Top critical review
Solid medieval historical fiction
Reviewed in the United States on October 17, 2019
I have a complicated relationship with Oliver Pötzsch. I have read three of his books in “The Hangman’s Daughter” series, and I love that someone is out there fighting the good fight for quality historical fiction (particularly medieval fiction). At the same time, his books tend to be longer than I expect, sometimes overstaying their welcome, and there is just something else in his writing that... doesn’t work for me. Regardless, I dived into “The Castle of Kings”, excited for something new from the author of “The Hangman’s Daughter” series.
OVERALL: 2.8 out of 5
This is a good historical adventure, filled with romance, fighting, and intrigue. There’s also melodrama, some uninteresting characters, and uneven plotting. You have to take the bad with the good though, and this book is mostly good. My biggest complaints center on parts of the story that aren’t interesting, a hint of supernatural elements that are really just story crutches, and a general disjointing of the mood.
To explain that last bit; the book feels torn between “hard reality” where horrible things happen to people, and a more fairy tale “the passing of feudalism” story where dreams mean important things and beautiful women stand on the battlements with their hair blowing in the wind. The narrative switches between these two atmospheres without warning, and maybe that was the goal, but it lessened the impact of the story for me. I guess I would have liked something more concise in terms of the mood developed by the reader while reading.
Ultimately, (according to the afterward) the author set out to capture the mystery and majesty of castles, and I think he succeeded. Medieval architecture plays an important role in the book, and readers who allows themselves to be carried away into the stone passages and tall towers will not consider their time wasted.
RATINGS BY CATEGORY
CHARACTERS: 2 out of 5
The characters aren’t very original. Agnes could be any modern Disney princess (strong willed, speaks her mind, engages in men’s sports, etc.), while Mathis is a typical “educated young tradesman” who feels torn between his love for Agnes (a lady of lesser nobility) and his belief that the feudal system is broken. Other characters play important roles (a minstrel-knight named Melchior von Tanningen provides some unpredictability), but there isn’t anyone here who jumps off the page.
My biggest complaint is that I did not really care about the characters. They have their motivations and hardships, but I was never too invested. Other opportunities for interesting personalities, like a mysterious African assassin who appears periodically, are mostly wasted.
PACE: 2 out of 5
The interesting stuff comes at occasional intervals, though not necessarily synchronized with the peak-valley structure of action vs. quiet scenes. Parts with the secret society, the mysterious African assassin, and the robber knight were of interest, while most of the parts dealing with Agnes’s dreams and the peasant rebels were not as interesting for me. The book feels too long.
STORY: 4 out of 5
Despite earlier complaints, I really enjoyed the overall story. It’s a great historical adventure with love, war, lost secrets, betrayal, and curious reversals of fortune. The decay of Trifels Castle parallels the declining role of knights in a changing world, and Pötzsch tries his best not to pull any punches. Innocent people are murdered senselessly, maidens are violated, and a lot of blood is spilled.
I think I prefer a slightly more “cavalier” flavor to my fiction (Howard Pyle’s “Otto of the Silver Hand” comes to mind, though that is by no means my favorite), but the grittiness in this story works partly because the first few chapters feel ideal- almost like a fairy tale that is rudely shattered by harsh reality.
My complaints mostly have to do with plot devices. The book itself seems to be uncertain whether the supernatural is a real thing or not. Maybe these elements add spice for other readers, but I was mostly annoyed by what seemed to be indecision on the writer’s part. Dreams just don’t work in real life the way they seem to in this story, and because it’s not really supernatural, they (the dreams) became a plot crutch.
DIALOGUE: 3 out of 5
Most of the dialogue is well-written, and Pötzsch does a good job of making sure each character has their own voice. You can flip to any conversation and tell within a second or two whether you’re reading Agnes, Mathis, Melchior, or some of the others.
There are some “speeches” though, where I felt like I was being bombarded with (admittedly important) narrative disguised as unrealistic dialogue.
STYLE/TECHNICAL: 3 out of 5
Okay, this is probably the hardest part for me to review. Pötzsch’s writing is clear and easy to read. There are some mistakes that should have been caught at the editor’s level (a one-eyed character seems to frequently have two eyes in the text), but there is something else going on here... something that is at the root of my problem with all of this author’s work...
My best guess is that something is lost in translation. Pötzsch’s writing is solid, but it lacks character. Robert E. Howard has this descriptive ability and dynamic action unlike anyone else, while Sabatini is eloquent to the point of being difficult to read (for those untrained). William Gibson’s writing requires a person to read into each sentence, but also pay attention to paragraphs as a whole, and J.K. Rowling has this ability to transport the reader into the world she is describing. Pötzsch... feels a bit like a textbook.
This isn’t to bash the author or his translators- I think the English here is TERRIFIC. It’s just that the technical execution lacks something more personal, and I don’t know if that could be fixed by anyone. Maybe I need to learn German to read the original material, but I wouldn’t want anyone to think the writing isn’t clear or even enjoyable- it just leaves me with a kind of empty feeling.