Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, by Kim Rendfeld

Kim Rendfeld’s second historical novel (following The Cross and the Dragon) takes the form of a quest-adventure, but not of the type you’d expect. Rather than centering on a single man or woman on a mission, it features a family of farmers, a devoted mother and her son and daughter, on their journeys together and separately. While their original goal is to regain possession of the home they lost to war, their search expands to include something more intangible and valuable: personal freedom. Finally, the setting is one that’s rarely seen in fiction, the Frankish realm in the late 8th century, as seen from the viewpoint of the king’s enemies, the beleaguered Westphalian Saxons.

The clear writing style should reassure anyone concerned about the unfamiliar setting, and readers are plunged into the action from the first page. Following signs of a Frankish invasion, Leova and her children Sunwynn and Deorlaf flee into the nearby woods while the men stay and defend their village. After the battle ends, their husband and father, Derwine, is found slain, and the holy Irminsul, an oaken pillar symbolizing the power of the Saxon gods, has been destroyed. Their situation worsens further when a cruel relative tricks them into slavery.

Over seven years, each member of the trio reacts in different ways to their new low status, trying stay together as they’re sold or traded to different masters and mistresses, some tolerant and some cruel. They aren’t static characters, and this is just one of the novel’s strengths. Sunwynn grows into a beautiful young woman hemmed in by her circumstances; Deorlaf becomes restless and seeks revenge on his family’s captors. As they mature, the story provides them with viewpoints of their own. Some of their mother’s choices make them uneasy, but Leova acts as she does to ensure their survival.

Good historical fiction can serve as a bridge between our time and days long past. With its beliefs in protective charms and forest nixies, the Saxons’ culture feels vastly different from our own, but everyone will recognize a mother’s fear and strength. Children of this time need to know the world’s realities, and Leova doesn't spare her son the truth about why they need to escape Eresburg: “If we return home now, the invaders will rape me and Sunwynn – and jam their rods up your backside.” In contrast, some other elements are toned down.  There’s quite a lot of muttered cursing in the novel, which will please those looking for a profanity-free read; others may find themselves curious about the presumably more colorful expressions that were omitted.

The plot smoothly winds through Charlemagne’s vast empire, from devastated Eresburg above the Diemel River in central Germany to the royal court at Aachen to a church in Rennes, in the March of Brittany. Details on the changing scenery and customs are well integrated. Although the conflicting religious beliefs of the time are highlighted, over time the novel becomes less a story about the Saxon gods’ failed power and more a tale about the strength of individuals and families – and the power of love to heal wounds. This makes The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar not only an authentic-feeling representation of a distant era but one relevant to here and now.

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar was published by Fireship Press in August in paperback ($18.50, 376pp) and as an e-book ($5.50).  I received a NetGalley copy of this title for review.  See the publisher's website for more stops on the virtual tour.


 

To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

2 comments:

  1. Nice review, Sarah. Looking forward to reading Kim's new novel. Fireship is turning out some good titles.

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    1. Definitely agree there - I just finished Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire also, which was excellent. It's a good thing small presses like Fireship are around.

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