Remember Y2K? All those pre-New Year’s warnings about what might happen to the world’s computer systems? People were pretty calm about it, but many thought, hey, better safe than sorry, and stocked up on toilet paper and non-perishables. But as it happened, the giant looming what if turned out to be nothing, and the world was utterly uninterrupted. There were some spectacular fireworks, sure, but there were also white sales, air traffic control, and neo-natal care. Life, in short, went on as usual.
Many publishers played the millennial card, actively seeking out books that celebrated the occasion. Bantam went one farther, and commissioned several historical romance novels. ‘Meet Me at Midnight’ was the theme: each story centred around the dawn of a new year. The most powerful of these was A Kiss At Midnight, set at the end of 999, by the very talented Shana Abé.
A Kiss At Midnight is set in northern England, in what was then the Kingdom of York. Imagine what that world would have been like. Cold and damp, full of hard work and casual violence. Just enough religion to make every new idea a source of fear and every new thing an object of superstition, but not quite enough to be a source of joy. Hunger was a close neighbor, and terror was an everyday companion. And, oh yes, that shiny new millennium on the horizon? That just might mark the end of the world.
Yeah. Good times.
Amidst all this chaos is the demesne of Alderich. According to ancient law, ownership is to switch hands with the coming of the millennium, from the lord of Alderich to the lord of Leonhart. But Rafael of Leonhart knows that the lord of Alderich won’t cede his property easily. To ensure a smooth transition, he decides to take a hostage: Serath Rune, the old lord’s granddaughter. He takes his captive just outside the convent in which she lives, intending to use her as a symbol of unity to the people, and as an unsubtle threat to her grandfather.
The process doesn’t quite go as planned. Rune, who hates his granddaughter, refuses to budge. The people of Alderich fear Serath as a witch. The convent was less a haven for her than it was a prison – one from which she had just escaped when Rafael found her. Needless to say, Serath isn’t too pleased with him either. Naturally, they fall in love.
Life in Abé’s Dark Ages was truly dark for the peasantry, devoid of imagination or hope. Having lived their entire lives within sight of the same few miles of land, they know only what they’re told by their priest and by their overlord. It is only by sheer force of will that Rafael is able to winkle them out into the sunlight; only by pretending to hex them than Serath can get them to work. And it is only by keeping them safe, which requires effort and sacrifice from both Rafael and Serath, that they begin to earn the people’s trust. That makes the book sound gritty and dim, and parts of it, the ones that deal with the reality of daily life, are. But Abé’s marvellous voice make a tender and concentrated love story out of even such dismal ingredients.
I’ve been a fan of her work from the very beginning. Abé can produce exceptional emotion out of the most arid soil–my only wish is that she did it faster. Thus far she has produced only ten novels (although one, The Last Mermaid, is really three short interconnect novels). Her first trial efforts were contemporary stories, but she gravitated to the historical field before selling her first novel, and has stayed there ever since.
Shana Abé is a theatre grad and former model who began writing seriously during the long waits on set. She is not, she claims, a planner, nor does she deal well with constraints. Her move from contemporary to historical came about because she felt there were two many rules, too many subcategories and expectations. And that dislike of being hedged in goes right through her process. She doesn’t outline, she doesn’t create elaborate spread sheets to track plot point: she just writes.
Most of her work is set in the Middle, rather than the Dark Ages, but recently Abé has moved forward in time to the Georgian Period. Though they follow the adventures of a clan of dragons disguised as human, those books are also grounded in the detail of their time. Skirted coats with lavish embroidery, buckled high heels and stylized wigs – and that’s just the men. Those books, her Drakon series, landed her on the New York Times bestseller list, and are doing so well that three books originally planned have already turned into five. And I have to say, when it comes to having more Abé, I feel fine.
Chris Szego is really really glad she didn’t have to live in the Dark Ages. Or the Middle Ages for that matter. Or on the frontier. Indoor plumbing is possibly civilization’s best invention.
I sometimes think about that old truism – a work of history tells us more about our own era than the era it’s supposed to be describing – when reading this kind of stuff. Like how historical mysteries have to create some kind of detective character when no such thing existed in the past (or at least, so I’ve heard – maybe there’s no way to find out anymore??). But authors still do a lot of historical research, and historical novels and romances and fantasies still sell very well, so they must be somehow finding a balance between “history” and the projection of contemporary characters and storylines. (Not sure if I’m making sense!).
i like pulp covers because it’s a way of seeing a 1950s future or the 1940s future. and i’m always interested in how, no matter how respectable the pulp science fiction writers were trying to be with their hard science, somehow the social roles always ended up being in their time. but while we don’t necessarily have the physical future they envisioned, there isn’t a space mom in shoulder pads and a very solid foundation garment pushing buttons on the cookatron to plan her family’s dinner in the year 1980.
i have the beginning of a thought about romance being about human relationships and that being a different way of relating to past people (and potential future people)… but it’s half-formed so i’ll stop.