A Mortal Bane (Magdalene la Bâtarde Book 1) by Roberta Gellis.
I've recced her before for her Roselynde Chronicles novels, which are all Women Who Inherit Huge Estates And Rule Them (And The Men That Love and Really Desperately Want to Marry Them). Some of the attitudes are slightly dated--though not very much--and some of the historical detail may be a little off, but the author was a historian and knew her shit so it's very much a matter of New Research Giving Different Interpretations, not Bad Author.
(Most of Gellis' books are Women Doing Shit (And the Men Who Want to Marry Them); there's also a really good one on a female merchant that gives a really good view of London merchant society during the reign of King John, but I digress.)
The Magdalene books follow, but our heroine runs an extremely expensive, extremely exclusive, extremely tiny brothel during the reign of King Stephen. She has a Mysterious But Noble and Tragic Past, and to escape that, became a prostitute, and things happened and she got patronage of a Great Man and now has the Old Priory for her brothel which used to be a guesthouse for the Church and so she pays rent to the Bishop of Winchester. She only keeps three women there, all of whom enjoy sex and she treats very well, and all were chosen for their specific--characteristics, and no I don't mean beauty or sexual hijinks--and the reason she can do it like this is that her house is designed for wealthy people--merchants or lords--who want discretion, intelligent companionship, women who genuinely enjoy their work, and to maybe plot treason or war on occasion. As one does.
Throughout these books, these things will never change, so know that going in; they will develop, however. Also, these books are Romance but also actually Mysteries. Which our prostitutes will be solving.
When it comes to fiction, I'm fairly easy; when it comes to Romance, I have specific needs. I tend to be into monogamous or--given a good writer who can balance a triangle well--very committed poly. In other words, I want marriage in whatever flavor, that's just how I roll. So while I looked at these a lot--I read my first Gellis in high school--I was still not sure. Finally, I bought the first, got maybe a quarter in, and bought the other three because I could compromise and I was an idiot.
Now yes, this is the Platonic Ideal of the Medieval Brothel, not going to lie, but it's not out of the range of possible when you're talking about high end ones that cater to the upper class; there just weren't that many at any time. Magdalene's brothel, however, developed very logically per story: she For Reasons was forced into prostitution, hated it, came to the notice of William of Ypres (actual historical figure) who eventually set her up in the Old Priory for her brothel, one of the reasons being it would be a convenient way for his men to meet with other men/pass messages without anyone caring or anyone having to be surreptitious with a suspicious king. And also have safe, clean sex with women who were good at it, would enjoy their work, and would also be discrete, and hang at a place where they have good meals and a bath.
Being a brothel that cultivated Discretion and Privacy and also being So Very Expensive, the people who generally would choose to visit were also the type who wouldn't ask questions or try to get info because they were there specifically for women who wouldn't ask questions/spy/get info. And Magdalene wouldn't take patrons who didn't.
Note: this also included wealthy men with disfigurements, men with wealthy or powerful wives, men with jobs/positions where indiscretion could kill them, etc. If they did say something/do something odd, it was absolutely known the women wouldn't talk about, ever use their names, or even recognize or greet them in public.
Magdalene's choice of women is maybe strangely--appropriate--but follow the same mandate: beautiful, young, not yet jaded, enjoyed their work, and would be grateful to be there and therefore honest and follow the strict rules of the house. Among them are one (1) blind woman, Sabina, one (1) mute woman, Letice, who is considered very exotic (dark skinned) and turns out to be Persian (and actually does have a non-prostitute future, but her Persian merchant family she visits doesn't mind her doing this job for not bad reasons actually which show up in the third book), and Ella, who is simple (I'll use the book term because I'm hazy on how I'd classify her and that word kind of covers it) but very into sex. Yeah.
Yes that's kind of strangely convenient--it really definitely is--but throughout the books, one thing that shows up over and over is Magdalene has strong feeling for women she can help, especially those that were in the position she once was. All of these women--and one later--were in much more vulnerable positions than other prostitutes because of their disabilities or their race and were also still young enough/not broken yet so could be helped. Those differences are turned into advantages in Magdalene's brothel, where discretion and privacy are The Most Important Things Ever (in case anyone forments treason or something). And she's very good at making patrons see those advantages and pay out the nose for it, so I was kind of impressed with that.
