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Leader of Battles (IV): Drystan: Volume 4
Leader of Battles (IV): Drystan: Volume 4
by David Pilling
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Ruthless Tristan and manipulative Iseult, 25 Jun. 2017
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Drystan is an original version of the famous legend about the doomed couple of lovers, with the action set in AD 491 during the rule of a certain Arthur, warlord and overlord of the Romano-Briton kingdoms. The originality of the story is closely related to the characters of the two lovers.

Drystan is still the son of King Mark, but he is a skilled and ruthless fighter who thinks nothing about abducting Iseult from Ireland where her father is king and slaughtering her escort in the process. He is also hugely ambitious, invades his father’s lands in what is now Cornwall with the help of one of the Kings of Brittany and besieges him in his fortress. He also attacks the High King – Arthur – and almost gets the better of him, as you will see. While brave, he is also unscrupulous, cruel, driven by his passion for Iseult and a rather unsympathetic character despite his youth and good looks.

Iseult (the spelling in the book is a bit different) does not seem to be really in love with Drystan, although she certainly had no appetite in marrying his father. She is aware of her beauty and the effect it has on males and is not shy of using it to try to get what she wants from Drystan. However, when she tries it on Arthur, the ageing warlord will not be deceived.

The third major character is that of a somewhat ageing, war-weary and sad Arthur, some twelve years after his greatest victory at Mont Badon, where he shattered the Saxon forces to such an extent that Cerdic, who briefly appears in this book, clearly states that he never wants to face him again in battle. His faithful warriors are also getting past their prime (as Cei) or maimed (as Bedwyr) even if his cavalry still represent a fearsome and well-disciplined force, as the author shows rather well.

Finally, there is also a certain Mordred, in exile and fighting in Frankia in another of the author’s books and who appears in this one serving in the army of the East Roman Emperor against the Isaurians. Mordred is bitter, seeks vengeance from those who murdered his mother. For those who have not read the other volumes on Arthur from this author and do not know the Arthurian Legends, this book gives a hint of what is to come as the young warrior heads for home.

This was an excellent read with the rather original depiction of the characters of the two doomed lovers. I found that the author’s efforts in giving the two characters a “Dark Age” flavour were quite convincing. One little quibble is that readers that have not read the other volumes relating to Arthur may miss a few things. Five stars all the same.


The Lazarus War: Legion: Lazarus War 2
The Lazarus War: Legion: Lazarus War 2
by Jamie Sawyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A Legion of Five, 21 Jun. 2017
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This is book two of the Lazarus War trilogy, meaning that it should be read sequentially, but also that it is similar and at least as good. The hero, Conrad Harris, is the legend called Lazarus because he always comes back from each and every of the suicide missions that he engages in through his simulant bodies. The Lazarus Legion is the name given to the unit of five that his commands (two other women and two men in this book).

He has more missions, meaning he has died more times than anyone else and managed – just about – to maintain his sanity and he has been seeking for close to a decade the love he lost when the woman of his life went into unchartered and hostile territory.

As the previous volume, this one is a good piece of action-packed military science fiction. Thjere are some additional and different twists. While volume one focused largely on the terrifying hordes of alien Krells, this one includes more on the Krells’ ultra-advanced ancestral arch-enemies – known as the Shard.

One of the book’s main pieces is the expedition to explore “the Artifact”, an alien object in space that seems derelict and which contains a number of rather nasty surprises. This includes the quite horrific, murderous and invincible “Reaper”.

Another interesting feature continued from volume one are the flash-back sequences that allow for the author to do some “world-building” while also showing some of the (also horrific) younger years of the main character. Another great read worth four stars.


The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece (Ancient Warfare and Civilization)
The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece (Ancient Warfare and Civilization)
by Jennifer T. Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent overview on the Long War, 21 Jun. 2017
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This is an excellent book, but not necessarily, or perhaps not only because “the plague of war” also applies to modern times or that “war is a violent teacher”, even if the author and some reviewers do make these points. For me at least, Jennifer Roberts has at least four other major, more interesting and perhaps more profound points to make, and she makes them very convincingly and even brilliantly at times.

