The World of Count Scar
Count Scar is set in a thinly-disguised version of southwestern France during the thirteenth century, the time of the Albigensian Crusade. This is as close as I've ever come to writing fiction about the real Middle Ages. Except for the minor detail that there's a whole order of magic-working priests in this novel, everything else is based directly on medieval social organization. The castle itself, Peyrefixade, is a composite of several real castles in the Pyrenees. Though they are now in ruins and although scores of tourists may climb up and wander around them on a summer's day, they are still extremely formidable, and with a little effort they would still be defensible.
The difficulty with writing real historical fiction about the real Middle Ages is that the modern reader wants likable heroes, and not all medieval people would have met today's criteria. They were elitist, sexist, devoid of any religious toleration, and absolutely ruthless--and those were the good guys! (This is why the Catholics of northern France launched a Crusade against the heretics of southern France in 1209; the southerners' beliefs had not yielded to missionary activity, and the pope was afraid these beliefs were a cancer that would spread throughout the ranks of the faithful. Besides, the northerners saw an opportunity for booty.) The characters in this story are essentially medieval in their attitudes and assumptions, even while I also hope modern readers will be able to find them sympathetic--I don't enjoy novels that are theoretically set in the Middle Ages but where the characters are basically late twentieth-century people with modern attitudes wearing medieval outfits.
One of the ideas that is central to the universe of Count Scar is that magic, while real, is extremely hard and taxing, requiring long years of training and practice to perform even moderately well--rather like science in our own world. If there had been real, functioning magic in the Middle Ages it would have been studied chiefly by priests, as were all branches of human knowledge at the time. (The idea that "the church suppressed all learning in the Middle Ages" is simply false, based on old anti-Catholic prejudices--indeed, it is largely thanks to the church that any ancient learning survived at all.) Thus in this story there is an order of priests, the Order of the Three Kings, devoted especially to the difficult study of magic. (The Three Kings, the Magi, have great wisdom and a knowledge of hidden learning in all Christian traditions.) Melchior, one of the two heroes, is a canon in this order. (A canon is a kind of priest, specifically a priest who normally lives with a group of other priests, as a member of an order.) The members of a given religious order often specialized in some specific function or branch of learning that distinguished them from other orders, so in a world of functioning magic, it makes sense that there would be an order devoted to this specialized branch of learning. Unlike the members of an order of monks, the canons of the order of the Three Kings do not always remain within the cloister; they may be sent forth into the world to perform assignments among the laity, as happens to Melchior when he is sent, quite against his own inclinations but properly obedient, to serve as spiritual advisor to a count.
The other hero, Galoran, is a scarred and landless younger son who had thought his career was over when the Emperor he served no longer needed him to captain his armies. Instead, Galoran unexpectedly inherits a southern castle, Peyrefixade, and the county that comes with it--and also Melchior as his spiritual advisor, a man he does not entirely trust, but then Melchior doesn't trust him at first either. The requirements and expectations for a nobleman in the real thirteenth century were fairly firmly set, yet there was always room for maneuver within these parameters, room which Galoran uses to the fullest. He must draw on all his considerable experience to do this successfully as he strives to deal with his suave and ruthless duke, the dangerous Inquisition, the mysterious order of magic workers whose man has been placed in his castle as chaplain, and the other unpredictable people and forces that confront him as he strives to maintain his new position.
If noble men had clear expectations for their behavior, there were even fewer choices for noble women. In fact, becoming a "warrior maiden" such as one sometimes encounters in game-based fantasy would never have been an option in the real Middle Ages. (The brief late medieval career of Joan of Arc is perhaps the sole notable case of a woman coming even remotely close, and her fate is well known.) Arsendis, this story's heroine, thus has to function within the social constraints of her world, and never has the option of beating up her enemies herself, but she still manages (as did real medieval women) to make plenty of her own decisions.
The astute reader may notice that the religion in this story is never actually called Christianity. Having called the religion in the Yurt series Christianity, I decided to call the religion here something different, although of course it is extremely close to real medieval religion. The conflicts between the followers of the True Faith in this story and the heretics are based on theological issues that can be found from Augustine on. The astute reader may also want to try to decide who wrote which part of the story. I (CDB) and my husband, Bob, wrote alternating chapters, each taking the viewpoint of one of the two heroes--see if you can guess which of us wrote which. (We also both wrote parts of this particular page.)