Disclosure: I won a free copy of this book from an author. It was a no-strings attached sort of a thing, and there was no agreement that I would review this book at all as a part of the giveaway. In addition, I was very excited about the release of this book because the author is someone I follow here on Booklikes, so I had read various excerpts from the book before getting my hands on it (digital hands, really) and it looked fantastic.
I was not disappointed.
I'm going to witter on for a bit about myself, to explain what kind of a reader I am. I have read a lot of historical fiction, including the grand dame of English historical fiction, Sharon Kay Penman, and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Both of these writers primarily write in a period that is quite a bit later than the period chosen by Mr. Hayes for his novel, but they - Penman in particular - are well known for the quality of their research and writing.
I am not tremendously knowledgable about the English Middle Ages and am definitely not reading as a scholar. However, I am pretty picky about obvious errors and I am quite picky about good writing, and I love a great story. Ned Hayes is one of those authors who is the total package.
Sinful Folk was, in a word, wonderful.
Most historical fiction focuses on the nobles not the vassals. This makes sense, as it is undoubtedly much easier to research how the royalty and the powerful members of the church and the wealthy lived. The peasantry are usually there, in the book, as an aside. They serve things, they (if they are male) are the cannon fodder for the foolish wars embarked upon by the powerful, or they (if they are female) are a sexual outlet - sometimes consenting, sometimes not so much - for the men of noble blood that they might encounter. Nonetheless, they are mostly interchangeble. Unnamed, unknown, unimportant.
But, of course, in the Middle Ages, as in any other period, those are the people who do most of the living and loving and hating and dying. This book gives them a voice in Mear, or Miriam. And it is a beautiful voice, utterly convincing.
"In the end, I listen to my fear. It keeps me awake, resounding through the frantic beating in my breast. It is there in the dry terror in my throat, in the pricking of the rats' nervous feet in the darkness.
Christian has not come home all the night long."
The book begins with the death of Mear's son, Christian. He is burned to death in a terrible fire, along with four other boys. The men of the village, including Miriam, because she is living as a man, and a mute one, at that, take a pilgrimage in the dead of winter, seeking justice for their boys. The story is the story of their journey, and the life story of Miriam, who has secrets that are slowly revealed as the journey unfolds, picking up other travellers as they go. It is incredibly dangerous for peasants to be abroad on the road in winter, especially as they travel without the permission of their Lord. This is no light-hearted picaresque tale about villagers on a pleasure trip - the characters face real dangers, real hardship, and experience real terrors and injuries. It is winter, in the midst of a famine, and the world is a harsh and unforgiving place.
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
(Poem by Christina Rosetti)
I don't want to spoil the story, so I will stop here. Ned Hayes has a story-teller's sense of timing and mystery, and a poet's grasp of language. He could have been a bard in another time.
"Rooks have clustered on either side of the long road. It is as if they line a grand parade route for our passage. Their black feathers are stark as soot against the White Road and the snow. They stab at the ground with their strange bare bills and unfeathered faces. The birds are like rough-edged black stones on a string around this stripped cold neck of road"
See what I mean?