The first is that contrary to the historical convention that Thucydides has so heavily influenced, this book is not exactly about the “Peloponnesian War”, as the Athenians called it, or “The War against Athens”, as the Spartan and their allies might have termed it. While the corresponding period ranging between 431 and 404 BC does make up the core and the bulk of this book, both its title and its subtitle (Athens, Sparta and the struggle for Ancient Greece) show that its scope is wider. It starts in fact at the eve of the so-called Persian Wars around 500 BC and ends with the shattering of Sparta’s domination at the hands of the Thebans at Leuktra (371 BC) but also at Mantinea some nine years later. The topic covered here is both wider and different from just the climatic clash between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies or subjects. It is in fact about the struggle to dominate Ancient Greece through war and it is this that gives the book its unity, its meaning and its continuity.

A further point here is that as the war became increasingly bitter, neither Athens nor Sparta were willing to settle for less than total victory and the capitulation of the other side when they had the military advantage. With the exception of the so-called “Peace of Nikias”, which turned out to be little more than a barely respected armed truce and which largely occurred because of mutual exhaustion, each side tended to reject the peace overtures of the momentarily weakened opponent.

A related point here is that 404 BC and Athens’ surrender does mark its end and demise. As the author shows very well, Athens recovered very quickly and was fighting Sparta again within a decade alongside Argos, but also alongside two of Sparta’s major and erstwhile allies: Thebes and Corinth.

The second major point, which is rather superbly developed throughout the book, is the progressive loss of their initial moral values on all sides and what can be seen to be a progressive descent into savagery as one atrocity follows another. The book’s title then takes a double meaning. Literally, and in its narrowest meaning, it refers to the great plague that hit Athens and cost it perhaps as much as a third of its population and this is in fact the title of the book’s fifth chapter (out of a total of twenty). In a much wider sense, however, the “plague of war” points toward the growing cancer or gangrene that progressively spreads through and corrupts these societies endemically at war with each other over time.

Some of the comparisons and contrasts made in the book, while not entirely original, are particularly illustrative. The beginning of the period sees the Greeks united against the “tyrannical” Persian invader and fighting for their freedom, or at least this is how their propaganda presented it and how they chose to believe things had happened. The end of the period sees Sparta first and then Athens both ready to beg for the King of Kings alliance and money and ready to trade the liberty of the Greek cities of Asia Minor into the bargain. It also sees the King of Kings become the arbiter of Greek conflicts and imposing the “King’s Peace” to suit his own interests.

Another point often made – and perhaps at times exaggerated – is that the struggle for Ancient Greece saw both sides becoming increasingly brutal, ruthless and savage over time, with cities destroyed, their male population put to the sword and the women and children at best sold into slavery. This, as the author shows, is what Athens escaped, largely thanks to the Spartan King Pausanias, but also because of the factionalism and growing rivalries within Sparta, even if the expeditionary force than Athens sent to Sicily did not escape such a fate. A corollary to this is the breakdown in morals and civic relations within each city, with political and social tensions (what the Greeks called “stasis”) became increasingly bitter, violent and unscrupulous to the extent that each side would stop at nothing to prevail over the other faction, including seeking the alliance and support of a foreign power or rival city.

The fourth point, partly related to the growing savagery and harshness of conflicts, was the decay of values, with the author showing to what extent this, and the events that fostered them, are reflected by those that became “classics” in their respective fields (for instance philosophy, tragedy, comedy), but also by a number of less well known authors that followed them during the fourth century. Two characters seem to be used by the author to exemplify the triumph of personal ambitions and selfish interests over the common good, and the author clearly has not much esteem for either of them: one is Alcibiades for Athens and the other is Lysander for Sparta.

Finally, and despite a couple of mentions and parallels to more modern conflicts, perhaps the main strength of this book and of its author is its ability to put everything into context, whether the events, their protagonists, or the various authors that lived through them.

