Review: The Long Ships – Franz G. Bengtsson

The Long Ships

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Basically, at it’s heart, this is about the end of the Viking world as they knew it. And as with a lot of books, novels, about the Vikings, Christianity is the culprit.

As the title proudly states, The Long Ships, has been ‘in print since the 1940s.’ It reads a little that was as well, though that’s absolutely no criticism of the writing style at all. It is a refreshingly open and inviting style, full of interesting observations and comments, with a ‘glint in the eye’ as we say over here in Denmark.

The story concerns the life of one Red Orm. Who, as a young man in Denmark (Hurrah! That’s where I live), is captured (kind of) by Vikings and taken off as an oarsman on their ship bound westward and headed for adventure. The whole ethos presented here, is that people we out to enjoy themselves, capture a whole load of money on the way and therefore have enough money to enjoy themselves some more. If you’ve seen any of the film The Long Ships with Sydney Poitier and Richard The Long Ships DVDWidmark (amongst others) you’ll know some of the plot. Though the film, to my recollection concentrates (wisely) on what is in essence, the first third of the book. Which is very good. The Vikings, with Orm becoming a fully fledged member and later leader of the group, sail south, maraud (as the book cover says) through Viking Europe and into trouble. They are captured and forced into service by the Muslim rulers of what nowadays is Spain. After many years service, they leave/escape and find their way home to Scandinavia. There, the surviving members of the group go their separate ways, though the story follows Orm’s life from there on as well.

The book was clearly written with an agenda of some sort in mind. But I can’t really make up my mind what it was. Apart from highlighting the death of the Vikings at the hands of Jesus Christ. The writer, seems very pro-Christianity coming to the frozen north (as my mother once described Denmark, where I live) and I partly thing it was a way of bolstering Christianity in Sweden, Scandinavia at the time. Not having been in Sweden or Scandinavia at the time, I don’t know. But it is clear that the writer thought he had a purpose to telling the tale. From the point where Orm and the survivors reach Denmark and ‘Jellinge’ (you can tell it’s been translated from the Swedish, by someone who has never actually been to Jelling, in Denmark), to the point of Orm and the others setting about their final mission, the story does sag tremendously. And you can see why, as far as I can remember, the film version stuck, wisely, to the first sections. It is a collection of visitors popping up, telling their fable-like tales, though some characters have a bearing on later events. The stories are a look at Viking characters, history, morals and traditions and surely, by a modern author, would have been welded into a better story than just having ‘one day, two people turned up at the house…’ kind of thing. The book is about Christianity worming its way into Viking society (‘Orm’ means ‘worm’ in Danish after all), but interestingly, the author has the majority go his converting Vikings doing so for the perfectly sensible reason of being a Christian increasing their all-important ‘luck.’ I suppose the middle section does highlight the Vikings love of words, word-play and their oral story-telling traditions, but whilst it can be heavy going, you’ll be fully rewarded if you keep going, because the final section is one of the best you’ll come across.

Word of warning!
Only buy it if the cover looks like the above. As it’s been around since the 1940s, there are some truly dreadful cover versions out there. Be warned, don’t even look at them, once seen, the can’t be unseen and will spoil your enjoyment and the taking seriously of the book.

 

Buy this version of The Long Ships at The Book Depository

Me, on Goodreads

Review: The Sea Road

The Sea Road
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sea Road is an imaginative and beautifully written attempt to recreate the life of an Icelandic woman called Gudrun Thorbjarnadottir. If you have no idea who that is, that’s ok. Not many will know who she is. She is a Norse woman, who appears in the Icelandic Sagas, the wife of Karsefni, of the few Norse adventurers to have visited North America – five hundred years before Columbus.

The story begins though, in Rome in 1051 and Gudrun is at the end of a pilgrimage. She is relating her life story to a fellow Icelander, a monk, called Agnar. She is of interest to the Church, because of her travels. She is “…one of those who have gone beyond the confines of the mortal world, in the body. She has dwelt for over a year in the lands outside the material world.”

