Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Women in the Civil War

I'm pleased to welcome Kinley Bryan as my guest today. She shares insight into the roles of women during the American Civil War, a subject I find interesting because James A Hamilton's daughters participated in some of the work described. James was in his seventies at the time, but he still served as an advisor to President Lincoln and Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. The Hamilton women had long been involved in charitable work, so they naturally answered the call for help when war broke out between the states. Before I get carried away talking about the Hamiltons, I will turn it over to Kinley!

~ Samantha


Women in the Civil War

Guest Post by Kinley Bryan

As both a reader and writer of historical fiction, I’m always interested in women’s experiences of historical events. My latest novel, The Lost Women of Mill Street, offers a look at the American Civil War from the perspective of southern female mill workers. It’s one perspective of many, for women took on myriad new roles during the war. In the North, women of all races and social classes contributed to the Union war effort by organizing sanitary fairs and working as nurses. They also served as spies and—though forbidden—combatants. And some southern Unionist women courageously helped Union soldiers in times of danger.

Sanitary Fairs

Soon after the start of the war, women began organizing soldiers’ aid societies. In June 1861 the United States Sanitary Commission was formed under the authority of the government, although it was privately funded. Women and girls throughout the North knitted socks, sewed shirts, and collected money to support the USSC. Women also organized sanitary fairs in cities throughout the North to raise money for the sanitary commission. These fairs featured art, parades, dances, museums, merchandise sales, and auctions, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Before the war, few female nurses publicly practiced medicine. In the first couple months of fighting, both the Union and Confederate armies preferred having men serve as nurses, believing women did not belong in hospitals. However, the armies were soon overwhelmed with wounded soldiers and those in charge reconsidered their views. 

In June 1861, Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army and led the recruitment of women to serve in the nursing corps. According to the Army Heritage Foundation, roughly 3,300 women served as nurses for the Union Army during the war, overcoming their male colleagues’ objections “through appeals to national pride, patriotic duty, and through hard work and dedicated service to the sick and wounded soldiers that filled the nation’s hospitals.”

Southern Unionists

The South was not unified in its view on secession. In Women of the War by Frank Moore, published in 1866, the author recounts the experiences of a number of women from seceded states who courageously helped the Union Army. In one instance, two Tennessee women in the dark of night waved lanterns at an approaching Union Army train; after the train slowed to a stop, the women warned them that Confederate guerillas had destroyed the railroad bridge up ahead.

Moore also describes how, in 1862, a Kentucky woman whose husband fought for the Union was home alone when eleven Confederate soldiers raided her property. As they relaxed by the fireplace, she stole their muskets, shot and killed one who tried to get them back, and the next morning marched the rest at gunpoint to a nearby Union camp.

Spies and Combatants

Though women were barred from military service, there were some who, disguising themselves as men, served in the Union Army. Others served as spies. Harriet Tubman, the formerly enslaved woman known for leading hundreds of people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, was also a Union spy. Having volunteered for the Union as a cook and nurse, she was recruited by Union officers to establish a network of spies behind enemy lines. Disguised as a field hand, Tubman led scouting and spying missions and reported valuable intelligence to Union officers. At the same time, she continued to help enslaved people flee to freedom.


The Lost Women of Mill Street

1864: As Sherman’s army marches toward Atlanta, a cotton mill commandeered by the Confederacy lies in its path. Inside the mill, Clara Douglas weaves cloth and watches over her sister Kitty, waiting for the day her fiancĂ© returns from the West.

When Sherman’s troops destroy the mill, Clara’s plans to start a new life in Nebraska are threatened. Branded as traitors by the Federals, Clara, Kitty, and countless others are exiled to a desolate refugee prison hundreds of miles from home.

Cut off from all they've ever known, Clara clings to hope while grappling with doubts about her fiancĂ©’s ambitions and the unsettling truths surrounding his absence. As the days pass, the sisters find themselves thrust onto the foreign streets of Cincinnati, a city teeming with uncertainty and hostility. She must summon reserves of courage, ingenuity, and strength she didn’t know she had if they are to survive in an unfamiliar, unwelcoming land.

Inspired by true events of the Civil War, The Lost Women of Mill Street is a vividly drawn novel about the bonds of sisterhood, the strength of women, and the repercussions of war on individual lives.

Connect with Kinley Bryan

Kinley Bryan's debut novel, Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury, inspired by the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 and her own family history, won the 2022 Publishers Weekly Selfies Award for adult fiction. An Ohio native, she lives in South Carolina with her husband and three children. The Lost Women of Mill Street is her second novel.

Connect with Kinley on her website, Twitter(X), Facebook, Instagram, Book Bub, Amazon Author Page, and Goodreads.  

