Most helpful positive review
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Daily life of a Sword Brother ?
on 21 July 2014
This is a rich book and a rather massive one to read on a topic – The Sword Brothers – which is quite original for a historical novel. It has a lot going for it, despite a few defects. Since these defects are in fact few and less important that the book’s many qualities, I will start with these before explaining why I very much liked this book.
One possible defect is that this book – some 720 pages - is rather long. This is itself should not be a defect except for the fact that it is not fast paced. Accordingly, at least some readers might be either overwhelmed and get a bit bored of reading about similar events (multiple battles, cruel winter) that almost become stereotypes.
A second limitation is about form and style. The latter is not very lively and slow going and, as another reviewer mentioned, the book could have done with some better editing. The author also tends to systematically get involved in detailed descriptions of numbers for each and every contingent fighting on each side and for each battle or siege. Given that there are many of these, this tends to get a bit repetitive, although it does show something that is historically correct. In most encounters, the Crusaders and Sword Brothers tended to be outnumbered, sometimes very heavily and in the cases where they were not, this was largely because of their Livs allies.
Another potential problem is that the author, while having obviously done his research work (with more on this further on in the review) has also taken a few liberties and has somewhat “simplified” the historical background. One of these is to depict the Sword Brothers are being mostly somewhat “nice”, in particular towards the natives. They seem to have been rather fanatical, harsh and cruel, with the character of Henke depicted in the book being probably more representative of the typical brother rather than the “nice” Rudolf or even Conrad, the main hero. Another simplification has been to do away with the German and Danish politics that plagued bishop Albert, with the later coveting the northern part of Estonia and the civil wars between Guelf and Guibelins, with the popes’ interferences, seriously hampering the bishop’s recruiting efforts.
There are however also many strongpoints to this book. One is that the author has followed the main events and campaigns closely, using historical characters as much as possible, such as Grand Master Volquin and Master Berthold for the Sword Brothers or Sir Helmold and bishop Theodoric, or Prince Vetseke (whose story has been somewhat simplified) and King Caupo, who really did become Christian and was the loyal ally of the bishop of Riga. The author mostly follows the historical sequence of events, even if he does insert some invented episodes. Even with these, he does paint what seems to be a rather accurate picture of the type of warfare, except that he tends to tone it down quite a bit because neither the Crusaders nor the Sword Brothers were particularly “nice to the natives”, to put mildly.
A related point is the emphasis put on what allowed the Germans to win and conquer, despite being outnumbered: stone castles, siege machines that destroyed the wooden fortresses of the Livs and Estonians, powerful crossbows and heavy mailed cavalry. Also shown is that despite these advantages, they did not have it all their way, far from it, and they did discover that winter campaigns could be fruitful, provided they were well planned and prepared. Otherwise, as shown in the book, “General Winter” could kill off more of the Crusaders and Brothers than any enemy would manage.
Also well shown, although considerably toned down and limited to an opposition between the Sword Brothers and the bishop’s archdeacon and de facto Governor of Riga, is the rivalry and competition for the local resources. Contrary to what is shown in the book, however, in the “real story”, it seems that it was the Sword brothers who tried to expand and take control of the land, including land belonging to the Bishop of Riga, rather than resources being deliberately withheld from them by Riga. However, the taxes that they raised on the shipping along the Dvina is historical and did create a “major row” with the bishop who seems to have had far less control over them than what is suggested in the book.
Some of the most interesting pieces in the book are the mixed origins of the Sword Brothers and the intensive and tough military training that they put their novices through, similar to that of the other Military Orders. Unlike these Orders, however, they could not afford to be too choosy in their recruits and, as shows with Conrad and his friends, many of those who became sergeants or even knights came from very modest backgrounds. Also shown through the mercenaries that served the Order and the German settlers who colonised the land, what are nowadays Latvia and Estonia were a Middle Ages equivalent of the “Far West”, that is a place where it was possible to make a new beginning. The other motivation for those coming over to fight the pagans, and which is particularly well shown in the book, was penitence and repentance for the atrocities that German knights and Lords had committed in northern Germany during the civil wars between the various candidates for the imperial crown.
A final element is that the hero, and his friends and fellow Sword Brothers, are not depicted as “super heroes”. Their achievements, however remarkable, are believable. Conrad does not always triumph, far from it, and even when he does, the price to pay if often high
It is largely because of this that I found this book valuable. Despite a few drawbacks, I had the impression that the author was describing the day-to-day life of these monk-warriors and that he did it rather well even if, at times, he might have made his characters more “sympathetic” than they really were. Four stars.