By James Wilde
Pegasus Books, 2013
Full disclosure: I only discovered this was a sequel after I started reading it. I haven’t read the first novel in the series, so please take any critiques I make here with a grain of salt.
Let’s start at the beginning. When Peter offered me a choice of books to review, we had slightly different things in mind. He should feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the sense that he thought I’d go for an academic monograph. Probably something historical and full of long words. But years of working with academic prose can give a person a hankering for something a little less formal. I thought I’d go for the furthest thing from niche academic genius…I thought I’d go for something light, easy and, well – I’m not ashamed – a bit trashy. That’s why I picked the book with what I can only assume is an actual photograph of a man dressed in armour riding a horse through a snowy forest on the front. It has that medieval-y font and the word “warrior” in the title. And someone had the brilliant idea to slap on the subtitle “A Novel of Medieval England,” just in case all the other hints didn’t give away the book’s secret identity. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that this appears to have been a case of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” This novel has a real sense of history to it, and it covers that ground thoroughly and imaginatively.
But I’m not done with the backstory yet. Here’s what you should know: James Wilde is a pseudonym for the author, Mark Chadbourn, an acclaimed British fantasy writer with side interests in journalism and scriptwriting. This novel tells an in-depth and focused narrative about the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066. It follows the Anglo-Saxon Hereward as he plots a rebellion against William the Conqueror from the seat of his uprising’s power in Ely. It’s the sequel to The Time of the Wolf, according to the North American retitling. In the UK, the first novel is called simply Hereward and this second installment is called Hereward: The Devil’s Army. The UK titles make sense, although I can sort of see why they’ve been changed for North America, since this particular Anglo-Saxon hero has less of a reputation on this side of the pond. That being said, the renaming of this particular volume is slightly unfortunate, in that I don’t remember there being much actual “winter” in the story. I mean, there probably was, but it certainly didn’t stand out as much as the sticky fenland imagery, the descriptions of which were one of the author’s fortes. When retitling, maybe they should have called it “The Marshy Warrior.” But I guess then they’d have to re-think the cover art…
Right, enough sarcasm, let’s get to work on a proper review. Do you like Anglo-Saxons and Vikings and a lot of gore? You’ll probably like this book. Are you French? You probably won’t. I think it’s fair to say that the cultural characterization is a tad skewed toward the Anglo-Saxons and against the Normans. This will probably be shrugged off by most because the novel is mainly written from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, but I still can’t help but think that it would have been nice to see some rounder characterization of the invading forces. The English bunch and their allies are nice and varied – there are male and female characters from a range of backgrounds who perform a range of tasks with a range of different abilities. Some are moral. Some are not. Most vary according to the different pressures put on them. Sort of like in reality. But the Normans…oh, the Normans…well, they’re pretty bad to the bone.
But characterization aside, the novel handles its historical material remarkably well. The author’s use of Old English, Old Norse and Norman French are all nice touches, as is his tendency to drop in modern translations of compound words and kennings that we find in Old English poetry. Things like: “battle-sweat” (blood), “whale road” (ocean) and “world-candle” (sun). He also occasionally uses untranslated Old English words in his prose when they’re easy to understand. So we have “ceorls” (low-ranking Anglo-Saxons) and “goldhords” (add an “a” to the second element and you’ll get the gist).
References to famous saints will also be appreciated by medievalists. Etheldreda (or Æthelthryth) and Oswald both get interesting cameos – or rather the stories surrounding them and their relics do. Likewise, there’s a fair bit of folklore, including references to the alfar and vættir (Old Norse elves and nature spirits). And, of course, there is a lot of sword-on-axe-type fighting for enthusiasts of early medieval warfare. Some of it’s yucky, though…don’t say I didn’t warn you.
My biggest beef with the book, aside from the North American cover (yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll stop harping on about that now), has to do with the female characters. It’s safe to say that if this were a film, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test. All the female character’s lives revolve around their relationships with men in general, and with Hereward in particular. Many of them are intriguing characters, and of course the author’s flexibility is slightly hampered by historical approaches to gender. But a lack of autonomous women and an over-reliance on tropes of violence against women is still a problem for me. I can only hope that the presence of multiple, unique female characters rather than just a token sexy warrior woman means that we’re moving in the right direction.
So, to wrap things up: if you’re looking for a narrative that focuses on historical detail with a fairly straightforward, if occasionally twisty, plot and a smattering of action, fighting and gore, then you’ve come to the right place. Keep in mind that the author has a fair amount of flexibility with regard to plot, since Hereward’s life story seems to differ in every account we have of him. I can only imagine what James Wilde/Mark Chadbourn is going to do in the next and (I assume) final volume in this series. But I guess I should go back and read book number one first…!
~ Reviewed by Megan Cavell. You can follow Megan on Twitter @TheRiddleAges