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Pairings: Historical Fiction & Nonfiction

I recently saw a brilliant library post suggesting nonfiction books related to popular novels, and I thought it would be fun to do the same with my own books. If you've read one of my novels, you might have noticed that I include a list of sources at the end. Looking for something simpler? Just one (or two) suggestions per book? I hear you, so here are my nonfiction recommendations to pair with each of my novels.

But One Life, my most recent novel, explores the life of American patriot Nathan Hale. I wanted to find out more about this young man, who became famous for announcing that his only regret was that he had but one life to give for his country before he was executed by the British as a spy in 1776. One of the best sources of information about Nathan Hale was the collection of documents by George D Seymour, the same man who purchased the Nathan Hale Homestead and had it established as a historic site. However, most readers are not particularly interested in flipping through hundreds of pages of documents, so I'll suggest a biography by M William Phelps, Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy.

I also cannot mention this novel without giving a shoutout to Digital Yarbs for the reconstruction of Nathan Hale's image based on the statue of him in New York's City Hall Park. I'm thankful for this unique image for my cover art. Since we're talking cover art, the artwork for the rest of my novels was created by my oldest son, Tyler, so that is also pretty awesome!

I started writing Luminous because I was so inspired by Kate Moore's The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women, so I can't imagine recommending anything else as its nonfiction pairing. I was in the middle of writing a novel set in 12th century England when I casually listened to Moore's book on Audible. I stopped everything I was doing, ordered it in paperback to take notes, and traveled to Ottawa, Illinois to learn everything I could about Catherine Donohue, the dial painter I had decided to focus on for my novel. Catherine's story is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring, and I was greatly moved by her perseverance and faith. I will always be thankful that Moore's work raised awareness of these women's fight. 

And, no, I never have gone back to that half-finished manuscript. Maybe someday...

Before my detour over into American history, my books were all early Tudor era. I have a habit of deciding what I'm going to write sort of on a whim. I had no intentions of writing about Queen Mary I until one of my beta readers for Faithful Traitor commented that it would be nice to read about what happened to the poor, little princess who Margaret Pole had served as governess. When I set out to prove that novels like that had already been written, well, I guess you know the rest of the story. I wrote Queen of Martyrs because Mary seemed like a woman who deserved to have her own story told instead of always appearing on the sidelines of books about her father or younger sister. I can't recommend only one nonfiction pairing for this, because I found both of these books to be priceless resources on understanding Mary as a person and as a Catholic. Linda Porter's The First Queen of England and Eamon Duffy's Fires of Faith: Catholic England under Mary Tudor are the books I recommend if you would like to learn more.

Mary had already shown up as part of Margaret Pole's story in Faithful Traitor, and I loved the idea that Margaret and Katherine of Aragon had discussed a possible marriage between Mary and Margaret's son, Reginald. Now that I've started recommending two nonfiction reads, I may as well continue. One can never have too many books! At the time I was writing about Margaret Pole, Hazel Pierce's biography was the only one available, so I scoured it for details. Since then, Susan Higginbotham has written Margaret Pole: The Countess in the Tower that is probably more accessible than Pierce's. I haven't read it, but I have enjoyed several of Higginbotham's novels and feel confident enough to recommend seeking it out. Also very academic but a great resource is Thomas Mayer's Reginald Pole: Prince & Prophet

I find Reginald so fascinating that I also have written a novella about him called Prince of York. Did you know he was almost pope? And he was friends with Michelangelo? Maybe I should extend that novella into a full-length novel. (Yes, dear reader, this is how my writing decisions are made.)

Now we have made our way back to my first novel. When I wrote Plantagenet Princess Tudor Queen, I had no idea that it would be the first of a series of three novels and three novellas. I'm not much of a planner and tend to decide what I'm writing when I finish what I'm working on. (No, it is not a habit I recommend.) So, when I was researching Elizabeth of York, I really didn't know what I was getting myself into. This book remains my most frequent best seller, and I'm very happy to have shined a spotlight on the first Tudor queen, who is often overshadowed by the bombastic men she was surrounded by. My favorite resource when writing this was actually a biography of Elizabeth's husband, Henry VII. If you write about historical women, you often find yourself reading biographies of men and hunting for tidbits about the ladies in their lives. Of course, Henry's story was a very important part of Elizabeth's, so Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England was a great read. For more about Elizabeth, you can try Alison Weir's Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World. I enjoyed some of the detail in this, but you'll also have to get through Weir's oft repeated rant about Richard III. The biography includes more information than the one by Amy Licence, so I'll keep it here.

