Review: The Harrowing by James Aitcheson

The Harrowing5 of 5 stars

My version:
Uncorrected bound proof (!)
Historical Fiction England, Norman Conquest
Heron Books
2016
Sent by James Aitcheson

In the aftermath of 1066, a Norman army marches through the North of England: burning, killing and laying waste to everything in its path. The Harrowing has begun.

As towns and villages fall to the invaders, five travellers fleeing the slaughter are forced to band together for survival. Refugees in their own country, they journey through the wasteland, hoping to find sanctuary with the last stand of the Saxon rebellion. But are they fleeing the Normans, or their own troubles?

Priest, Lady, Servant, Minstrel: each has their own story; each their own sin.

As enemies past and present close in, their prior deeds catch up with them and they discover there is no sanctuary from fate.

I absolutely adore books like this, I really do. Books clearly written from the heart, that are trying to do something a little different, a little bit more with the genre. And pull it off, obviously. Spectacularly so, in the case of The Harrowing. 

If you’ve read any of James Aitcheson’s previous books set in the period just after the cataclysm in English history that was 1066 and the Norman conquest, or any of the many good books there are about just now that are set in the period, then you’ll be familiar with the period. However, that is just where The Harrowing begins to set itself apart from the others. In his previous series, James wrote about the years after 1066, but seen through the eyes of Tancred, a Norman knight. Now, Tancred did become more and more Anglicised as the books progressed and did come to understand and sympathise with the ideals and something of the plight of the English he was responsible for. The Normans here, are an evil, dark presence, most often only glimpsed in the distance, though the results of their passing and presence can be seen and felt all around. Actual contact, is kept to just a couple of incidents – this is because The Harrowing is written focusing on the plight of the English, two devastating years after 1066. And a thoroughly desperate plight it is. In order to put down the last of the English resistance in the northern parts of the just conquered kingdom, and thoroughly extinguish not just the rebellion, but any thoughts of the possibility of rebellion in the future of his reign, William decided to go all in. That meant a truly awesome and awful, search and destroy, slash and burn, scorched earth destruction of the lives, livestock and livelihoods of the English in the north. A policy that came to be known as The Harrying of the North, or simply The Harrowing.

I use the above, modern warfare terms advisedly, because while it is a Historical Fiction of course, set 950 years ago, it’s a very modern novel and not just in language and style. The landscape it describes the five characters journeying through, compares in intensity and devastation, and at times bleak economy of writing, with any modern, post apocalypse novel – or film. Such is the devastation wrought by the Normans in revenge for the English daring to rebel in their own land against William’s new austerity, that in the hardest hit areas of England, the counties of Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland, some reports claim around 100,000 people died. Out of a total population of between one and a half and two million. And they of course, were the lucky ones. For the homeless, destitute survivors, it got worse. Whole towns and villages were devastated, ruined, destroyed. People’s homes, history, culture, lost forever. The scenes that resulted, that are sparingly and superbly described here, would surely be recognisable to anyone familiar with modern post-apocalypse novels and films such as I Am LegendWorld War Z or Mad Max. But the devastation clearly wasn’t just confined to the landscape and property, people losing everything left them devastated as well. As with the films, survival was the name of the game. And that is what James is concerned with here. The landscape’s devastation an external manifestation of the characters’ inner mental shock and awe.

So, it is against this dreadful backdrop that The Harrowing begins and is set. The characters find each other, each looking for survival and maybe hope. They have no future, their past has been swept away. However, they do have one thing. Guilt. They each have secrets they want kept hidden and yet, as they journey onwards towards their hopes, these secrets come out and they are forced to confront them and each other, with what they’ve done.

(The population in the northern counties was very Danish. As someone who lives now in Denmark, I can recognises ‘Tova’ as the Danish name Tove, it’s pronounced the same. Her friend Ase, would be Åse. ‘Beorn,’ is Bjørn. And they played Tæfl (helps having those characters on your keyboard)).

The Harrowing is nothing less than a magnificent book, melancholy and moving, a truly mesmerising experience. Heartbreaking at times, heartwarming at others, this is without doubt a book written from the heart, to the heart. A story of people confronting their past, surviving their present and trying, somehow, to believe they might, just might, have a future. More so than his previous 1066 series, The Harrowing is also a wistful, poignant look back at the England, and not least the English people, that was lost, crushed by the Normans in 1066. That an England survived for you and I, is thanks to people like Beorn, Tove, Skalpi, Merewyn, Guthred and the handful of others.