The theme, the idea, of her having been ‘outside the world’ is just one of the many layers to this wonderful book. She has, by having visited and lived in the Norse settlement in North America, been ‘outside’ the world as it was known at the time. She too was of the opinion that she had been outside the world and subscribed to the Viking view, that this was the land that ran round the edge of the world as they knew it and that if you sailed along the coast far enough south, you’d reach Africa. This feeling of being ‘outside,’ is also used to symbolise both the position of the Norse Pagan beliefs being outside those of the arrogant up-start new religion of Christianity and the flight of the old Norse beliefs, out of the ‘old world’ they once ruled. There is no room for them in the new, Old World and they, along with the remaining Norse believers, find themselves being pushed further and further west. But can the New World be a new home for an old world religion?

Despite Gudrun’s own conversion to Christianity, there is a sense of sadness, mixed with longing, for the old ways. The story she relates has it too. A sadness, a regret, that a time, a productive, sensible, well-founded, earthy, functioning culture has passed. Through no fault of its own. A connection to the world around them, now lost to the peoples of Christianity. Forced to the edges of the world and then beyond, as the story says several times. Others seem to have converted to the new religion, for more practical reasons: “”It’s all very well for a man at sea to pray to Thor, but here on land we’re overrun by demons, and more and more people are being driven off their land by the dead who refuse to lie quiet. This new power might be just the thing we need.”” They clearly saw the new god first as an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the older gods. A new solution, to some old problems!

Gudrun tells of the arrival in Iceland when she was a child, of a wild, red-haired adventurer called Eirik Raudi. Regarded by most as a notorious outlaw, he convinces several Icelanders, including Gudrun’s father, to move to a new land he has found, that he has deliberately enticingly called the Green Land. Though Eirik’s wife is now a devoted Christian, he is old school Norse: “The very mention of a new god made Eirik flame. “Take away your milk-and-water gods, your gods for infants!” he used to shout. “What kind of man do you want if you fancy a god who hasn’t the guts to lift a hand to save himself? Don’t tell me stories about flocks of sheep! I want men like wolves! What kind of country do you think this is?” Life is hard in the Green Land and the eastern and western settlements struggle along, but gradually, through being blown off course by storms trying to reach the settlements, sailors come in with reports of even more lands sighted to the west. Their desire for the new land, is purely practical. Trees have been sighted and trees are a scarce to non-existant in the Green Land.

It is Eirik’s son, Leif, who first makes inroads into the new land and he builds houses (‘Leif’s Houses’) there. It seems however, like they never really intended settling in the new lands, merely using them to supply Greenland and to sell what they flound in the New World, to the Old.

Gudrun and Karsefni also travel to America and remain there for around a year, but problems with the local inhabitants – not clear if it was Inuit or ‘Indians’ – mean they have to return earlier than expected to Greenland. She refers to the final voyage that is mentioned in the sagas, though only in passing, because she wasnt a part of it and it didn’t end well. Margaret Elphinstone is obviously using the actual Viking remains found in northern Canada, at L’Anse aux Meadows, as her – the Icelandic Sagas’ – ‘Leif’s Houses.’ She also has Gudrun suggesting that they sailed a lot further south from Leif’s Houses, definitely what is now the USA (material has been found at L’Anse aux Meadows, which points to other, more southerly explorations), maybe even into the St. Lawrence seaway. Gudrun does make it clear that there were other voyages, apart from the ones she mentions – the ones the sagas mention – and that is also without doubt true.

And there’s a twist in the end of the tale, so you’ll want to have kept your wits about you and have an eye for detail…I’ll say no more.

The Sea Road is based on the mentions of what we now know to be North America, in the Icelandic Sagas. The Sagas were written after the oral story-telling tradition of the Vikings. If you’re thinking ‘Chinese whispers,’ it should maybe be pointed out that they are, in that respect, at least as accurate as Homer’s tales of Ancient Greece. People were selected (or selected themselves) for their ability in story-telling. As in, remembering what they were told and how the story should be told. There was no TV, no internet, no newspapers, no radio. Telling stories in the evenings was what they did. They knew the stories by heart and loved them told in the right way. You read a child their favourite story each night, then try changing a word or a scene – see how far you get. The Vikings didn’t write that much down at the time (unfortunately), remembering was what they were good at. Stories of their gods or ancestors, or also as in The Sea Road, sailing directions to places. Get one of those wrong and you don’t sail any more. It’s interesting too , that the Danish word for ‘speak’ is ‘tale.’ As the book points out, once a story was written down, it was dead. Telling and re-telling kept the story alive, the people and the places involved alive too.

