This is "episode three" of Tancred's adventures, a half-Breton and half-Norman knight who has taken part in the invasion and conquest of England and, as this volume begins, is with the Norman army and King William besieging Ely and trying to root out Hereward the Wake and the last "insurgents" (as the Normans would have seen them, of course).
This in itself is rather original for the story (1066, Hereward the Wake and all that...) has generally been told "ad nauseam" from the "Anglo-Saxon" (or more accurately Anglo-Dane) side. I admit I was also initially a bit concerned after having read the synopsis and when ordering this book because, once again, we were going to be treated to the campaign and battles in the Fens, a topic that has already been flogged to death by a number of other authors. However, I need not have worried. Once again, James Aitcheson has managed to come up with a rather original and compelling story, even for this rather well-known episode. Once again also, he has made his characters come to life and "look and feel" real.
The campaign in the Fens and the assaults on Ely are rather well told, from the Norman perspective. William's initial assaults were indeed repulsed initially, and with great loss of life when they tried to storm the well-defended and near impregnable island surrounded by marshes and the sea. Their supplies were also been harassed, as shown at the beginning of the book. Their morale was low and King William was getting rather desperate as his frontal attacks failed one after another while supplies for his army were running out. The way the author choses to explain how victory was finally snatched from the jaws of defeat - through treason and defection of some of the defenders (I'll stop there to avoid spoilers) - is a plausible one. What happens to Hereward may, or may not be "the truth", we simply do not know for sure, given the legendary dimension that the character quickly achieved. What is true, however, was that he does not appear in the written sources again.
One of the most interesting features of the book is the conception that Tancred has of his role and obligations as a "sworn knight" and the ways he tries to make a name for himself. As Aitcheson shows very well, reputation was everything at the time for a professional warrior. This was already the case well before and it probably goes back to the Germanic warrior ethos, at least. It is very interesting and quite correct historically, to see that this mind set is largely shared by the Anglo-Danes, with both huscarls and Norman knights swearing an oath of service to their respective lords, what exactly this oath entailed, and how far this could lead them.
Another set of interesting features displayed by Tancred show him as somewhat arrogant, headstrong, argumentative and claiming achievements that make him sound as if he is boasting. Although these happen to be true, he either cannot prove them, cannot get them to be recognised, or just seems to get on quite a few peoples' nerves through his claims. His recklessness, however, stops short of stupidity as he refrains from arguing with King William.
The character of King "Guillaume", as he is called in the book, is also another interesting and original piece, for he had not made such a direct appearance in the two previous volumes. What is shown in the book is very much the historical picture as it has been reconstituted from the sources. The "Conqueror" was though, relentless, hard and clearly not anyone to "mess around with". He is shown here as having a very limited sense of humour (unless he is making the jokes, course) and being what we might call nowadays a tyrant and somebody ready to do whatever it took to achieve his objective, with little scruples. Clearly, someone everyone could only respect, and fear, but rather unsympathetic. Given the tough and ruthless bunch of "Norman" knights (the term covers here all the Breton, Flemish and other French knights who fought in England for him); this is very likely very close to the kind of man he had to be in order to impose his will on them.
Then there are a number of nice touches that also ring true in this novel taking place in late 1071. One is that Dublin was indeed a refuge (another was Flanders) for a lot of refugee Saxon Thanes and huscarls who exiled themselves and lost their lands in the years following 1066. Another was that Dublin and the Hebrides were populated by Scandinavians and a number of warlords/pirates and their "sea-wolves" had certainly set themselves up in various hill forts and promontories overlooking the sea. A third is to show glimpses of Tancred as a young teenager apprentice with Robert de Commines, his first (Flemish) lord, when he kills his first man under less than glorious circumstances. In fact in this whole book, the author endeavours to paint a more complex picture of his hero and his times - a hero that knows fear, makes mistakes and pays a rather heavy price for them in a world where every man had a master. Because he is far from perfect, he "looks and feel" very believable.