These are just a few of the resources that I have used for each of my novels. If you are interested in additional reading, take a peek at the final few pages in any one of my books, and you will find a longer list. Perhaps, I should have also suggested a wine to pair with each read? Ah well, select the beverage of your choice and happy reading!

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

1294 . . . a bad year for Edward I

It's been a while since we talked medieval on this blog! I've been considering a return to a much earlier chapter for my next story, so when I had the opportunity to host author Anna Belfrage, I couldn't say no. A love for British history isn't the only thing Anna and I have in common. We both participated in the Women's History Month special for Historical Writers Forum a couple of years ago. She is a brilliant, prolific writer, so I will hand the reins over to her.

Welcome, Anna!

~ Samantha 


1294 . . . a bad year for Edward I

Guest Post by Anna Belfrage

My latest release, Their Castilian Orphan, is primarily set in 1294. Why? Well, because it was a bad, bad year for Edward I. Mind you, I think he was of the opinion most years after the death of his wife in 1290 were pretty bad, but a year in which he was tricked out of his lands in France must qualify as exceptionally bad, right? 

Edward I

Before we go on to detail the events of 1294, we’re going to need some backstory. That backstory starts with the Sicilian Vespers. And yes, I forgive you, lovely peeps, if your immediate reaction isn’t “The Sicilian Vespers – but of course!”

For those of us fascinated by 13th century politics and all its bloody connotations, the Sicilian Vespers can be seen as a beginning for many things. In 1282 the Sicilians rebelled against the heavy-handed rule of Charles of Anjou, a younger brother of St Louis of France, and were supported in their rebellion by Peter of Aragon, who was of the opinion Sicily rightfully belonged to his wife, Constanza. 

I lean towards agreeing with Peter. Charles of Anjou used the support of the papacy to oust Manfred Hohenstaufen (Constanza’s father). He also went on to capture Manfred’s family. His young widow was brutally separated from her children and would die in captivity. Constanza’s half-brothers were put in chains and locked up, despite the eldest only being six. Purportedly, Charles also had the young boys maimed. Constanza’s half-sister was put under lock and key—alone. In brief, Charles comes across as brutal. But then, kings at the time were brutal. One only needs to remember how Edward I handled Dafydd ap Gruffydd’s children. They too were locked up—forever. 

Back to our backstory: As a consequence of the Sicilian Vespers, the crown of Sicily passed to Peter of Aragon—on behalf of his wife. In Rome, the pope was furious. The papacy ordered Peter to return the crown to Charles. I am thinking he got the medieval equivalent of a middle finger in return . . . The pope retaliated by excommunicating Peter.

The pope wasn’t the only one who was angry. Leaving aside the apoplectic Charles of Anjou himself, his nephew, Philippe III of France, was just as incensed. Losing Sicily meant more of the Mediterranean under Aragonese control, and that did not please the French. So when the pope declared a crusade against Aragon, Philippe III was more than happy to lead it. 

Initially, the French saw some success. They even managed to crown Philippe’s second son, Charles of Valois, as king of Aragon, but theirs was a fleeting moment of triumph. In 1286, what little remained of the French army staggered back home. Philippe III was dead of dysentery, replaced by his teenaged son, Philippe IV. Instead of covering themselves in glory, the French were humiliated.

Philippe IV & fam

This led to an unstable political situation in Europe. The pope was still demanding Sicily be returned to Charles of Anjou. The French refused to sign a peace treaty with Aragon without the pope’s blessing. In Aragon, Peter had died, replaced by his eldest son, Alfonso (who was also Philippe IV’s first cousin). Plus, at some point Aragon had got their hands on Charles of Anjou’s eldest son, Charles of Salerno, and were holding him captive. This, dear peeps, is when Edward I waded into the fray, despite being pissed off with the pope for having redirected monies intended to finance Edward’s “real” crusade to the Holy Land to this stupid and failed venture in Aragon.

During the years 1286-1289, Edward spent all his time in Gascony, negotiating a treaty acceptable to all parties. He had a vested interest in that Charles of Salerno was his cousin, but more than that, Edward needed a treaty so as to send off his eldest daughter to marry Alfonso of Aragon. But the French demanded some sort of compensation for Charles of Valois’ lost crown (!) and were generally reluctant to any compromise—as was the pope. 

In 1288, some sort of treaty was signed, and everything was finally sorted. Not. The conflict between the pope and the crown of Aragon would continue into the next century.

So what does all this have to do with 1294? Well, Charles of Valois supposedly never forgave Edward for “giving away his rightful crown”. Plus, I think Philippe IV was not exactly enamoured of the fact that a huge chunk of land within his kingdom was ruled by Edward. 

