I finally got around to reading this doorstopper masterpiece of medieval historical fiction.
As tradition would have it, let’s start with the official blurb:
‘On the day after Halloween, in the year 1327, four children slip away from the cathedral city of Kingsbridge. They are a thief, a bully, a boy genius and a girl who wants to be a doctor. In the forest they see two men killed.
As adults, their lives will be braided together by ambition, love, greed and revenge. They will see prosperity and famine, plague and war. One boy will travel the world but come home in the end; the other will be a powerful, corrupt nobleman. One girl will defy the might of the medieval church; the other will pursue an impossible love. And always they will live under the long shadow of the unexplained killing they witnessed on that fateful childhood day’.
I’m pretty used to reading historical fiction set in whatever the capital of the world was for the respective era – Rome for the antiquity novels, Florence for the Renaissance ones, Paris for the later eras, New York for the still later ones. I don’t have to go far to find examples – my own 1930’s-set novel mostly takes place in London. So, strange as it may seem, it’s probably the first small town historical novel I’ve read in a long time – but I definitely wasn’t disappointed!
In a way, it’s a kind of anti-Game of Thrones. Instead of the epic struggles for royal power, we get to see feverish intrigues during the election of a new prior (and they are no less complex), the exuberance and difficulties of a talented craftsman making his way in the world, the drama of a middling wool merchant faced with a plummeting demand for his fares (though his resourceful young heiress might find a solution). Instead of the grotesque misogyny, we see a world where, yes, people tend to pay lip-service to the official idea of female inferiority (e.g. a conservative prior enforcing stricter segregation for nuns), but, when it comes to getting things done (e.g. ensuring the support of a wealthy prioress or finding good labourers for the farm), people don’t tend to remember St. Augustine’s dogmas too often.
Although the plot of this 1100-pages novel is mostly confined to a small medieval town of Kingsbridge, at no point does it feel claustrophobic. The storyline is exceptionally well-crafted, every detail having its role, every twist well-explained. A great reading for the long winter nights to come!
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