Review: Crusade by Stewart Binns

Crusadeout of 5 knights

My version:
Paperback
Historical Fiction Norman Europe
Penguin Books
2012
Bought from Waterstones

1072. England is firmly under the heel of its new Norman rulers. The few survivors of the English resistance look to Edgar the Atheling, the rightful heir to the English throne, to overthrow William the Conqueror. Years of intrigue and vicious civil war follow, which will see brother against brother, family against family, friend against friend.

In the face of chaos and death, Edgar and his allies forma a secret brotherhood, pledging to fight for justice and freedom wherever they are denied. But soon they are called to fight for an even greater cause: the plight of the Holy Land. Embarking on the epic First Crusade to recapture Jerusalem, together they will participate in some of the cruellest battles the world has ever known – the savage Siege of Antioch and the brutal fall of Jerusalem – and together they will fight to the death.

Stewart Binns’ second book in his Making of England tetralogy (go look it up), brings us to the aftermath of the 1066 conquest. Hereward, who was the source for the story in book one, is gone from England and here, we see the story through they eyes of Edgar, who should, by rights, if it wasn’t for William invading and all, be King of England. He isn’t. He’s a recluse in the northern parts of England, in touch with the land and the ancestors of the ancient peoples. So the story is told by him and of course, is based around his travels and recollections. Hereward still casts a long shadow over the book. Here, he is as much a talisman, as the amulet they carry. If only he would come back, or come to their aid, it’ll be alright. Hereward is getting a re-working through James Wilde’s books, but he still needs to emerge from the title of England’s forgotten hero (for example my spell-check constantly wants to alter Hereward to Hereford, the ignominy!). Stewart Binns has done his part excellently in Conquest and here in Crusade.

How much is truth and how much is fiction, it’s hard to tell. Though, that is a good thing. Of course, the stand-out highlights, the aftermath of the invasion, the Norman possessions in Italy and Sicily, the First Crusade are well-documented historical fact. A lot of the other stuff, the friends and companions he makes and travels and fights with, not so sure. As with the first book, to have the aim of basically weaving a tale around and through the major (European and Middle Eastern) events of the period, does mean the main character has got get around a fair bit, meeting the leading personalities and being present at a vast assortment of the major battles, etc. If you’ve read the first, you’ll know the type of thing going on here. However, rather than seeming strained, Stewart Binns’ style and plotting really doesn’t feel too strained. Actually, it reminded me of Tim Severin’s Viking series in that way. A thorough knowledge of the main points, interestingly and well formulated into a story. As with Tim Severin’s work(s) I also found that Binns’ style is a nice type of melancholy, as befits a main character telling his story, looking back, missing the friends he’s telling about and maybe rueing the chances he didn’t take, the opportunities he didn’t make the most of and the way fate passed him by. There are therefore, some nicely poignant sections. Particularly referring to Senlac Hill (look it up). About it now being just 20 years after and all Englishmen are thinking about it constantly. Not something I’d thought about before as we usually see the next period of history, through the Normans’ eyes.

It’s an un-cluttered style, simple and direct, no aires and graces. I’ve not read reviews of this (or the other books), but I’d imagine that many self-styled ‘discerning’ Historical Fiction writers and reviewers would pooh-pooh the books for this very reason. You and I; we can sit back and enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did, very much.

You can buy Crusade at The Book Depository

Related reviews:
Conquest Hereward Hereward The Devils Army1 Hereward End of Days Hereward Wolves of New Rome

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Conquest

Conquest
Conquest by Stewart Binns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is probably going to be seen as a guilty pleasure and I have glanced at reviews which would suggest it is quite possibly not all that cool to say (a bit like admitting to thinking The Da Vinci Code was one hell of a rattling good and enjoyable read, which is was, you know it), but … I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Yes, I can see what is wrong with it, but as a whole, it holds together nicely, and with a relatively unobtrusive style and is an all round rattling good tale.

Of course, I’ve come across Hereward several times. Several recent book series have featured the 11th Century Fenland Terror. James Aitcheson has had him in his tale. James Wilde has written three, soon to be four, excellent novels based on him and his exploits, real or imagined. The brilliant Marc Morris, in his The Norman Conquest non-fiction look at the people who brought you 1066 and all that, mentions Hereward several times and provides a good look at all the facts, the few there are, about him, as well as mentioning some of the more speculative stories. Whether you come from other books to Marc’s book, or go from there to other Herward stories, you can see that (amongst others) the two James’ do at least touch base with what is ‘known.’ As does Stewart Binns here. However, and perhaps even more than James Wilde (at least until I’ve slapped some peepers on #4 ‘The Wolves of New Rome’), he picks up the Hereward ball and runs more than a little further with it. Wilde and Binns both seem to agree on Hereward’s struggle with his anger issues, but they solve them in different ways. I don’t think James Wilde has his Hereward at Senlac Hill, nor does James Aitcheson. Their Herewards only really come front of stage in the period after Hastings. I think both Binns and Wilde are also implying that Hereward, real person or not, is possibly the source for the later development of the Robin Hood myth. Something that possibly Robert Holdstock might like to comment on (if he hasn’t already done so and quite honestly, after struggling through the stream of consciousness nonsense that was most of Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory, I finally let him go his own way) in a ‘Mythago Wood’ novel. I don’t know.

