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A Slender Tether

Amid the turbulent weather of Europe's Little Ice Age, A Slender Tether offers three compelling tales of self-discovery, woven into a rich tapestry of 14th century France. Christine de Pizan, daughter of a disgraced court physician and astrologer, grapples with her ambition to be the first woman writer in France. A doctor finds an unusual way to cope with the death of his wife. And opportunity alternates with disasters in the lives of four commoners, yoked by necessity: a paper-maker struggling to keep his business, a falconer with a mysterious past, a merchant's daughter frantic to avoid an arranged marriage, and a down-on-his-luck musician with a broken guitar and the voice of an angel.



Three remarkable stories

By Tinney S. Heath


This extraordinary trio of stories by Jess Wells is well titled, because each tale speaks of the slender tether that ties each of us to our sense of what is normal in our lives - our wellbeing, our livelihood, our happiness and safety. Everything can change in a moment, and, inevitably, it does.

The three stories are subtly linked, again by a slender tether, though each stands alone. The first tale introduces a Christine de Pizan who is very different than I expected, powerful yet flawed. She is a person I can believe in: medieval woman, intellectual, gifted writer, mainstay of her family, independent spirit. Monique, the woman in the third story, is also convincing as she discovers her strength, develops a skill she can take pride in, and stubbornly makes her own way in the world.

Both Christine and Monique make mistakes, but they (and several of the more sympathetic male characters as well) persevere. They think, act, and sometimes make a mess of things, like real human beings in all times and places. These stories seem to me to celebrate human ingenuity, resourcefulness, and resilience.

One theme Wells explores in considerable depth is the very personal nature of one's relationship to his or her work. Pride of craftsmanship, intellectual curiosity, ambition, renunciation of one's talents, and finding joy in work all play their parts. The writing is sure, the voice arresting and original. Places come alive; the seasons are painted skillfully, there for the reader to experience. In the third story, Wells takes a common historical fiction cliché and deftly turns it on its head, to the delight of this reader, at least.

Highly recommended to readers interested in the lives of medieval people who were neither royalty nor members of the nobility, and who are all the more individual and interesting for that.


Brilliantly told historical fiction

By Nathan Burgoine

I've never tried to write historical fiction. The closest I've come is "Elsewhen," which kinda-sorta takes place post World War II, but in a place that isn't quite real, and is being visited by someone from today. I did do research for it - I had to figure out what the former train station looked like and how it operated in Ottawa before being torn out before the centennial, and I did my best to get the uniform correct, and the build of the train at the time, but that was about it. It was recent enough history that I didn't need a new lexicon. Also, like I said, it wasn't really the past, more like a memory.

I think historical fiction authors have an extra weight on the difficulty of writing. The adage "show, don't tell"

becomes all the more difficult - it's not like a character would ever think to herself in descriptive detail about the things she was doing. It would make no sense for a contemporary story to explain all the steps (and reasons and customs) behind brewing up a cafe au lait, and it would bore the reader. But in historical fiction, there's a finer line to walk. If I have no idea what something is, there has to be enough context and hints tucked in the work for me to suss it out, without breaking the narrative flow or descending to outright instruction.

I don't envy those who work to achieve that balance, but I sure enjoy reading the results.

"A Slender Tether" is broken into three parts.

The first part of A Slender Tether is a novella about Christine de Pizan, a woman who (from the post-script) "was Europe's first woman known to have earned her living as a writer." What Wells does so cleverly, though, is not tell us the story of Christine's success, but her agonies that led up to her even having the chance to begin to fulfill that achievement. Christine is a woman of passions - it is so obvious that she is intelligent and just wants to be able to learn and read and display her talent (and, perhaps, her arrogance), but this is a time and place (the medieval era) that these things are not done.

Her mother makes a remarkable foil in this piece - on the one hand I wanted to scream at the mother who is constantly working against Christine's desires to be a scribe, to write, to do anything that allows her to be a scholar, but on the other hand this is exactly what her mother should do, from a historical context. Her mother wants her daughter to be successful and that absolutely doesn't equal being a scholar. It's wonderfully done: the two women are a perfect pair, each trying to be the thing that they feel is right at a time when the options are so incredibly limited.

Moreover, that balance I mentioned between "show and tell" is perfect. In context, the whole of the story makes sense, even when I didn't have a real grasp on terms (or, more often, roles or vocations). The prose skillfully gives enough detail to clue in the reader without knocking the narrative aside.

Christine de Pizan is a fantastic character, and one you can tell Wells has a great deal of respect for. Within the historical documents and what pieces of the past that could be found, Wells has spun this woman's tale into an intriguing and engrossing story that will set readers seeking more.

The smaller second tale tucked between the other stories is "The Gong Farmer's Tale" and it has all the strengths I mentioned above - and reminds the reader that Wells knows her history cold.

And I do mean cold.

This story, of the "Little Ice Age" that hit Europe in the medieval era (about which I knew nothing), is done deftly. On the surface this is the story of a doctor who loses his way and - perhaps - might find it again, but it's also a much deeper tale about how something can take on a life of its own, and how legends are made, built, and cherished from roots that could be completely false.

The third piece of A Slender Tether - "The Vat-Man's Promise" - once again lets Wells shine at the storytelling I'm realizing she makes seem to effortless: history, living and breathing in the form of captivating characters and richly themed narrative. This is, once again, a time in Europe about which I know nearly nothing, but Wells provides all I needed to immerse myself completely in the story with gentle cues from context and natural conversations.

