Book Review – Oswald: Return of the Kingby Edoardo Albert (historical fiction)

Here’s the blurb:

“The exiled family of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria arrive, after much hardship, on the island of Iona, where the monastery founded by St Columba has become a centre of worship and learning. Young Oswald becomes firm friends with a novice, Aidan. When Aidan professes his final vows, Oswald and his little brother Oswy are received into the church. As befits a young prince, Oswald learns to fight. However, Aidan’s example attacts him and he is on the point of deciding to become a monk when news reaches Iona that his half brother, Eanfrith, has been killed by Cadwallon, the king who defeated Edwin. Oswald sails back to Northumbria and meets Cadwallon in battle, defeating and killing him. Oswald, now undisputed king of Northumbria, gives Aidan the island of Lindisfarne as his base. But Penda, the last great pagan king in England, is raising troops against him.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

Oswald, Return of the King is the first book I’ve read by the author.

Oswald is, unfortunately, a dense read that suffers with some pacing issues, but more than anything, is plagued by unnecessary and near constant Bible quotations. It would perhaps, have been better if the novel had been named after the monks of Lindisfarne or Iona, because the focus of the novel is not actually Oswald. The author has made great use of the work of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (as must everyone who writes and studies about this time period), and I couldn’t help thinking that Bede would have been overjoyed by the author’s firm adherence to his ideas – to write a history of the Church – and not a history of the people throughout this period, but for myself, I felt that this detracted from what should have been an exiting read and instead descended into a long and tedious story about a highly fictionalised accounting of how Christianity was introduced to the Saxons of England. Christianity was a weapon, just like a warrior’s sword, shield and spear, but the author, writing for a Christian Press, makes no reference to the political nature of the imposition of Christianity.

As to the story itself, Oswald does not become King of Bernicia until 48% of the book has passed, and then there is some definite fudging of events and dates which takes the reader to the final battle – or should I say ‘finally a battle’. Until this point much has been made of the amassing of troops – but the Battle of Heavenfield, where Oswald gains his kingdom, is a disappointing fight between two men in a quarry, an amassing of troops at York slithers away as a truce is called, and Maserfield is the only battle that gets any ink – even the supposed overthrow of the Gododdin earns no more than the recall of a messenger reporting to his king.

This period of history is defined by its battles and its warriors, but this is a novel of saints and Christianity, and needs to be read with a clear understanding of what it is, and not what it could have been, or what a reader might well expect it to be.

The cover is, however, stunning!

And you can buy it here:

Book Review: A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun (historical fantasy)

Here’s the blurb:

“A gripping and brilliantly realized debut epic adventure set in eighth-century Denmark. This is the beginning of an ambitious new series in the vein of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Hakan, son of Haldan, chosen son of the Lord of the Northern Jutes, swears loyalty to his father in fire, in iron, and in blood. But there are always shadows that roam. When a terrible tragedy befalls Hakan’s household he is forced to leave his world behind. He must seek to pledge his sword to a new king. Nameless and alone, he embarks on a journey to escape the bonds of his past and fulfil his destiny as a great warrior.

Whispers of sinister forces in the north pull Hakan onwards to a kingdom plagued by mysterious and gruesome deaths. But does he have the strength to do battle with such dark foes? Or is death the only sane thing to seek in this world of blood and broken oaths?”

A Mighty Dawn by Theodore Brun is a, sometimes brutal, coming of age tale set in the Scandinavian lands of the middle to second part of the first millennium. Paganism is the worship of choice, and the threads of Norse Mythology mingle through the story, as is to be expected for a story set at this time. It is not a work of historical fiction, but rather historical fantasy, or just plain fantasy with its basis set in the past.

I would divide the novel into three main parts. The first third, when the reader is introduced to Hakon and Inga, is very, very well written. The plot develops in an almost predicatable well (until …. well you’ll have to read it), but the author weaves the plot incredibly well so that when the big reveal came, I was incredibly shocked. I had been expecting the outcome to be very, very different to what actually happened. While Hakon is not exactly the most likable of characters at this point, he is a bit difficult to like because his concern is only with himself, he is well portrayed and the reader understands his anguish, his love and his hatred of Konur, as well as his difficult relationship with his father. The story is mired in the old Norse legends.

The second part of the novel revolves around ‘Hakon’s journey’, after his betrayal, ever northwards, and again, is a well articulated part of the story. While Hakon is now quite glowering and bad tempered, the tone of the story is lightened by the addition of his companion, