was the priest, Roche. The others were not developed enough for me to desperately want to understand. Perhaps the most telling part of my reading experience was that when the book flicked to the 21st century, I wasn’t that impatient to return to the 14th.
Tansy warned me that I would cry because of this book (actually, she told me to buy a box of tissues). I understand why she said this. However, I did not cry. There are probably a few reasons for this. The first might be that I was warned; the second may be that I am cold-hearted, as several people suggested! But third, and perhaps most to the point: I am a medieval historian. I know the reality of the Black Death. Nothing that happened to Kivrin, nothing that she experienced, was a revelation to me; there was no surprise in any of the events nor in people’s attitudes. I felt most sadness at some of the events in the near future. And fourth, I was also prevented from bawling because I read it too fast. I had to read it fast because I had to know what happened, but it meant that I didn’t form the emotional bond with the characters that I might have with a more leisurely read-through. Not that I’m regretting it; I thoroughly enjoyed the book and had enough of an emotional connection that I certainly regretted deaths and rejoiced at survivals. It’s also possible there’s a fifth reason that I didn’t cry: that Willis didn’t give me enough of the characters to make me want to cry. I think this is probably most true of the medieval characters; at least, they’re the ones I felt least attached to. I was closest to tears when I found that Dr Mary had died; that it happened while Dunworthy was unconscious, and that young nephew Colin has been so stoic through it all, was closest to being heart-breaking.
I think I understand why people rave about Willis. I have Blackout/All Clear on my to-read list, and it will definitely stay there… but it won’t get bumped up to must-read-or-will-cry level.