Book Review – Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver – historical fiction. Recommended.

Here’s the blurb;

In Edwardian Suffolk, a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father. 

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened. 

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft, the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

Spanning five centuries, Wakenhyrst is a darkly gothic thriller about murderous obsession and one girl’s longing to fly free by the bestselling author of Dark Matter and Thin Air

Wakenhyrst drew me in because of the blurb and the cover. It might have helped that I’ve just read a few books with a similar theme – supernatural mixed with historical fiction.

Wakenhyrst didn’t disappoint. The character of Maud was immediately engaging, that of her father, quite distant, until we get some way through the book, and the reader begins to realise the story is about the relationship between Maud, her father, the fen and the local church.

What delighted me about this book was just how deeply embedded it was in the distant past – both the Early English period, and the fifteenth century, moving forward to the early 1900s and also stopping off in the 1960s, making use of the pervading attitudes in all four time periods to drive the narrative.

It’s not an easy, pleasant read, but it is a worthwhile read, extremely atmospheric and with a little twist, right at the end, which makes sense of so much more. Recommended.

It was 99p on Kindle when I purchased it, and still was when I wrote this review. You can purchase here.

Connect with the author here: Website.

(This post contains some Amazon affiliate links)

Book Review and New Release Alert – Bright Helm by Christine Hancock – historical fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Separated by anger and unanswered questions, Byrhtnoth and Saewynn are brought together by a tragic death.
Re-united, they set out on an epic voyage to discover the final truth about his father. 
The journey takes them far to the north, to Orkney, swathed in the mists of treachery, and to Dublin’s slave markets where Byrhtnoth faces a fateful decision.
How far will he go, to save those he cares for?” 

First things first, Bright Helm is book four in a tightly woven series about young Byrhtnoth, more famous for dying at the Battle of Maldon in AD991, than for anything else. But, he must have had a life before that fateful battle and the author has devised an intriguing and engaging story about his youth, weaving the tale through known historical ‘fact’ of the 940’s and 950’s in Early England.

This is a time period that I’ve also written about and studied, and I have been lucky enough to have early access to Bright Helm, as well as other books in the series. I’ve enjoyed arguing about plot developments and also taken fresh insight from decisions made for the characters. It’s strange to have ‘your’ characters in the hands of someone else, but hey, this is historical fiction, these characters belong only to themselves and the author who writes about them.

What I really enjoyed about Bright Helm was the journey Byrhtnoth has to make. Along the way, he encounters any number of ‘historical’ characters, and winds up visiting both the Orkney Islands and Ireland. I love the Orkney Islands, and I could ‘see’ everything that the author described in such detail.

The book really gather pace as it roars towards its end and I found myself, and this doesn’t often happen in books where I know so much of the back story, just relaxing and allowing the story to unfold without worrying that I might not like it. As I said to the author, I found that she really found ‘her stride’. The pacing was sound, the story thoroughly intriguing, and well, I’m just looking forward to the next book (which might be the last in the series) to find out how it all ends.

I highly recommend this book, and if you’ve not read the earlier books in the series, I believe you could jump in with Book 4, or enjoy starting at the very beginning.

You can find Christine Hancock here:@YoungByrhtnoth and at https://byrhtnoth.com

Bright Helm is released today, 15th October, and is available in ebook and paperback.

(Some links on this blog are Amazon affiliate links)

Book Review – Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England by Annie Whitehead – non-fiction

Here’s the blurb;

“Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.

Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.

Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.

From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.”

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is an ambitious project, on a scale that few may truly appreciate as it covers over 600 years of Early English history. That’s even before factoring in just how fragmented the surviving sources are, and how complicated they can be and how many languages are involved. Or the fact that the majority of such sources were written by men, and not just men, but men in holy orders. As someone who has written about some of these fabulous women, I know just how difficult and complicated a task it is, and just how far you have to go in order to tease out the smallest details.

It is for this reason, that the book can feel a little unwieldy in places. I think that people new to the subject matter and to the time period might well struggle with the first section of the book on Pioneers in Northumbria. In an effort to include every woman, of whom so little is known that sometimes it is just a name, it can feel a little bit like a long list of women who you might not be able to fully grasp their importance in the events of the period. There might also be some frustration that the women could only be powerful because of who they married, gave birth to, or were born to. This, however, can’t be avoided. It is the nature of the sources.

And I must urge people to continue reading as the author soon lands on more solid ground (because there is more information available and the women feel more fully formed.) The chapters on Mercia and Wessex are a much easier read, and by the time we reach the chapters on Serial Monogamy and Dowager Queens, the women feel ‘real.’ Again, this is because of an increase in the source material, and potentially, because readers will know more about the tenth and eleventh centuries.

The author manages to cover an extraordinary number of women over the long centuries of the Early English period, and if there are moments where I might have included different information, or rejected some of the Saints Lives and Anglo-Norman historians from the narrative, this is a personal choice, based on my own research methodology which does seem to be the exception rather than the norm.

I confess, the book would have benefitted from a chronology for each chapter, and perhaps a slightly different format (I read an ebook so this might display differently in the paperback), but overall, I am in awe of the author’s ability to hold the narrative together and to produce something that I hope will encourage people to further research these wonderful characters who should be just as well known as their male counterparts.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for my review copy.

Women of Power is released today, 30th May, and is available from the publisher as well as on other sites, although it is showing as a preorder.