While this is not the most detailed book on the “Long War”, and it is not my favourite (which would still be Donald Kagan’s four books), it is a very impressive piece of work. It is superbly supported by maps, illustrations, a time lime, a cast of characters, a glossary and a rather abundant bibliography and, despite all of this; it is clearly written and remains accessible to the so-called “general reader”.

A superb achievement easily worth five stars.


The Traitors' Pit: (Wulfgar 2)
The Traitors' Pit: (Wulfgar 2)
by V.M. Whitworth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Beginning of a new reign, 18 Jun. 2017
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This is the second book about Wulfgar, the young deacon who is the son of one of King Alfred’s thegns and serves as the secretary to Athelfled, the Lady of Mercia and Alfred’s daughter. The action takes place in AD 899, straight after the first volume and following the death of King Alfred. His son, known by historians as Edward the Elder (reigned AD 899-924) is still unsecure on his throne and has to face the rival claim of Athelwald Atheling, son of Alfred’s elder brother.

Wulgfar’s elder brother Wystan, and two other thegns of Wessex, has been arrested and are awaiting trial for treason and for attempting to murder Edward on behalf of his cousin Athelwald. The plot failed and the alleged culprits are to be condemned to die as traitors. The young deacon will do his utmost to defend his brother, save his life and clear his name while, in the north, trouble brews and an invading army gathers.

Once again, the author has come up with a rather superb story, with some interesting characterisation of historical figures, such as the ruthless and unscrupulous Athelwald (in sharp contrast with Bernard Cornwell’s version, for instance), the brave Lady of Mercia and the old, sympathetic but too trustful warlord Knut, King of York who is only known through the coins that he minted. We do not know how Knut met his end so that the version presented in this book is of course fiction. However, we do know that Athelwald replaced him and reigned for about three years so that the author’s violent and bloody version of “regime change” is at least plausible.

Again also, one of the most interesting fictitious characters is that of the sympathetic Wulfgar whose courage and perseverance in proving the innocence of his brother and clearing his name are fully on display, regardless of the risks or of the personal costs. Also interesting are the tensions between Wulfgar’s desires and ambitions and his conflicting loyalties between his childhood friends and protectors (Athelfled and Athelwald) and his enemies and tormentors (Wulfar’s very unpleasant bullying bastard brother but also Edward). The characterisation of Edward King of Wessex as an insecure bully is perhaps the piece that I found the least convincing in this novel but, for me at least, it was the only flaw.

Four strong stars and I very much hope that the author will finally decide to publish the sequel.


Vindolanda
Vindolanda
by Adrian Goldsworthy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.29

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Before the Wall, 18 Jun. 2017
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This review is from: Vindolanda (Hardcover)
This is Adrian Goldsworthy’s first “swords and sandals” novel taking place during the Roman Empire, although it is not his first historical novel. Historians do not necessarily make good novelists (and vice versa) although I must confess that I was simply unable to put this book down and finished it in about two days, one early morning.

While the book may not be perfect, as some other reviewers have pointed at, and may not be entirely original – this is not exactly the first novel taking place on the northern frontiers of Britannia or “on the edge of the world” to paraphrase another book’s title, it does however a lot going for it.

First of all, this is a novel for those who like them as accurate as possible with regards to the historical context and day to day life. The author is, of course, ideally placed to achieve this and get the details right.

With regards to the historical context, the year is AD 98, and Trajan has just become Emperor a few weeks (or months) before. There is lots of uncertainty and apprehension, with Trajan’s position not yet cemented to the extent that he has not yet made it to Rome to get endorsed by the Senate and prefers to remain with the Rhine legions. Potential rivals lurk in the dark while memories of the bitter civil war that say the demise of Nero thirty years before are still fresh in many people’s mind.