Five stars for a rather superb painting of the beginnings of so-called "feudal Anglo-Norman England" and the British Isles
PS: I forgot to mention the fights and battles, which are, of course, just as realistic and superb (as in the previous volumes). This is especially true for those opposing mounted knights to infantry with the author showing that the contests were not necessarily in favour of the mounted warriors who were far from invincible. I also did not mention the romance piece, which is also somewhat original and somewhat moving...
James Aitcheson's writing style is free flowing and eminently readable. It is easy for the reader to understand that the author is extremely comfortable with the period of history that he is writing about. The story flows off the pages and maintains the interest of the reader throughout the book. No boring long passages or superfluous chapters from this author.
This is the third novel by James Aitcheson, and also the third one featuring Tancred a Dinant, an ambitious Norman knight. The first book Sworn Sword begins the story shortly after the conquest of 1066. Tancred's star is in the ascendancy. He has fought many times, and almost died at the hands of English rebels at Durham, where his lord is killed.
In the second book The Splintered Kingdom everything is going well for Tancred. His new lord, Robert Malet has granted Tancred lands on the Welsh Marches in payment for the services he has rendered and he is now a Lord in his own right, having a manor to live in and knights of his own to command.
In this the third book it is 1071, five years after the demise of Harold and Tancred's fortunes or lack of them have come full circle. Now almost penniless and with the trappings of fame fallen away, Tancred is marching with other Normans to quell the band of rebels hiding in the Fens. The rebels are the last vestiges of resistance to William the Bastard's total domination of England. What was expected to be a mopping up campaign turns out to be anything but, and Tancred's fortunes take yet another twist.
Once again James Aitcheson well and truly knocks the ball out of the park, his latest book Knights of the Hawk is an action packed thriller. There are very few let up in the story for you to take a breath and pause, you literally find yourself flipping to the next page then the next, just one more page, just one more chapter, and then suddenly ...its 3am... how did that happen. totally lost in the world of Tancred.
I cant say he is the most likeable character, and in this book possibly even less so, but he is well written , and allows the reader a rare first person view of what it must have been like for the Normans having conquered this wild and proud land of Britain.
As usual the mix of fact and fiction is so well done, so blurred i really don't know where one start and the other ends. I always feel i have learned something important by the end of these books, even if its just how the British as they are today were formed into who they are. This period of our history is so wild, so varied, so violent, so action packed, so full of change. Never again would this land be conquered, so its so important to understand how it happened, and how we all formed together, how people like Tancred became British, something James Aitcheson does so well, with an obvious love of the towns and villages of old Britain, and what they must have seemed like so long ago.
Every time i read his books i feel transported back to that time, the sights sounds and smells sounds so clichéd in a review, but it really is a relevant comment for his writing, because he brings them all to life.
Another fantastic novel, i look forward to the next. Very highly recommended
Five long battle-weary years have passed since the Battle of Hastings and Tancred, a Breton knight who won his reputation if not his fortune fighting by William of Normandy's side, has changed. In this, the third in James Aitcheson's fine Conquest saga, Tancred has moved further from his Norman and Breton roots. Now lord of Earnford in the Severn Valley he is beginning to think of England as home, his allegiances are becoming more complicated and his experiences of this new land are turning him into an increasingly fascinating hero.
In Sworn Sword (The Conquest Series) and The Splintered Kingdom (The Conquest Series), we watched Tancred's brutal fight to protect and avenge his lord, William Malet, while doing his duty by him. This most recently involved taking the sword to the men in the service of the Conqueror's most persistent rival, Eadger the Aetheling. In Knights of the Hawk Tancred's allegiance to the Malet family becomes much less straightforward and, despite his heroic efforts to beat William's English enemies from Ely and the fen marshes, Tancred is almost forced into becoming a knight with a personal mission of his own.
One of the great strengths of this series is the way in which Aitcheson brings to life the towns and landscapes of Britain as it was a thousand years ago. Saxon names are used (a full glossary is included) and this enables the reader to piece together a mysterious, ancient land which has tantalising touches of the familiar about it. In Knights of the Hawk, this vision is expanded to include Ireland, showing what a devastating impact the Norman Conquest had on people even this far away. Mind you, we also learn more about the indigenous English and Irish and this was no perfect world brought low by invasion. Slavery is a theme here. It wasn't introduced by the Normans. Nor were the Normans the first invaders.