What James has written, is their memorial. Simple folk, surviving in terrible times with few expectations. Folk crushed by the Normans and as history is written by the victors, all but forgotten. What they deserve, is – as James writes for Beorn:

“Someone to know his story, to know who he was. Who he really was. Someone to know what he’d done, and to go on and live happy and well so that all his striving didn’t turn out to have been for nothing.”

In a book that takes place over just eight days, this hugely impressive book will stay with me for much, much longer. The Harrowing is incredibly imaginative, stylish, intriguing, complex and simply wonderful. Be prepared to be entranced and enraptured, if not, check your pulse, you’ve died.

As I finish, there’s a tear in my eye, and a smile on my face.

You can buy The Harrowing from all the regular outlets, I recommend The Book Depositoryfree worldwide shipping!

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

SwornSwordThe Splintered KingdomKnights of the Hawk 2

 

 

 

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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

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Review: 1066: What Fates Impose

1066: What Fates Impose
1066: What Fates Impose by G.K. Holloway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read a fair few books about the 1066 era now and I was beginning to think I’d maybe seen pretty much all there was to see in terms of how the story could be looked at. Stupid me. I was wrong. ‘1066 What Fates Impose’ has pretty much now set the Gold Standard for Norman Conquest fiction, just as Marc Morris’ ’The Norman Conquest’ has done for non-fiction of the period. In fact, I was drawn to compare the two a few times while underway, with ‘What Fates Impose’ coming out of it very well indeed. Both books have scope, sureness, readability and also a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek-ability (Face it, you got to enjoy a novel that can find place for lines (about Harald Hardrada) like “The old Viking warrior never felt comfortable in churches unless he was robbing them.”). It is also clear (to me) that G.K. has drawn many of the same conclusions as Marc Morris and also writes in a similar way that in its understatement, makes it easily understandable and accessible.

It’s hard not to take sides on the 1066 period – for an Englishman, anyway – and this book, while presenting scenarios for what happened, on both sides, doesn’t end up sitting on the fence either. Clearly its sympathies are with the English. William is a Bastard, literally and figuratively, Harold is a reasonably normal chap (in his youth, at least), thrust into history’s spotlight. He was tricked, the English were unlucky, William was ungracious while knowing he was riding his luck, he got what was coming in the end.

The book has a good, flowing style, full of understated period detail that doesn’t get all prissy, know-it-all, or ‘in your face’ and thereby obscuring the story. It is written in a calm, precise, knowledgable and authoritative way that gave me total confidence that, based on what evidence there is, it could well have happened like this, if the people behaved in this way, for these reasons. In fact, I could go as far as to say it did occur to me that it read as though you have happened upon a translation of a particularly well-kept diary from someone (somehow) close to all the action and all the participants. There were a couple of ‘bumps’ but they were very minor and absolutely nothing to get in the way of the enjoyment as a whole. I won’t pick them out as they may not be bumps for you.

The story proper starts in 1045, though there is an opening chapter that is well worth going back to, after you’ve finished. It works wonderfully well as both a scene-setter and a scene closer. Actually, is there any point in repeating the story? The bare bones you probably ‘know’ already. There are as many versions of what might have happened as there are people writing them. The story here is thusly; the relatively newly formed country of England is coming off the back of wins and defeat at the hands of Vikings and assorted other invaders, and hopefully coming into a period of calm and peace. What it actually gets is internal rivalries based on the pre-English country states – what are essentially birth-pangs and old rivalries that are hard to forget. What England really needs, is a strong king with a son ready to take over in the fullness of time. What it gets is a king they can support, but one that doesn’t, cannot, or at the very least is unable to, produce an heir who will be of age when he passes on. A vacuum of sorts is created almost by accident. There are various contenders and pretenders, with varying degrees of eligibility – depending on where you stand, of course. What is surprising to realise about this period – and I’m pretty sure it went on over here in Denmark at the time as well – is that the King was effectively elected. Of course, the son of the previous King stood the best chance, but in the case of no close heir, the vote went to the Witan, a pre-democratic periodic gathering of the good and the great. Those with the land and money and the armies to back it up, anyway. On the other side of the Channel, unable to understand how anyone but the King and his family could be King…is Duke William, head of a minor province, called Normandy. He’s not had it easy either, doubtful parentage, the constant threat of assassination while growing up and then having to hold on to power through sheer force of will. By being the biggest, baddest most ruthless of the whole pack. To say his claim to the throne of England, is doubtful, is actually to imbue it with more authority than it actually has. So, what then transpires, is the stuff of legend and has kept historians, writers and seamstresses in business pretty much ever since.

