The Splintered Kingdom (The Conquest) Hardcover – 13 Sep 2012
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"This is a vigorously written, well researched tale of post-conquest England told through Norman eyes, with a rich, detailed setting, plenty of exciting battles, and a protagonist/narrator who is a real pleasure to read." (Historical Novel Society)
"This is a truly astonishing sequel to Sworn Sword, more packed with battles, enemies, blood-shed, trauma and of course shock and horror as events unfold to a climactic ending which no one will see coming and leaves us all gasping not just for breath but the adventures to continue in the next book. 5 stars" (Soul Chaser)
This brilliant second novel, featuring the hero of SWORN SWORD, begins in
1070 on the war-torn Welsh Marches and reaches its climax with William the Conqueror's brutal campaign known as the Harrying of the North.
Top customer reviews
There is a lot to like in this book, starting with the topic itself and the way the author presents it. This second volume, just like the first, shows that the Conquest of England was by no way finished with the victory at Hastings and that the subsequent uprisings and campaigns that the Normans and their King had to launch were much more than just "mopping up" operations. This is perhaps one of the main strongpoints of this book: it shows how precarious the Normand hold on England was in 1070 and how, all of a sudden, the whole kingdom seemed to erupt in flames, with attacks coming from the North (Edgar the Atheling and the Northumbrians), the East (the Danes) and the West (the Welsh and exiled Saxon thegns).
Another great feature is to make the "rank-and-file" knights, starting with Tancred, rather believable in their behaviours and in their aspirations. I rather liked the rivalry between Berengar and Tancred, both striving to enhance their reputation and sometimes rather careless of the consequences. I also liked the depiction of the similar tensions among Norman lords, in particular those between William FitzOsbern, William the Conqueror's childhood friend, and the "wolf", Hugh of Avranches who would become the earl of Chester as Roger of Mongomerri would become that of Shrewsbury.
The battle scenes are just as good as in the previous volume, and just as realistic. In particular, they show that the Norman conrroi were not irresistible and did suffer a number of reverses. Particularly interesting was the depiction of the defeat of the Normans in Wales, which allowed the Welsh to attack and overrun Shrewsbury, because this is an event that I knew very little about. Also well shown is the complex situation in the North, where York fell to the "rebels" (since the story is being told in the first person by Tancred) for a second time and where the Danes and their king were playing a complex game. As the author mentions in his excellent historical note, the Danes' exact intentions are still debated by historians nowadays, if only because their support of the Atheling (and then of Hereward's rebellion) were rather lukewarm, and they did allow themselves to be bought off, deserting their allies and leaving on their own to cope with the vengeful Normands.
I do, however, have three little reservations. One is with regards to Tancred. Although the author does show him as a though and superb fighter that is subject to his battle lust, likes it and misses it after a while, I still find our hero a bit too "nice". As one of the characters mentions at one point, disasters seem to happen, he blames himself for them (at least sometimes) but it never really seems to be his fault. My other reservation is with regards to the Conqueror himself: we never get to see him throughout the book. Even after Tancred's "suicide mission", which does not end in disaster, we do not see him although you would have expected the King and Duke to have summoned Tancred, given the role that he had played. A third little quibble is about the battle of Hastings when Tancred remembers a scene where his rival Berengar is supposed to have illustrated himself by killing Gyrth, supposedly the last surviving of the Godwinssons, after Leowine and Harold had been killed. This is an invention. If I remember correctly, Gyrth was killed together with his brother earlier in the battle, when both were drawn from the shield wall by the Normans' feigned flight, and Harold was the last of the Godwinssons to stand fighting, not Gyrd.
Anyway, despite these three quibbles, this is a superb read, a great adventure story, and it is a rather nice way to learn about a little known period: the 20 plus years of fighting that followed 1066...
Our hero, if he can be called that, is Tancred a Dinant, a Breton and Norman knight who, after impressing with his bravery at Hastings and in the streets of York (as told in the preceding novel Sworn Sword) is now lord of an estate in the Welsh borders in Shropshire (as it would be called now). Possibly unusually, but perhaps not, Tancred takes his duties as lord seriously and when his tenants are attacked and stolen by Welsh raiders he feels honour bound to protect them. The news comes that his great enemy, Eadger the Aetheling, the hope of the English, has joined with the Welsh to harass the invaders and so Tancred is among the many who follow their sworn lord, in his case Robert, to join up with William the Conqueror's fearsome armies.
Tancred is not just an anonymous knight in armour, the bloody hand of Norman oppression. He is, one would like to believe, a caring man who has made a career out of fighting and, despite the pull of peace offered by his new property, his relationship with a local girl, pregnant with his child, he is unable to resist the call of his oath to lord Robert and so he steps into the unknown - in this case, the wild, beautiful and hostile landscape of Wales. When the Welsh and Eadger threaten Robert and Robert's sister, Beatrice, with whom Tancred has a history (see Sworn Sword), everything becomes personal and it's not just his own life that Tancred puts at risk. You might want to place bets on who will emerge in one piece at the other end of the novel.
The Splintered Kingdom is written from the first person perspective of Tancred. It's through his eyes that we see the frustration of the English peasants, the ugly spite of Eadger and the wild fury of the Welsh, not to mention the bloodthirsty and punch-happy rivalry of the Norman knights. The women are far more helpless. We see them as nuns burying the battle dead or women carried off for ransom or worse. Men like Tancred can be the knights in shining armour, although here we are a long way away from the chivalrous code of later medieval knights.
James Aitcheson writes very well indeed. Scenes are described so vividly that you can imagine them before your eyes. The use of original Old English town names adds to the atmosphere of a great time in distance having passed, added to by the frequent mentions of the ancient roads that criss cross the land, the legacy of the Romans, as well as the even older hill forts which are reused.
There is much violence here. Skirmishes and battles follow in quick succession, especially that guerilla warfare that ensued as the Welsh were followed deep into their lands. While the first half of the novel takes its time to set the scene, which it does very well, the second half steps up a pace and is especially thrilling - in this section Tancred's drive for vengeance gains a focus as we follow him deep into enemy territory.
However, while Tancred is likeable and heroic, as with Sworn Sword, the Normans have done nothing to win my allegiance. Despite the first person narrative drawing us in, these are terrible times and England is like a raw wound being picked at. I find it difficult to cheer the Normans on and I am very aware that Tancred is presenting us with the official version. This intriguing perspective, though, makes for an interesting novel and James Aitcheson brings these rough and harrowing years to life on the page. Secretly, though, I was rooting for Eadger.
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