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The Bone Thief: (Wulfgar 1) Kindle Edition
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This priest is sent on a secret mission to the Danelaw to steal the bones of Saint Oswald and bring them back to Mercia and to the new church in Gloucester that Athelfled and her husband are having built. The event is perfectly historical, even if the character of Wulfgar is not and it seems to have happened some seven to ten years after Alfred’s death. The objective of the expedition and the importance of such relics are also well-reflected. They were believed to bring the Saint’s protection and the success of the operation and translation to Gloucester would be a badly needed sign of God’s favour for Athelfled, her husband and Mercia more generally.
The author also does a great job at characterisation. This is particularly the case with bookish Wulfgar who will be forever changed by the voyage, and with Athelfled, the Lady of the Mercians who has not led them to victory. Both are shown in ways that make them believable and human, with an interesting mixture of courage, will-power and vulnerabilities. Also interesting are the historical characters of Werfeth, the old but still powerful bishop of Worcester and a friend to Alfred, Athelred and Athelfled, and of Athelwald, atheling of Wessex, Alfred’s nephew who was passed over for the succession in favour of Alfred’s son Edward, and therefore hiding his resent under a cheerful appearance. Another original (but possible even if speculative) streak is to depict Edward (termed “the Older” by modern historians to distinguish him from another with the same name) are a rather unsympathetic bully, unsure of himself and craving recognition.
However, my favourites are probably the Dane characters of the Five Boroughs, although they are all fictitious. One is a scared, savage and ageing Viking warlord, who has just become Jarl after the death of his brother. Another is the young, cunning and cruel Jarl of Lincoln, also a successor of his conquering father. The third is a fierce woman – Gunnvor Bolladottir – the daughter of another now deceased Viking warlord who had to learn the hard way how to defend herself and was brought up in what was then the Great Pagan Army. The most sinister of all is Eirik the Spider, a cruel and ruthless slave trader who plies his trade between the five boroughs, Northumbria and Ireland, and is himself the lord of Bardney.
The descriptions of the run-down towns of Leicester and Lincoln under the Danelaw, with their crumbling Roman walls and decrepit or abandoned churches are also interesting, with the Danes having in at least one case settled outside the walled town, just as the earlier Saxons had done a few centuries before (for instance in London). As well described by the author, better preserved Roman remains are also prominent in eastern part of Mercia, at Gloucester in particular, while more or less well kept Roman roads remained (and would remain for centuries to come) the main land communications across the island.
A five star read that I greatly enjoyed. Note that for those wanting to learn a bit more about the period, I can recommend Joanna Arman’s “The Warrior Queen” about the life and times of Athelfled.
I particularly liked the angle the author chose. Most novels about the period focus on the Vikings as victorious, masculine heroes, and usually the main protagonist is a historical person. By chosing West Saxons and Mercians, Whitworth manages to show what the Viking Age must have felt like if you ended up on the "losers' side". Picking an "average", not even particularly heroic person as her main character enables her to portray daily life very well.
The background seems thoroughly researched, and I liked the detailed explanation of some terms.
And, most importantly, I really enjoyed the story. It was exciting, fast-paced and made me spend every free minute reading. I'm now looking forward to starting the second volume, and I can absolutely recommend this for anybody who has an interest in the period or generally enjoys a well-crafted historical novel.
I am really excited by the way Whitworth reveals a world to the reader that is often forgotten when looking at this turbulent period in history, a land splintered and divided between varieying loyalties in the aftermath of King Alfred the Great's death with his young son King Edward on the throne. Whitworth also introduces the reader to how the Anglo-Saxons of the south may have lived alongside the danish populace of the north, the Danelaw. This is perfectly embodied in the norwegian descendant of a raider from the great army in the 800s. She demonstrates on many occasions throughout the book why the vikings were so good at what they did and maybe perhaps why the Anglo-Saxons kept surrendering land and danegeld to them for many, many years.
The overall pace of the story may seem slow but when you inspect the timeline it is actually quite fast, the slowness is only due to the short but sweet and still incredibily touching/dramatic/gripping chapters which makes this book perfect for those who are just dipping their toes into this genre.
I do sincerely hope that this isn't the last adventure Whitworth has planned for any of her amazingly lively characters in this book. I would definitely purchase a sequel if there was one.
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