I think modern ‘revisionist fantasy’ (for lack of a better term) like Game of Thrones and historical fiction has kind of soured the medieval fantasy setting for me. Sure, all the noble courts, people saying ‘milord,’ jousts and turkey leg-munching feasts are fun — that’s why we have Renaissance Fairs, after all — but now I can’t help thinking about how awful the whole thing really is. I mean, royal courts are fun– but the feudal system is based on the exploitation of the poor by the privileged few. Jousts are exciting– but aren’t squires pretty much child soldiers forced into a life of bloodshed by a society that is built around violence? Princes and princesses are romantic — but doesn’t the system of arranged marriage ruin any chance of real happiness while their power and wealth let them use the Right of the Lord (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droit_du_seigneur) to sexually dominate the poor? Chivalry sounds honorable — but how much real honor is there when even a supposed hero like Henry V orders his men to butcher French prisoners? You get the idea and if you’ve been watching Game of Thrones, you know how horrific a medieval fantasy world would probably be.
L. Blankenship’s second book in the Disciples series — Winters Fools — summoned these feelings through no fault of its own and, to Blankenship’s credit, did a decent job of showing the fun parts of the Medieval World and the nastiness too. The story continues to follow Kate Carpenter as she finishes her mission and now takes her place in the capitol city of Wodenberg, where she goes to work as a physician. There’s no real quest or danger to speak of (though an invasion from the monster-making Arceal Empire still threatens) and the story is more of a domestic drama or romance taking place in a fantasy setting. It could be a bit slow-going, but Blankenship’s evocative prose and compelling world managed to hold my interest.
Good characters are another plus for Disciples. Kate Carpenter remains an appealing protagonist. She’s more woman than girl this time around and her attempts to carve out a career for herself as a healer provides fodder for a good fantasy story — and one I haven’t heard before. Anders, boisterous royal bastard and jousting champion, is still cool. The story does a great job of showing how wretched it is to be a bastard by revealing the coldness and hate Anders receives from his mother’s cuckolded husband and the queen. Anders is appealing because he struggles with those odds and refuses to back down. Naturally, he’s got some unrequited love for Kate as well.
Kate, meanwhile, still has the hots for the brooding, hunky Kiefan — and this is the part where I feel that Blankenship fumbled a little. I still think Kiefan isn’t a particularly interesting character as he’s the brooding, troubled handsome loner of the sort who would be at home on the cover of any bodice-ripping romance. His romance with Kate didn’t really intrigue me and Kiefan’s libido ends up jeopardizing Kate’s career and nearly ruining her life. Then Kiefan casually mentions a previous serving maid who he romanced and how the poor serving girl was whipped half-to-death on the queen’s orders after she found out about it. The maid was sent home in disgrace and later murdered by her family or committed suicide. I’m sorry, but that’s some tyrannical stuff right there, to say nothing of the classist and sexist exploitation of the poor at the hands of the royal family. I don’t really know if its Kiefan’s fault, exactly (he does ask Kate’s permission for everything he does — though I don’t know if he did with the maid). He is the prince and, in a medieval society, the prince can have whoever he wants, whenever he wants and never have to face the consequences. (“Everyone is mine to torment!” as Bad King Joffrey so eloquently puts it.) But Kate accepts Kiefan completely. Kiefan continues to be her love interest throughout the story and Kate doesn’t really think he does anything wrong. I certainly did, but I think the author sort of suspends judgment by saying that this is simply how things are and there’s no use complaining. Unfortunately, in a medieval society, that’s probably true.
When the story ends, Kate has managed to deal with the potential scandal of Kiefan and is gearing up for a big siege from the invading Arceal army. I’m totally down for that. Medieval sieges, with trebuchets, boiling oil and moats, are always going to be awesome. Hopefully, Blankenship won’t turn away from the brutality and horrors of such a situation. Meanwhile, I can dream that a Disciples-version of John Ball leads a peasant uprising, executes the nobility and Kate and Anders live happily in a communal medieval utopia. Seriously though, I am excited for Part III and I’ll be sure to let you guys know what I think of it after its released. In the mean time, check out Disciples Parts I and II for all the jousts, feasts and romance that you can handle.