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Shieldwall Paperback – 26 Apr 2012
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Written in supple, intelligent prose . . . Shieldwall is a vivid historical novel . . . Entirely convincing (Nick Rennison Sunday Times)
Inspired . . . With wonderful, poetic passages, Hill reaches beyond the limits of the genre and . . . harks back to the halls of our Saxon forebears in those dark days (Ian Mortimer Guardian)
Exciting, gripping and imaginative (Kate Saunders The Times)
Truly compelling (Sunday Times)
Hill's sense of place, landscape and home is really good. His particular discovery is how he makes his characters' internal lives. I shall be waiting for the next novel in the trilogy (Observer)
* A superbly evocative novel that was published to critical acclain, which chronicles the momentous events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066See all Product description
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Top customer reviews
I cannot wait for his next historical novel - I do hope he supplies us with one soon!
The main character is somewhat original. Instead of the "usual" novels on the Great Army or King Alfred, on the one hand, and all the stuff on Harold Godwinson, 1066 and all that, this book is about the younger years of his father - Godwin Wulfnothson, under King Ethelread and Edmund "Ironside".
It is also very well researched and well documented with the author "sticking" to historical facts as much as he can and telling a plausible story where there are no facts - such as the role of Wulfnoth and his exile in Dublin, of which we know next to nothing.
One disappointment, however, was that Justin Hill seemed less interested in telling the story of Godwin's service to Knut. A pity because this is itself could have made a good story. Perhaps he is saving it for his second tome which I will most certainly buy.
After reading Julian Rathbone's The Last English King, I became very interested in historical fiction and have enjoyed many fine novels (Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden etc.)
Unfortunately, I have found some diminishing returns in recent years and, all too often, have failed to finish books due to clunky writing, poor story-telling and other perceived faults (maybe I'm just getting fussy in middle-age).
However, Shieldwall has had a similar impact to The Last English King. The writing is beautiful and the characters are entirely believable. I've just got to the first battle scene and it was as exciting (and upsetting) a depiction of combat as I've ever read. Somebody died (I won't say who) and it felt like it hit me as hard as the arrow hit the character.
I understand there will be a sequel. Thank goodness as I don't want this book to end.
There’s a lot on the historic record about Godwin, mostly about his adult life. We know he was an Anglo-Saxon magnate of extraordinary wealth and power, right-hand man in England to King Knut the Great, the Danish King of Denmark, Norway and England. We know he was over-endowed with sons who proved troublesome even by C11th standards. We know he came from relatively humble beginnings, a thegn’s son, and was a pubescent hostage in the court of King Ethelred the Unrede, who exiled Godwin’s father.
History however is written by the winners, and three of Godwin’s sons, including King Harold, were killed at the Battle of Hastings when Duke William of Normandy won his nomenclature William the Conqueror. Understandably, chroniclers in the Anglo-Norman period were not kind to Godwin, damning his and his dynasty’s ambition. About how Godwin rose to such heights in the first instance, gaining Knut’s trust, we know little, although we can surmise he was indeed ambitious. Given the violent and uncertain politics of the period, he was also almost certainly outstandingly able, intelligent, and brave. He very likely demonstrated qualities Anglo-Saxons admired and respected: a war-leader, a man of his word, loyal to his king, a just man (within the understandings of ‘justice’ of the time).
[When I say “we”, I am inviting you to agree with me, and I should admit now I am not an expert on Anglo-Saxon England. I do have an academic background in Early Medieval Celtic Literature, and Brythonic Literature, and a reader’s appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon period.]
Justin Hill represents the youthful Godwin in precisely these positive terms. The historic Godwin was likely brutal, ruthless, and feared, not only by his enemies; we see less of this aspect in Hill’s young Godwin. Hill’s Godwin is purely hero.
Arguably, though, the true hero of Shieldwall is less Godwin than the king Hill assigns him as blood-brother and soul-mate, the Anglo-Saxon king who proceeded Knut: Edmund Ironside. The Godwin of Shieldwall may be the adornment, the setting, that better shows off the ‘jewel in the crown’, the young Edmund. Almost forgotten in the popular imagination, Edmund's life is as courageous as Alfred the Great’s, and well deserves to be retold now.
Some novels within the contemporary genre of Viking and Anglo-Saxon stories are gratuitously and sadistically violent, and violently misogynist. Hill’s tale doesn’t shy away from strong violence, and the extended battle sequences are informed by forensic research on wound marks on skeletons of men killed in early medieval battles. But he doesn’t indulge in the almost pornographic dwelling on brutality that some authors do. (Of course, some authors might argue that the world of Anglo-Saxons and Vikings was irredeemably violent and misogynist; I reply, an author chooses the world they write.) Although he depicts an earthy milieu, his nobles admire their noble wives, sometimes even love their sex slaves, and treat their dependents decently.
I suspect peasants - and slaves - suffered severely. Hill introduces characters intended to represent the experiences of the poor and powerless, and some of these characters die base deaths. But the nature of the heroic lay is that it memorializes a hero, high-born, and is aristocratic. Its focus is the lives, loyalties, betrayals and deaths of men who wield swords with precious hilts and who wear armbands gifted by their lord, who sing sad songs of the deaths of kings.
I loved Shieldwall. Can’t wait to read the next two novels in Justin Hill’s trilogy.