The reign of Domitian, who was assassinated two years before, saw this Emperor put a stop to Roman expansion in Britain, with camps being abandoned in what is now Scotland, troops being pulled back and even a full legion being redeployed on the Danube to face the Dacians and Sarmatians. Unsurprisingly, Caledonians and Hibernians are quick to believe that Rome is weak and Britain is ripe for conquest and there could very well have bene trouble on the northern frontier at the beginning of Trajan’s reign, as would happen for a number of subsequent emperors. While all this is quite believable, I was less convinced with the pseudo-Druids from the south stirring things up against the Romans way up north in Caledonia. The whiff of “religious war” is however somewhat anachronistic. It would have fitted better during Boadicea’s revolt, before the Romans wiped out the Druids on the island of Mona, as the author seems to acknowledge.

Another other strength of this novel is the author’s ability to get the day-today details right. So you get your Roman soldiers drinking more or less watered posca (sour wine), with the correct units quartered in the correct forts. You also get all the details of Roman clothing and dinner parties. Finally and unsurprisingly given the author’s speciality as a historian of the Roman army, you get all the details about Roman equipment, military life and warfare, with a fair amount of action and a major battle towards the end.

Here, however, I found that there were at least a couple of original points that stood out and were part of the author’s strenuous efforts in making this story “sound and fell” real. Both relate to the author’s efforts in showing the Roman army as living entity, as opposed to the perfect war machine that is sometimes depicted. One is Roman army units were all typically understrength, especially in peacetime, and for a wide range of reasons. The so-called wooden tablets found at Vindolanda support this idea. The second, which partly explains the first point, is that Roman soldiers fulfilled a wide range of tasks going well beyond that of garrisoning forts and could be posted away from their units and across the whole island on detached duty for years. This is particularly the case of our hero – Flavius Ferox – a centurion of II Augusta (in garrison in South Wales) but commanding an outpost north of what would become Hadrian’s Wall in a little more than two decades. As the representative of Rome up north, Ferox’s role is to keep the peace and to watch out for trouble and keep an eye on the local and supposedly allied tribes. He is a scout, but he also exercises intelligence and police functions, ensures the tribute is collected and plays the role of an arbitrator and judge among the natives. There must have been quite a few detached centurions like him spread along the Empire’s frontiers whose tasks were to preserve the Pax Romana.

An interesting twist is that Ferox is a Briton, the grandson of the last King of the Silures whose kingdom was in the south-eastern part of modern Wales, who was brought up by the Romans and now serves in their army. This alludes to Roman integration or how Rome managed to cement its conquests within a couple of generation by “Romanising” the local elites. This is another theme that runs across the book and is associated with the somewhat tense relations that Ferox has with at least some of the condescending Roman officers. Other features also show the multinational nature of the Empire’s army, particularly those relating to the auxiliary units in general, and to the Tungrians and Batavians in particular.

There are however a couple of features that stretch credulity. One is a reference to a ninety year old Caradoc, still alive and in exile in far-away Rome. Another is about a certain Batavian still serving as a gallant cavalryman decades after events that brought him to fame but which he survived and after which he disappeared. Since this Batavian would have been nearing seventy by the time of this novel, his very much displayed prowess and fighting skills are somewhat dubious.

All in all, this was a great read and an exciting one, despite a few glitches. Four strong stars and I am very much looking forward to reading the follow-up.


Genesis Fleet - Vanguard: Book 1 (The Genesis Fleet)
Genesis Fleet - Vanguard: Book 1 (The Genesis Fleet)
by Jack Campbell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.46

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Chatty and slow, to begin with, 5 Jun. 2017
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I was a bit disappointed by this first title of Jack Campbell’s new prequel series. The idea – to show the initial expansion of human race across the stars from “Old Earth” and the “Old Colonies” both up and down the spiral – is a great one. So is the introduction of a Geary ancestor who, of course, is one of the story’s main heroes (although not the only one).

The first half part of the book was a bit of a problem. I found it chatty and slow, as reflected by this review’s title, with the text essentially made up of dialogues between some of the main characters who keep feeling sorry for themselves. This was a pity because it made the reading rather boring and at times even annoying since the characters seem to be largely self-centred or at least quite gifted at talking about themselves, their aspirations and pseudo-morals.