The story begins, perhaps surprisingly, in the mountains of Greece. To where the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire, travels in search of enlightenment from a legendary old warrior, now turned hermit. Turns out, the old warrior knew the Prince’s father, fought for him in the Varangian Guard. The warrior is now 82, but instead of giving the Prince the One to Ten of what to do, tells him a story, from which he can draw his own lessons from. It is the warrior’s life story.

You’ve guessed by this point, that the old hermit, is Hereward, though he does seem to have the name Godwin for some reason. He begins telling his story from his wild childhood days, through his rebellious youth, to adulthood and maturity, through many of the period’s historic milestones his lifespan has encompassed. He was, of course, at Hastings and tried to rally the English forces thereafter, but had to, in the end, leave and travel abroad.

There are several nice touches. Here, Hereward has to persuade a reluctant Harold to take the throne. Where Harold actually sympathises with Edward’s position and therefore, William’s claims. You can see, with some of the incidents that go on in Harold and Hereward’s time in Normandy, where some of the tactics they would later use against William, come from, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for any of the above, though if I remember rightly, James Wilde does have Hereward on the continent before Hastings. Here, Edward, on his deathbed, makes Harold his successor. Again found in other books and history. After the rebellion dies out, Hereward agrees to go abroad (James Wilde has his Hereward meeting William, but only after the battle, Morris says there is a legend that they met), to save England from further turmoil and anguish at William’s hands, but that could be blamed on Hereward.

As a whirlwind tour of the period’s hotspots and big names, in Britain and (the rest of) Europe, it is undoubtably a great read. Some of the people he meets, may be stretching it a little, but then I don’t know enough about (for instance) Spanish folk-law to comment with any certainty. In that respect, it read a little like Tim Severin’s Viking trilogy, just crammed into one book. Severin has one Viking journeying to all the places associated with the Vikings’ history, meeting most of the big players and generally living the fullest life imaginable (another excellent read/guilty pleasure if you’re one of the costumes and corset Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction lilly-livers elsewhere on Goodreads). Maybe this is like that but on steroids, having to pack it all into one book and all. And it can feel a bit mechanical for that. Like he had to check all the names and places of his list and he was damned if he wasn’t going to get them all in! The stuff about a mystical talisman too, I could have done without. Never liked fantasy elements creeping in to what essentially wants to be read like a true story. Takes it all on a bit of a seers and sages trip. It’s better when it has even its tenuous grip on reality. But, people of the time believed in all that and the One God to rule them all hadn’t replaced the touching of wood to ask for the help of the spirit who lived in that wood … still hasn’t really, has it?

So, it gets a solid three stars from me. However, it gets a fourth star solely for mentioning, on several occasions (starting on page 385) the Bishop of Aarhus. Why? Well, that’s the town in Denmark where I now live! Cool, eh? It is Scandinavian’s oldest town, I read today, though in Viking times, was called ‘Aros.’ However, I haven’t checked when the name changed, so I can’t call young Stewart B. on it. Not that anyone would know where a town called ‘Aros’ was…hmm…not that namy people know where Aarhus is, so much of a muchness.

Leave your ego at the front cover and enjoy a good romping read. I for one will certainly be getting hold of the next in what I think is a trilogy. These sort of things usually are.

Oh yeah, read the dedication at the start. A very interesting, quite possibly unique, sentiment. I’ve not come across its like before. Proves his heart’s in the right place, whatever you think of the rest of the book.

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Review: The Last Conquest

The Last Conquest
The Last Conquest by Berwick Coates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable, maybe slightly alternative look at the possibilities surrounding the first couple of weeks of the Norman Conquest, leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings. It is a novel, so fiction, but thanks to the fiction and non-fiction reading around the events of 1066 I’ve done by accident and design over the last few years, I can see that The Last Conquest does weave very plausibly in and out of the facts as they can be determined and offers some very workable ideas, or interpretations, for what might be the reality behind at least a couple of the legends. In my opinion, I should hasten to add. As I wouldn’t want in any way shape or form, like to present myself as anything approaching an expert in the field. That is in there so I don’t get involved (again) in a thread elsewhere, about what amounts to a ‘fact’, when discussing a period with so relatively few of them available. Me asking an (I think an) author for at least one of them (and failing to get a reply other than what amounts to ‘everyone knows’) in response to their ‘it didn’t happen like that’, didn’t seem to sit well. Oh dear, how sad, never mind.

Anyway…The Last Conquest‘s story begins with the Normans landing and coming ashore at Pevensey in Sussex on the 28th September and then covers the first weeks of their preparation, scouting, defense building and, well, basically waiting. Waiting for Harold and the English to turn up and settle matters. At first they don’t know where he is, then they hear he’s had to fight the Vikings up near York. But it takes a while until they are sure if he’s won. Or lost. Maybe the Vikings have done their work for them. Maybe it’ll be the Vikings that make their way south to fight them for the throne. If the Vikings under Harald Hardrada actually know the Normans have landed at the other end of the country, that is. When the Normans do hear Harald Godwinson was successful in defeating Harald Hardrada, even before, they decide to sit and wait. But try to make sure when he does come their way, he comes the way they want him.

