I’ve always enjoyed a good historical fiction tale. Phillipa Gregory is one of my favorites. I devoured her first novel of “The Wideacre Trilogy,” entitled “Wideacre.” I found myself immersed in Georgian Britain. I would grudgingly put it down. I went on to read the three books, followed by “The Wise Woman” set in the time of Henry VIII. Why historical fiction? It provides us with fascinating stories based in historical fact blended with real and imagined people in a foreign land, often a destination much longed for.
But this column isn’t about Phillipa Gregory novels. It is about a local author writing his own trilogy of historical fiction, Lee Swanson. “No Man’s Chattel” was published in 2019 and many of our neighbors read it long before now and are most likely reading the second book in the series“No Man Is Her Master,” entitled “Her Perilous Game” and published this year.
Lee’s interest in medieval times led him to living in both England and Germany for long stretches of time. He has a master’s degree in European history. His thesis focused on the Hansa, merchants primarily from northern German cities during the 12th-17th centuries. Many of his characters are based on some of the men who took to the seas to buy, to sell, to prosper. With his firsthand knowledge of the locations and medieval period, he weaves a compelling tale whose protagonist, 16-year-old Christina Kohl, finds herself challenging the societal conventions of the time.
Christina is the black sheep of the family, but she has a gift for numbers and all things analytical. Christina’s older sister Margarete is engaged to Albrecht, the son of a wealthy merchant in England, Johann Revele, the chief alderman of the German merchants in London. The girls’ father, Thomas Kohl, is the wealthiest merchant in Lubeck. The marriage is seen as most profitable on both sides. Christina considers herself fortunate not to be destined to a life of servitude and baby producing for the rest of her life. Let Margarete have it! Unfortunately, Margarete falls deathly ill shortly after the engagement party, and right before she is to set sail for England with her father, and brother Frederick. Christina’s parents decide to substitute one daughter for another – what a surprise for the husband to be!
Against her wishes, Christina, her father and his friend, Kurt Ziesolf, are aboard one ship, but Frederick is on another. In addition to his daughter, Thomas Kohl is also bringing other merchandise to sell. While en route, the ships are set upon by pirates. How fortunate for Christina to have been practicing sword play with Frederick. Her brother had been learning with Ziesolf (reputedly the number one swordsman in Lubeck). Ziesolf began teaching Christina himself once on board the ship. When pirates did attack the Lubeck ships, Christina couldn’t stay below as Ziesolf instructed her to do. She was strong, tall, confident and driven to fight them off. She was also not a young woman who tolerated very well being told what to do.
“He was a huge brute towering over her by at least half a foot. He grinned at her from a mouth peopled with blackened, broken teeth. His huge blond beard was fouled with spittle and remnants of food and drink. He was attached to a massive two-handed sword before him at guard, its length making it impossible for her to even hope to reach a vital organ with her own blade.”
You can actually see and smell this pirate. It’s part of what draws us into a tale – and keeps us there. The upshot of the major, deadly attack: innumerable pirates killed; many casualties aboard the two Lubeck ships now awash in blood and bodies. A wounded Christina learns her brother has disappeared, believed to have fallen overboard during battle; and as if that isn’t bad enough, her father is hanging onto life by a thread. Ziesolf then comes up with a master plan: With Frederick believed dead, Christina could, and should, pretend to be him.
But there is one nagging question lurking in her mind: Why were the pirates attacking two large and well-defended ships – and with such venom? And Ziesolf tells her the pirates retreated once her father was mortally wounded. Who could have come up with such a plan? Christina vows to find out who it was and avenge the damage done to her family.
After Thomas Kohl dies, Christina somewhat reluctantly takes on her brother’s identity; how else can she hope to save the Kohl fortune and not let it fall completely in the hands of the Revele family? After all, being just a girl, Christina could not own any property or money herself. She would be at the mercy of the Reveles.
Once the ships dock in London, it is not Christina who disembarks, but “Frederick.” And the story just gets better and better!
Ziesolf has warned Christina (and quite strenuously) she must resist engaging in any swordplay or arguments that must be settled with swords or fists, lest her secret be revealed. No small feat for a young woman with Christina’s temper and willful nature. She stays with her father’s brother, as Frederick – at least this part of the plan is still the same… well, sort of.
How does Christina fare posing as her brother? Will she be able to sell her father’s merchandise for a fair price? How will a young “boy” be perceived in the rather deceitful world of the merchant? Will she have the stamina, the intellect, the sheer will to honor her father’s memory and save the Kohl family fortune he spent his life building?
I found Lee Swanson’s “No Man’s Chattel” to be an engrossing, entertaining read. And, if you haven’t read it yet either, get thee to the book store! I look forward to reading the second book of this trilogy, “Her Perilous Game.”
Lee is now working on completing the third and final book of this series. And then … who knows what engaging historical fiction his imagination will lead him, and eventually, us to as well?