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on 17 June 2017
Many historical novels I have read fall into one of two traps: Either they try and keep strictly to historical "facts" (or what their authors assume as such) and make for reading that is about as exiting as an undergraduate course book, or they descend into full-blown fantasy about a very romanticized version of the past. Not so this novel. The author, an accomplished academic, too, keeps the main facts straight and paints a convincing picture of the period after King Alfred's death, not glossing over the harsh realities with many people finding early, not always peaceful, deaths.
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.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 5 June 2017
The book is indeed set a few weeks after the death of King Alfred in AD 899. The Lord of Mercia has been taken ill. There is concern he might not survive. His wife’s future (Athelfled, Alfred’s daughter) is uncertain. So is her hold on the part of Mercia still held by the Mercians, with the added fear that the Danes will invade yet again and take advantage of Athelred’s illness. This historical novel is also original in several other respects. The author has chosen a rather sympathetic “anti-hero” as his main character – one Wulfgar who is a young priest in training rather than a young warrior – although this priest is the son of one of Alfred’s thegns and the personal secretary of his daughter.

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.
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on 3 March 2018
I was a bit hesitant about buying this book, having read Bernard Cornwell's Uthred's version of what's likely to be the same chronicled incident. But EVERYONE is so different that there's hardly any echo between the two books. And Wulfgar, the um....hero, is so nicely written that he's like a real friend. A bit annoying sometimes, but, well..... Takes about two chapters to really get into it and then you join in the action in Wulfgar's world and move on like the clappers. The writer deals really well with the different dialects, using Geordie words mainly, without making it too 'Olde Englishe', and not concentrating too much on description, so there's no bogging down with 'what IS a thingmywhatsist?'

I've read a lot about this period and really enjoyed this book. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy the sequel.
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on 6 December 2013
This book is a very charming and delightful piece of historical fiction that takes a fresh new stance in the genre by having the main character not a young earl/lord wronged by some ancient family feud but a humble deacon in the church of Gloucester in the old kingdom of Mercia, who loves his Lady, Athelflead and is sent on a quest which is guaranteed to take him out of his comfort zone and prove his worth to her in ways beyond his role as secretary. Yet little does this quiet man or indeed the reader know the many challenges, conflicts, dangers and enemies that will appear along his journey.
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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on 22 March 2013
Let me first say that I really enjoyed this book and have no hesitation in awarding five stars.

'The Bone Thief' is set in tenth century England, at a time when there was no united kingdom but rather several different regions under separate leadership. The region I know best, having lived in it for many years, is Wessex - in the south - whose capital at the time was Winchester. The main character, Wulfgar, a junior but well-trained priest, grew up there. But the story really begins in Mercia, a great swathe of the west of the country stretching roughly from the Thames north through the Midlands. And most of the central events take place in a Viking controlled region known as the Danelaw, covering much of the east of the country from London northwards to Leicester and York. Quite apart from the political difficulties this caused, it had a lasting impact on religious life, as it separated two major centres of Christianity from each other.

Whitworth captures this division of the land beautifully via use of dialect (still mostly alive today in regional British accents) together with the occasional use of specific Norse words and phrases. This puts you as reader in the same place as Wulfgar - most of the text is readily understandable, some parts need a bit of puzzling out, and for some you have to deduce from context or the helpful explanations of other characters.

The main plotline is straightforward - Mercia needs religious relics to boost the residents' flagging morale, and Wulfgar as a bright but rather timid cleric is chosen to find and retrieve something suitable. But the outworking of this plot is fascinating, as Wulfgar is forced to continuously reassess who he can trust and who he cannot. The people he meets - both friend and foe - are memorable and compellingly drawn, and are instrumental in leading him to rethink his original rather naive view of the world.

Trust and faith are at the centre of this book. One of the many reasons I loved the book is that religious thought and feeling is treated realistically and sympathetically by Whitworth. Wulfgar and others struggle to live according to their ideals, in the midst of great challenges and difficulties. Often they fall to meet their own expectations. They are neither blindly literal nor cynically manipulative in their faith; rather, it shapes, constrains and illuminates their lives in creative and credible ways.

Wulfgar's travels are actually over quite a small part of the land, but the story touches on the whole sweep of the British Isles and beyond. Key friends and enemies come from towns across much of southern and central England. One of Wulfgar's travelling companions is from Ireland. Meetings with the Vikings bring in links with Scandinavia. And the relics themselves - of Saint Oswald - contain other historical echoes from the north. As a child Oswald fled from Scotland, and then grew up with the monks of Northumberland. He reigned as king from Bamburgh, and helped set up a Christian centre of learning on Lindisfarne. Despite the seeming narrow sweep of Wufgar's journeys, the future United Kingdom with all its multicultural diversity is already starting to emerge.

