on 13 February 2014
It is 1295 A.D., and there are rebellions to be put down in Wales, and Coroctocus la Hors, a marcher Baron and Earl of Clun is just the human monster to do it. He has convinced the beautiful Countess Madalyn of Lyr to talk the locals into putting down their arms and surrendering. Unfortunately, she's been played, she's betrayed and the defeated peasant army is slaughtered down to the last man, and then she and her daughter Gwendolyn, are then beaten and gang raped.
Coroctocus then "frees" Madalyn and informs her that she should make sure that she puts to rest all further rebellions, and if she does, her daughter will only become the plaything of one of his henchmen. Unfortunately for Coroctocus Madalyn knows powerful people in low places. So she heads off to see Gwyddon, a powerful Druid that up until recently had been Madalyn's nemesis, and who is as evil as Coroctocus. By the novel's ending, this is a move that will end well for nobody.
After letting the ravaged Countess Madalyn go, Coroctocus decides to march to the Castle Grogen, and to destroy, rape, pillage, murder, and torture everything and everybody that he encounters along the way.
As the novel progresses we meet the principals of this novel, including Navarre, Coroctocus's second-in-command, stalwart warrior Ulbert FitzObern and his son Ranulf, the young knight who will serve as a form of moral center and commentator of the novel and on the things that Coroctocus does throughout this novel. Both are disgusted by Coroctocus's deeds, but are pretty powerless to do anything about them.
There is also Garbofasse, a huge brutish psychopath, an anti-Conan, who heads a troupe of mercenaries, and Zacharius, a doctor, who despite his flaws, and he has plenty, who takes his doctoring seriously and is dedicated to saving as many lives as possible, and who was certainly worth more pages than he was given. In fact, Finch is pretty good at his characterizations, with Coroctocus as the Dick Cheney of the novel, Ranulf, and Madalyn, who realizes that she has put into motion events that are more destructive than Coroctocus himself, are all standouts.
When Coroctocus arrives at the seemingly impregnable Grogen, he finds it totally deserted. Then as Coroctocus's army gets settled, the Countess shows up with HER new army and the siege begins, in what will soon be an all-out siege based action novel in which no quarter is asked, and none will be given.
Finch clearly has a knack for action, and at times, this book reads like a Warhammer novel, but with zombies, and set during 1200's. And that leads us to the type of zombies here. The 'Tombs of the Dead' series never really played it conservatively with their zombies. They are not the ramshackle and shambling cannibals that Romero and Russo gave us; these monsters are just so much nastier. They are the true walking dead, invulnerable to any amount of destruction that is rained down upon them. Not even headshots or decapitations slow them down, and they don't just want to eat you, they also want to tear you apart. NO death is easy, you will all die screaming, and then you will arise again, to kill all those you have left behind. Imagine a historical action/horror novel that is channeling a Warhammer novel as written by Shaun Hudson who is working from a story by Lucio Fulchi, and you'll come pretty close to what Paul Finch gives us in "Stronghold".
The problem, for me, is that this is a novel in desperate need of a Glossary. There is tons of mid-evil weaponry used here, and while some is described, although a lot is not, but even when described, it was often vaguely, and I was still pretty much left in the dust. Maybe for the British audience, that this novel was originally written for, this stuff was more understandable, but for this Yank, I was soon lost. Not that this held me back much, as Finch usually concentrates on the personal, and the hand-to-hand destruction that is occurring, and the internecine warfare that occurs between both sides of the combaters, and make no mistake, disagreements will get bloody.
The irony here is that Coroctocus has all the latest in weapons of mass destruction technology to back him up, but as the dead rise, and then march on him, his own technology is used against him. And as he has killed, and destroyed, to cause fear, and to break the rebellious, it is these very victims, the men, women, children, and soldiers that he willingly sacrificed, that will come back to destroy him and all he will have worked for.
You just gotta love the irony the whole novel is drenched in. "Stronghold" is a novel that deromanticizes everything that most of us here in American have ever heard, or learned, about knighthood and its practitioners, and if some real money where thrown behind it, would make a helluva movie.
One last note, I loved the cover that the American paperback came wrapped in, a true Lucio Fulchi crossed with Richard Powers nightmare.