Beginning in 1033, this is the first part of a trilogy following the fortunes of the remarkable and ambitious Hautville family. A minor Norman baron, the penurious but prolific Tancred de Hautville produced 12 strapping sons (not to mention the odd daughter). Refused service with Duke Robert of Normandy, who regards them as a threat, the mettlesome Hautville sons contemplate their bleak future. Trained as warriors from an early age, they look south to Italy, where Norman mercenaries are in great demand. William de Hautville, the oldest, sets off with his brother, Drogo. They know that they must not just make their own way in the world, but also prepare the way for their younger siblings.
Eleventh century Italy is a land of many principalities, full of turmoil and constant warfare. There are a number of players contending for power: in northern Italy the Western Holy Roman Emperor based in Germany controls several territories, including the Papal States; in central Italy Lombard lords hold independent duchies; in southern Italy the eastern Byzantine Empire and the Saracens hold sway. Soon there will be another player added to the board; the Normans, no longer satisfied with fighting on behalf of others, but hungry for lands and titles of their own.
"Mercenaries" takes a little getting into; the Italian situation is complex and convoluted and repays a bit of background reading. It's useful to have a map of 11th century Italy at hand (I found one at the online Medieval Sourcebooks Maps). Once all the main characters and places are established, the story picks up momentum and rattles along at a spirited pace. The de Hautville brothers are clever, likeable rogues, who soon find work with Norman mercenary captain, Rainulf Drengot and quickly grasp where they can best place themselves to greatest personal advantage. The power struggle between two warring Lombard lords, Guiamar, deposed Duke of Salerno, and his deposer, Pandulf, Prince of Capua, provides a rich opportunity for Drengot and his company of mercenaries, thanks to quick-witted William. There's plenty of action, and clearly more to come in Warriors, and "Conquest", due for publication next year.
This is a entertaining, workman-like adventure. Its characters are a mix of actual historical figures and fictional ones, and the author provides a helpful note explaining which is which and some historical information. One complaint; there are some errors which should have been picked up during copy-editing, and the most obvious and irritating mistake is repeated throughout the story. The basic fighting unit of the Norman knights was not, as written here, a convoy, but a conroi: a unit of mounted knights, somewhere between twenty and fifty men and horses in size. The knights in a conroi would ride knee-to-knee in strict formation, acting rather like a cavalry version of the shield-wall.
There is adventure, action, death, and glory in the writing style of Bernard Cornwall - simple but thoroughly effective and entertaining. I read the book in less than a week.
The story is set mainly in Campania 1033, modern Southern Italy (although Italy was a united country under the Romans, it would not be a united political for entity more than 800 years after this period).
The book centres around the escapades of William de Hautville and his brother Drogo as they seek their livelihood & expectations of wealth as hired mercenaries where there is most need for them - assisting Rainulf in his seat of power at Aversa.
The book interwoves this plot with the story of the young Guaimar and his sister Berengara as they engage in political intrigue to try to regain their birthright, the Kingdom of Salerno.
I knew relatively little about this period of history before picking up this book. I therefore found the tales of the Normans in and around Italy at the turn of the previous millennium entirely fascinating.
The story follows two Norman brothers who leave home brimming with ambition and expectations. The other part of the storyline follows the young, usurped Prince Guaimar and his sister as they travel across Europe in an attempt to obtain the Holy Roman Emperors assistance in ridding `The Wolf' from their ancestral lands.
This book follows in a very similar format and style to many other books within this genre. A prominent example of this style of writing includes where the newcomer to a band of warriors faces hostility at first, gradual acceptance, then eventual leadership. If you enjoy a good historical fictional read, then this book is recommended.
For me, it was the period of history which made this book interesting. Had this book been set in a Roman or Crusader environment, it would have been `just another' average addition to an already overflowing genre. As the book was set in this less familiar period, I was kept interested and wanted to read on to learn more about the complex feudal and papal relationships that bound together the microstates and small fiefdoms of this turbulent time.
Overall, a good read, don't expect too much originality on the writing style but instead enjoy the unfamiliarity of this historical period.
My only criticism of this book was that it was a little too short. Otherwise, it went at a cracking pace with a good blend of action and plotting, and some well developed, likeable characters. I'd never read a book by Jack Ludlow/David Donachie before and I don't know much about the Normans pre 1066 (although Tom Holland's Millennium does cover this pivotal period in European history at a much higher level), but the book did seem to convey a real sense of period and has made me want to find out more as well as leaving me looking forward eagerly to the next instalment in the series.
The Norman conquest of southern Italy and Sicily is a genuinely thrilling story of succeeding against the odds. The 12 Hauteville brothers were minor Norman barons who did not have sufficient land for all, as a result 7 Hautevilles made the journey south where the Lombards were struggling to overcome the Byzantine empire. They were not the first Norman mercenaries in southern Italy, they were however by far the most successful. William, Robert Guiscard and Roger Hauteville challenged and beat Byzantium, the Papacy and the incumbent Lombards, carving out a glittering kingdom which for a hundred years or so was the most eclectic and brilliant court in Europe. Jack Ludlow however does not do justice to this extraordinary story and manages to reduce a genuinely exciting episode of history (even after nearly a thousand years) to a series of virtually unconnected episodes with very poor characterisation and is poorly written to boot. Readers wanting to know more are recommended John Julius Norwich's "The Normans in the South" which is not only beautifully written but is continuous narrative which pulls the whole together and is as a result readable, which Mercenaries is not.
MERCENARIES - WARRIORS - CONQUEST by Jack Ludlow Having already sampled the work of this author, who also writes under the pen-name of David Donachie (19th. c. seafaring novels), I expected this fictionalised biographical trilogy to be of a good standard, both historically accurate and a good read. All three volumes were certainly that and more. The author admits that some small liberties have been taken with time lines to maintain the fictional flow but these books are without a doubt an interesting and absorbing read. I do not believe that the de Hautville family who dominated the Norman conquest of Italy and Sicily and subsequently the Holyland have been previously featured in historical fiction since Alfred Duggans novels were published in the 1950s a much overlooked important episode of feudal history. Buy this series, read them, keep them....they are that rarity in fiction that readers will return to an re-read over again.