The opening short, sharp sections, reminded me of news bulletins. The sort based on ‘this news just coming in…from our reporter on the spot!’ The sort of little snippets of gossip, based on overhearings and assumptions based on very little fact, which is actually what they had. Or didn’t. Because they couldn’t just ring up someone nearby where they wanted to know, or see it on the news at 6.00. ‘This just in…Harold has won at Stamford Bridge.’ In our modern world of instant communication, the internet and maps to hand wherever we are, it makes it difficult to think yourself back into the mind of an 11th Century person. With guesswork passing as maps and hard evidence actually rumour, based on often false deductions or just plain old-fashioned superstition and reading of body language. This feeling your way forward through a kind of fog of false information, Coates puts over very well indeed. The Normans (and the Britons really) could only be sure of what was going on in the area where they could patrol and at the start of the book, this is the area around Hastings and up to Senlac Hill, where the battle actually took place. Harold? Well, no one knew where he was, what he was doing or with whom. And neither did the Normans. You build up an idea of how little of an idea people, especially the ordinary local people that is, the people who would, perhaps, be most affected – had of what was going on. Snippets of information trying to put together pieces of a jigsaw for which no one had the final picture.

The book structure is excellent. A bubbling confusion of information coalescing into a plan and a waiting, leading to a final battle. Like how it must have been for the Normans with boots on the ground. Normans. If you know anything about the Norman Conquest, you’ll know it was really The Norman and Others Conquest and that William was only a Duke, of a reasonably small province in what is now, but wasn’t then, France. He had to assemble and accept help and supplies, from wherever he could. That meant a lot of mercenaries, nationalities, opinions and of course tensions to keep a lid on. And a lot of money promised to all of the above. So, as the Norman scouts venture forth, putting out feelers and trying to discover what on earth is going on beyond the perimeter of their fortress, they naturally come into contact with the locals. This contact, its effects on both sides and its bearing on events leading up to the battle, is where most of the book takes place. In essence a series of domestic dramas set against the background of the Battle of Hastings. Which is sensible enough for the author, as it is the area where he/she can speculate and write their own drama, without having to shoehorn their ideas into the mould of what we actually do know happened. Now, to be honest, it does sometimes become a little disjointed here. Darting around, back and forth in time, often within the same paragraph, can make me wonder if I’ve got hold of the thread. And when you worry you haven’t, it becomes more of a task to keep thinking ‘who is he then, I thought I had his number’, than enjoying the story. I must admit that I more than once found myself mixing my Glberts and my Ralphs. I think I got control of the situation by the end. But then to be fair, the end section, the final third was just so perfectly done, I really didn’t mind the head scratching from earlier.

The final battle, the Battle of Hastings, does arrive, along with Harold, his Housecarls and the rest of the English, in the final 100-odd pages. Coates begins it as a kind of overview, of the tactical positionings and movements of troops and moves the action closer and closer to individuals fighting their way towards Harold and the apple tree at the top of Senlac Hill. It is, as befits the most pivotal event in English history, a fantastically good read. He does seem to write as if, while Harold was directed to the battle site by William, by stopping short, as it were, the English were actually better positioned when it came to deploying forces for the battle itself. Having visited the battle site, at the now cunningly titled ‘Battle’, I can ‘see’ how the Normans had an uphill fight in more ways than one. Of course, a familiar theme here: what did happen in the battle? I think I’m right in saying, no one really knows except it started, and it ended with William in the winners’ enclosure. But, it absolutely could have happened this way. It seems entirely logical to me to present it as happening the way Coates has it. Fits the facts as we have them. A simple plan of “we’re up here, they’re down there”, of moves and probes like a chess game, an arrow and a smashing through the defences, then a hacking and a killing and a monumental upheaval of history. It could well have happened this way, it’s as valid as another theory (apart from the one saying the battle didn’t take place where it did). So why not?

If you’re looking for a non-stop, action packed, blood and thunder variant of the Historical Fiction genre, then you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s more of a slow burner than that. I will admit to having had some doubts, some issues, underway, but in the end I found myself enjoying it more and more. By the end, as I’d become at ease with the characters and the style, I was sad to have finished, but glad because I’m looking forward to what may well be a follow up (as it could well be set before the events in this book, I’m not too sure what kind of animal is yet). Which I’ve taken the precaution of pre-ordering. So a tentative 3, finishing strongly with an action-packed 4.

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Review: Knights of the Hawk

Knights of the Hawk
Knights of the Hawk by James Aitcheson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Being English, I see Hastings from the English side. We were invaded. They came from Normandy. They won, we lost. Later, we fought back. And lost again. I ‘know’ of course, about how badly ‘we’ were later treated by ‘them.’ Think Robin Hood. It’s taken for granted that the Normans are the bad guys. One-dimensional bad guys at that. Until I read James Aitcheson’s Sworn Sword, I hadn’t actually considered that there might actually be a Norman side to 1066 and all that. Which was why, to me at least, Sworn Sword came as such a fresh, wonderful, confusing surprise. Suddenly here was I, an Englishman, rooting for Tancred á Dinant, one of ‘them.’ A horrid Norman.

After reading Knights of the Hawk, over a couple of days, though at more or less one sitting, I can safely say that the freshness, the surprise and the satisfaction, are all still there. And then some. Expertly written, with passion and verve, Knights of the Hawk is by far the best book I will read all year. Five of Goodreads’ finest stars. Straight out. No doubt. No other conclusion possible.

