Having recently finished my latest novel and having handed it in, I got round to a bit of tidying around and came to perusing my keeper bookshelf. This gave me the idea for a post listing twenty medieval historical novels that live there. All are friends I wouldn't dream of parting with. I haven't listed them in order of preference - just in order of scanning, and they are only representative, but here they are with brief notes. A selection of the well-worn and the slightly newer that have taken me on far-ranging adventures, educated me, and kept me sane. (I know the latter is debatable, but you know what I mean)!
I was very tempted to put all of Sharon Kay Penman's novels on my list, just as I was tempted to put all my Dunnet's or Gellis' but that would have left room for nothing else. So I've put up my 'read most times' Penman as a representative of the rest. Sharon Penman has an unsurpassed talent for bringing the Middle Ages to life and for explaining the complex politics in a thoroughly readable way that leaves you wanting more. Her research is deep and her characters are of their time, but people you can still recognise. SKP is the true royalty when it comes to writing historical fiction set in the medieval period.
Part 2 of a trilogy, but I read this first and it stands alone. The story of Margaret Kendall, wealthy merchant's widow, who is forced into marriage with Gregory de Villiers, a younger son and unfrocked monk. A glorious, tongue in cheek romp. The others in the trilogy are A Vision of Light and The Water Devil. First read this around 1990
Arn de Gothia is given to the church, but his skills lie with the military arts. Something of a Parsifal character, this is the story of his early years and the forging of a Templar Knight. Don't expect a strong resolution at the end though. This is only the beginning of the journey.
Read this year.
I love all of Cecelia Holland's Medieval novels. Hammer For Princes and Great Maria could have as easily appeared here, but Until the Sun Falls is also a tour de Force. The story of the Mongol Empire following the death of Ghenghis Khan.
Another Holland. Kevin Crossley this time. This is the story of 12th century boy Arthur, living on the Welsh Marches and with a mystic connection to older legends. Holland has a gift for bringing the period to life. It's a young adult novel but easily makes the crossover.
The story of Henry I. Not many authors have tackled this particular king who is probably one of England's greatest monarchs - but in an understated kind of way. He ruled with a rod of iron and his nature was not always endearing, but the country had 35 years of peace under his rule. Juliet Dymoke writes his story with apblomb.
From the days when medieval romances were meatier tomes you could really sink into. Eden Hawkhurst's husband goes missing on crusade and of course she sets out to find him, but on her way she meets Tristan Damartin and things start to get complicated. A great romp - sexy and forthright but rich story telling nevertheless - or so I thought back in 1977!
More Crusader stuff. I read this one last year and it made me laugh out loud. The tale of a young lad who becomes a Templar squire, the narrative told through his irreverent and cheeky banter. Aimed at the YA market, but I loved it.
More Holy Land mayhem. The background to the events that led to the third crusade. This was probably the first 'gritty' historical that I read in the early 1970's. Retail price 30p
The incomparible Dorothy Dunnett and the first of her six books about Francis Crawford of Lymond. I can't say it better than one of the original quotes for this book from Neil Patterson of the Sunday Times: 'This is the first time I have stood in the market place and shouted and I wish I were more practised and my voice were bigger, for I have something of delight for all who care for excellence.'
There are historical novelists, and then there is Dorothy Dunnett. My edition, bought after having read it from the library, is the 1984 printing.
Another great dame of the genre, Roberta Gellis. Alinor has one of the best romantic heroes I have ever come across. Ian de Vipont is a tour de force - and so is Alinor. She's a woman of her time and yet she runs ring around the men. I've read this one to bits in the past. Ignore the cheesy cover. It's a well-researched, meaty historical novel.
Madselin - my favourite Norah Lofts. The story of a noble Saxon young woman forced to make adjustments in the wake of the Norman Conquest. A very fine novel.
Having read all the Dunnett and suffering from withdrawal symptoms, I came across this one. Vainglory by Geraldine McCaughrean is like stepping into a richly illuminated Book of Hours. I love the language, and I am still a little in love with the hero, Victoire de Gloriole.
Grace Ingram is also known as Doris Sutcliffe Adams. This particular novel is part romance, part medieval mystery, written in a pacy, tongue in cheek style with an endearing 'feisty' heroine very much of her time and a believable, vulnerable hero. A favourite comfort read for me.
Carla Nayland is a friend from the historical fiction community but I wasn't asked to read this; I did it of my own accord and read it just like any other book. This is early medieval - what used to be called the 'Dark Ages' but Carla skillfully weaves the story of Eadwine and his struggle for survival and inheritance.
I read this about a year ago or thereabouts.
Queen Melisande of Jerusalem and the Christian Holy Land in a state of flux comes to life in this one. Again, the rich texture and use of language puts this one in the Dorothy Dunnett field of operation. I was hooked from the moment I read the opening paragraph.
The first work of historical fiction I ever bought for myself with a book token. I was fifteen at the time. I'd bought books in other genres before, but this was the first historical. I'd recently fallen in love with the Middle Ages in a swash buckling romantic sort of way, and the cover sucked me in!
A fast-paced intelligent romance novel that isn't just about the bonk. In fact, although the intimate moments have you reaching for a cold drink, they are not over done and the story itself with its mystery and developing cooperation between hero and heroine, is very rewarding. One of the best historical romances I've read.
H.A. Douglas is a re-enactor friend and this is self-published by Lulu. Again, I wasn't pushed into reading it, nor obliged to say nice things, but this is a superb little novel about life in the north of England in the tenth century. The author is very good at writing a female viewpoint and the story has a powerful sense of time and place. It's as good as anything published by the big houses.
I was a fan of Ellis Peters' Cadfael looooong before the mainstream cottoned on. Here's my bookclub edition from 1979. This was my first meeting with the gorgeous Hugh Berenger for whom I formed a lifelong attachment. Never mind the mystery, never mind the monk, just give me dark-eyed light on his feet Hugh!
Seriously, I loved the Cadfael books and I have them all.