I therefore had to struggle not to drop the book. It is also a pity because this could have been mitigated by introducing more “world-building”, that is more narrative about Earth’s history and that of the early colonisation of the so-called “old colonies”. Instead, you only get a few glimpses here and there as one or the other character - from Mars or Franklin, in particular – mentions a few scattered elements as part of their own past.

However, if you manage to stick with this book till you make it hallway through, things get better because you get – at last – some action. While largely predictable, the action scenes are rather good, especially the attempt to assassinate one of the colony’s government. This redeems the book to a large extent and allows me to rate it three stars. I will read the second instalment if only because I hope it to be more entertaining.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2017 8:20 PM BST


Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero (The Horus Heresy: Primarchs)
Magnus the Red: Master of Prospero (The Horus Heresy: Primarchs)
by Graham McNeill
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £8.64

4.0 out of 5 stars Magnus the self-confident idealist and his friend Perturabo, 5 Jun. 2017
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This is a rather original title for it presents Magnus the Red, Primarch of the Thousand Sons before the Horus Heresy and portrays him as a powerful, compassionate, self-confident and even arrogant idealist during the Great Crusade, as he tries to save the population of Morningstar, a planet that largely escaped the horrors brought by “Old Night”.

A second original feature is to present his brother and friend Perturabo, the Primarch of the Iron Warriors and master of sieges, fortresses, buildings and logistics. The latter’s talents are very much on display as the two Primarchs and their legions strive to evacuate the population of a formally compliant planet that is about to be destroyed.

A related feature is the friendship that develops between Ahriman – before he becomes the most powerful and the most dangerous sorcerer of the Thousand Sons bar Magnus himself – and Forrix of the Iron Warriors.

The characterisation of all of these and of a few others (such as Atharva) is rather good and so are the action scenes, with some rather spectacular terror attacks on the remnants of the planet’s population as it desperately tries to escape its doom. The book had an interesting story to tell, one of belayed vengeance. There is, unfortunately, a bit of glitch because the second half of the book increasingly concentrates on apocalyptic descriptions and destructions to the extent that it affects the plot. Four stars as a result.


The Lazarus War: Artefact: Lazarus War 1
The Lazarus War: Artefact: Lazarus War 1
by Jamie Sawyer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Dying all the time, 5 Jun. 2017
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This is a rather good piece of military science fiction opposing a human federation, a rather nasty species of alien – the Krell - separated by the Quarantine zone and the Directorate, a totalitarian regime.

The originality of this book, the first volume of a series, is reflected in its title. The Krell are stronger and more powerful than humans, so these have developed simulant bodies in which specially trained soldiers can run suicide missions and return to their human bodies once they are killed in the field. The technology is, at first, experimental, and one of the first to experiment is one Captain Conrad Harris (the hero) who accumulates such a high number of missions that he gets nicknamed Lazarus.

The hero is also a troubled and desperate man who becomes obsessive and suffering from something that looks like post-traumatic stress disorder and grief. This is because he has lost the woman he loved and the one person that had played a major role in his joining this special unit and in training him. This is well shown through alternate scenes of his current suicide missions and flash backs up to ten years before. Needless to mention: the action scenes, and the initial combat scene in a derelict cargo ship in particular, are rather spectacular.

Five stars for an exciting and well-structured first volume of a new series. I will certainly read the next ones and hope that they will just as good.


The Counts of Tripoli and Lebanon in the Twelfth Century: Sons of Saint-Gilles (Rulers of the Latin East)
The Counts of Tripoli and Lebanon in the Twelfth Century: Sons of Saint-Gilles (Rulers of the Latin East)
by Kevin James Lewis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £105.00

5.0 out of 5 stars The other Crusader State, 5 Jun. 2017
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This is a valuable monograph on the County of Tripoli, one of the least studied among the Crusader States with perhaps the County of Edessa, and with the last study on the subject being more than seventy years old. To be more accurate, this study focuses on the Counts of Tripoli during the 12th century and on Raymond de Saint Gilles the Crusader and his descendants up to the death of the controversial Raymond III shortly after the disaster of Hattin in 1187.