Expertly weaving his way in and out of what (little) we know of the history of this period (as Tancred says; “…the seasons turn and the years and the decades pass, the stories grow ever wilder, and the myths grow more powerful than the truth”) James Aitcheson has created a novel – a series of novels now – brim-filled with the energy, with the sights and sounds and not least the smells, of daily life – and death – on and away from the battlefields of the new Norman Britain. Compelling and gripping and packed with nerve-tingling, nail-biting action, ‘Knights of the Hawk’ is a story that really could have happened, but one I now think only James could have written.

It is five years since the slaughter at Hastings and the English resistance still hasn’t been extinguished. The Norman invasion of Britain is bogged down, literally, in and around the English rebels’ stronghold at Ely. Something needs to be done to rescue the conquest and someone needs to do it. Now. Step forward Tancred á Dinant. A Norman knight who came over with William, who fought at Hastings and who ruled lands in the west of England as vassal to his sworn lord, Robert Malet. But who has, despite saving the day on frequent occasions in the years since Hastings, fallen somewhat in the esteem and pecking order amongst his fellow Normans. He can’t understand why he is ‘reduced to this escort duty’, guarding supply wagons, instead of being richly rewarded for his efforts in securing the England for King William. Wealth and fame, battle honours and leadership, look to be passing him by. While he could be forgiven for giving up and going home, he’s still the only one who actually delivers the goods and gets the Normans into Ely.

Then, when they’ve achieved what they set out to do, reached a point where they might have expected to be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all their labours, it starts to unravel for Tancred. He has go against his sworn lord and he suddenly finds enemies where he thought he had friends. Hell, as a Norman, you must realise you’re in trouble when you realise you identify with the English leader who stood between you and all you thought you ever wanted. Hereward. “He and I were more similar than I’d realised. We both strove for recognition for our deeds, and struggled against the weighty oaths that bound us. Both of us had at one time led whole armies into the field, yet now found ourselves in somewhat humbler circumstances, lacking the respect we craved and which for a while at least we had commanded.” However, as we find out later, by removing Hereward for the Normans, Tancred has in fact removed the obstacle stopping him from getting on with living his own life.

That’s just the first part of the story, as the book can be said to divide itself into two parts. The first, is in line with what we know of the early years of the conquest. The character of Tancred is James’ invention, but the events the books have described and the five years it took before William had anything that passed for total control over his newly conquered kingdom, the treachery, the back-stabbing, the rebellions at Ely led by Hereward, all happened. Exactly what happened, we don’t know. But I’ll go for James’ version if it comes to a vote.

The second half of the book moves away from inserting Tancred into known events, and we sail (literally) off into the unknown. Into Tancred’s own, self-determined future. He has to leave, to find himself. He has lost his faith in the Norman system, so he must find someone from his past, who can give him a future he can believe in. He has been a part of the Norman war machine, he must now go in search of who he, Tancred, really is. “The Breton had become a Norman, had become bound to England.” By freeing himself, Tancred realises it can be he who decides who he is and what path his own future should take.

It is of course, the character of Tancred that carries the book. We’ve a reasonable idea of his character from previous novels, but through the course of ‘Knights of the Hawk’, he fills out. He’s always been adaptable, resourceful and believable, now he’s a much more nuanced and fully-rounded character. Actually, he’s got the decency you normally associate with being English! But Tancred is sometimes too decent, not devious enough, too trusting to imagine for instance, someone might be laying a trap for him. ‘Friend’ or foe. As the book progresses, Tancred adapts. I won’t say he ‘learns’, but he becomes more aware of other possibilities than the one he has rushed headlong into. He is a Knight, an honourable one at that, but this belief in his own honour and trustworthiness, as proved time and time again in the most desperate of circumstances, sometimes blinds him. That his fellow Normans might see his honourable actions in a different way, in a maybe more cynical way and use his trustworthiness against him, that’s what he doesn’t see at first. And it causes frustration, which leads to rashness which leads to murder and exile. Not just from a land and friends – also an ideal. Of honour. Leaving all he knew behind and seemingly having his options reduced, as it were, actually helps him become a more complex character.

‘Knights of the Hawk’ begins stealthily, but like a hunting party in the midst of the mists and marshes of Ely, it creeps up and ambushes you. Rich with compelling dialogue and vigorously peppered with heart-stopping action, desperate feats of derring-do, incident and intrigue, this is a book that keeps you on your toes at all times. Not least with the unexpected alliances that pop up. Unexpectedly. The tension, the suspense and the don’t dare breathe even though you’re just reading the book, in case you give Tancred away – those sequences are astoundingly well-handled. There are highs and lows and heartbreaks, great tragedy and blinking away the tears optimism. There is so much to remember this book for, but (for now) the way James draws out a scene, twisting the tension level up and up and leading to the final delivery of the outcome – while you’re trying not to break the tension and flick a look at the last lines to see how the paragraph ends – is what I will perhaps remember perhaps the most from this novel. If you’re going to say you ‘devour’ a book, then this is delicious. Oh, and an ending that is…well, you’ll have to read it, wipe your eyes and trust that Tancred is back soon.

This novel has really showcased what a really fine new, young writer we have on the Historical Fiction (battle) field, in James Aitcheson. It surely won’t be long before we’re comparing people like Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, to James. There is a maturity and confidence to his writing, that if you’d said this was James 20th book, you’d believe it. The surprising thing is, Knights of the Hawk is just James’ third outing – we really are spoiled to still have so much to look forward to from him.