In previous novels, Tancred was used to treating the English, the enemy, with suspicion at best and violence at worst. While he still regards Harold as an usurper and William's Conquest as legal, in Knights of the Hawk Tancred gets to know men and women from all sides of the divide and new names are added to his retinue, not all of them from the continent.
The novel, as with the others, is narrated in the first person by Tancred and it has a strong early English feel to it. This does take some getting use to but it contributes greatly to the story's atmosphere. The book is action-packed from start to finish with edge-of-the-seat dramatic sequences which are thrilling to read, whether they're skirmishes in the fens, assaults on castles or the struggles of ships along a dangerous coast. I did enjoy cameos from famous names of the time, not least William the Conqueror himself. Tancred is much more likeable in Knights of the Hawk, possibly because we are shown a more human side to his personality through many of the pages. It's love for a woman that drives much of this story on.
I enjoyed Knights of the Hawk enormously. This series, unashamedly and confidently action-focused, is coming into its own as the stories become more complex and Tancred's character and friendships become more varied. These few years of English and British history are utterly fascinating, not to mention crucial, and they come alive here.
on 6 December 2013
A Norman epic saga adventure that could put most Anglo Saxon and Danes to shame with the battles and voyages Tancred survives.
The first half and it is quite literally 50% is an amazing and quite true-ish retelling of how William the Conqueror and his many, many knights, including our own Tancred and his Lord Robert, helped turn the tide of the weary battle at the Island of Ely against Hereward the Wake and his rebels. As always James plunges us straight into the action full tilt and has us witness a truly shocking scene - where a certain knight shows genuine fear for the first time in the series.
Then when the battle is won but not quite in the way you might expect or know of - things seem to be at peace again for Tancred, his Lord claims his inheritance from his deceased father, Tancred and the original Lord Malet make amends, they all get a bit of gold and some horses, and then!!!! Well dear reader I won't say what happens but something does that turns Tancred's world entirely upside down. And if you think Tancred's discovery of his lover in Splintered Kingdom was shocking this will truly make you want to run into the story and tell him surely everything will be alright, it will work out in the end, James Aitcheson can't be that cruel an author-god can he?
Thus the second half of the tale begins with Tancred saying a lot of goodbyes, I won't say to whom, where or what, as he does what the Viking ancestors of his liege lords would have done, grab a boat, sail on the sea and have an almighty life-changing adventure! That's right folks - Tancred is leaving the British Isles! Not that far though, he's only heading west to a land that should have 'dire' in it's name. Where it will take all his strength, honour and determination and a bit of cunning to perform a task that seems utterly impossible. And the ending is simple yet dramatic leaving the reader asking the only question anyone would ask in the situation - what will Tancred or for that matter James Aitcheson, do next?
on 14 April 2014
England, 1071. In this third book in a series, Tancred a Dinant, the young Norman knight who has been serving one lord or another since he was fourteen, and who is a veteran of Hastings, is now fighting in the marshy Fens. England is still not completely won, and Tancred continues to use his impressive battle skills to help King William. He seeks to build his reputation and win honor and wealth through battle, but his headstrong lack of tact can undermine him. The strategy in the Fens battle and also the fate of Hereward the Wake are fictional, but make sense. Tancred then sails to Dublin and the Hebrides on a personal quest that will have readers cheering for him and his comrades as they struggle for victory of another kind--one that has nothing to do with King William.
This book will keep the reader up far too late into the night. It is a fast-moving adventure and a gripping love story that sets the reader firmly in the 11th century with authentic details that never slow the plot. More Tancred stories, please.
Battle books comes in all shapes and sizes - there are the shooty-stabby (thank you to outstanding ECW author, Mike Arnold, for that phrase) books of the civil war and on, of which Robert Wilton's Treason's Tide is one of the most outstanding, and then there are the FFF (fighting, fornicating and passing wind, in the censored version) Roman/dark age books that pit Boy's Own heroes against impossible odds and they sweep the bad guys' heads off with a single twitch of a blade six inches long, proving that it's not what size it is, it's what you do with it (in your dreams) that counts.