Viking AmericaI remember thinking several times, that this was not so much an idea of what it must have been like, but that this was how it was. She has surely come that close. I began thinking about it and analysing the story as if it were an actual record of what happened. Speaking of which, it was a good one to read having just come off the back of reading Robert Enterline’s Viking America. A happy accident. The Sea Road fits very well with and develops much of the conjecture, possibilities and evidence that put forth. The Sea Road would even, I think, make more sense, give even more pleasure, if you had read ‘Viking America’ first. It’s by no means essential, you’d just know that more of ‘The Sea Road’ could actually be true than you might otherwise have thought.

It doesn’t feel like reading a work of fiction. This is like reading their diary, their thoughts. It came over as if Gudrun is trying to remember what happened in her dreams. Trying to glimpse the events through the mists, through the trees. Like trying grab hold of smoke. The idea of the story being told once again to, or by, a monk did raise a few groans from me at the start. It’s been surely done to death. But as, to be fair, the only ones who could write back then were monks and because it in no way got in the way and the monk, being a fellow Icelander, understands her better than a lot of the monks do in similarly related books, it works an absolute treat.

The Sea Road is a much more ‘honest,’ moving, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying ‘Viking’ book, than ever your Giles Kristians and Robert Lows are. A beautifully written glimpse, full of longing, of regret and of happiness of a time and a people lost forever.

Me. Goodreads.

Review: Swords of Good Men

Swords of Good Men
Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I live in Denmark, I have done the last ten years. I have learned Danish and I speak and understand it all day every day. I’ve read books in Danish. English-written translated into Danish and books written by Danish authors. And there’s a difference. You can see, read and tell there’s a difference. There’s a different way of thinking and formulating a sentence or a paragraph. A different way of putting an idea over. I’m not going to say their world view is different from ours, but having been here for ten years now, I can safely say they often have a different view of what is – and perhaps more interestingly – what isn’t important. What IS worth worrying about and what isn’t, what can be left to sort itself out.

When I was only a little way into ‘Swords of Good Men’, I said to the wife (you ask her), that even if the name didn’t give the game away, I’d put a whole load of her money on Snorri Kristjansson being a Scandinavian. Well, he’s from Iceland and f you’re worrying over my definition of ’Scandinavia’; (Wikipedia) *Sometimes the term Scandinavia is also taken to include Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Finland, on account of their historical association with the Scandinavian countries.”). It’s in that historical background, the assumptions made of the reader, the way of telling the story…and it’s written all over this absolutely superb book.

‘Swords of Good Men’ is different. No doubt about it. Firstly, because the action stays in Scandinavia. Snorri’s saga doesn’t follow the otherwise well-trodden (if can ships can be said to tread) path, the ‘Whale Road’, from Norway, Denmark etc, to Britain. Which is what, for most people I imagine, pretty much would actually characterise as being ‘Viking’. Here, neatly turning the 9th Century tables, it is Christianity which is the threat coming to the Vikings, from Vikings, in THEIR backyard. Their way of life is under threat from warriors emerging suddenly out of the mists. And they mean to defend it to the death. Get your head round that one for a start.

However, I don’t wish to get all 10th Century medieval on your asses here, with maybe making out like this is some sort of detailed allegorical study of paganism in retreat versus the onrush of Christianity (bringing the word of God ‘at the point of a sword and edge of axe’) that led to the end of the Viking era. It isn’t (really) and luckily for us readers, at least half of Snorri’s characters don’t know it’s the end and are ready to fight to the death. That’s what in essence is happening here. Odin and Thor and all the other Æsir don’t intend giving up without a fight. They are cornered, gathering their forces and ready to strike back using any means they can, over-, or underhand. And the little town of Stenvik is going to get caught in the middle, whether the people of Stenvik like it or not.