Gascony was part of France, and accordingly, Edward I had to do homage to Philippe IV. Not something he fully enjoyed, what with him being much older than Philippe and (I’m guessing) quite convinced he was the superior monarch of the two. Philippe was to prove to the entire world that he deffo considered himself the most superior person around—not only was he to destroy the Templars, he was also to relocate the pope to Avignon, keeping His Holiness firmly under the royal thumb. But in 1294, all that lay in the future, the very handsome Philippe some years shy of thirty having his hands full with France and his siblings. One such sibling was Marguerite, and seeing as the English king was recently widowed, it was Philippe’s considered opinion that his half-sister would make Edward an excellent queen.

Edward was not opposed. I don’t think he wanted to marry again—he’d shared over thirty years with his Eleanor and likely missed her for the rest of his life—but he didn’t have a choice. After all, Edward only had one surviving son, and everyone knew a king needed at least an heir and a spare. 

Other than sorting the potential “spare” issue, marrying Marguerite would reconfirm the happy relationship between the House of Capet and the House of Plantagenet. Since fifty or so years back, the French and the English kings had not only been brother kings, but also family. Henry III of England and Louis IX of France married sisters. Henry’s brother, Richard of Cornwall and Louis’ brother Charles of Anjou married the two remaining sisters, which likely had the Count of Provence hissing a satisfied “yessss!” as he saw all four of his daughters so well settled. (Raymond was, however, dead, before his fourth daughter wed. . .)

In the early 1290s, Edward was expending most of his efforts on Scotland—in some years to become his primary concern. Once he’d managed the Scottish matter to his satisfaction, it was 1293 and the French/English relations had nose-dived. Late in 1292, there was a major brawl in a Norman port between English and French mariners. Come May of 1293, that brawl assumed massive proportions, a fleet of English and Gascon ships attacked by Norman ships who flew red streamers, thereby indicating they would give no quarter. Turns out the English and Gascons ships were better captained, and several French ships, including crew and cargoes, were captured. 

The French were incensed. This is an opportune moment to suggest that someone high up in the hierarchy had instigated that brawl in Normandy, someone like Charles of Valois, who very much wanted to rub the English nose in something. The English chroniclers openly accused him of fanning the flames of discord.  
Edward had no desire to lock horns with the French, not when the entire Christian world had recently been shocked by the Muslim capture of Acre. No, Edward wanted to go on a crusade, and with the new, hostile situation in the Holy Land, the Church was more than eager to bankroll such a venture. But for Edward to be able to ride east, he needed peace with his neighbour, so when the French sent a sequence of irritated messages regarding their captured ships, Edward suggested three different solutions: his first suggestion was that the matter be sorted according to English law. One could argue that as it was the French who were the aggressors, this made some sense, but Edward must have known the French would refuse that outright. His second suggestion was that the matter be handled by a commission set up by France and England. His third suggestion was that the matter be put before the pope. 

The French refused all three suggestions. This, according to the French, was not a dispute between two kings. Oh, no: it was a dispute between the French king and his vassal, the duke of Gascony (!!!) I imagine that did not go over well with Edward. The French ships, after all, had attacked English ships. 
Late in 1293, Edward was rudely summoned to Paris, the wording borderline offensive as the French king demanded his unruly vassal to present himself before him. 

“In your dreams,” Edward muttered—or whatever the medieval equivalent was. But he sent immediate instructions to his brother Edmund, who was presently in France, to somehow sort this mess. 

Edmund of Lancaster was, obviously, also a close relative to the French king. But he was also the step-father of Philippe’s queen, having taken as his second wife Blanche of Artois, who was wed to Henri, King of Navarre, and gave him a daughter, Jeanne, before Henri departed this world. 

Edmund, together with his wife and step-daughter—and Philippe’s step-mother, Marie of Brabant—started working on a compromise. Philippe himself was in and out of the room, and one gets the impression that Philippe was presenting himself as most amenable towards finding a peaceable solution. Edmund definitely believed he was making progress. Turns out he was wrong.

The compromise hammered out by Edmund and the ladies involved the surrender of several Gascon towns to Philippe—on the understanding that this was for show only. Edward would publicly express remorse and reiterate his loyalty, and the French king would then kiss his loyal duke and return the surrendered towns and hostages. Everyone would live happily ever after and to really ice the cake, Edward would marry Marguerite. 

In February of 1294, Edward fulfilled his part of the deal. And then he waited. And waited. At some point, it became clear for Edmund (and the ladies) that Philippe, egged on by his brother Charles of Valois and many of his counsellors, had no intention of honouring the deal. 

In April of 1294, Edward’s seneschal in Gascony, John St John, crossed over to England to inform his king that the French had no intention of returning the Gascon towns. 