And we learned that 11th Century Welshmen liked cleaning their teeth. A lot.

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Review: Hereward: End Of Days

Hereward: End Of Days
Hereward: End Of Days by James Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don’t you just love it when things come together?

I go on holiday to the UK and pick up Hereward The End of Days. Amongst other places, we visit friends who live in Ely. On my birthday, the 7th of August, unfortunately a few days after we returned from the afore-mentioned trip, James Wilde is in Ely doing a signing of Hereward End of Days. On my return I finish Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest before starting End of Days.

Anyway…

It’s never easy (I guess) writing a book based on a factual figure. Mainly because of those pesky facts. You can say ‘this happened, then that happened, then this happened’, but someone will always pop up who ‘knows better’ and takes the author to task, because he or she has played fast and loose with the ‘facts’ – as they see them. Luckily with Hereward – and the whole period really – the ‘facts’ as we have them are more than a little fast and more often than not, extremely loose. So there’s actually plenty of scope for the imagination, even whilst remaining inside a framework of what we have been handed down as ‘fact’. Whilst I disagree with the person making the argument; look at the recent controversy regarding the new theory as to where the battle of Hastings took place. We knew it wasn’t Hastings. But now someone is suggesting it wasn’t at Battle either. If you were in the non-Battle battle camp, you could say we know there was a battle and who the two sides were, but that’s about it.

From my reading of Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest, it seems like the ‘histories’ of the period we have were either been written a long time after the event, or a long time after the event and to an agenda. Most often because someone paid someone else to write a history and the ‘history’ reflects that. You’re not going to pay for something you don’t like. Not now, not in the 11th Century. Even if they weren’t paid, writing a long time after the event and writing from the point of view of one side or the other from the conflict, is going to colour your 20/20 hindsight. The problem as I see it as well is, even if an un-biased, contemporary history suddenly popped up now, no one would believe it. Because it more than likely wouldn’t fit the ‘facts’ as we now believe them to be. As I said, the facts surrounding Hereward are more than a little vague. And while you may not like some of the ways James Wilde has Hereward interacting with other historical figures, unless you are going to come with incorrigible facts stating the opposite or different, you can’t – in my book – take James Wilde too much to task for what in his books, he has his Hereward say and do. And this is meant to be fiction, after all. I don’t remember James Wilde suggesting these books should be taught in school history lessons. Maybe I missed that. Again, from my reading of Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest (admittedly the only history of the period I have read (so far), but it would seem Mr Morris has written his after reading a whole lot more than me, so I’ll go with the theory of ‘why have a dog and bark yourself?’ on this one), James Wilde does at least – with Hereward End of Days – stay in line with the ‘facts’, such as we have them. Even to the seemingly unlikely meeting with William towards the end – oh, come on, it’s flagged all the way through and was written about by a Monk in the 12th Century, so it’s hardly a plot spoiler. As Marc Morris puts it;

“…the monk of Ely who wrote the Gesta Herewardi in the early twelfth century did so with the clear intention of defending the honour of a defeated people. Hereward is presented as not only heroic but also chivalrous, a worthy adversary for his Norman opponents. The underlying message of the Gesta is that the English and Normans could coexist on equal terms. Indeed, in this version of the story, Hereward and the Conqueror himself are eventually reconciled.”

Both the character of Hereward and the book are more restrained, more subdued than (in) its two predecessors. Hereward in End of Days is no longer the whirlwind of death and destruction we met in the first book. Well, he is, but he realises if left to career out of control, the death the whirlwind would inevitably lead to, would be his own. So Hereward has had to mature somewhat. He has to be older and wiser and he finds that with maturity comes change and responsibility. He has to realise it’s not just about him and his anger any more. Whilst earlier in the series he cared nothing for himself and his actions, now he is responsible for much more than just the lives and future of his close friends and companions – he’s also responsible for the hopes and indeed the hope for the future, of all the English. That is, what’s left of them after William has been travelling through his green and conquered land. The 11th Century prophets of doom might say the days that are ending are those of mankind itself, but in reality, while once Hereward – ‘the last Englishman’ – dreamt of leading a rebellion that would save the English from the Norman tyranny and conquest, he knows that in order to defend the honour of a soon to be defeated people it must instead be the end of his rebellion’s days.

End of Days, brings to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion the various strands begun in the previous two books. Hereward’s vicious, scheming adoptive brother and his seemingly implacable and sworn psychopathic enemy, the Viking ‘Redteeth’, get what’s coming to them, whilst the addition of the character of the Norman knight ‘Deda’ is an excellent way of further blurring the difference between Norman war machine and the old English ways. One that sets the scene for how England developed under Norman rule. But once again one of the strongest characters in ‘End of Days’ are The Fens themselves. The ancient, mysterious lands that give the rebels an almost impenetrable fortress in which to gather strength and from which to fight back, are a constant source of comfort, concealment and the fitting place to make a last stand.

