Franklin (A Murderous Procession, 2010, etc.) and Norman draw a tale of intrigue and violence from the Anarchy, the 12th-century struggle over the right to rule England between Stephen of Blois and Empress Matilda.
In 1135, Henry I, king of England and Normandy, dies, leaving his kingdom to his daughter, Empress Matilda, the Holy Roman Emperor’s widow. His nephew Stephen objects, claiming the crown, and England becomes "a land devoid of loyalty," where "plunder, pillage...devastation, starvation" haunt its people. The authors use Em, an 11-year-old peasant girl from the Cambridgeshire fens, and mercenary Gwilherm de Vannes, an arbalist—crossbowman—to follow the story. Gwilherm escapes a battlefield rout only to be attacked by his companions, rogues who then rape and beat little Em. Gwilherm nurses her to health, but she’s lost her memory and despises her femininity—"They’d sent her mad, and small wonder." Gwilherm dresses her as a boy, dubs her Penda and teaches her archery. Penda in tow, Gwilherm vows revenge on the rapist, Thancmar, a monk who led an attack on Ely Cathedral as part of a scheme to secure appointment as an archbishop. Highlighted by solid characterization of historical and fictional figures alike, the authors’ research on day-to-day medieval life shines. Gwilherm and Penda rescue Empress Matilda and two knights during a blizzard and repair to Kenniford castle, a strategic redoubt along the Thames. There, young Maud rules as chatelaine; her boorish and cruel husband, Sir John of Tewing, to whom she’s been married on Stephen’s orders, lies silent after a stroke. Maud switches her support to Matilda, and the siege begins.
This thoroughly captivating tale was begun by celebrated historical novelist Franklin, who died before its completion, and completed seamlessly by her journalist daughter, Norman.