THE CASTLE OF KINGS
By Oliver Potzsch
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (July, 2016)
Format: Paperback (July, 2017)
Kindle edition: $9.99
Kindle edition: $9.99
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
1524: There is great unrest in the German Empire. Crops have failed, but the greedy landlords and nobility still squeeze every penny from the starving peasants. Renegade priest Martin Luther is attracting more and more followers, defying the all-powerful Catholic Church. Peasants threaten to revolt against the harsh system that keeps them from improving their wretched lives.
In the Palantinate, sixteen-year-old Agnes von Erfenstein ponders her future. Trifels Castle, once a major seat of power, is crumbling around her ears. Her father Phillip, a minor knight, has no funds for its upkeep. Trifels is now a sad backwoods outpost, not important enough to the empire to merit assistance or attention. The mighty emperor Barbarossa had once held court there; some say he is still there, sleeping beneath the castle until he is needed again.
Without a dowry, without status, Agnes has little chance of wedding a wealthy man, much less a member of the nobility. When her father promises her to his steward, a loathsome, ugly man, she rebels. In truth, her heart belongs to Mathis Wielenback, son of the castle smith. The two had grown up together, roaming the hills and forests around Trifels, two friends enjoying life and playing childhood games. Only recently has their friendship developed into something deeper. They both know marriage is unsuitable: the marriage of a smith’s son and a noble lady is impossible for many reasons, and they know it. Still, the heart wants what the heart wants.
When Count Friedrich von Lowenstein-Scharfeneck moves into nearby Scharfenberg Castle and begins restoring it to its former glory, Agnes’s father has new hope for her marriage prospects. He is young, handsome, cordial, and wealthy, all a young woman could hope for in a groom. Even so, Agnes has a feeling that he might not be all that he appears to be. To her sorrow, she soon finds out that she was correct.
One day she and Mathias, who is conducting experiments with gun powder in the forest, are accosted by one of the many robber-knights who are roaming the countryside. These are hard times for the noble class as well as the lower classes. Many have lost their fortunes. The peasants can no longer provide crops or rents from their ruined fields, so the nobles have little to pass on to the church and the emperor. Hans von Werlingen is one of the most-feared of that group, and Agnes and Mathias barely escape with their lives. Her beloved falcon, Parcival, is frightened by gunfire and flies off deeper into the woods.
At Agnes’s urging, Mathis confesses to his father and hers that he took gun powder and an ancient weapon from the castle stores, something strictly forbidden. Mathis is only trying to create better protection for the castle as danger comes closer. Philip is lenient, in that he does not sentence the boy to death. Rather, he puts Mathis into an underground dungeon for a month.
Parcival reappears, with a golden ring tied to his leg. She has no idea who sent it or what it means, but it changes the course of her life. She starts to have vivid, full-color dreams of a beautiful young woman and a handsome knight in this very castle. Before long she is viewing the scene as though through the eyes of the woman; she feels the woman’s deep love for the young man, and worries about their fate. She tells her confessor and friend Father Tristan, about the dreams. He tells her they’re just a product of her imagination, that she should forget them. She can tell he knows more about it than he’ll admit. She is determined to discover what he’s hiding, and finds some answers in an ancient book containing the history of Trifels. What she discovers sends her on a journey to a place where all her questions will be answered. Melchior von Tannigen, a minstrel at Scharfenberg Castle, accompanies her. He has become a good friend, and he is a gallant and resourceful companion.
Mathis has taken another path. He joins the peasants in the region who are part of the uprising, becoming a leader for his skills as a gunner and weapons maker. Due to circumstances beyond his control, he switches sides, and is forced to travel with the enemy. Something, perhaps fate, sends the two on a parallel path, but warfare and treachery keep getting in the way.
THE CASTLE OF KINGS is an epic historical novel comparable to Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH, as well as an intriguing mystery story. The changing landscape of the late medieval period comes to life on the pages in vivid detail. The characters, both fictional and non-fictional, are believable and well-rounded. The two pairs of lovers, ancient and current, are the heart of the story; their stories echo the best of German fairytales, both charming and heartbreaking. They give a human face to the larger picture of that tumultuous era. The reader will be unable to resist being drawn into their lives, sharing in their troubles and triumphs. Mr. Potzsch, author of the popular Hangman’s Daughter series, has created another winner with THE CASTLE OF THE KINGS. Although the book is massive, it kept this reader entertained all the way through. Highly recommended.
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