From there on – and based solely on the reading I have done – the book follows the events as they are known to us. And by ‘known’, I’d say it really should be read often as speculation, based on what is perhaps the least unlikely scenario. The ’true histories’ of the period are ’true’ to the facts as paid for by the person behind the writer of the history. It seems like a history was never written without an angle, an axe to grind, a point to make. ‘Facts’ were made to fit where they were wanted to be fitted. I get the idea that nowadays, we consider it a ‘fact’ if conclusions can be drawn from the repeated use of similar descriptions of events, that therefore they must have, most probably, happened – in some form of other. Or where archaeology, or probability based on archaeology, can maybe back them up. There you go. While ‘What Fates Impose’ is not meant to be an actual history of the period, I can imagine objections to it from any academics out there could perhaps hinge on the portrayal of how Harold came to pledge allegiance to William and thereby support William’s claim that Edward promised him the throne. You’re either going to like it or you’re not. But you cannot deny it works with the background of the characters and situations set up in the book. But I’ve no doubt that some – often self-proclaimed (I’ve come across them) – ‘experts’ will take exception and maybe overlook the book as a whole. They’d be doing themselves a great disfavour.

G.K., has created believable, realistic, human characters from some of history’s most iconic figures. It is good to have Godwin Sr., and Harold’s background filled out, for instance. Only ‘Shieldwall’ by Justin Hill (of the books I’ve read on 1066 so far) does something similar with the Godwin family. That Harold had plenty of children and two ‘wives’, for instance, was something I hadn’t realised. He’s drawn as a fairly normal young man, one we’d recognise and like, if we met him on the street today. For instance, he meets a pretty girl, falls in love, wants to spend the rest of his life with her. But because he becomes King, there are other demands, other priorities that cannot be avoided. Harold grows up and develops into a true king as the book progresses. From wild, though sensible and caring at heart, to be a proper statesman and envoy. HE has kingly qualities, that’s for sure. Oh, what we lost at Hastings…

William is very different. The way he portrayed in the book, reading between the lines, seems due to his trying to make amends, to compensate, for the feelings of inadequacy he must have felt because of the lowliness – and doubtful parentage – of his birth. He has something to prove and feels he can only do it by any means possible, fair or unfair, lawful or unlawful. He knows what he’s doing, can’t help himself and knows he’ll come to regret it.

Throughout the book, there builds a feeling of a far greater loss being imminent. Greater than ‘just’ the English warriors being beaten on that October day at Senlac Hill. Again, like Marc Morris does at the start of ’The Norman Conquest’, G.K., hits us with a couple of very telling facts. Here, they are about the situation before and after the invasion. In 1066, England had a population of about two million. One hundred years later, the population was halved. No famine, no plague. Just William and “Norman civilisation.” Many times during the reading of the book, I got the strong sense – intentional or unintentional – that he feels a way of life, a tradition, a history and a bright future, was about to be wiped out. Not just half the population, something more.

Events unfold, bridges are crossed and then burned behind them and an unstoppable historical ball is set rolling. There are times when it seems like the least worst option, for William at least, is to press on with the whole sorry mess. So we move inexorably towards 1066 and October 14th and the battle. Even though I’ve read many books now, which detail the weeks and days leading up to and including the battle, even though we wouldn’t be who we are today without having been the Normans first – I’ve never had a feeling of encroaching dread like I did while reading the final third of this book. I think it says so much about the quality of the preceding passages and the quality of the writing and presentation of those last few days and hours, that it’s like while I know what happened and it can’t (obviously) be any other way, I still hoped, I still thought ‘we’ and Harold might just do it. The victory was there. The victory was there for us to lose. And we did. Our luck just wasn’t in that day. It could have been so different. The tension, is stomach clenching. I’m reading the words and another part of my brain is shouting to the English characters “go on, GO ON! I know it can’t be any other way, but still…might it? He dangles victory in front of Harold, it’s there for him to take, if only…And it’s gone. As it surely must have been. It really held me tight in its spell and have me hoping that this time Harold would win. That William would get the humiliation – and horrendously painful – death he’s got coming. Harold seems to have done everything right, except be finally lucky. I didn’t want to read on. I wanted to stop there and imagine what could have been…

‘What Fates Impose’ really is Historical Fiction par excellence. It’s going take a good book, a very good book indeed, to beat this re-telling of the 1066 story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and I recommend it without hesitation.