The book starts slowly and builds its story – maybe like a film that opens with a long shot, far away, that comes in, slowly getting closer and closer, bringing the events, characters and story to focus. It also stays away from what I usually think of as the ‘normal’ way of opening, with a huge battle or suchlike. It assumes you’re already with the story of the Vikings. That you know the world in which story is set. Yes, people know about Vikings, but the book is comfortable in assuming you’re NOT now thinking Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine. It mentions for example, without further explanation other than the name, Hedeby and Trelleborg, both important centres in Viking-age Denmark, but, I think, I’ve only ever seen mentioned once before in Viking fiction. Two travellers arrive in the town, Ulfar and his cousin Geiri who are traders on their way home. They find the anticipation and foreboding is building amongst the people. What will happen and who will survive when the – unstoppable – storm breaks over them? And then, when the tension becomes nearly unbearable and the storm does break, the book really delivers on its built up promise. With a final battle the like of which I don’t think I’ve read before. A battle so vivid, that it not so much places you directly in the centre, rather that whilst reading, it has you looking over your shoulder and checking for where the next death-dealing, blood-dripping, breast-cleaving, axe-wielding, seven-foot tall marauding berserker Viking warrior is coming from! If it doesn’t leave you breathless, get someone to hold a mirror in front of your mouth – you may be dead.

So, there are plenty excellently realised and memorable characters here. There are warriors and witches and where there are warriors and witches, there will be warfare. There are axes, broadswords and narrow escapes (you see what I did there?). There are characters to care about, to be worried about, to trust, to mistrust, to be afraid of, to be intrigued by. And characters you hope you’re going to meet again. Soon. ‘Swords of Good Men’ is just about everything you could possibly want and then some, from a novel about the Vikings. I didn’t want to compare and contrast with other Vikings books I’ve read, or will be reading in the very near future, but this IS different. It’s powerful, wonderfully imagined and presented and I’ve got to admit; it feels like the real thing. If it isn’t in my top three best reads of the year come December, I’ll be more surprised than…well, it ain’t gonna not happen.

And, as I’ve said before, as one of the Vikings in 13th Warrior says: “It’s alright little brother – there are more..” The second in Snorri’s Valhalla Saga, ‘Blood Will Follow’, comes out in *casts runes* June.

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Friday book news

…is back! And, on a Saturday!

Imperial Fire

Imperial Fire, Robert Lyndon‘s follow-up to Hawk Quest, has now been released.

You can order it here:

Amazon

The Book Depository

Or, if you fancy a signed first edition copy and don’t mind paying full-whack and possibly postage the same cost as the book (depending on where you live of course) you can try Goldsboro Books. That’s where I put my order in. They’ve taken the money, so I’m guessing he’s now signed and it is on its way.

Interestingly, The Book Depository have it also listed as having this cover (left).Imperial Fire 2

From what I can tell, that may well be the US hardback cover. Though they’ll have to wait a little longer for it to be released over there. As they should. Maybe I’ll have to run a post like the one I did for Hawk Quest, showing the different covers different countries got.

I can’t really see from the UK cover, what the story might be about. But the US one does rather seem to say ‘China’, doesn’t it? I’m guessing he’s continuing with the characters, those that were still alive, from Hawk Quest, so maybe they travel off to China, getting all Marco Polo on our asses. I guess I won’t have to wait too much longer to find out.

God of VengeanceIf you breeze over to Amazon, you can see that Giles Kristian‘s next, to be called ‘God of Vengeance‘ – a return to his ‘Raven’, Viking characters – will be released on the 10th April. I’m not too sure about the cover. Without knowing what the story is about, I can’t say whether it reflects it or not. Maybe it does. But, I doubt it. It’s too static. Not Vikingy enough. “But there’s a longboat on the cover!”, I guess he would say – but the dead, black background? OK, they’re runes, but it all looks like a new version of Homer’s Iliad or something, than a rampaging, rollocking story about a band of desperate Viking desperadoes. Which I’m guessing, even though it is a prequel to the other Raven stories, and not necessarily featuring the ‘Wolfpack’ as we know and love them, it is about.

Were it me in charge of things over at the publisher, I’d have said – try again. Give me something that at least looks as if it comes from the same historical period as the other three Raven books. I’m guessing that there won’t be any dramatic changes to this cover for the hardback version when it is released, be interesting to see if they keep the design for the paperback version.

You can pre-order God of Vengeance here:

Amazon

The Book Depository

Hannibal Clouds of War New Front

Ben Kane‘s next title, Hannibal Clouds of War, out on 27 February, has got itself a new cover.

Well, not a new, new cover, more a slight change to the original proposed cover.