And then there are the good, solid, well-researched, battle-fests with solidly rounded characters and a strong narrative drive: think Ben Kane, Tony Riches, Harry Sidebottom, Simon Scarrow... and James Aitcheson, who's latest book, 'KNIGHTS OF THE HAWK, has recently launched. Set in 1071, this continues the story of Tancred a Dinant, a Breton knight of the invading, occupying Norman force that is slowly trying to bring England to heel. Tancred is increasingly his own man, setting himself at odds with the king and his lord - and against the rebel Hereward, whose death forms one of the by-plots in a novel that sees Tancred breaking free of his political bonds and following his heart to its logical (and tragic) destination.
Nobody else is even endeavouring to explore this era: James Aitcheson has it all to himself and he's taken the bad guys - the enemy, the people we all fought against in our inner imaginings of Hastings and beyond - and has made them the good guys. Well, some of them are good. Some of the time.
It's a great achievement when we can root for people we've loathed since childhood - and we do. What higher praise can there be? Well written, brilliantly researched (it does help to be a proper historian: not all historians can write fiction, but when they can, it's fantastic), and fast-furious-blood-filled-manic. Perfect. And I love the cover.
on 24 October 2013
Being English, I see Hastings from the English side. We were invaded. They came from Normandy. They won, we lost. Later, we fought back. And lost again. I 'know' of course, about how badly 'we' were later treated by 'them.' Think Robin Hood. It's taken for granted that the Normans are the bad guys. One-dimensional bad guys at that. Until I read James Aitcheson's 'Sworn Sword', I hadn't actually considered that there might actually be a Norman side to 1066 and all that. Which was why, to me at least, 'Sworn Sword' came as such a fresh, wonderful, confusing surprise. Suddenly here was I, an Englishman, rooting for Tancred á Dinant, one of 'them.' A horrid Norman.
After reading 'Knights of the Hawk', over a couple of days, though at more or less one sitting, I can safely say that the freshness, the surprise and the satisfaction, are all still there. And then some. Expertly written, with passion and verve, 'Knights of the Hawk' is by far the best book I will read all year. Five of Amazon's finest stars. Straight out. No doubt. No other conclusion possible.
Expertly weaving his way in and out of what (little) we know of the history of this period (as Tancred says; "...the seasons turn and the years and the decades pass, the stories grow ever wilder, and the myths grow more powerful than the truth") James Aitcheson has created a novel - a series of novels now - brim-filled with the energy, with the sights and sounds and not least the smells, of daily life - and death - on and away from the battlefields of the new Norman Britain. Compelling and gripping and packed with nerve-tingling, nail-biting action, 'Knights of the Hawk' is a story that really could have happened, but one I now think only James could have written.
It is five years since the slaughter at Hastings and the English resistance still hasn't been extinguished. The Norman invasion of Britain is bogged down, literally, in and around the English rebels' stronghold at Ely. Something needs to be done to rescue the conquest and someone needs to do it. Now. Step forward Tancred á Dinant. A Norman knight who came over with William, who fought at Hastings and who ruled lands in the west of England as vassal to his sworn lord, Robert Malet. But who has, despite saving the day on frequent occasions in the years since Hastings, fallen somewhat in the esteem and pecking order amongst his fellow Normans. He can't understand why he is 'reduced to this escort duty', guarding supply wagons, instead of being richly rewarded for his efforts in securing the England for King William. Wealth and fame, battle honours and leadership, look to be passing him by. While he could be forgiven for giving up and going home, he's still the only one who actually delivers the goods and gets the Normans into Ely.
Then, when they've achieved what they set out to do, reached a point where they might have expected to be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all their labours, it starts to unravel for Tancred. He has go against his sworn lord and he suddenly finds enemies where he thought he had friends. Hell, as a Norman, you must realise you're in trouble when you realise you identify with the English leader who stood between you and all you thought you ever wanted. Hereward. "He and I were more similar than I'd realised. We both strove for recognition for our deeds, and struggled against the weighty oaths that bound us. Both of us had at one time led whole armies into the field, yet now found ourselves in somewhat humbler circumstances, lacking the respect we craved and which for a while at least we had commanded." However, as we find out later, by removing Hereward for the Normans, Tancred has in fact removed the obstacle stopping him from getting on with living his own life.
