It's been a while since I've done one of these. DRM-free Finds started on my own blog, and followed me to Libreture when I launched the ebook storage service. DRM-free Finds highlights the various gems I've come across and enjoyed while buying independent and DRM-free ebooks beyond the big retailers.
The Year We Lived by Virginia Crow
Let's start with the blurb:
It is 1074, 8 years after the fateful Battle of Hastings. Lord Henry De Bois is determined to find the secret community of Robert, an Anglo-Saxon thane. Despite his fervour, all his attempts are met with failure... A gripping historical fiction with an astonishing twist!
Virginia teases the twist right from the off. But The Year We Lived is so finely written and enchanting that you lose yourself in the world and simply enjoy it, forgetting about this possible twist. I began the 116,000 word novel looking out for clues, wondering what the twist could be, but I quickly relaxed and let the sun-dappled fens, the reeds, woods, the description of the Hall and its inhabitants wash over me and pull me like a slow current into its 11th Century setting.
Not being an expert in 11th Century Saxon or Norman culture, I can't tell you if the historical research is accurate, but it felt right. You get to recognise a well-researched and written setting, don't you? The Year We Lived feels right. It doesn't throw facts at you, letting you instead discover them in the conversations, character's actions, and events of the story. And the story is, as are all good ones, about people. The greats, the not-so-greats, the innocents caught between. And innocence is a big part of this novel.
Innocence lost, as a reflection of change, cultural, political, and personal. Change through a new settler colonisation, replacing the old. The recurring appearance of the White Hart as a symbol of the future. One party seeing it as an omen, the other hunting it as a prize.
Being Welsh, I don't usually gravitate towards stories of Saxons or Normans. They tend to consider the history of Prydain only beginning in 1066 from a Terra Nulis, or with describing the earlier Saxons as native to the island. Not so with Virginia's writing. This Scottish author has cleverly ensured that neither Saxon nor Norman ever describes themselves as native. Instead, the Saxon characters recognise a greater closeness to the land, which is more to do with a sense of community and family, maybe custodianship from a longer living relationship to the region. Differing from the Normans' sense of ownership through occupation, and forcing change through sheer military might and violence. A refreshing change.
I bet you want to hear about the twist, don't you?
You won't get any spoilers from me, it's too good a revelation. And that's what it is. A flip of the jigsaw box to see the cover. The Year We Lived is a puzzle. The pieces laid out before you from the start, just not necessarily in the right order. Everything is there, a bit more towards the end, granted, but hindsight is a lovely thing. It wouldn't surprise me if quite a few readers went back and re-read the book to see glimpses.
The revelation is as much for the characters as for us the readers. As the final pieces slot in, and the threads interweave, the characters we've followed find their own futures, and realise their own place in the ongoing story.
Virginia Crow has built a beautiful story, wrapped around a puzzle, but never cheating us. It's all there.
One review is particularly lovely, describing the reader's eureka moment as they saw that cover of the jigsaw box:
When I reached this point, I was sat on the sofa, while my husband and child were playing on the floor. My husband looked up at me, because I had slapped a hand across my forehead and closed my computer, which I was reading the book on. When he asked what was wrong, I just went ‘I understand now’ and, although he didn’t ask for it, I launched into a massive rant about what the book was about and why this twist was so clever. I went into detail, realising different hints that I hadn’t realised had significance...
What followed was me randomly realising another point and, maybe a little too loudly, exclaiming my realisation. I walked around the house, picking up the toys that my child had scattered, mumbling every so often ‘Red William, I understand now’ and then laughing at how marvellous the book was and how utterly stupid I was.
That's brilliant, isn't it?
You never feel cheated, or tricked. You won't feel manipulated, I promise. What you will feel is a sense of joy as the scope of the book hits you.
Where to buy The Year We Lived
Published in April 2021, The Year We Lived is a wonderfully deep but accessible historical fiction novel. It's been a while since I've read something this different, yet so easy to enjoy.
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