Ben posted on his Facebook and Twitter Wednesday, that Wilbur Smith had come up with the goods, quote-wise. I’m guessing they have somehow got an advance copy of the book in front of the great man and he has liked it so much, he’s allowing Ben to quote him on the book. The quote is, in case your eyesight isn’t up to it:

Who is the rising star of historical fiction? I say Ben Kane

Today, he’s showing off a cover, an up-dated cover, with the afore-mentioned quote/gold dust, front and centre. They also seem to have brightened the soldier’s face area up a bit, and got the plume/crest a lot more reddish, though that could just be compared to the version of the cover I originally posted. I think it is, because the Amazon order page has a picture that looks exactly the same as the version Ben posted today, apart from the quote rather than the ‘Sunday Times…’ bit. It does really have a zing about it, don’t ya think?

Hannibal Clouds of WarIt seems, on the face of it from how Ben phrased it on his Facebook page, that they may not have started printing the covers yet. Which, having been in the game myself before moving over to Denmark, I find a little hard to believe. Ben’s quite rightly thanking his people for managing to get the cover re-done, with Wilbur Smith’s quote on it. I’d rather go for the angle that the designers and printers have now got a version together with the quote on. Meaning, I would not be at all surprised if there aren’t at least a few, maybe even a few thousand, of the original version printed and ready to go on a book. Now THAT would be worth getting hold of. As I say, and having been in the business, I’d put money on some of the originals finding their way onto shipped copies. Anyway, Ben’s quite rightly over the moon about the quote, that should hopefully get Ben out in front of a wider market, so it’s all good. As others on his Facebook page pointed out, Ben is already a star of the Historical Fiction world. Be interesting to find out which other HF authors Wilbur Smith knows of, or is comparing Ben with. What he may be on to, is what I’m getting from this cover and the re-design of Hannibal 2 – Ben is ready for and aiming for the big time, these new covers say Ben is moving into the Premier League of Authors.

Hannibal Clouds of War New Front & Back copy

Anyhoo. Here’s the whole thing, hardcover version, front, spine and back:

I’m crossing my fingers that they’re going to get some gold, embossing going on on the name, either Ben, or the title. Though I could well imagine a ‘flat’ version would look equally sexy.

As the paperback version of what Amazon refers to as ‘Hannibal 2’, has been done in the same photographic and design theme as this new Clouds of War (‘Hannibal 3’), I’d say the paperback version of Clouds of War, won’t differ that much from the hardback. They’d be fools if they re-invented the wheel there, as my old boss used to say.

You can order Hannibal Clouds of War here:

Amazon

The Book Depository

or, if you’re quick, you can order a signed copy from Goldsboro Books, just be aware that you’ll pay RRP and cop for some juicy postage charges. Though if Ben has time to date and first line it, it may well be worth the extra few sheets. For instance, at Goldsboro, a signed and dated The Forgotten Legion (that’s Book 1), will cause some serious open wallet surgery, coming in at a sizzling £165.

Happy reading.

Review: The Pagan Lord

The Pagan Lord
The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Bernard Cornwell is on form, he can be at least as good, if not a whole lot better, than most everyone else. When he’s ticking over, he’s also a whole lot better than a whole lot of other writers in the Historical Fiction field. And while there’s no doubt I enjoyed The Pagan Lord and thought it was very good, it does have the sound of Bernard Cornwell ticking over. I thought Death of Kings was an excellent book, but it doesn’t seem that Cornwell has used that as a transitional book to take Uhtred to better places, character-wise, or style-wise. I enjoyed this, don’t get me wrong. But I think Bernard Cornwell is a little on autopilot at the moment. In many ways, Cornwell is rather like the mood that radiates off Uhtred in The Pagan Lord – smart, cunning, savvy, clever. He’s been there, done that. Many times. But he’s also irritating. Why? Later.