 

 

*I should make it clear that I was contacted by G.K. Holloway, who had visited my blog and thought I might enjoy his book and would I like a copy in return for an honest review. The above is my honest opinion.

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Reading Conquest by Stewart Binns

ConquestHad this one waiting on the shelf for a while. 300-odd pages in and Hereward reminds me of Robert E.Howard’s Conan. Ordinarily, that would be good, but this is England, not Cimmeria or even Hyboria.

Reading Conquest by Stewart Binns

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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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Today, 14 October, is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

Tom Lovell's painting of Hastings
A painting of the battle by Tom Lovell, commissioned by National Geographic.

Today, the 14th of October, in 1066, the Norman conquest of Britain really got underway following their victory over the English at The Battle of Hastings.

Well, I’m guessing that the date is more the historian’s best guess, rather than having actual written (or otherwise) evidence for it. Until we find a diary with

“14 October 1066. Got up, messed about a bit, fought in Battle of Hastings. Went home”,

it’s probably going to be a best guess, date-wise. And didn’t we change calendars at some point since then? Or is that taken into account?

Nevermind, today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, hoorah!

Except it was a little further inland, seven miles to be exact, from Hastings, at a place now called Battle. There’s lucky, eh?

“Where shall we have our battle?”
“Well, there’s a place just up the road called Battle?”
“Brilliant!”

Is probably how it didn’t go.

So, William the Conqueror – except he wasn’t ‘conqueror’ going into the battle (and he wasn’t The Bastard, either. He might well have been one, but I guess you didn’t call him that to his face. And live very long), met Harold Godwinson (he of very few nick-names) And we lost. As I’m still English, it’s still ‘we’.

I’m not going to try and go into the details of the battle, that takes a long time and a better writer. If you want to know more, you can do so here. The English Heritage site for the site, is here.

So, why highlight the battle? Well, as I mentioned previously, just at the moment, several of the books, several of the series of books I’m reading, seem to be set in the period leading up to the battle, the battle itself and the aftermath, life as a result of the Norman victory.

So, let’s take a look along the shelves in the Library here at Speesh Towers:

The Norman Conquest 2I’ll start with the non-fiction outing, The Norman Conquest, by Marc Morris. A really tremendous book and a great, thrilling, read. I’ve rambled on previously and at length about this book, so I won’t go into depth once again about how good it is.
It just is.
And, he recently made nonsense/mincemeat of the claims that even Battle wasn’t the actual site of the battle. Go read it for yourself and decide if you want to argue with him.

Justin Hill - ShieldwallShieldwall by Justin Hill (and the follow-up Hastings, whenever that comes out) is set in the years before the Norman invasion. Hastings, I’m guessing, will probably take in the battle.

If I were you, I’d buy the paperback version of this one. The cover is really good.The hardback, for some reason, is really poor in comparison. Just as well they didn’t just republish with the hardback cover in this case.

Berwick Coates - The Last ConquestOne I have yet to read, is The Last Conquest by Berwick Coates. The blurb says “The Normans have landed in Sussex, ready for battle. They have prepared for everything about the English – except their absence… King Harold and his fyrd, are hundreds of miles away, fighting to expel the Viking host in the north. But they have heard that William has landed and rumour is that they are marching back, triumphant and dangerous – and spoiling for a second victory…This is the story of the greatest battle ever seen on British soil and of the men who fought it.”

HerewardHereward The Devils Army2Hereward End of DaysJames Wilde‘s Hereward, Hereward The Devil’s Army, Hereward End of Days, cover the period of the invasion, but are more concerned with the English resistance in the period immediately after the battle at Hastings.

SwornSwordThe Splintered KingdomKnights of the Hawk 2James Aitcheson‘s Sworn Sword, The Splintered Kingdom and Knights of the Hawk are also set in the period in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Hastings, but are seen from the Norman’s side.

Hawk Quest Hardback 1Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon, is set in the period of the battle and invasion, but the action takes place away from the usual places associated with the Norman conquest. Though it is subtitled An Epic Novel of the Norman Conquests.

You can possibly add Angus Donald‘s Robin Hood series as well, though it comes a little while after 1066, it is still dealing with how life was as a consequence of the invasion.