For Edward, this was a terrible humiliation. It also killed any remaining hopes he may have had to go on crusade—he could not leave while his kingdom was at war with France, and one thing was certain: Philippe’s actions meant war. By the summer of 1294, Edward was mustering a huge army in Portsmouth. 

In England, there was a major ruckus when the barons understood just what had happened in Gascony (Edward had kept all of this close to his chest) Many were the voices suggesting this was all due to an old man lusting for a much younger bride. At the June parliament of 1294, Edward swore to the assembled magnates that he had not acted as he did out of lust, but because he desired to have peace with France so he could set off on his crusade. Apparently, he did this so eloquently he had the people present baying for French blood.  

The king had planned to have his troops cross the Channel during the summer, but the weather had other ideas. The major invasion was now set for September, but yet again, the weather refused to cooperate. And it was at this point in time that Edward got the news that really put 1294 at the top of the “most hated years ever”, likely coming a close second to 1290, the year Eleanor died. You see, in October the Welsh rebelled.

Edward’s amassed forces were hastily deployed to Wales and the rebels were ultimately crushed. But in Gascony, the French still ruled, and it would take many years before some sort of peace was re-established. 

Personally, I believe the Gascon conflict embittered Edward. Indirectly, the machinations of Philippe contributed to creating the ruthless king who was to ride so roughshod over the Scots. Not, of course, an excuse: Edward—and only Edward—bears the responsibility for his actions. And the Welsh, of course, would point out that he was pretty ruthless back in 1282/83 when he invaded Wales . . . 

Their Castilian Orphan

It is 1294 and Eustace de Lamont is back in England after five years in exile. He will stop at nothing to ruin Robert FitzStephan and his wife, Noor d’Outremer.

Robert’s half brother, Eustace de Lamont, has not mellowed during his absence. He is more ruthless than ever, and this time he targets Robert’s and Noor’s foster son, Lionel.

Lionel is serving King Edward as a page when Eustace appears at court. Not only does Lionel become the horrified witness to Eustace’s violent streak, Eustace also starts voicing his suspicions about Lionel’s parentage. The truth about Lionel’s heritage is explosive—should King Edward find out, all would be lost for Robert and Noor.

In October of 1294, Wales rises in rebellion. Robert must leave his family unprotected to fight the Welsh rebels on the king’s behalf, comforted only by the fact that Eustace too is called to fight.

Except that Eustace has no intention of allowing his duty to his king—or a mere rebellion—come between him and his desire to destroy Robert FitzStephan . . .

Connect with Anna

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with three absorbing interests: history, romance and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. Anna has just released the final instalment, Their Castilian Orphan, in her other medieval series, The Castilian Saga,which is set against the conquest of Wales. She has recently released Times of Turmoil, a sequel to her time travel romance, The Whirlpools of Time, and is now considering just how to wiggle out of setting the next book in that series in Peter the Great’s Russia, as her characters are demanding. . .

All of Anna’s books have been awarded the IndieBRAG Medallion, she has several Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choices, and one of her books won the HNS Indie Award in 2015. She is also the proud recipient of various Reader’s Favorite medals as well as having won various Gold, Silver and Bronze Coffee Pot Book Club awards.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Autumn and the Silver Moon Stallion


I have loved reading books about horses for as long as I can remember. From Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague to Horse by Geraldine Brooks, it is a genre that I enjoy as much now as I did as a child. In Love and War by John Jakes, Charles Main's connection with his horse, Sport, was one of the most moving relationships in the book. If any of these are favorites of yours as well, you won't want to miss today's guest! Enjoy a snippet from Autumn and the Silver Moon Stallion by VP Felmlee.

~ Samantha


Autumn and the Silver Moon Stallion: An Excerpt

Guest Post by VP Felmlee

As one, Becky, Autumn, and Silver Moon looked up just in time to see a tower of water coming over the top of the canyon, right towards them.

Autumn turned to run.

Becky turned to run.

Silver Moon was still coming down the trail, watched as waves hit the ground, then rose up like a living thing several feet in the air before crashing down first on Autumn then on the girl. 

More water was coming from above, splashing and crashing, ramming its way from canyon wall to canyon wall, shoving anything in its way forward, relentless and unstoppable.

Without thinking, Silver Moon jumped in.

Becky looked back, trying to see Autumn, swallowing ice-cold water in the process. She spat it out, then saw the palomino struggling to get her footing. The water was too deep, and was forcing them along at an incomprehensible speed. 

Becky grasped a large boulder. She couldn't hold on to it. Her body banged against an outcrop, driving the air from her lungs.

I have to watch where I'm going, she thought, don't look back, look forward.