It goes wrong for Uhtred, the ‘Pagan Lord’ of the title, from the beginning (actually, I’d like BC to give us an idea of how we’re supposed to pronounce ‘Uhtred’ in our heads while we’re reading this. Idea?) Uhtred goes to try to capture his son, to stop him from shaming the family name and becoming a priest. Of Christ, not Uhtred’s Odin. Uhtred is, understandably for an old-fashioned, died in the wool Viking, somewhat less than chuffed at this development. He tries to reason with his son, threatening to cut him off, as it were, but he instead almost accidentally manages to kill another priest. As you do. Uhtred most likely normally wouldn’t lose much, if any, any sleep over this sort of thing. But it isn’t the sort of thing that is going to endear him to his Christian neighbours. To make matters worse, he then returns home to find his hall has been attacked and burnt to the ground by Cnut Longsword, while he was away. He decides to meet with Cnut, only to find that Cnut thinks Uhtred has taken his (Cnut’s) wife and son. Which he hasn’t. And he suspects a double-cross. He returns home to find his peace-loving Christians neighbours have burnt down what remained un-burnt from the last burning. As you do in 10th Century pre-England. So, as he can’t convince anyone to trust him when he says there is treachery afoot, Uhtred’s not in the best of moods at the start of The Pagan Lord. Dark days for Uhtred and it doesn’t get much better.

Dark days indeed. And whaddaya know? There’s bad weather. Nearly all the time. Cornwell clearly wants us to get the message that the weather matches Uhtred’s mood. But that really is a bit too obvious for a writer of his calibre, isn’t it? And it’s all the bloomin’ time. I could be wrong on this but, I can’t actually remember there being good, or even fine, weather in any of Bernard Cornwell ‘Warrior Chronicles’ books. And there isn’t here. For instance, when he’s sailing off in his ship, ‘Middleniht’, there’s ‘grey sea, grey sky and a grey mist, and the ‘Middelniht’ slid through that greyness like a sleek and dangerous beast.’ I’m all for the weather as a way of mirroring a mood, but when it’s all the time, the time comes when you have to say ‘enough already with the dreadful weather!’ Obviously it’s England we’re talking about here, so it is going to rain more than most places in the 10th Century, but they had sunshine back then as well! Even in the North Sea. It was on occasion dry and mild in the 10th Century, the sleet in the middle of summer didn’t always come at you horizontally. But when the book opens with ‘A dark sky. The gods make the sky; it reflects their moods and they were dark that day. It was high summer and a bitter rain was spitting from the east. It felt like winter’, you just think ‘oh, here we go again’. Actually, the only time I can think of in The Pagan Lord when he gets good weather, is when he actually wants bad weather! Obviously as cover for a dastardly deed.

Having said all that, the weariness, as befits an old man – old for the Viking age anyway – the ’not again, I’m too old for this shit’ of Uhtred, is outstanding. Understandable, given his luck with Christian sons – Christians on general – and inflammable barns and houses, really. He’s a believable and sympathetic character and one Cornwell obviously loves. That comes over loud and clear. Uhtred is, if I’ve read rightly and with only a couple of historical ‘adjustments’ along the way, an ancestor of Cornwell’s. Would explain why.

So, my really big problem with this one?

And.

And. And, and, and. And. Ands, every-bloody-where. In sentences, starting sentences, linking sentences. Ands after commas. Ands starting paragraphs, for goodness’ sake.

And way too many of them.

Cornwell achieves the matter of fact, authoritative style of Uhtred’s narrative, through using ‘and’ as a link in sentences. Like this:

“He (Æthelred) wanted the poets to sing of his triumphs, he wanted the chronicles to write his name in history, and so he would start a war, and that war would be Christian Mercia against Christian East Anglia, and it would draw in the rest of Britain and there would be shield walls again.”

Makes events that follow an and appear inevitable, no other outcome could possibly have happened. Makes it seem like the character of Uhtred is very decisive, knowledgeable and authoritative. Fine a few times. However, the constant, almost metronomic use of ‘and’ like that and too much, becomes irritating. And, time and time again – like the bad weather – enough! Try another approach once in a while. It really became a problem for me reading the book. Like it was standing in the way of my enjoying the book to the full. Like I would have done, if there were less ands. In the end, I was looking out for them and becoming more and more irritated. Starting sentences with an and is wrong, grammatically. You know it. Starting a paragraph with one is a real no-no.

“And I was a warrior, and in a world at war the warrior must be cruel.”

Like that. Still on the statute books as being punishable by a blood-eagle, if I’m not much mistaken. Unless you’re writing advertising copy. Then it’s ok. But this is a book, a decent one, this is Bernard Cornwell and he should know that it’s not ok.

