Oh, the very great pleasure of discovering the works of an author who wrote books that just perfectly matching one's reading taste! Since I was nine or so, I have loved Ann Lawrence's medieval fantasy Tom Ass, and now I am savoring the other books she wrote, after coming to the belated realization that they existed! The latest of her books to utterly delight me is Between the Forest and the Hills (1977, middle grade, republished in 1999 by Bethlehem Books, and still available).
Imagine, if you will, the book that would result if Angela Thirkell or D.E. Stevenson collaborated with Rosemary Sutcliff to write a book about early Dark Age Britain for children, and they decided to throw in a touch of fantasy. The result would be this book.
The Romans built a fort at Iscium, in eastern Britain, for no obvious reason, but gradually over the years people came, and built houses, and eventually a church, and there it was, a small city. When the Roman empire crumbled, the soldiers remained, training the next generations. Astragolus, the old commander, and his old friend and verbal-sparring partner, Father Malleus, between them provide the civic backbone to keep things going. But when a young Isciumite named Falx finds a lost Saxon girl in the forest outside the town, and brings her home with him, it seems the days of Iscium might be numbered--the Saxons, after all, have a habit of sacking towns.
An enigmatic one-eyed traveller, two talking ravens, and the pluck and resourcefulness of the townsfolk conspire to bring peace between the two peoples is utterly magical (it involves a rousing rendition of the one and only Hallelujah chorus) and completely delightful. The fantasy element is understated, and ambiguous--the question of Odin or angel is left unanswered--yet it is has sufficient weight to make the story literally magical. Lawrence makes no particular effort to strive for Authenticity, yet she doesn't offend my historical sensibilities, and though her characters would be at home in a mid-20th century story of English village life, she creates a Dark Age Britain that rings true to me.
I love her characters, her world-building, her writing, and her message of hope that even in dark times, people can come together (with a bit of divine intervention) and keep the light of civilization burning.
(I could, however, have done without all the parts of the body puns used for names. Fortunately, being dense that way, I didn't pick up on it till about half way through).
Ann Lawrence wrote 15 books, and I hope to find them all, although most are out of print, and I couldn't, just now, find a list of them to link to (any help appreciated). So far I've reviewed Tom Ass and The Good Little Devil.