The filly was trying hard to get to Becky, who was just ahead of her. The water pushed her against the canyon walls, forcing her to one side, then another. Instinct took over, her legs began to move. I have to keep my head up.

She was now whale-eyed, growing more terrified with each second. She couldn't avoid the boulders and slammed into them time and again.

She began to panic.

Silver Moon was strong and big but he was almost no match for the churning maelstrom the canyon had become.

Just ahead, he saw Autumn losing the fight to keep her head up. He saw her disappear, briefly emerge, then disappear.

An abused, neglected filly is abandoned on a remote country road, left to die. 

A young woman grieves the loss of her best friend, the champion horse she had built her life and future around.  

The heir to one of the largest ranches in Wyoming comes home to face the ire and disappointment of his grandfather.  

A world-renown scientist clashes with the U.S. government over a brutal, decades-long war to decide the fate of thousands of mustangs, a beloved icon of the American West.  

Autumn and The Silver Moon Stallion is their story of love, hatred, and death.  Will their struggles give them hope to fight for their beliefs, or tear them forever apart?

Connect with VP Felmlee

V P Felmlee is the author of The Abandoned Trilogy: Price Tadpole & Princess Clara; Good Boy Ben; and the third book in the series, Autumn and the Silver Moon Stallion. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she has a degree in geology, and has been active in historic preservation and animal welfare issues. Her articles have appeared in several magazines, and she has won numerous awards. 

She will be the 2025 president of Women Writing the West and lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, with her husband, two dogs, and six cats.

Connect with her on her Website, TwitterFacebook, Amazon Author Page, and Goodreads.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Final Thoughts on Shardlake

Shardlake on Hulu, copyright Disney+

The ending of Shardlake episode two left me with some big questions about what changes were going to be made to the story. Forget that Jack wasn't even supposed to be at Scarnsea, now he had committed an action that didn't make sense, didn't add to the story, and could have huge consequences when Matthew discovered it. Except that didn't turn out to be true. Well, it was true that Jack's run-in with Goodhap didn't add to the story, but in the end Matthew - our justice loving, truth seeking Matthew - just sort of shrugged it off.

Well, alright, I guess.

Alice's part is done very well in the series, and it holds almost precisely with Dissolution, with the obvious exception that she doesn't run away with Mark Poer since his character has been chopped to give us and earlier introduction to Jack Barak. Ruby Ashbourne Serkis does a fantastic job bringing Alice to life and seeming very genuine in the role. She's a woman who has empowered herself in an era when women didn't have power, but her story is still believable and doesn't creep into anachronisms.

Ruby Ashbourne Serkis as Alice in Shardlake
copyright Disney+

I've strived to be a positive voice among Sansom fans who refuse to believe that Disney could do him justice. Are the books better? Of course. Was the show still worth watching? Absolutely! It included some great moments from Dissolution that I loved seeing on screen.

What I really missed were the moments that make readers really love Matthew and make the series more than a bunch of historical mysteries. I started out thinking we were going to get this. In episode one, Matthew has some private moments where he beats himself up, and we got a peek at his vulnerable side. Unfortunately, that didn't happen much for the rest of the series, though we see his heart break a little bit when he returns from London to find Jack and Alice embracing.

But where was Kate??? Matthew's memories of Kate, his love for her and admitting it too late - is it just me? I think this is an important part of Matthew's character. It's part of why he has a shell and why he's softer than you think underneath. It makes your heart break a little more for him when he realizes that Alice has also found another more appealing.

As for the mystery, besides a few minor tweaks, much of it is the same as the book, so I won't give spoilers here. For me, Sansom's mysteries, well done as they are, were always secondary to following Matthew on his personal journey through the series. I hope those who have discovered Shardlake through the show will read on in Dissolution and beyond to join us on Team Matthew.

Will there be another series of Shardlake? Your guess is as good as mine, but if there is, I will look forward to seeing Dark Fire brought to screen. What do you think?

This post covers episode 3&4, click here for episode 2, and here for Hello, Shardlake. Goodbye, CJ Sansom

Or join me on Goodreads to discuss the books!

Friday, May 3, 2024

Shardlake: Episode Two

Now that I'm on to episode two, I feel like I'm in investigative mode, watching for scenes and lines that I can find in the books. 

Minor complaint - why the red, block letters for the title screen? Wouldn't it be nice to see something that evoked the 16th century? Ah well.... They're keeping it super real with the cold though! Everyone's breath is frosting the air, cheeks are pink. Tough gig.

Right away, I love watching Matthew question Guy as they discuss the discovery of Singleton's body. Knowing the friendship that grows between them, it made me smile to watch Guy be like, "well, it sure wasn't me!" and Matthew give him that definitely not convinced look. He gives EVERYONE that look, and, to be fair, they deserve it. Have you heard Abbot Fabian's theory of who killed Singleton?