And because he used it as a device so frequently, without seeming to even try to consider the maybes of any other kind of approach, is why I felt he was on autopilot, not really worried or thinking about it. Maybe he was thinking of the next Sharpe? I think if you only read Cornwell, you’d imagine that this is both how Historical Fiction is done and as good as it gets. Anyone who has read a few of the (now) many (many) other excellent writers on Cornwell’s block, like me, know different. Like I said, this is good, but while there is much to admire and recommend, I still came away from it feeling it could have been better. I’m no writer (that’s not news to you?), so I couldn’t for the life of me tell you how he should improve, but I just put it down at the end – even with the bombshell – and thought ‘ho-hum, autopilot’.

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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: Hawk Quest

Hawk Quest
Hawk Quest by Robert Lyndon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is without doubt a big, glorious, involving book. One you can get totally lost in.

It’s a rich, twisting, and thoroughly absorbing tale. One that travels through Spain, France, England, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Finland (I think), what is now Russia and all the way down the rivers and rapids to Constantinople. Whilst the cover says it is a novel of the Norman Conquests, it isn’t – as such. I’d say it is fundamentally a journey through the world as known by later period Vikings.

Personally, had I been the author, I’d have argued against (presumably) the Marketing Department’s suggestion of putting ‘An epic novel of the Norman Conquests’ on the front cover. Yes, there are Normans in it – and they are of course bad – and it takes place in the period shortly after the conquest of England, but if you’re looking for a Sworn Sword or another Hereward, you’ll be better looking elsewhere. It is at least an epic, that bit’s spot on.

It just goes to show how hard it is to pin down what this multi-faceted book actually is. On the face of it, it’s a reasonably simple tale. An Arabic leader demands a ransom for a Norman knight he holds. Money, lots of it, or four rare, snow-white hunting hawks. From the title of the book, you can perhaps guess which option they decide upon.

A motley band of adventurers come together through accident and circumstance and proceed try to to carry out the quest of the title and the book is their adventures along the way. Vallon is a Frankish knight on his way back from being held captive by the Moors in Spain, when he runs into Hero, a young Sicilian scholar travelling with his master and teacher. The old Arab is dying, but has the details of the ransom wanted for a captured Norman knight out in the Middle East. The journey goes to England, where they meet up with a wild kind of woodland-dwelling outcast boy, called Wayland. Handily, he is an expert when it comes to handling Hawks. They are effectively chased out of England and travel to Iceland, then Greenland after the Hawks they need. They collect other adventurers on the way and are pursued by all manner of Normans, Icelanders and on the ‘return’ journey through Norway and Russia, by Vikings and marauding Steppe nomads.

Whilst Vallon is the leader of the group, the most interesting character, perhaps not surprisingly given the author’s background, is young Wayland. The author is a falconer and Wayland is the character in the book who hunts, captures and cares for the hawks of the book’s title. Passages describing him, and his adventures in the countryside – both fighting, protecting his comrades and capturing the Hawks – are superb. Robert Lyndon really brings the wildlife, forests and countryside of 11th Century Europe vividly to life. You can almost smell it!

There’s a little and a lot of everything here (well over 600 pages in the hardback version I have, so lord only knows how many it’ll have when it comes out in paperback). But whilst it is a long story, it’s one that is constantly moving, action-packed and manages to stay focused the whole way through.

So while it is a quest and it is set in the (in England anyway) Norman period, it isn’t a novel of the Norman conquests. Vikings are in it, but it isn’t a Viking novel. It’s a quest, a long involved one at that, but it isn’t ‘Lord of the Rings’. Maybe it’s just written for the love of it. Yes, that must be it. Stop trying to sort out what it is or isn’t, Steve. Stop over analysing and enjoy – is what I told myself about a third of the way in. And enjoy it I did, very much indeed.

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Review: Hereward

Hereward
Hereward by James Wilde
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Superb. Nothing less.

Hereward gripped me and held me at sword-point from page one.

(That was my attempt at writing something they might want to use on a future Hereward book jacket).

I can’t remember being so impressed by a historical novel for a long, long time. It really is that good.

Set in an interesting and – for me, at least – under discovered period; the years just before and just after the Norman invasion of 1066. We’re in the death-throws of the Viking period, the old, ‘real’ England is struggling to come through and (re-) establish itself and (in this novel) the Normans are a dark and brooding presence who everyone knows are just waiting to strike.