That's just the first part of the story, as the book can be said to divide itself into two parts. The first, is in line with what we know of the early years of the conquest. The character of Tancred is James' invention, but the events the books have described and the five years it took before William had anything that passed for total control over his newly conquered kingdom, the treachery, the back-stabbing, the rebellions at Ely led by Hereward, all happened. Exactly what happened, we don't know. But I'll go for James' version if it comes to a vote.
The second half of the book moves away from inserting Tancred into known events, and we sail (literally) off into the unknown. Into Tancred's own, self-determined future. He has to leave, to find himself. He has lost his faith in the Norman system, so he must find someone from his past, who can give him a future he can believe in. He has been a part of the Norman war machine, he must now go in search of who he, Tancred, really is. "The Breton had become a Norman, had become bound to England." By freeing himself, Tancred realises it can be he who decides who he is and what path his own future should take.
It is of course, the character of Tancred that carries the book. We've a reasonable idea of his character from previous novels, but through the course of 'Knights of the Hawk', he fills out. He's always been adaptable, resourceful and believable, now he's a much more nuanced and fully-rounded character. Actually, he's got the decency you normally associate with being English! But Tancred is sometimes too decent, not devious enough, too trusting to imagine for instance, someone might be laying a trap for him. 'Friend' or foe. As the book progresses, Tancred adapts. I won't say he 'learns', but he becomes more aware of other possibilities than the one he has rushed headlong into. He is a Knight, an honourable one at that, but this belief in his own honour and trustworthiness, as proved time and time again in the most desperate of circumstances, sometimes blinds him. That his fellow Normans might see his honourable actions in a different way, in a maybe more cynical way and use his trustworthiness against him, that's what he doesn't see at first. And it causes frustration, which leads to rashness which leads to murder and exile. Not just from a land and friends - also an ideal. Of honour. Leaving all he knew behind and seemingly having his options reduced, as it were, actually helps him become a more complex character.
'Knights of the Hawk' begins stealthily, but like a hunting party in the midst of the mists and marshes of Ely, it creeps up and ambushes you. Rich with compelling dialogue and vigorously peppered with heart-stopping action, desperate feats of derring-do, incident and intrigue, this is a book that keeps you on your toes at all times. Not least with the unexpected alliances that pop up. Unexpectedly. The tension, the suspense and the don't dare breathe even though you're just reading the book, in case you give Tancred away - those sequences are astoundingly well-handled. There are highs and lows and heartbreaks, great tragedy and blinking away the tears optimism. There is so much to remember this book for, but (for now) the way James draws out a scene, twisting the tension level up and up and leading to the final delivery of the outcome - while you're trying not to break the tension and flick a look at the last lines to see how the paragraph ends - is what I will perhaps remember perhaps the most from this novel. If you're going to say you 'devour' a book, then this is delicious. Oh, and an ending that is...well, you'll have to read it, wipe your eyes and trust that Tancred is back soon.
This novel has really showcased what a really fine new, young writer we have on the Historical Fiction (battle) field, in James Aitcheson. It surely won't be long before we're comparing people like Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, to James. There is a maturity and confidence to his writing, that if you'd said this was James 20th book, you'd believe it. The surprising thing is, 'Knights of the Hawk' is just James' third outing - we really are spoiled to still have so much to look forward to from him.
And we learned that 11th Century Welshmen liked cleaning their teeth. A lot.
Ah I love spending time with the English Rebels who fought against William the First, holding out against his conquering of the British nation and perhaps no other author out there is tackling it in quite the way that James Aitcheson is. The book is wonderfully addictive, leaving the read exhausted from their reading sessions as that infamous "just one more chapter" phrase will echo around many a readers house.
But what makes it so addictive? Well first of all James' prose will lulls you into a false sense of security with its relative simplicity and when you add some cracking twists alongside an author's unique writing style and cracking dialogue all round makes this something pretty special.
on 22 February 2016
worth a read great story, read a few Aitcheson books, all a good read.