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HOUSECARL
HOUSECARL
by Laurence J. Brown
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.96

31 of 37 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Naively written but at times stirring, 15 Dec 2007
This review is from: HOUSECARL (Paperback)
I think it's safe to say that research isn't this author's strong point. The hero fights a Knight Templar, a good half century before the order was founded (242). Ranulf's "bitter English ale" (168) anticipates the introduction of hops by some three and a half centuries. A latter-day druidess prescribes tansy "or to give it its Latin name Chrysanthemum vulgare. Do you speak Latin, Ranulf? [...] No, I suppose not" (80). Could "the bemused look on Ranulf's face" have something to do with the fact that Carl Linaeus wouldn't invent the name chrysanthemum, or binomial nomenclature, for another 700 years?
Although it's 400 years since they adopted Christianity, Brown's Saxons fluctuate inexplicably between monotheism and polytheism, sometimes in the same breath (34, 117). They're surprisingly adept at time-keeping though: "The sun rose at 6.48 am" (237). Harald Hardraada, historically a Christian, invokes Wodin (confusing the Old English and Norse names for that god). Harald talks about crossing the Poison Sea from Norway to England; the real Old Norse expression for this crossing was simply vestr um haf `west over the sea'. Perhaps he was thinking of the film The Vikings. Tostig, in fine Wagnerian fashion, wears an "eagle-winged helmet" (53), given him by the Danish king Sven Estridson--or Erithson, as Sven's matronymic is garbled to here. "Beowulf, the greatest Saxon of them all" (233) wasn't a Saxon but a Geat (a people of southern Sweden).
Biological curiosities abound too. Harold is endowed with a "penis and genitalia" (292). In Brown's world, men drown cursing with their lungs full of water, rather than passing out first due to asphyxiation from laryngospasm (116). Some are remarkably resilient to arterial bleeding: "Osmond saw a stream of blood pump from his thigh. How he still managed to stand Osmond could only wonder" (273); after six pages of this pumping "bright red" (268) blood--during which Guthrum has introspected at length, calculated when to attack, wandered out of the front line, taken a rest, moved in for the kill, struck a blow with his axe hefty enough to fell a horse, etc.--we can only wonder too. Throat-slitting is a reassuringly mild affair: "He sighed a gentle sigh" (164), as is the aftermath of battle: "It looked so peaceful now, in the moonlight, the thousands of fallen still and silent" (166). Compare this with John Prebble's description based on contemporary accounts of Culloden: "The nights of Wednesday and Thursday had been intensely cold, and many of the clansmen had been stripped of their clothes by the beggars who came out of the hills. Throughout the hours of darkness, the people of Culwhiniac, Urchil and Leanach heard the crying and the moaning from the field" (Culloden, 127).
In one particularly laughable subplot, we learn that poppy seeds (!) are a powerful "opiate" drug (99) whose physiological and moral effects mimic every stereotype known to late 20th century drugabuseology (81, 99, 120-2); they are an "addictive powder" (99), "self-inflicted abuse" of which leads to the inevitable hallucinatory flashbacks (120) and murder (122).
Of course, even in the Internet Age when checking such facts is a mouse-click away, a historical novel needn't be accurate history, or science, to work as fiction. Sadly the writing in Housecarl is as sloppy as the research. Grammatical slips arise from the author's attempt at formal register: "whom Ranulf guessed was at least six feet two [...]" (42); "who Tostig could just about recognise" (147). Figures of speech occur in contexts that make them absurd by highlighting the idiom's literal meaning: "striking distance" (272); "The Norman cavalry was beyond counting. Two thousand horse, he estimated; at least" (247). Sometimes it's the repetition of a word or idiom in close proximity that sticks out, suggesting a limited vocabulary: "the question was fired at her peremptorily [...] the questions were fired one after the other" (227-8); "the army that would sweep William the Bastard into the sea. The London road to Hastings swept south" (233); "and then it would become a slaughter [...] it was becoming a slaughter" (263-4); "Beside him a Saxon was cut down unmercilessly [sic.] as, weaponless he pleaded for mercy" (262-3).
Characterisation is simplistic: "He hated his brother with a blind, unreasoning hatred that consumed his soul" (52); in this case, it would seem, deliberately so (290). But the main historical players, Harold, Harald and William stand out against a backdrop of blander, invented characters.
The author isn't afraid of cliché: "call it a woman's intuition, call it sixth sense, she just knew" (186); "as though the weight of the world were on his shoulders" (196); "she was impossibly tall and slender, with graceful limbs like the branches of a willow" (222); "ocean of troubles" (232); "his face was a study of concentration (233).
There's much redundant verbiage: "By then a far greater, a cataclysmic horror would have occurred that would overshadow everything else in his life and haunt him for years to come. But that event had yet to occur; was still in the future" (188); "not one man [...] deluded himself that this was the end. On the contrary it was just about to begin" (254-5). Still, the narrative keeps up a fair pace, partly due to the plain style and paucity of incidental detail.
I found the battles vivid and exciting, and enjoyed the tension inherent in the main story. There are some other well imagined scenes too. I liked the Norman landings as seen by a little boy through fog, the lapwing fleeing before the volley of arrows, and the rousing heroic sentiment generally.
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