I read and reviewed The House of Lanyon for November's Historical Novels Review, and now that the issue is appearing in subscribers' mailboxes, I'm republishing the review at the end of this post. The House of Lanyon is much in the same vein as the earlier novels in Anand's Bridges over Time series, although (as far as I know) it's complete in a single volume. It's the story of several families, their relationships with the land and their neighbors, and their day-to-day lives on Exmoor beginning in the year 1458. The Lanyons rear sheep, grow corn, and sell wool; the Weavers, as one can guess, weave wool into cloth; and the Sweetwaters, the Lanyons' landlords, are minor gentry on social terms with Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon.
The House of Lanyon is, as far as I'm able to tell, historically accurate. The characters' names, realistic and frequently utilitarian, reflect the time. Readers will learn much about the operations of a medieval dyeworks, marriage customs in a rural village, and the construction of a proper manor house. These descriptive sections are the parts I enjoyed most. The novel's three families have lived on the same plots of land for generations. The Lanyons rarely venture beyond the nearest village, Clicket. They have no need to. They discuss political matters among themselves, but events in faraway London don't affect their daily lives, at least not until much later in the book. (I don't want to give too much away.)
In this lies the issue some readers may have (and are having) with this novel. It has no "marquee names" or "marquee events," not for a good long while. All of the major characters are fictional, and their lifestyles aren't glamorous. Regional British sagas are rarely published in the States anymore - I buy them from the UK - as they're not very popular here, aside from in the library market. I'm willing to bet that most of today's readers (the distinguished company reading this blog excepted, of course) haven't even heard of Bridges over Time. The second-to-last volume was published in the US in 1996, and the final volume never appeared here at all. If you haven't read it, you're missing out. Her Wikipedia entry lists the titles in order.
Do readers need historical figures, names of battles, and/or major historical events inserted into a novel in order to enjoy it as historical fiction? That's what worried me about the concept behind The House of Lanyon. And so when I read the Publishers Weekly review ("There's not enough historical detail to place the Lanyons in their time and place") and an Amazon review with similar sentiments ("What I was reading could, by changing a few sentences, have been [set] anywhere from, say 500AD to 2007, and the location almost anywhere in England, Canada, the U.S., etc") I both shook my head in amazement and nodded sadly. There's plenty of historical detail in the novel, but it's not of the right type, it seems - either that, or it's too subtle to be appreciated by these readers.
All reviewers are entitled to their opinions, of course. Here's mine, below. If you've read the novel, I'd be curious to hear what you think - on the content itself, its marketability, and/or its audience. I'm also going to be watching the UK reaction to this novel, when it's published there by MIRA next April.
THE HOUSE OF LANYON
Valerie Anand, MIRA, 2007, $24.95/C$29.95, hb, 586pp, 9780778325024
In her afterword, Valerie Anand mentions it was her dream to pen a novel set on Exmoor, the rolling countryside and woodlands around Somerset. She combines a wonderful sense of place with an engrossing family saga set between 1458 and 1504, with the Wars of the Roses as a mostly distant backdrop.
The Lanyons are tenant farmers on land belonging to the Sweetwaters, minor gentry living on Exmoor. Relations between them have always been frosty, but true enmity sparks when two Sweetwater sons disrupt the funeral procession of family patriarch George Lanyon. Richard, George’s middle-aged son, swears to improve his family’s station in life henceforth. He begins by arranging his son Peter’s marriage to Liza Weaver, the well-dowered daughter of a neighboring family in the wool trade. After much heartache, both Peter and Liza abandon hopes of marrying their lovers and agree to wed one another. And Richard, for all his pride and bluster, closely guards a secret from his own past that could destroy everything he’s built.
Liza and Peter develop a strong marital bond, raising a family and suffering Richard’s ambition to rebuild Allerbrook Farm as a manor house that will put the Sweetwater residence to shame. They deal with business disputes, family squabbles, and personal losses as best they can, with outside events rarely intruding until Lancaster and York force everyone to take sides.
With its descriptions of local trades, customs, and family life, The House of Lanyon is a fascinating social history of the medieval West Country as seen through the eyes of sympathetic characters. Though nearly the entire book takes place on a small plot of land, I was never bored. The sort of novel you can comfortably wallow in for days, it’s a gift to readers who, like me, loved Anand’s Bridges over Time series and wanted more.