Gwil, a battle-hardened mercenary, is horrified to stumble across a little girl close to death. She has been attacked, just one more victim in a winter of atrocities. Clutching a sliver of parchment, she is terrified – but Gwil knows what he must do. He will bring her back to life. He will train her to fight. And together, they will hunt down the man who did this to her.
But danger looms wherever they turn. As castle after castle falls victim to siege, the icy Fens ring with rumours of a madman, of murder – and of a small piece of parchment with a terrible secret to tell, the cost of which none of them could have imagined . . .
Before Winter Siege I’d actually only read one book by Ariana Franklin, to wit Mistress of the Art of Death. I loved that book, its setting and its characters and was sad to learn that had passed away only a few weeks before I read the book. When I later discovered that her daughter, Samantha Norman, had finished her last book and that it would still be published, I really wanted to read it, especially since it is set in a time period that holds a special place in my heart. The Anarchy, as the period is known, is the one that first drew me to reading historical crime fiction through the mysteries of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books. While set in the same period as Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar books, Winter Siege stands apart from that series and familiarity with her other books isn’t necessary to enjoy this one.
Set around the Cambridgeshire Fens and Kenniford Castle, the book’s geographical scope is limited to a specific area of England and we only get glimpses of the strife raging around the country. Yet due to its location, Kenniford is pivotal in the conflict between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen and we encounter both of them during the narrative. And as the title sort of gives away at one point everything converges on Kenniford in a siege and our protagonists are literally confined to the castle grounds for the duration. This having to be packed like fish in a barrel makes tensions rise and the discovery of closely held secrets inevitable.
The story centres on three protagonists, the mercenary Gwil, the girl he saves from certain death and who becomes his apprentice called Penda, and lastly the Lady Maud the young chatelaine of Kenniford Castle. My favourites were Gwil and Pen, both because of their bond and because of the scars they bear due to their experiences just before they meet. Gwil might have saved Pen’s life, but Pen is Gwil’s salvation; she allows him to reclaim his humanity, to atone for his past and to feel that he’s done some good in the world. To Pen, Gwil becomes protector, friend, and father figure all rolled into one. I loved the way Franklin and Norman developed this relationship, gradually moving from Gwil’s grudgingly taking her in and Pen’s wary, skittish distrust to a close and deep bond. Their final scenes in the book broke my heart and had me swiping at my eyes surreptitiously.
While not my favourite protagonist, Lady Maud was definitely quite sympathetic and I enjoyed her strength of spirit. Forced into a marriage as a reward for her soon-to-be husband, she is shackled to the odious Sir John. He is far older and prefers the bed of his mistress to hers, a fact for which Maud is entirely grateful. The only good thing her marriage brings Maud is her stepson, Sir John’s son William. She builds a close bond with the boy, becoming a surrogate parent and confidante to him. Together with her governess Milburga, she tries to instil self confidence in William and the power to stand up to his father. What I enjoyed most about Maud is that she was very much limited by her gender and what society allowed her to do, yet within those boundaries she manages to find her way, to take care of her people no matter what, and to gain her own desires. One of which is initially highly inappropriate as he is the mercenary captain Alan of Ghent. Their romance is lovely, though at times a bit swoony, but I really enjoyed that part of Maud’s story.
Winter Siege is told through a framed narration: an abbot on his deathbed recites the story to a scribe to ensure that this history isn’t forgotten. I liked the interplay between the abbot and the scribe in their interludes and the character of the scribe that shines through these short passages is as prudish and pedantic as it was amusing. The regular retreat of the story to this narrative frame also allows the reader to glimpse the wider goings-on of the war between Matilda and Stephen, without having to miraculously drop the information into the besieged castle. Since it is a told story, the authors can also compress long periods where nothing happens into a few sentences without having the narrative become choppy. I also found myself trying to work out who the abbot was, only guessing his identity about three-quarters into the book.
Even if Winter Siege wasn’t started as a collaboration and only ended up that way through circumstance, the blending of the two authorial voices is seamless. I couldn’t tell where Franklin’s writing ended and Norman’s started. They meshed incredibly well, for which Norman should be lauded, because that is all her achievement. Winter Siege is a compelling and sometimes harrowing story of survival and learning to thrive anew. If you like the early medieval period as a setting for your stories and like a good mystery, then Winter Siege comes very much recommended. And the good news is that Samantha Norman is working on the 5th book in the Adelia Aguilar series, so there is more of her writing to come if Winter Siege whets your appetite.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.