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Oswald: Return of the King (The Northumbrian Thrones) Paperback – 15 May 2015
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About the Author
Edoardo Albert is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Time Out, History Today and The Daily Telegraph, among other places. His book on the history and archaeology of Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom was published in October 2012 by The History Press. Getting on his bike, he also edited the Time Out Cycle London Guide.
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First, the accolades. This book picks up, seamlessly, from the first in the trilogy; 'Edwin' and it has all of the strengths of historical accuracy and evocative description as were so ably displayed in the first book. However, here, because less is known, for sure, about Edwin, there is scope for a greater use of 'historical fiction' to weld the pieces of the story together. This makes for a slightly more dramatic read but you are aware that some parts are pure fiction. As I live almost within the shadow of Bamburgh castle, the stronghold of the leaders depicted here, these books have a particular relevance for me, but, actually, anyone with the slightest interest in history will revel in the accurate detail within these pages.
So what prevents that elusive fifth star? I really don't know! I sensed, in the first book, that Eduardo Albert writes in an extremely sympathetic manner about the Christian characters within his book, suggesting a strong religious ethos in the author, and that is even more strongly felt in this, second, novel. For instance, as Oswald is expressed as a deeply religious man, he is not allowed to show any weakness or and shades of colour in his character; he is unfailingly 'good'. As are all of the monks, abbots and assorted Christian characters. When pagan leaders are enticed into baptism, they usually (bit not always) undergo a miraculous epiphany. As an agnostic myself, this is a bit close to proselytising for my taste.
Yet slight discomfort aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I will, certainly, buy and read the last n the series.
There is much to commend in this book, but also some things that did not work well for me.
Among the positive elements are the influence on Oswald and the political role played by the monastery of Iona, and its abbot Ségéne (a historical character) who do seem to have supported the Northumbrian’s bid for the throne with a contingent of armed monks and his fight against Cadwallon, despite the latter being a Celt. His reward was to replace the Roman Church with the Celtic one. The monk Aidan, who does seem to have Oswald’s friend, did become bishop and founded Lindinsfarne with the King’s support.
The political relations between the various kingdoms are just as well-presented as they were in the previous volume on Edwin, whether these were Celtic, Angles or Saxons. Of particular interest is the attitude of the Briton King of Rheged. While the personality of this king might be fictional, his behaviour - he was ready to side against Cadwallon King of Gwynedd in order maintain his own independence and prevent the Welsh king from becoming too powerful although both were Britons – seems to have been fairly typical of the period and shared among most Kings, irrespective of their origins.
On a different note, the description of the ex-Roman fortress of Carlisle, the seat of the King of Rheged’s power, is well-done and particularly interesting, just as that of the derelict fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall near which Oswald fought his decisive battle against Cadwallon.
Another particularly good feature, which could perhaps have been developed even more, is to show to what extent Oswald relied on his younger brother (and future successor) Oswiu and how the two “shared the work” between them. This is probably one of the main reasons that allowed the Northumbrians lead by Oswiu to conquer Goddodin and take the fortress of Edinburgh while Oswald was holding Northumbria together. It is also this “division of labour” that allowed them to repel Penda’s attack on East Anglia without fear of being attacked in turn on another front by one of the other kings.
Another good set of features are the inclusions of glossary, map, list of the main characters, a note on pronunciation and a few pages summarising the main events of Edwin’s reign. I found these features particularly helpful to follow the intrigue and complex relationships and marriage alliances between the various kingdoms and pretenders to the various crowns. The little summary of the previous book is particularly helpful for anyone reading this one without the benefit of having read the first title. This allows Oswald to be read as a stand-alone book, as opposed to most series.
I liked this book, found it an exciting read, and could not put it down. I did however have three problems the author’s fictional choices. One was that I found some of them hard to believe or even bordering on the caricature. While I will refrain from elaborating too much in order to avoid spoilers, I got the impression at times that the book was about Oswald the dutiful Saint, Cadwallon the delusional, and Penda the treacherous.
Cadwallon’s portrait was particularly difficult to believe. While Cadwallon does seem to have tried to portray himself as the returning Arthur and this may have turned out to be a political blunder because it alienated other British Kings, he is shown in this book as whining, delusional and even cowardly, rather than the crafty and powerful ruler that he probably was and who over-reached, with his last gamble goinf badly wrong.
Another point is that there is nothing to confirm Oswald’s inner desire to retire from the world and become a monk, or his ascetic behaviour. There were quite a few other reasons than these for making him into a Saint shortly after his death, including his care for the poor and destitute, which seems to have been genuine. The supposed tension between Oswald and his younger brother, and the source of this tension, also seem to have been invited by the author while this is the first time I have ever heard of Penda having also a brother.
While what happened to Oswald’s body is drawn from the sources, his death may not have been caused by the elaborate and somewhat complicated plot contained in the book. A much simpler explanation was that Oswald and his followers were on a raiding expedition and got caught far from their base. Cornered and badly outnumbered, they were destroyed, which is something that happened quite frequently given the kind of warfare that was taking place at the time.
Finally, there is again the question of numbers on each side when describing the various battles between the military households of the various warlords. Here again, the author has chosen a minimalist approach with “armies” in the very low hundreds at most, or even less than a hundred. While there is no way to be sure whether this is exaggerated or not, I cannot help thinking that it would be somewhat difficult to form a shield wall with only eighty warriors. Here again, however, as with the author’s characterisation, this is about perceptions and personal preferences more than anything else so that I will rate this book four stars, despite slightly preferring the first volume.
Again, for those wanting to check historical elements or learn more about Oswald on the one hand and warfare during these times on the other, I can recommend Max Adams’ “King of the North”, which is about much more than Oswald and also covers the reign of his uncle Edwin and Guy Halsall’s “Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West (450-900).
I was impressed that, despite the events following on immediately from those in 'Edwin', the story didn't re-tread old ground. Oswald is a very different character to Edwin who propels the story in a different manner to his predecessor. This isn't a 'more of the same' sequel. If 'Edwin' had a band-of-brothers feel to it, Oswald is about the challenge of holding a group together.
What remains constant across both books though, is the author's ability to construct memorable dialogue. Some of the turns of phrase were so good that I found myself re-reading them before moving on!
I'm relieved to find out that a third book in the series is due out in 2016, as the story has left me wanting more!