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Tales of Hard Winters Long Ago

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The writer Richard Adams, in Watership Down, said that "Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it." Proof in the crackle and pop of burning logs in the fireplace, a cozy blanket, thick wool socks and furry earmuffs, a full length wool overcoat and a long cashmere scarf; proof as you might feel in a soft leather onesie lined in sheep's wool with UGG inscribed on the bottom; proof in the form of a steaming mug of creamy cocoa and a book where the characters are freezing their miserable butts off.

For readers of medieval and Middle Ages historical fiction, winter may conjure images of castles, animal trophies hung on the stones above the blazing hearth, never-ending banquets with bottomless casks of wine and mead, noblemen, clergy, knights and squires, maids and maidens gathered to pay homage to the lord of the lands.

But what of the peasants and their winter's tales? What of the struggles of the common folk and their utter lack of proof against the winter? What of their stories of the whistling icicle winds on the frozen heath and the tragedies they carry?

In the 14th century, human beings were anything but proof against winter. Books of historical fiction set in those days of emergence from medieval times are likely to have characters freezing off this or that body part and leaving it for the dogs. For those that like to take a dose of reality with the tales of knights, dragons, giants and round tables, novels about those very real times are often apt to delight, enthrall and send the chills of winter up the spine.

Novels like Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, or the wondrous series of novels: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory, or the non-fiction classic A World Lit Only By Fire by William Manchester give the reader of flavor for what life was like outside the castle walls. Now we can add Sinful Folk, by Ned Hayes, with illustrations by Nikki McClure (just out on Campanile Books) to this esteemed list of novels set in the Middle Ages.

It's December 1377, and four children have been burned to death when the croft house they inhabit goes up in inexplicable, unquenchable flames. The livid villagers take to the King's Highway for hundreds of miles to demand justice. Among them is Mear, a former nun who has lived for a decade with her son disguised as a mute man. Now she grieves, but on this winter journey her true history comes to light, keeping readers and listeners (it's also available on audiobook) up late waiting for the next revelation.

But above all Sinful Folk is a winter's tale of centuries long past. As bestselling author Brenda Vantrease wrote about the book: "Dress warmly before beginning this perilous journey across a winter-blasted medieval landscape of fire and ice. Your heart will shiver and not just from the cold."