Also, their main servant/cook Dulcie is mostly deaf, I almost forgot that, but again, Magdalene spins this to everyone as an advantage and the men--granted, men are not exactly the quickest in Gellis's world--are like "YES HOW CLEVER".
Magdalene also treats all her women--servant and prostitutes--very, very well, and that too, is excused as practical--the advertising is discretion, privacy, and women who genuinely enjoy their work--but like I said, Magdalene is cynical but not jaded; women in prostitution literally have no other way to feed themselves, its a crap job, and she can't save everyone or change society, she can make--at least in her brothel where she has the power--much better. And she's not afraid to use her power and act as protector for her women. They're are paid in coin in addition to free room and board. They also are taught other skills, like embroidery (surprisingly lucrative) or reading (if desired but considered very odd and even inappropriate skill to have) and encouraged to also ply any secondary talent like music. Which doesn't pay nearly as well, no, and can't easily be done by a woman without a protector (because women are assumed to be prostitutes) but Magdalene is their protector.
Big selling point (to me): they're also all friends or chosen family who genuinely enjoy each other's company, play games together, teach each other, and help each other. Ella's simplicity and Sabina's blindness and Letice's muteness are all considered at all times and solutions found when possible. When Letice shows an interest in learning to read--which is super unusual at the time, so much so that it didn't even occur to anyone including Letice for a while--Magdalene teaches her to help her communicate better; they never move anything, especially Sabina's chair in the great hall, so Sabina won't trip and fall and make sure her walking staff is nearby at all times; Ella's food is cut up for her because she was taught early not to touch knives (due to her simpleness) and they edit conversation around her because she alarms easy and Magdalene especially keeps watch on Ella with her clients to make sure they aren't taking advantage of her. Abuse isn't allowed; Magdalene enforces that and as the patrons know William of Ypres is her protector, she's obeyed. Weird sex shenanigans are allowed should one of the women be into that, but Magdalene is strict on that shit, too.
There's also the general understanding that Magdalene will definitely be supporting Ella in her old age and probably the other women as well if they don't have other options, and embroidery and music gigs will be how they will supplement their income when they're too old for prostitution.
So there's quite a bit of just women hanging with women, shopping and trading with women, women just doing women things in between plot and Bellamy's huge massive seriously dude? crush.
Due to their location and their patron, of course, they get embroiled in random murders or political situations--I won't spoil you for them because they're actually a lot of fun--but first book, we're introduced to Sir Bellamy, a knight in the Bishop of Winchester's household who while investigating a murder meets Magdalene and struck with what will come up a lot: she is very, very beautiful, and she hates it, hates it beyond words, doesn't necessarily hate transactional sex but isn't particularly fond of it, is so very not into men who want feels thanks very much, and the backstory we piece together eventually, yeah.
This, also, won't change. But like me, there is some compromise that can be done by all (including Bellamy).
Our other major characters through the series are: the Bishop of Winchester, who is the king's brother, William of Ypres, Magdalene's protector and one of Stephen's main generals/warlords, a couple of patrons, one patron/prostitute romance that ends happy, some historical characters of noble or church background, random monks, and Bellamy's pink horse.
There is a fifth book now, but it was written by Mark Gellis and--I neither rec nor unrec it. It doesn't add anything new to the storyline and doesn't have the emphasis on the women and their lives and very little in the Priory altogether and way too much Bellamy with not nearly enough Magdalene. The entire plotline is Murder and Sodomy, which is handled in such a weird way that I think the author wanted to make a statement that Men and Men Doing It While Sin In These Medieval Times Sure Isn't That Bad but Doing It Without Love Is The Real Sin but got very, very, very confused.
It's not well written; the author's pacing is poor, the repetition of Key Events is unneeded, the same information is repeated verbatim when the reader just read it like ten pages before and keeps happening, the Brand New Characters had way too much screentime, and it needed an editor badly to go through and clean it up. It took me three days to get through it, with an effort, for the sake of completionism alone, and the first four, I finished those in maybe six-eight hours each on the outside, I was in.
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