This third tale is one of desperation and desire to be free and independent - a theme strong through all the three tales - but this time in the form of a woman from a once-wealthy family who knows her brother is setting her up to be married off to ensure a better future for the (now failing) family shipping business. In another fashion, there is a man who runs a paper-making mill, and he finds his own desperation after an accident leaves his vision severely impaired - and a papermaker is only as good as his eye for detail. A third character - a huntsman - is left with an injured dog, and he too now faces failure. Last, a singer whose looks are failing him and who is quick approaching having no coin at all is present for a terrible accident - or perhaps an opportunity. These vastly different people combine in a unique way, and bluffs, lies, and selfish-acts create new paths for all involved. Against the backdrop of a time where all your choices seem almost made from birth, the women especially in Wells' stories are the ones who fight hardest to find an option that will set their life in their own hands.

If you like historical fiction even a bit, you owe it to yourself to grab this book. If you've never tried historical fiction, I daresay Jess Wells could market herself as the gateway drug for readers. She is accessible without sacrificing the honesty and historical accuracy, and never falls into the trap of rote retelling. History breathes in her words.


Historical Fiction

By Christina Paige on June 11, 2013

Format: Paperback

A Slender Tether is a trio of stories about the ties of family, responsibility, and affection, and the sometimes conflicting yearling for freedom and creativity. They are set in France during the reign of King Charles VI, who really did go mad and commit the follies described, so the fiction is well grounded in carefully researched history. For example, Christine de Pizan, the heroine of the first story, is NOT a fictional invention. She was perhaps the single most innovative woman in Europe since Queen Eleanor and before Queen Elizabeth.

The writing stile is sometimes direct, sometimes whimsical, with unusual comparisons or phrasings that made the reading experience very fresh. I could visualize surroundings or imagine the sensations the characters were undergoing.

The book begins in the neglected library of the feckless King Charles, where Tommaso de Pizan confides to his friend, Gilles Malet, that he is close to death and fears for his family. His sons are unreliable; his daughter Christine has all the misplaced ambition and intelligence his sons lack; his son-in-law, Christine's husband Etienne, will be the family's only support, and in a court given over to decadence, that may not be enough. Tomasso's fears prove justified. His sons abandon the women and children. Christine and her widowed mother Tessa are at each other's throats incessantly. Tessa wants Christine to act like a court lady, but she might as well attempt to disguise a camel as a bunny rabbit. Christine wants to read and explore, to argue and discuss with men - or her own children - politics, history, warfare, and the natural sciences. Worse, she wants to write. When the family fortunes decline to the extent that they are sent away from the palace, it is only sheerest desperation that leads to a momentous turning point, and Christine stands up, the only woman, in a contest held before the entire court.

The second story is hard to describe without giving away spoilers. It has something of the quality of a parable. The protagonist had briefly crossed paths with Christine and her family; now he is the central figure, and what is central to his existence becomes the theme of the story.

The final story is also connected to the first, for a quest undertaken by the librarian Gilles Malet has caused ripple-effects throughout Europe, including an increased demand for paper. For a paper-maker named Bernard, this turn of events could mean the difference between economic survival and losing the mill; for a merchant's daughter, it could provide a business opportunity and the means to avoid a dreadful arranged marriage. Several other characters have crucial roles to play in this story. There is the hunter Jean, who has a secret past; and Guillaume, a gentle-hearted musician who's down on his luck. There is also a despicable brother, a surprising case of mistaken identity, and a luminous ending.


Three intriguing stories from a world most of us never knew

By Kara Wild

Format: Paperback

All three stories in A Slender Tether are unique, and provide a glimpse of medieval Europe that would be unfamiliar to many of us. Set in France during the Hundred Years War, the stories focus on the life of an extraordinary real individual (Christine de Pizan), a melancholy Gong Farmer, and a young woman (Monique) who invests in a paper mill to avoid an arranged marriage.

The first, and longest, story focuses on Christine de Pizan, who grew up among the French court and dreams of being able to speak and write as freely as a man. (Spoiler: she would eventually become a court writer for the French royals, and the first person to write a biography about Joan of Arc.) She faces constant derision in her first tentative efforts to earn a living, and the author effectively paints a picture of the narrow world in which French women were forced to live. I enjoyed Christine's story, but felt that it ended too soon and certain things could have been better developed. The author mentions that Christine had to fight legal battles in court, for example, but does not go into detail as to why. Furthermore, right before the end, the story has its strongest scene where Christine is forced to confront her fear that even if she has what she wants, she might prove unworthy. It reads like the pivotal turning point, but then the story just ends. That said, Christine and several other characters, such as Gilles Malet, are sketched well, and the portrayal of French court life is intriguing.

The second story, the shortest, involves a Gong Farmer who was once a doctor, until the death of his wife. It is a sweet, mournful story with haunting imagery that reads like a folk tale. Again, the author reveals her impressive knowledge of medieval French history by, at one point, detailing the remedy the Gong Farmer concocts for a sick woman who unexpectedly becomes his patient. It is hard to say that such a story should be longer, since the purpose is to act as a sort of folk tale rather than a literal account of someone's life. However, I could not help but wish I could see more of the Gong Farmer's life, or that his marriage to his second wife did not end so abruptly.

The final story is the best developed and flows well. In it, Monique stakes her independence on the success of a paper mill of which she has unexpectedly become the owner. The alternatives are life in a nunnery or a marriage arranged by her brother. She develops an interesting relationship with the mill's former owner, who is blind, as well as several other characters. The story is filled with clever twists and contains very interesting details about the making of paper at that time. Paper today is commonplace to us, but in medieval France, paper and more widely available books marked the beginning of social change.

The author's language is lovely throughout, ranging from lyrical to quirky (for instance, Christine at one point describes her mother as "a footstool with a face"). Those interested in history, especially medieval history, would find this volume of stories well worth their time.