When Matthew vows that he will find the truth in that low, threatening tone. Chills. Wondering how I ever thought he seemed vulnerable. (But also hoping for more scenes that reveal his vulnerability.) And then Barak shows up in that ridiculous outfit. Sorry, this is becoming a bit too stream of consciousness. 

Matthew's disability is not on display in this episode the way it was in the first. It's as if the show's creators decided we all know about it now, so it need not continue being a problem. Matthew doesn't struggle to get on his horse, he runs after Simon (oh, poor Simon).... It is no longer the constant impediment that it is for him in the books. Perhaps they worry that viewers would find it overdone, maybe they would get bored? That's the great thing about readers of series that contain thousands of pages. We have patience and love those details, like in Dissolution chapter fourteen when Matthew looks at Mark, "envying the play of smooth, symmetrical muscles down his back."

To address an anachronism that I've seen mentioned online. The men are not wearing hats. Matthew wears no lawyer's coif. Alas, it is true. I assume the producers wanted us to admire Barak's wavy locks. 

Speaking of Barak, he is passionate about closing down this monastery and doesn't really care who killed anyone. Since he didn't appear in Dissolution, I can only compare this to Mark, who in Dissolution chapter nine asked, "But why would any of them kill Singleton? Surely it gives Lord Cromwell stronger grounds for closure?" Just so, but no one is asking this question as of episode two.

Oh, Matthew, when he denies Jerome's story of torture. He's just too honorable to believe the evil truth about people. Brother Jerome doesn't carry the injuries he should (& this is actually important because it's how Matthew knows he couldn't have murdered Singleton), but the man is bold in the face of Matthew's condescension. "The real traitors are Cromwell and his King!" Ouch. Tell us what you really think. Of course, at this point, Matthew doesn't buy a word of it. He's brilliant but human. And Barak has no doubt that Jerome is a crazy old traitor. 

Poor Mark Smeaton. It's easy to forget these were real people. How anyone admires Henry VIII is entirely beyond me. (Even if he looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers, which he didn't.)

Matthew's investigation of the marsh was quite a bit more dramatic than it was in Dissolution chapter twelve, but it was a nice little scene between him and Alice. "I thought that was my last breath." Oh, dear Matthew. Much nicer than Brother Edwig finding him.

Just like when I read the books, I'm all caught up in the characters and not paying enough attention to the mystery. Matthew has heard conversations about building. He's ordered an analysis of Brother Edwig's account books. (Am I the only one who misses his stutter?) There's lots of money within the monastery. Perhaps they're not eager to hand it over to their benevolent king.

Goodhap has been scuttling around, whining about leaving. (Big swerve from the book with this guy. Not sure how I feel about it.) We meet Copynger, but he hasn't spilled the tea about Orphan yet. I assume we'll hear about her in episode three.

Sadly, still no memories of Kate. I feel like we should have been introduced to her by now. Will she be left out? I hope not.

Barak, what did you do?!?!

I'm having such a difficult time deciding what's a spoiler. Do I assume everyone has read the books & watched the show? Let's just say, there's a bit of a mess to be cleaned up, and they still have a killer on the loose.

What are you loving about the show so far? (I mean, besides Arthur Hughes as Matthew, of course!)

Did you miss my post about episode one? Find it here: Hello, Shardlake. Goodbye, CJ Sansom.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Hello, Shardlake. Goodbye, CJ Sansom.

The first time I heard a rumor that Matthew Shardlake would get a TV series, I vowed to blog about each episode. Many of my readers know that I have long been a fan of author CJ Sansom and his loveable Tudor era lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. I, along with thousands of other fans, had been eagerly awaiting the May 1 debut when we received news that Sansom had passed away on April 27 at age 71 after a lengthy battle with cancer. 

Christopher John Sansom
(Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

CJ Sansom is one of the authors who inspired my own writing. If only I had his skill to recreate another time and place and to bring to life characters, who we love so much that my husband thought Matthew was a real person because of how often I talked about him! Reaching for his books will now be tinged with a bit of sorrow, but I am thankful we have them to keep picking up. 

The joy of Sansom fans is muted today as we remember his brilliant written works, watch one brought to life on screen, and know that we will never again hold a new Sansom novel in our hands. Besides his masterpiece Shardlake series, Sansom also wrote an alternate post-WWII history, Dominion, and a novel about the Spanish Civil War, Winter in Madrid. I have loved every one of his books and have read most of them more than once. I feel we are especially blessed now to watch Shardlake and honor the fantastic writer who created it.

