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Epic, page-turning...but flat and uninvolving
on 30 August 2012
This started off well: I liked the framing device of the story unfolding to the ears of William of Malmesbury and his young acolyte Roger of Caen, told in the present tense to give a sense of immediacy.
Fans of medieval fiction may be disappointed that the First Crusade doesn't form the basis and focus of the whole story; rather it focusses on a little-explored piece of English history: the years after Hereward the Wake's rebellion against William the Conqueror, and the political turmoil, plots and skullduggery that took up the lives of William's successors and the nobles, knights and common people affected by them.
As such, it is a direct sequel to the first novel CONQUEST and must be treated as such. Page 483 sums this up:
"What they have been made privy to is a remarkable story of two families, as if in a Greek tragedy; William's powerful, all-conquering Norman familyand Hereward's modest, redoubtable English family locked in a bitter struggle over three generations and across a far-reaching landscape. What is more, in Hereward's grandson, recently in the service of William's son, King Henry, the saga still continues."
Binns must be credited with the ambitious task of bringing this murky period to life, particularly his use of Edward the Atheling, the rightful ruler of England, as central narrator. The book works well in exploring the dilemmas and conflicted loyalties this man suffered.
With such tangled webs and history-making events unfolding, Binns does a remarkable job in keeping the pages turning and the story moving: the years fly by, as do the countries visited and historic personages the Brotherhood interact with. And that, for me, is the problem.
It moves too quickly. We never pause to soak up the atmosphere of the lands, nor feel the thrill and horror of the battles fought. Instead, the conflicts are related in a dull manner that neither inspires nor horrifies.
The characters are flat and two-dimensional, and the dialogue is appalling. We don't get an insight into the medieval mind; instead, their actions and viewpoints of the world are tailored to fit into 21st century expectations. Look at this exchange between Estrith and Sweyn when they get to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem:
"Estrith was moved to tears. 'Why would men fight over such a place?'
Sweyn was moved to anger. 'Let's try to make sure they don't.'"
A heartfelt plea, and understandable with the horrors of the First Crusade that soon follow; but this is not a medieval mindset.
The book has its merits; as said earlier, it brings a little-known period of English history to a 21st century readership. You'll learn a lot, as I did, but for me the book fails because it didn't bring the period to life.
And for me, that is what I look for in a historical novel.