Despite issues with the sources – there is no surviving Frankish author or chronicle dedicated to the Counts of Tripoli, contrary for what exists for both the Principality of Antioch and the Kingdom of Jerusalem and there are only a few charters available - the author has many valuable points to make.

The first of these is that the status of the County of Tripoli was somewhat ambiguous, with its northern part initially owing fealty to Tandred’s Antioch and its southern part belonging to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The author rather interestingly shows that this divide corresponded to the old frontiers between the Byzantine Empire’s Ducate of Antioch and the Fatimids’ province of Palestine. He also shows that the division into four Crusader States only arose later on, with Tripoli gaining autonomy from Jerusalem under Count Pons (1112-1137).

A second point made was to show that Tripoli was militarily weaker than both Antioch and Jerusalem, and that it was weakened early on during the reign of Pons by a military defeat from which it never seems to have sufficiently recovered to go on the offensive again. As a result, the Count of Tripoli was among the first to delegate part of the defence of his realm and to alienate large parts of its eastern march in particular, to the Military Orders because the lacked both the manpower and the resources to defend it. As a result, the Knights of Saint John built the Krak des Chevaliers, possibly the most impressive Crusaders fortress in the whole of Outremer and held other castles while the Templars had their own from which they controlled and imposed tribute on the Assassins who feared them.

A third valuable point is a discussion of the heterogeneous nature of the County’s population, of the fact that the Franks only represented a small minority, and of the Counts’ failure to maintain harmonious relations with the multiple populations and faiths within the County, including various Christian churches (Jacobites, Maronites etc…) and Muslim faiths (Sunnites, but also Druze, Alawites and Assassins). The Counts never managed to integrate them and, in at least a couple of instances, actively persecuted some of the Christian but non-Catholic populations. Although the Counts did employ Maronite soldiers, they also seem to have had tense relations with some of their mountain communities.

A fourth point which is well made is to emphasise the importance of geography, and of the mountains of Lebanon which protected Tripoli and its coastal plain in particular. This was an advantage that none of the other Crusader States benefited from. The author is quite convincing when emphasising its importance in the County’s survival, especially given its relative military weakness. One point that is however is that there is no estimates or discussion of the kind of forces that Tripoli could put in the field and no comparison with the other Crusader States.

Another point that is well analysed are the relations with Byzantium and with the Kings of Jerusalem. The book describes well how the Empire, which had initially supported Raymond de Saint Gilles in his rivalry against the Norman Princes of Antioch, seem to have lost interest in Tripoli when it could no longer be useful in helping the Emperors in ascertaining their domination over the Principality. It also includes some interesting developments on the waxing and waning influence of the Kings of Jerusalem over the County, especially during periods when the Counts were either minors or captives of the Muslims.

A further point that appears clearly throughout the book is the relative incompetence and numerous failures of some of Raymond the Saint Gilles successors. This is particularly the case of Raymond II (1137-1152) and even more so of his controversial son Raymond III whose ambitions and intrigues within the Kingdom of Jerusalem were largely to blame with the infighting among Christians and the Hattin disaster. Raymond III, the better known among the Counts, and the one whose reign was both the longest and the most disastrous, gets the most coverage. He is shown in a rather unfavourable light, contrary to the rather biased writings of William of Tyre, since his ambitions, actions and blunders were such that some were tantamount to treason and that most played into the hands of Saladin.

Five stars for a very valuable scholarly piece even if it is not always “easy reading” and despite some repetitions.


The Bone Thief: (Wulfgar 1)
The Bone Thief: (Wulfgar 1)
by V.M. Whitworth
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars After Alfred, 5 Jun. 2017
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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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