We’re almost certain Hereward existed, but we ALL know he didn’t win. He didn’t free the English people and he didn’t send the Normans packing. He lost. And that has surely been James Wilde’s biggest challenge all the way through this series – to make a compulsive, compelling story from a set of circumstances we already know the basic facts of. A challenge he rises to admirably. I thought many a time while reading this, it was a similar situation to (for example) books like The Day of The Jackal. You know the ‘Jackal’ doesn’t succeed, but it’s still an incredibly thrilling, heart-pounding story all the same. As is Hereward’s. Half of me, while reading the book, still hoped Hereward would somehow succeed. Even though I know he didn’t. See? That’s good writing.

This conflict could never be a battle amongst equals and William as we know, thanks to much greater resources, comes out on top. The English and Normans might be able to coexist on something approaching equal terms, but Hereward and William cannot. Though I did feel that on some occasions, James Wilde was actually showing us that Hereward and William were essentially very similar. Both leaders equally beset by treachery and treason, betrayal and seemingly implacable enemies. Sometimes it feels like the only people Hereward can trust to be consistent in what they say, are his enemies. In contrast to William though, Hereward can at least trust them to try and kill him from the front, in daylight. Hereward in the end recognises that he and William can’t coexist on equal terms and so after their reconciliation, he has to go bravely into that good night of history and myth.

Signed End of DaysSo, the End of Days would also seem to be the end of James Wilde’s Hereward books. That is of course presuming it is just a trilogy. Hereward has been fresh and riotously entertaining. An in-your-face, unforgettable meeting with one of English history’s original ‘forgotten’ heroes. James Wilde has succeeded in turning Hereward into a vital, living, breathing, death-dealing, honest, fallible, believable human being. A worthy adversary for William and the Normans. My attention and anticipation has been held fast all the way through, by glorious, addictive story-telling and good old-fashioned, can’t turn the pages fast enough, reading enjoyment of the finest kind. I do hope the good Mr Wilde can somehow find a way to keep Hereward going in some form or other. The character of the knight Deda would seem to offer some positive avenues, though would possibly take him into areas already occupied by James Aitcheson‘s ‘Tancred‘. The legend of Hereward has it that he either went into exile or carried on with his rebellious ways in the Fens or, a number of other possibilities. He didn’t die at the end of his struggles to rid England of the Normans and there is certain evidence for his exploits in hiding being the template for the later Robin Hood legend, so there might be scope for further novels.

But, maybe it is best to let Hereward end his days here and remember him the way he was.

The fact is, it’s sure not going to be easy not having another Hereward book to look forward to.

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Review: The Norman Conquest

The Norman Conquest
The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one point in The Norman Conquest, writing about the Bayeux Tapestry, Marc Morris says; “No other source takes us so immediately and so vividly back to that lost time.”

I’ll say exactly the same about this book.

It really is an astoundingly well written and well put together book. Easily the Norman period’s equivalent of Max Hastings’ All Hell Let Loose and Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. For what it’s worth, for me, that’s the highest praise I can come up with. As with those two, this really deserves at least 6 stars.

You know what happened don’t you? Normans come over, beat Harold at Hastings, conquered us, spoke French, tormented Robin Hood, etc, etc. But wait. Do you really know what happened, or why, or where?

The Norman Conquest is packed full of stuff you didn’t know. Or thought you knew, but as you will soon find out, had wrong. For one (and I’m not giving anything away as if you read the first few pages in a bookshop while deciding about getting it, you’ll come across this); The Bayeux Tapestry. Not a tapestry. Not made in Bayeux. And once that has finished rocking your Norman world, you’re ready to read on.

Marc Morris has an open, inviting and encouragingly readable style. He’s very honest and critical when discussing the few sources we have for events of this period in an excellent ‘down-to-earth’, matter of fact style. He’s very good at cutting through the reams of ancient hype and he’s perfect at reading between the medieval lines of 1,000-year old press releases and spin doctors’ erm…spin. History written by the victors and by the losers (sometimes for the victors), has been simmered down and when the mists have cleared, we have Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest.

This is surely how to write a modern non-fiction history book and I thought the back-cover quote from someone reviewing it in ‘The Times’ had it about right: “Compelling…Morris sorts embroidery from evidence and provides a much needed, modern account of the Normans in England that respects past events more than present ideologies.”

If you have even a passing interesting in reading Justin Hill’s Shieldwall, James Wilde’s Hereward series, Angus Donald‘s Outlaw series, or James Aitcheson‘s Conquest series, or even if you have read one, more, or all of the above – think of this as a companion piece. Read The Norman Conquest and you’ll get even more enjoyment out of them. Even in retrospect.

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You should of course, buy The Norman Conquest at your local, bricks and mortar bookshop. However, if that really isn’t possible, you can get it at (amongst other places) these fine purveyors of on-line bookery:

Amazon
Abe Books
Book Depository

Tancready!

James Aitcheson has now revealed the title for the eagerly awaited third book in his '1066 The Bloody Aftermath' series.

And it seems I've lost money on my guess of 'Tancred Rides Out'.

Here's his post today on Facebook:

So 'Knights of the Hawk'. Who are they? Are they up against Tancred, or does he become one of them? Knights at the time could mean French, of course. Or were there any English Knights about at the time? They'd have to be either underground, or on the outer edges of the Normans' new kingdom, possibly siding with the 'rebels'. 'Hawk' doesn't sound all that peaceful, does it? A 'hawk' is today used to describe someone 'favouring war in a debate over whether to go to war', as Wikipedia has it. Hawk being a bird of prey, a hunter, a predator, a killer. And Tancred does have some unfinished business the finishing of which would be greatly helped by a group of friendly Knights. Or are they another of the 'new enemies' promised at the end of 'The Splintered Kingdom'? And, the First Crusade isn't that far away, where the first military order of Knights was founded (Hospitaller), is there anything there?
 