Well, that’s what I’ve got on my shelves. I will no doubt, buy more. I’m always open to good recommendations, if you have any.

I’ve visited the battle site, at Battle, and even on a wet and miserable Autumn afternoon, as it was for me and possibly them then, it is a place well worth taking the time seeing.

Today is the Anniversary of Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25 September 1066

If you’ve had a look through some of the books I’ve read on this blog, you’ll see more than a few are set in and around the 1066 period. I haven’t actively sought out books to do with this period, it’s just that there seems to be at the moment, a fair few of them about.

The Norman Conquest 1

Today is the anniversary of one of the two less famous battles of 1066. And I’ve noticed a couple of interesting links I thought you might like to check out.

This is a link to a quite excellent piece (one would expect nothing less) from the blog of historian Marc Morris, not by coincidence, the writer of The Norman Conquest book, which I recently read. And thoroughly enjoyed reading (if you only read one book on 1066, etc).

The Norman Conquest 2

This is a link to a podcast on the BBC Radio 4 programme called In Our Time, where four (I think) historians talk about the events before and leading up to the battle of Stamford Bridge. I say ‘before and leading up to’, because – and I suppose we should blame time constraints here, as Melvin Bragg points out few times) – of the battle itself, they say very little, to next to nothing. In over 40 minutes. Which kind of makes you wonder why the title was ‘The Battle of Stamford Bridge.’

The Norman Conquest 3

However, Marc Morris’ blog post does manage to stick to talking about the actual battle and I would dare to suggest, tells us more about it in his five and a bit paragraphs, than these four (?) esteemed professors managed to in their 40 minutes. Actually, the whole podcast is worth a listen just to hear Melvin Bragg jumping in time and time again to keep the historians from rambling off into unconnected areas 😉

Another good, if not great, reason for you to go buy Marc Morris’ book, The Norman Conquest. Now. Here and or here.

I used to (before moving to Denmark) live up in the north of England, in Leeds, reasonably near York and Stamford Bridge. We drove through the village many times and stopped more than once for a cheeky pint in the local pub. There isn’t much of any kind of indication of where the battle took place, but as they say in the radio podcast, there is a small monument to the battle in the centre of the village. Or there was, as it is 10 years nearly, since I left the UK, f’goodness’ sake.

Suggestion: As Marc Morris does stick to the subject, the battle, I’d suggest you read his post first, and then listen to the Radio 4 programme, as a way of filling in more background details – such as they are – of the general situation in England and Europe in the period leading up to 1066 and all that.

Must say thanks to Justin Hill (@jhillauthor) for the link to the BBC Radio 4 podcast and Marc Morris (@Longshanks1307) for the link to his blog post.

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

Just 122 days and one Knight to go

What are we waiting for at the moment?

Why it’s Knights of the Hawk by our pal James Aitcheson of course! And it’s out on the 24th of October.

Knights of the HawkI’m writing another post partly because there’s a new image of the cover available on the Random House website and partly because I’m really looking forward to slapping some eyes on the story.

Here’s what the blurb is saying;

“The third novel in the compelling Conquest series (1066: The Bloody Aftermath) from the author of Sworn Sword. Perfect for fans of Ben Kane.

AUTUMN, 1071. The struggle for England has been long and brutal. Now, however, five years after the fateful Battle of Hastings, only a determined band of rebels in the Fens stand between King William and absolute conquest.

Tancred, a proud and ambitious knight, is among the Normans marching to crush them. Once lauded for his exploits, his fame is now fading. Embittered by his dwindling fortunes and by the oath shackling him to his lord, he yearns for the chance to win back his reputation through spilling enemy blood.

But as the Normans’ attempts to assault the rebels’ island stronghold meet with failure, the King grows increasingly desperate. With morale in camp failing, and the prospect of victory seeming ever more distant, Tancred’s loyalty is put to the test as never before.”

In the Random House post, they seem to be hedging their bets on the name for the series. Both ‘1066 The Bloody Aftermath’ and ‘conquest’ making an appearance. Amazon have it as just the ‘Conquest series.’

You can order it as of now on Amazon UK, or Amazon US. Also on Random House, The Book Depository, or your local book seller.

From the writer of these fine books:

Sworn Sword, hardback, paperback – my review

SwornSwordSworn Sword Paperback

The Splintered Kingdom, hardback, paperback – my review

The Splintered Kingdom7C36113B-2A6D-4E5E-9B4B-A2AD452FEA50.png