Are you a fan of old role playing video games like Baldur’s Gate or Neverwinter Nights? Do you regularly attend your local Ren Faire? Do you dress up for anything other than Halloween? Have you ever attended anything with the title “Medieval” in it? Then, Friend, have I got the book for you. Kim Rendfeld’s newest book, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, feels a lot like all of those things. Rendfeld focuses on one family of Saxons (I would say they are peasants, but they appear to own their own land, so maybe freeholders? Maybe I’m conflating peasants and serfs.) living in Westphalia during the time of Charlemagne’s rise to power. It exposes some of the important tensions of a world in flux as vying powers sought to fill the void left by the collapse of the Roman Empire a few hundred years before. The characters are caught between old and new faiths, languages, lovers, professions, and ways of understanding themselves and their place in the world. Rendfeld’s well-researched novel gives the reader the flavor of what life must have been like as Christianity began sweeping northern Europe, and pays particular attention to female roles and different understandings of justice and mercy. Unique in focus and setting, Rendfeld’s novel teaches as much as it entertains.
In spite of the very excellent idea for a novel, I did have a few problems reading this book. I thought the dialogue was a little clunky, but either it got better as the novel progressed, or I stopped noticing it. Also, it felt rushed to me, like there was an outline of events that needed to happen in the first chapter (for example), but no real moments in between to let them settle. I understand that when a village is invaded, things happen quickly, things are rushed, but the writing didn’t feel like it was trying to recreate that mood of chaos and uncertainty. It felt like a checklist. I noticed this most at the beginning of the novel, but it happened throughout. This is the companion to another book by Rendfeld’s (The Cross and The Dragon), so perhaps readers of that book will already understand the setting and what life is like for Leova and Derwine before it all exploded, but I didn’t, so when Derwine dies (in the first ten pages), it was hard for me to feel sympathetic. I often felt while reading this book that I was expected to care much more about these characters than I actually did. Finally, there was some character inconsistency. Just to draw from the beginning of the book again, Leova starts out apparently very committed to her pagan faith, but switches to Christianity in an instant. And I understand that many people had to make that choice, just as quickly, in order to stay alive, but Leova had more time to think about making that switch than she took. I felt like while the characters may have been getting older, they were not developing or changing in any real way, not inwardly anyway. I understand they went from freeholders to slaves to freedom again, and I understand that some grew from children into adulthood, and I understand they experienced very real traumas, but overall these characters seemed lightly drawn, without the corresponding weight of character that comes from experiencing such weighty events.
That said, this is a great addition to the genre. Rendfeld’s work addresses an underrepresented time period that actually has a lot in common with our contemporary lives. Leova’s commitment to her family is something any mother can understand. The novel ends sweetly, delighting any reader. I think this book is perfect for e-reading, and a wonderful introduction for the casual historian to life in 772 CE. The Author’s Note at the end provides readers with sources to look to for further reading on the topic. Rendfeld is at her best when teaching her readers, and her descriptions of historical “fact”are useful and interesting. Once you finish reading The Mists of Avalon, before you pick up another turkey leg, take a chance on this book. Fascinating.