I felt that Tancred was becoming more than a little anglicised during 'The Splintered Kingdom' and I was thinking it would be interesting to pit him against the people he came over from France with. See what that did to him mentally as well as physically. Poacher turned gamekeeper-like maybe.
 
I'm certainly looking forward to, at the very least, finding out if I was barking up the right tree there, or not. Then there is a loose end, an unexpected 'idea bomb' that went off in the last book and that I hope he has found it possible to develop in 'Knights of the Hawk'.
 

Right or wrong trees apart, I think if the above nonsense shows anything – apart from that it is a very good idea I don't think I can write a book myself – it is that we are extremely lucky to have a new writer like James, creating a wonderfully evocative series of books and a world full to the brim with exciting, interesting possibilities. The other side of the coin in a way, to James Wilde's 'Hereward' series. I wouldn't like to have to put money on who would win if those two* ever met, that's for sure.

*Tancred and Hereward, that is. Not James and James. Or James and Hereward, or…That's enough – Ed.

 

Robin begins

Angus Donald, eh?

Angus DonaldNot content with writing a really rather wonderful series of game-changing Historical Fiction novels based around the legendary Robin Hood, now, with his left hand, he’s penning a series of short stories. ‘Shorter stories’ maybe a better description, as they clock in at around the 10,000 word mark he says.

Again based, as far as I can tell, in and around the world of Robin Hood, a world he now owns. They will be released – the first one at least – soon as e-books.

After days of careful combing of Twitter, I have been able to piece some pieces together – into larger pieces…

…and of course, he posted this on his Facebook account this last Friday:

My first short story – The Rise of Robin Hood – is available to pre-order on Amazon: http://amzn.to/VPz8D5

It’s actually being released as an e-book, if that’s the right terminology, and that’s the cover there to the left, as much as these things can have a ‘cover’.

What that means is, you can pre-order the Kindle download on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. The latter is of course the US store, where poor saps like me who live in Denmark have to jump through a few hoops and download our Kindle books from.

You can of course get it in the Danish – and any other kind of – Apple’s iBooks store.

Here then is the official line on the story:

Something is stirring in the heart of Sherwood.

Two desperate young men undertake their first robbery in the tangled depths of a medieval forest. The first is a cut-throat charmer named Robert Odo; the second a gigantic, battle-hardened warrior called John. But, as the novice thieves quickly discover, they are not the only outlaws in Sherwood.

A legend is born in this short-story prequel to Angus Donald’s masterly series The Outlaw Chronicles, perfect for devoted fans and newcomers alike.

Further reports, reaching me from Angus’ Twitter account, would also suggest that this is just the first of a series of short stories based around (or slightly to the side of, I’d say), Angus’ Robin Hood world. He has already said that the second will be called The Betrayal of Father Tuck’. From what he says, it looks like this one is also ready to go into cyberspace, bar the purchase of extra electronic Tippex:

My agent has just told me that he really likes The Betrayal of Father Tuck (short story No2). Good. OK – now, must get on with some work

I would imagine, for those of you who prefer to hold a book, not a computer, while you read, that depending on how many stories Angus will write in this new series, they will be collected and brought out in a ‘physical’ edition at some point in the future. A follow-up post on Facebook says this:

Not in the near future…alas. Maybe in a year or two, if the first three short stories are a success, I might write some more and gather them together into a whole paper book

Seems like he’s been asked to do three so far, with maybe more based on sales and if he finds he has more to say on the characters, I guess. I really hope we’re going to hear Angus’ view on Robin’s origins. In the first one, ‘Outlaw’, he was for me a rather shadowy figure, an almost Green Man pagan spirit. Having some background on him (Robin), with which to add more substance to the spirit, will be really intriguing. I’m sure Angus will be able to add to the mystery, rather than dispel it.

So, that’s what we know at the moment. I have so far read all of Angus Donald’s Robin Hood series on iPhone/iPad. Had absolutely no problems getting hold of them from the Danish iBooks site – and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. In fact, I think they’ve been getting better as the series goes on. the last one I readKing’s Man’, was a wonderful, thought-provoking book. Which is why I will be elbowing my way to the front of the digital queue for this one – and then the others.

Paperback version of The Splintered Kingdom coming soon

If you aren’t looking forward to the third in James Aitcheson’s ‘1066 The Bloody Aftermath’ series, I will be calling at your house soon, wanting to know why.

Jam-packed full of incident, detail, description and all sorts of violent, Norman Conquest goodness, this has been an incredibly powerful start from a talented young author reasonably new to the Historical Fiction world.

SwornSwordThe first in the series called Sworn Sword’, set an incredibly high standard. It introduced us to a Norman Knight called ‘Tancred’, fresh from fighting and winning, of course, at Hastings. He’s now trying to come to terms with a country and a people who either don’t know, or are unwilling to accept, that they have been conquered. As you would expect maybe.