Hereward is caught up in the maelstrom of Viking mercenaries, shifting alliances, half-truths and general jostling for position at what passes for the English Court. After being in the wrong place at the wrong time and hearing something he definitely shouldn’t, is forced to flee north where he might find some safety and sanctuary. From there, he goes on to meet old adversaries, confront old ghosts, make new enemies and make progress towards finding out about his past. He returns to The Fens and begins to form and lead the English resistance to the Normans’ seemingly un-stoppable dominance.

This has everything you could want in a historical novel; fighting, tension, fighting, suspense, fighting, love, fighting, intrigue – and fighting. I’ve seen that there is a number two ready for me to get to grips with, and I will be doing so as soon as possible.

Oh, and he’s man of Mercia, like me.

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Review: King’s Man

King's Man
Viking. King’s Man by Tim Severin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is in essence, a different look at the Viking ‘swords and shields’ books that I like reading so much (Robert Low, Giles Kristian, etc). If you’re simply after swords and shields and bucket-loads of bloody raping and pillaging, this isn’t for you. This is much more. More a thorough tour round the 11th Century Viking world, wrapped in an really engaging and in the latter stages especially, thought-provoking story.

It is clear from this, the third and final book in the Viking series, that the whole story hinges on the ‘threat’ of the coming of Christianity (the ‘White Christ’) to the previously Pagan Scandinavian lands. A coming which pretty much was the reason for the end of the Viking era. We have followed someone called Thorgills, throughout the series, but it is really first here, in number three, that it becomes clear that he too can see the writing on the wall, that Christianity is probably unstoppable. At the same time, a lot of his motivation in making the decisions he makes, is in the hope of finding a way of halting that flow of Christianity and turning the good, honest, hard-working ordinary Viking people, back to ‘the old ways’. In Harald Hardrada, he thinks he had found ‘the symbol of my yearning that it might be possible to restore the glories of the past.’ Problem is, Harald does want to restore the glories of the past, just different glories to those of Thorgills’. Both want to be a new Knud/Knut (if you’re a Scandinavian reader), Canute (if you’re English). Harald wants to be the Scandinavian Knud, who ruled Norway, Denmark and large parts of England, while Thorgills is really in essence like what we English remember Canute for – trying to hold back the waves, in this case, of Christanity.

The honesty and quiet nobility of the Pagan ways as practiced by ordinary people, is many times contrasted with the corrupt, power-hungry, un-forgiving and elitist new Christianity. Especially in the contrast between Thorgills’ life in the Varangian guard in Constantinople and his later living on a poor farm, with his wife, on the Swedish border with Norway. Yet the underlying similarities in all religions, to the ordinary man or woman in the street or field are also stressed. The only thing that is different in a lot of cases, is the names – and in ‘Viking’, the people following those religions.

Whilst it had been a while since I had read number two, and had read several others in the same field in between, I had no difficulty re-picturing the main character, previous events and where we were now. He clearly has done his research exceptionally well (I have, down the years, built up a reasonable knowledge of Viking history, and I do now, after all, live in a Viking country!) and if you know anything about the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, Scandinavia in the 10th Century (you’d be surprised, you do!), King Harold, the Bayeux Tapestry, William ‘the Conqueror’ and the preparation for and the events of, 1066…you’ll find it all woven in here. There was only once where I thought I was going to have to suspend belief about Thorgills’ being in the right Viking place at the right time in Viking history – and you probably need to know your Shakespeare – where I raised an eyebrow slightly, but without looking into the facts and the dates, I’m not going to be too hard on him for it.

For anyone with even a passing interest in the ‘real’ Viking world and history, this will be a wonderfully rewarding read. A textbook with a story wrapped around it isn’t such a bad thing, when it’s done so well as this Viking saga. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Kings Man’ and found it the best of the ‘Viking’ volumes (I did wonder if a compendium (?) single volume edition might be a nice idea). The whole story is interesting, involving and well-written, the main characters are fully-realised and believable – I was genuinely upset with one development towards the end of the story – and the final passages are a poignant and thought-provoking look at the ending of the Viking world, seen by a believer in ‘the old ways’; a true ‘Viking’.

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