Top positive review
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on 24 September 2012
This is the second volume of the adventures of Tancred a Dinan, a Breton knight who fought in William of Normandy's army at Hastings, and continued as a sworn sword (the title of the first volume) of one of the Duke's leading barons. This time, the initial setting are on the Marches with Wales as Tancred has become the lord of a manor close to the border and therefore very much exposed to Welsh raids. I will stop here to avoid paraphrasing the story and coming up with spoilers.
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...