I found it particularly interesting to find myself, as an Englishman, trying my best not to sympathise with an invading Norman knight, a Frenchman for goodness’ sake, subduing the ‘rebels’, my fellow countrymen! It’s much more usual, to read about, or see things from the poor, downtrodden Saxon’s side. That on its own is worth getting stuck into this series for.

PrintNumber two in the seriesThe Splintered Kingdom’, came out in hardback last summer and more than consolidated the promise shown by Sworn Sword. And you can, indeed you should, get it as a hardback on Amazon. Now, on his Facebook page this last Monday, James has posted a picture of how the paperback cover for number two in the ‘1066: Bloody Aftermath’ series will look.

And this is it.

You wouldn’t want to be stood there in yer jim-jams trying to duck out the way of that, now would you?

Seems like they’ve decided to colour up the background there, doesn’t it? And move James’ name up to the top. Typeface for the title is different as well. Maybe considered a bit bolder? The main figure, presumably of Tancred, seems the same, but the fight now seems to be taking place at night, or at least later in the day, than the hardback cover. Interesting that. Don’t know if that’s to make it stand out more, or look the same as other books of this ilk. I wouldn’t mind asking someone like James to explain the process of deciding upon a cover and the process of going from hardback to paperback covers.

Hmm…Just me then.

And, no self-respecting book these days would be seen out without a prominent ‘he/she’s really ace’ – type quote from cuddly Ben Kane. Wouldn’t be proper.

I have the hardback, but I will also be ordering the paperback as well.

But, that’s just madness, I hear you cry!

Well, there’s something I want to check. Which I’m not going to go into details about, but which I mentioned to him at the time I got my pre-release copy (just thought I’d drop that in…hey, it’s the only one I’ve ever had, gotta get some mileage out of it!).

You can order The Splintered Kingdom in paperback on Amazon here. Other good booksellers are available, as they say.

They also say good things come in threes, here’s hoping they also come in fours, fives, sixes, etc., if you know what I mean?

Breaking Hereward III news!

So, hot on the heels of my exclusive (that is, if you rule out the author mentioning it on Twitter and the cover appearing on Amazon) news the other day, of Hereward III quite probably being due out/available to order/buy in July…Comes official confirmation. For ‘official confirmation’, read; you can now order it on Amazon.

Hereward TweetJames Wilde posted this on Twitter on Thursday, I think.

(Not really the best way to pretend it’s ‘Breaking News’, eh? “I think…”)

This does at least give us a look at the cover – and it doesn’t disappoint. Looking at that, I feel quite alright about what is going to be inside. Clearly, as a recent film so aptly put it; ‘There will be blood…’

Here’s the cover a bit larger. Looks like more of the same, eh?

That’s a good thing, by the way.

It would be interesting to find out who is playing Hereward on these covers. To get an idea of how/who makes the choices in the book cover process.

Is it an actor? It obviously wouldn’t be good to have a recognisable actor on the front, as it would make you think more of the previous characters the guy has played; ‘that’s him from there. You know, that film where he’s a spaceman!’, rather than ‘Hey! That’s Hereward from the two previous books!’. While I do hope lots and lots of people read – and enjoy – the Hereward books as possible, as I have done, I’m sure being on the covers of James Wilde’s Hereward books, isn’t going to raise type-casting concerns for the chap…

But, is it a friend of the author’s? Or, how much influence does an author actually have in these sort of decisions? I would have thought, as the book publisher is the one putting the money up front initially (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the arrangement wasn’t a lot like record contracts used to be in the good olde days, where the artist pays the money back out of (hopefully) future earnings) and they (the publisher), knowing the business of what sells, what is appropriate, what is needed, would have the final say. But, how much artistic control does the author have in these decisions? Has an author ever dug their heels in for their ideas and taken a book away from the publisher, because they had a ‘difference of opinion’ over the cover? I see the cover of a book as fulfilling the old cliche; ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ It’s that simple and that important.

I’ll have to ask Mr Wilde sometime. On Twitter, that is. I don’t want you getting the impression I know him!

Erm, anyway, back to the ‘News’ angle.

You can pre-order Hereward. End of Days on Amazon now. I’m guessing it is probably just the Amazon.co.uk version at the moment. Mainly because I’m pretty sure that the publication date for the first two in the series was later in the USA than the UK, and there did have to be some changes, not least in the title. Not sure why it was deemed necessary, but there you go. The release date seems to be set at 9 – 13 July. You can pre-order it now for £14.99 (128kr, $23.25, €17.40), as I have done, The money will only come out of your account when it is shipped (mainly for my Father, that) and if the price is different on release date (obviously hopefully lower) you pay the price on release date. If you’re in Denmark, as I am, you pay Danish VAT/Sales Tax…but that’ll still be cheaper than getting it down town Aarhus – even when you take into account paying postage to Denmark, as the order is below £25. Unless that bookstore I was in the other day is doing a deal, though I suspect not…but, I’m rambling.

There are several interesting loose ends to be picked up and continued after Hereward. The Devil’s Army. Rivalries to be continued and Normans to be vanquished. At least temporarily, given the larger historical context. But never mind that, I think this is the one I’m most looking forward to (so far) this year.

Go order it now! There’s clearly an upward curve on these Hereward books – the first was great, the second was greater, the third will be great…well, whatever is better than ‘greater’. And hopefully, despite End being in the title, there will be a #4, #5 and so on…I’ll have to ask him.