January 27, 2011

Medieval Historical Fiction - Susan Coventry (YAHF Guest Post)

Susan Coventry is the wonderful author of The Queen's Daughter. She has come to share her love for Historical Fiction and to introduce us to Medieval Historical Fiction that she loves!

Why I love medieval historical fiction, and how you might too!

Since this is the YA historical fiction challenge, I’m going to post about how I got hooked on historical fiction. Hoping to ensnare you as well, I’ll mention a series of books that appeal to a particular passion of mine—Arthuriana. Stories like these are what first won me over to the Middle Ages. (Just in case you think medieval historical fiction is all a bunch of men named Henry fighting over small parts of England and France, over and over again. Well...that’s a good part of it but... there’s more to it than that!) You, too, can learn to love the Middle Ages!

The Queen's DaughterFirst, from a very nerdy standpoint, I like to read historical fiction because I feel like I’m learning something at the same time that I’m indulging in some "just for me" time. There are not enough hours in the day, and there is so much I need to accomplish before the sun goes down. If I’m not at work, I should be exercising or cleaning or doing something productive, but instead I’m reading for pleasure. Hours (or even whole days) can get away from me, lost in a book. Can I justify such an extravagant expenditure of time with nothing to show for it? Well...history was not my favorite subject in school. I don’t think I learned it as well as I might have. So reading historical fiction is multi-tasking. I’m reading for pleasure AND learning something.

But, if I wanted to just gather facts, I would read nonfiction. Historical novels are fun. They bring you into the lives of the characters, into other places, other times, to experience the things they did. You feel what they felt. And if the book takes you through more than just a love story of the past but also through historical events of significance...well...there’s nothing like the cycles of history to put the troubles of today in perspective.

So why do I prefer the Middle Ages?

As a kid, I read all the time. In middle school I went through a phase where I loved fantasy. But as I reached my teen years, I discovered the best fantasy of all: bold knights, brave ladies, noble kings, dragons, witches, fairies, flying beds, magical swords, enchanted potions...the list goes on—in the romantic, chivalrous, medieval Arthurian legends.

Now wait! you may say. That isn’t the real Middle Ages.
Well, no. It isn’t the real Middle Ages. But many Arthurian tales were born in the Middle Ages. And scholars still study them for clues about what was going on when their creators were composing them. What do they symbolize? What can they tell us about the customs and thought processes of the times? The stories are actually very medieval in tone if not in historical fact.

And more than fodder for medieval scholars, they are rousing good fun. The knights’ adventures are thrilling. The men are so chivalrous. Behaving honorably is important. Reputation means something—not simply fame, but a good name. The women, whether virtuous or wicked, are intelligent and play more central roles than you might expect medieval women to be playing. And there is no more painfully tragic love triangle in all the world than the Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere story.

Even if King Arthur wasn’t "real," these stories are a wonderful introduction to medieval historical fiction. Some of the most enjoyable adaptations of the Arthurian tales I’ve ever come across are Gerald Morris’s Squire’s Tales series. The first book is called simply: The Squire’s Tale. It introduces Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, destined to become the greatest knight of the Round Table and the young boy, Terence, who will be his squire. The book includes a series of adventures as the two learn secrets about their destinies and their pasts. The story manages to stay true to Arthurian plot lines while poking gentle fun at some of the conventions. The result is very funny and very readable. While this is listed in Amazon as a YA reading level, it’s actually pitched to a slightly younger target audience. (Don’t let that put you off. The books read quickly and are squeaky clean, but they aren’t dumbed down.) The great thing about these books is that you can read them at different levels. Younger (middle grade) readers can understand them at face value and laugh at some of the jokes. Older readers will get them at a deeper level and find more of the irony. I don’t usually laugh out loud when I’m reading, but with these books, I did.

The first book in the series is the "youngest." They become increasingly sophisticated as the series progresses. My favorites were The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf and The Ballad of Sir Dinadin. You don’t have to read them in order since not all the characters return in all of them, and even Terence and Gawain play only minor roles in some.

The Mists of AvalonHowever, if you’re not convinced and prefer something a bit "older" and more romantic, there is another Arthurian classic that hammered home for me how much I love Arthuriana. However, this one is not targeted to young adults and is not squeaky clean, so be forewarned. (It was initially published in 1982, so I guess I was a young adult when I first read it.) It is The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is the epic story of Camelot but told primarily through the eyes of the women involved, in particular Morgaine le Fay. You’ll end up with an entirely different perspective of the myth. It’s a long book, but I couldn’t put it down. I read it twice.

Once hooked on Arthurian legends, it was only natural to move on to the real-life people who made up the first audience for these tales. And I quickly discovered that medieval history is more fascinating, more compelling, more tragic, and more triumphant than any fantasy.
So here’s my recommendation. Discover the Arthurian legends for yourself and see if you’re not tempted to explore the broader medieval world. A slew of YA novels with medieval settings awaits you.

Thank you Susan! She has also donated a copy of The Queen's Daughter to the winner of the YA Historical Fiction January Giveaway


  1. Great post, I loved The Queen's Daughter!

  2. I also really love Arthurian stuff... medieval fantasy is quite awesome.

  3. Guess I am nerdy too, because I love anything that even hints of middle ages, and Arthurian legend. The Mists of Avalon is a wonderful example. I will have to check out The Queen's Daughter. Fab post!


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