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Sometimes exciting, but not much better
on 19 August 2012
This second volume on Hereward has some limited improvements when compared to the first one, but suffers from very much the same problems. The topic is anything but original - there are four or five other novels out there on Hereward, his rising and his guerrilla warfare against the Normans.
To make a great piece of historical fiction, I tend to believe that an author needs to combine three ingredients: solid research into the period and historical characters that you are writing about, some original twists and a credible plot, and, perhaps above all, good characterization that makes the characters plausible and makes them come to life. None of these ingredients is particularly strong in this book.
James Wilde has certainly done his historical research, including research on the geography of the Fens to try to capture how the Fen country made up of a mix of forests, lakes, marshes and islands could have looked like before land reclamation. His chronology is accurate, and the historical events he tells do seem to have mostly happened as indicated, including William the Conqueror's terrible Harroying of the North. Some of the features included, such as the scene of cannibalism, are very plausible, at the very least.
However, some of the twists introduced into the plot are simply not historical and are not even plausible. One of these is the sending of a young girl to act as Hereward's "chief of intelligence" at the Court of Winchester and spy on William the Conqueror. To simply imagine that a young (and pretty!) girl could travel on her own from the Fens to Winchester and back requires a huge leap of faith. Also, Sveyn King of Denmark did allow himself to be bought off by William and drop his allies but he never travelled all the way to Winchester and never met William. That the Danish King would take the risk to make such a travel and put himself at risk in such a way is simply incredible.
Then we have a number of problems with the characterization. In some cases it is lacking. In others it is rather excessive and incredible. Although somewhat toned down from the first volume when he appeared as a cross between Conan the Barbarian and Rambo, Hereward's bursts of berserker psychopathic rage and his regular rumblings about killing everyone and saving the English become rather tiresome. I am afraid that neither Hereward nor his Viking nemesis (Redteeth), nor the Norman commanders (Taillebois and de Warennes) really come to life. Also the character of William the Conqueror is a bit of a caricature, and one that is historically incorrect also. William was 38 in 1066 and so just over forty when this volume begins. At the time, he was not yet incredibly fat as the book makes him out to be. This would only be the case some 10 years later. The author also tends to depict William as cruel, which is very probably true, but also gives the impression that this cruelty was wanton and that he relished it, which is very unlikely to have been the case. The destruction of the North, that neither Tostig nor William's captains had been able to subdue was, however horrible, one of these "whatever it takes" measures to end once and for all the rebellions by laying wasting to the countryside and slaughtering the population.
So while I did find this book exciting and will read volume 3, if only because I have a special interest in this period, I found that this one was not much better than - although no worse - that the first episode. Three stars.