Fitzempress Law Hardcover – Jun 1980
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Note to publishers: please look into reissuing Fitzempress' Law and the earlier Diana Norman books. The popularity of her more recent titles (under her own name & nom de plume) should be a good indicator of how well re-issues would do!
Norman, Diana (aka Ariana Franklin) - 1st novel
St. Martin's Press, 1980, US Hardcover - ISBN: 0312294190
First Sentence: "Whassat?"
Three contemporary teens set upon an elderly woman who curses them that they must use the law to save their souls. An accident results with their bodies lying in a coma in hospital while their souls have been transported back to the time of Henry II (Fitzempress).
Len, an orphan, is now Aluric, a peasant with an eccentric mother, finds himself drawn to education and wanting to become a monk. Pete, always the follower, is now Sr. Roger of Mardleybury, a knight who has been cheated out of his father's land. Sal, forgotten in her divorced parents moving on with their lives, is Hawise, whose betrothal broken and is being forced, against her will, to take the vows of a nun.
While this book involves both time travel and a mystery, it is primarily a novel about the challenges of living during the 12th Century during the time of Henry II. At that aspect of the story, Norman/Franklin excels.
The author's descriptions are vivid and real. This is a time when superstition, paganism and the Church rule the lives of the people and murder of Beckett is laid at Henry's feet as the reason for anything going wrong. The injustices against the poor, the Jews and, in fact, anyone who has less power and/or money than someone else are starkly depicted, but not without humor and humanity.
The characters, in their past lives, are fully-dimensional with the backstories of those characters. We learn more about Len and Pete than we do Sal, but each is interesting and involving.
What does not work as well, for me, is the time-travel from the aspect that the characters have no transitional issues acclimating to the medieval time or language or that they give very little thought to their past. The biggest issue I have, however, is with the very end of the book, which is abrupt and, in some ways, makes no sense with the rest of the story.
I enjoyed the book; I loved the realism, the history and that Henry is shown for all the innovations he made in law that have impacted our lives today. This was her first book and she certainly has come a long way from here to "Mistress of the Art of Death," and "The Serpent's Tale" so perhaps I shouldn't be too harsh. If you can overlook the weaknesses, it is well worth reading.
As readers we learn along with these characters about the difficulties of life in the thirteenth century, and we learn it in some fascinating detail. We see daily life and society in a poor farming village, a royal court, the Jewish quarter of Cambridge, and an abbey, we see medieval warfare, we see the workings of the judicial assizes that Henry II created.
This book has many themes that will continue to show up in the author's future books under the name Ariana Franklin, such as medieval Cambridge, the hostility towards the Jews, and most notably, Henry II. He actually has a large role in this book, as the three protagonists get to know and admire him.
The writing is excellent, the story is interesting and touching, the characters are real, well-rounded and sympathetic, and the historical backdrop is detailed. I dearly wish this book would be reprinted, because there's only one copy in any library in the Bay Area, and used copies online cost a bundle. Her new books are so popular that I'm sure reprints of her older ones would do well. Please, publishers?
It has the same setting and a good deal of the same subject matter - Henry II (Norman's great hero), the predicament of medieval Jews - as the dismal 'Mistress of the Art of Death' series that she started writing a quarter of a century later. The difference is, that it's actually damn good.
It's a time-travel novel, and all time-travel novels have to start with a more-or-less ludicrous contrivance to get the story moving; you just have to hold your nose and swallow it. In this case, three young hooligans assault an old woman, who hexes them so that their motorbike crashes and their bodies lie in a coma in hospital while their personalities are transported into the bodies of three young 12th-century Hertfordshire people, each of whom has a major difficulty that can only be solved by recourse to 12th-century law - Henry FitzEmpress' law. Okay: so far, so hokey. But Norman had really immersed herself in re-imagining 12th-century life in Hertfordshire (she set much of the action in the village where she lived, and it's clear she researched it intensively) and trying to create a mind-set for its inhabitants. You might or might not like the choices she made: for example, she, like Alfred Duggan, found a parallel between the Anglo-Norman knightly mindset and that of public school, colonial Englishmen, and gave her above-the-salt characters dialogue to match; and her Jewish characters talk like New York Yiddisher Jews (Reuben the moneylender of Cambridge says to his wife, 'Momma, today we entertain a goy to dinner'). But they are honest and coherent choices. And it's full of the flavour of real medieval life - asides like a note on not only the rarity of hedges in pre-enclosure England, but their edibility (hazels! rosehips! haws! crab apples! Yum!), and characters with genuinely non-modern attitudes. I would seriously recommend it.
How on earth did Norman simply forget everything she had known back in 1980, when she came to write the character and milieu of 'Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar' - who is far less convincing in a medieval setting than the time-travelling heroes of this book? And why isn't it getting a reprint?