There were some stylistic features I did not like. In the first part of the book Whitworth uses a device of having sudden short paragraphs to arrest attention.

Which rather breaks up the reading experience.

But as the book gets properly under way this device is abandoned, and the text starts to flow in a smoother and more engaging way. Quite why this irregularity was left after editing I am not sure, but once this habit is dropped the prose reads much more fluently and is less intrusive. A glossary and some historical notes round the work out nicely - the only missing feature is a map, but it is easy enough to find something suitable online if you are curious.

I would thoroughly recommend The Bone Thief to anyone keen to engage with this period of history, as seen through the eyes of an educated but rather unimportant figure. The major political and military events of the age - the formation of the Danelaw, for example, or its ultimate absorption into a whole nation, are hinted at in conversation, memory, or expectation, but are not described in depth. You will not find descriptions of great battles or Viking raids - you will walk alongside a person, and a nation, trying to find out how to live in a culturally diverse world poised on the brink of substantial change.

Five stars, without a doubt.
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on 11 June 2013
Set in the 900’s AD the character of Wulfgar is beautifully drawn with all his fears, frailties and youth, well described. He is totally believable and his relationships with the royalty of Wessex and Mercia are delicately drawn. Sent reluctantly on a mission to recover a Saint because he seems so inoffensive, he sees the feet of clay of those he loved unconditionally, finds strength to overcome his fears, and that life and loyalties are not always as straightforward as they first appear. As always there are the strong women that all modern novels seem to need, although Athelfled, King Alfred’s daughter is a real historical character. At this time the social integration of Danish, Nordic and English was in a ferment and this is realised extremely well with all its suspicions and distrust.
I absolutely loved this book, and I think there are more stories to come. I shall certainly read them in hope that they will be as good as this. As an aside it is set in areas I know and love!
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on 18 July 2016
Are you looking for a historical novel? Are you looking for well written and interesting characters? Are you looking for a book with a "strong independent woman who no need no man"? Do you want to spend a few hours in 10th century Britain? Are you a fan of Very Cool Vikings with Funny Nicknames? I am not a pro in reviews, but this book is good, and it made me laugh and I had a very good time reading it so yeah. I would recommend it to my friend. In fact, I have done so. Am I going to read the other books written by Whitworth? Yes, definitely. So go and get this book, kids. It's fun, I promise.
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on 28 April 2013
Being something of an addict of historical fiction which merges into investigative fiction, I was drawn to this title. There are very few historical novels set in England circa 900AD, and this is a welcome addition to the genre. To the best of my knowledge the historical background is accurate, as it should be considering the author's CV. The characterization is good, as is the pace of the narrative. Having read both this and its sequel "The Traitor's Pit", I am left hoping that we shall hear more of the career of Wulfgar.
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on 25 March 2013
Good plot, good pace, and good characterization.

I very rarely read historical fiction. This isn’t, as people usually assume, because I get annoyed by historical inaccuracies (I’m a lecturer in history) – it’s fiction, written to entertain a modern audience, and there will therefore inevitably be anachronisms. I actually rather enjoy knowing anachronisms (which are, in a sense, historically accurate – medieval authors often played fast and loose with The Facts when writing history to make their point). My bugbear is clunky signalling of ‘look – I’ve done Some Proper Historical Research’. I’m glad to say that there’s none of that clunkiness here.

Full disclosure: I should note that I know the author. I know, therefore, that she is is an expert on the period in which the story is set, and I respect and admire her academic prose. Nevertheless, a foray into historical fiction could still have gone horribly wrong. Fortunately it hasn’t (or I’d have just kept quiet and not posted a review!). I know many of the sources of this period, and they’re treated sensitively here – the blend of history, interpretation, and imagination is elegant, and doesn’t feel forced, as is so often the case.

More importantly, though, this is a cracking story, and reads well with or without knowledge of the period – thoroughly recommended.
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on 1 June 2016
Having not read much historical fiction, and also not knowing a great deal about medieval Britain, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I absolutely loved this. The cities and towns of the time are so well written, as are the ideology and political framework; the knowledge of the author and the attention to detail serve to bring the characters and their landscape to life vividly. That's what I noticed initially - I'll confess though that eventually I was so swept up with the story that I stopped noticing and was glued to the plot. There's just the right amount of suspense to have you toying with the idea of flicking to the back pages for a peek (I resisted!), and I'm looking forward to reading more in this series.
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