Readers can be some of the greatest critics of their favorite characters and stories brought to screen. I get it and am often the same way. We love them the way they are written and think it is sacrilege to make changes, but I was greatly encouraged to hear actor Arthur Hughes talk about being selected to play Matthew Shardlake. Yes, Arthur, we've all fallen in love with Matthew.

Many of us had our own ideas of who should play Matthew, whether or not Jack Barak should even be a part of this part of the story, and how on earth Sean Bean ended up selected to be Thomas Cromwell. I've even seen complaints that the actor's disability is not precisely the same as Matthew's in the books. (Hughes has radial dysplasia rather than Matthew's severe scoliosis.) 

But Matthew didn't carry a sword . . . . and if he did it wouldn't be one like that! Noted. Now let's move on.

Screenshot from Shardlake
copyright Disney+

Because these things aren't what is most important about Matthew Shardlake. What has made me wonder if I can order a Team Matthew hoodie was his character, his brilliance, his love for others, the way my heart hurts when he is ruthlessly dismissed because of his deformity. The friendship between Jack and Matthew is one of the best things about the series, and if the show can demonstrate that better by bringing Jack on scene a little earlier than is strictly correct, it is a change I accept. (Sorry, Mark.)

After all, friends, we are only getting FOUR EPISODES. The audiobook version of Dissolution is 14.5 hours long. Let's give the show's creators a little grace, shall we? And give me a bit of grace as well, because here I am going on, and I haven't even got to the first episode yet.


I stayed up until midnight to watch episode one as soon as it became available, something I have never done before. My husband was out of town, typically a reason for me to leave the TV off for days, but here I sat in the middle of the night, ready to watch Shardlake.

The first glimpse we get of Arthur Hughes as Matthew, he is washing and dressing for the day, and his disability is on full display in a way that would have horrified poor Matthew. Anyone watching who does not already know the story, begins with learning Matthew is a hunchback, a deformation that would have defined his entire character to many of his 16th century contemporaries, but we soon learn there is much more to him.

In public, Matthew is confident, giving people orders that he anticipates will be obeyed. He is brilliant, called upon by Cromwell because of his perseverance in finding truth. But the show's creators sneak in a couple of scenes where Matthew is doubting himself, and this was fantastic. I wondered how they would portray the Matthew I have grown to love, a man full of contradictions and emotions. Appearing every bit the King's Man to the monks of St Donatus, he mentally thrashes himself for even considering that Alice could think of him as a potential mate.

My favorite scene (straight out of Dissolution, chapter 3) was when Matthew was watching poor, abused Simon Whelplay light candles. His mind returns to a memory of himself as a young, crooked-backed acolyte, proclaiming to the priest that he would like to devote himself to God. When the priest laughed contemptuously, pointing out that Matthew certainly does not appear to be created in the image of God, I wanted to take that little boy into my arms and comfort him, just as I have felt so many times when reading the books.

I know, you're wondering when I'm going to talk about Jack Barak. At this point, Barak seems to be an amalgamation of his character and that of Mark Poer, Matthew's assistant in Dissolution, who does not appear in the series. The introduction is similar to how we meet Barak in Dark Fire, if he is a bit more cheerful and less brooding than I pictured him. He's not rugged and dangerous so much as he is irreverent and arrogant - so far at least. I'm still mulling over what they're doing with Barak's character.

It was a bit odd for him to be checking out Joan, who is supposed to be Matthew's plump, competent, middle-aged housekeeper, but whatever. Moving on.

We also meet several of the monks, including Guy Malton, who becomes a long-standing character in the series. Unlike in the book, there is no reaction to his race, which is just as much disadvantage to him in Tudor England as Matthew's disfigurement. But, I guess modern TV producers didn't think they could get away with referring to a middle-eastern man as a "black old moldwarp." Fair enough. In the show, unlike the book or history, Guy is not alone in being a non-white man in the monastery, so it is a nonissue.

Brother Jerome is also wandering around, exclaiming things he shouldn't, though he doesn't carry injuries from being racked by Cromwell as he should. Simon spills some juicy tidbits when he collapses from illness and starvation. Prior Mortimus finds fault in everyone, is always angry, and must be the killer - because his name is Mortimus! Just as in Dissolution, at this point, EVERYONE appears guilty, and you almost expect an Orient Express type murder occurred where they each played their own part.

Who else is waiting for Matthew to have an emotive memory of Kate? I have my tissues ready.

Of course, I'm watching from the point of view of someone who has long been a fan of this series, so I'm curious what viewers think of it if they haven't read any of the books. What were your thoughts on episode one? I hope to post again soon on the next episode!

My reviews of the Shardlake series:
Tombland (ok, I just realized I never wrote a full review of this one, but here are my favorite lines!)