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The Needle in the Blood Paperback – 1 May 2007
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It is January 1067. Charismatic bishop Odo of Bayeux decides to commission a wall hanging, on a scale never seen before, to celebrate his role in the conquest of Britain by his brother, William, Duke of Normandy. What he cannot anticipate is how utterly this will change his life - even more than the invasion itself. His life becomes entangled with the women who embroider his hanging, especially Gytha - handmaiden to the fallen Saxon queen and his sworn enemy. But against their intensions they fall helplessly in love; in doing so Odo comes into conflict with his king and his God and Gytha with Odo's enemies, who mistrust her hold over such a powerful man. Friends and family become enemies, enemies become lovers; nothing in life or in the hanging is what it seems. "The Needle in the Blood" is a powerful tale of sex, lies and embroidery.
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Take the writing style in The Needle in the Blood. There's no denying that Bower is a knowledgeable, skilled writer of language. The descriptions are rich, evocative, thoughtful and intelligent. The worlds that Bower creates are fleshed out and full, imaginative yet plausible. You feel like you could be right there. That's the mark of a good writer. Not only does Bower display a genuinely good knowledge of language but she uses it and applies it creatively. However, I felt that there were a few issues. I just didn't get along with the third person present tense format that the book was written in. Occasionally it also obfuscated who was doing or saying what to whom when. This just made reading The Needle in the Blood more of a slog than it needed to be.
Then there are the characters. My reaction to Gytha varied throughout the book, ranging from real like to genuine frustration with her. Unlike Violante of Sins of the House of Borgia, Gytha's an adult, she knows her way around the world, and she wasn't hampered by Violante's adolescent mix of utter gullibility, wild delusion and desperate fantasy. Gytha is practical, sensible, and intelligent. I like that. This is a character with sense and a good head on her shoulders, and the maturity of an adult. I can identify with that, I can connect with that. But then at various points in the book Gytha would do something inexplicable that had me mentally yelling at her "Why?!" The other characters are done reasonably well, and there's a scene between Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury, King William, and William's half-brother Count Robert of Mortain, which felt reminiscent of Sharon Penman's scenes of characters plotting together.
I loved the premise. The Norman Conquest of 1066 is one of the most significant, important, and interesting events in English history, but it's rare for me to find any historical fiction set around this time. In principle, the plot of The Needle in the Blood was just the ticket. The interaction of Norman and Anglo-Saxon, the adjustments and sometimes compromises under the new regime, the Tapestry coming together and its wonderful idiosyncrasies and authentic hidden messages of the little things of everyday life... these were all terribly interesting, though to be honest all this is just the background to the main plot.
Great premise, well-crafted setting, for the most part well-written, generally speaking good characterisations... But a few key things grated on me too - I just didn't get on with the use of present tense, the crude lines were unnecessary shock value, and sometimes Gytha and the plot could be frustrating or else didn't make the most logical sense to me. Also, whilst the characterisations and plot were for the most part, pretty good, when they weren't being annoying, I can't help but feel that it could have been better. Of Sarah Bower's two books, I'd definitely say I enjoyed The Needle in the Blood more - the heroine is much more identifiable and relatable, and this time round we actually get the real story as centre stage.
Armed with Sarah Bower's wonderfully descriptive language, The Needle in the Blood gripped me from the beginning. I felt as if I'd been hurled into the midst of the Battle of Hastings, as Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, fears his brother has died on the battlefield and rallies the Norman troops. We soon learn that the battle is won and King Harold has been killed.
Gytha, the fictional Aelfgytha, former handmaid to the mistress of the fallen king, and a talented embroiderer, is amongst the Saxon women who come to claim Harold's body. Witnessing her mistress's home pillaged, and suffering rape to save a Saxon soldier about to be put to death, when Gytha is among the women recruited to work on Odo's embroidery, she sees an opportunity for revenge.
Odo's life becomes entangled with those of the women embroiderers, and, against their wills, Gytha and he fall in love, bringing Odo into conflict with his king and his God. The lies, treachery and intrigue begin, with as many lies embroidered into the tapestry as are passed between the vibrant cast of characters, as the author brilliantly portrays how nothing in life, or in the wall hanging, is what it seems.
At times, I felt a touch confused as to point of view or whether the narrative was in flashback, but felt the story was generally very well-plotted and full of action. I would highly recommend The Needle in the Blood to readers looking for a powerful, intense story, beautifully told by an author with the skill to evoke this period in history. It is also a must-read for anyone visiting the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy.
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