This novel tells the story of King Harold II, in the twenty years leading up to the Norman Conquest. For all but the last year, he was a powerful Earl in Anglo-Saxon England; in the last year, 1066, he becomes King, and then ... well, things don't work out so well for him, as we all know. The novel is faithful to the historical record, for the most part, while taking a few liberties here and there. The cast of characters is huuuuuge, with vividly elaborated characters and realistic, complex relationships. It's an elegantly written novel, at times bordering on "literary fiction", with an exceptional communication of the look, feel, smell and vibe of 11th century England.
When I read the first few pages, I became slightly concerned that it was a "Chick Book", for lack of a better phrase. Right at the beginning, there's a reference to Earl Godwine getting a bit of a woodie while talking to Queen Emma. Uh oh, I thought: 600 pages of sexual tension and passionate passions coming up. But by page 10 the book had gotten down to the task at hand, telling the Pre-Conquest story. Bodice-ripper scenes are mercifully rare and brief, tastefully done, and never for their own sake -- they always fit within and enhance the story. The book started somewhat slowly but picked up pace and quality as it progressed. Each of the four parts of the book is stronger than the previous one. I almost feel like it took the author about 100-150 pages to hit full stride, after which point the book really took off.
The book is extremely complete, in terms of covering the events of the time and all of the historical participants, which is no mean feat, since there were scores and scores of people involved. I laughed out loud when I hit the reference to Turold the midget. Turold is one of the four mystery/unknown people in the Bayeux Tapestry (a 230-foot-long embroidery made shortly after the Battle of Hastings, probably in the 1070s, which documents the last two years of the events covered in the novel). Nobody really knows who Turold was, or why he is in the Tapestry at all. Hollick includes him, briefly, in one scene, at which point I thought: this is one really tenacious author; anyone and anything that is or could possibly be part of the historical tale makes it into the book, in some shape or form.
Like any historical novel, judgments and choices are made about the history, which may or may not sync with what "really" happened. A non-fictional history book has the liberty of exploring multiple competing theories of an historical event, but a novel has to make a plot choice and run with it. All of Hollick's choices seemed plausible, and in many cases quite compelling (though her suggestion that the English fought as cavalry (on horseback) at Stamford Bridge is, while possible, at odds with all other accounts except for one). I particularly liked her interpretation of Harold's trip to Normandy in late 1064, which is one of the crucial turning points in the history of the Conquest. Some people question whether Harold made the trip at all, and there are at least four different interpretations of why he might've gone there (1 - he went to Europe to learn about various continental leaders, 2 - he went to Normandy to confirm Edward's intent to have William succeed him, 3 - he went to Normandy to retrieve two English hostages, 4 - he was blown off course on a fishing trip). Hollick sticks to an accepted, mainstream interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry, that the intent of the trip was to retrieve two hostages. From there, she launches into a very compelling tale of Harold, stuck in Normandy for seven months, gradually pressured, one step at a time, into ultimately taking an oath to support William's claim on the English throne, against his better judgment - but lacking alternative courses of action. The notion of him getting gradually sucked into this monumental, history-changing mess, while aware of the risk involved, but unable to overcome William's guile, was brilliantly woven.
I was impressed with the writing quality. Hollick notes in the post-script that one of her goals was to bring "animation" to the history, and that's exactly what she does. She takes old scraps of history and breathes fresh life into them. The characters seem like real people, beset with real, and often familiar, types of problems. One thing that really stood out to me was the evolving nature of her characters - they change over time! And not just one character, but all of them! How she kept so many characters with their personal growth and change arcs in her head at the same time, while telling such a complex story, is quite a mystery. I think most readers will be very, very impressed with her gigantic effort to provide the reader with such a richly, vividly told tale.
For those who enjoy this book, I'd also recommend "1066: The Novel" by Mike Bryant. It, too, tells the Conquest story in a compelling way, in this case from the first-person perspective of a monk.
In short: buy this book.