Ariana Franklin passed away before the manuscript for Winter Siege was completed so her daughter, Samantha Norton took on the task of finishing the novel for her and the result is a fantastic one.
Winter Siege is set in an England at war with itself. When Henry I died in Normandy in 1135 he had named his daughter, Matilda, as his successor. But her cousin, Stephen, rushed to England and claimed the crown for himself. What ensued was a decade-long war during which many wealthy barons and land owners switched from side to side as the tried to secure the best deal for themselves, little caring who sat on the throne as long as they benefited from it. As always, it was the common people who suffered the most from the turmoil that the battles created.
The story in Winter Siege is told in a framed narrative with an abbot on his deathbed dictating the story to a scribe and within that we see multiple perspectives but the different storylines develop slowly and then converge at the end. There is good pace throughout the novel. The story centres on a mercenary named Gwil and a young girl that he rescues after she is brutally attacked by a travelling monk with a penchant for red-heads. They travel together seeking answers and revenge. Penda’s ordeal is absolutely heartwrenching to read and the developing relationship between her and Gwil was lovely to watch.
Much of the action is set in Kenniford Castle with Lady Maud, who has been forced into marriage as a reward for her husband, the odious Sir John. He is far older than her but thankfully for Maud, he prefers his mistress to her. Maud builds a close bond with her stepson, William and tries to instil the confidence in him that his bullying father has destroyed.
Towards the end all the characters come together at Kenniford which is under siege. The slow reveal of the storyteller and the fate of the characters was something I didn’t see coming at all and, I’ll admit, was a bit of a tearjerker. The scribe is like the reader, hearing it all unfold as it is told to him.
Winter Siege is one of those novels that does not shirk away from the truly horrible atrocities that occurred during those turbulent times but it is still a great fast-paced read and I would thoroughly recommend it.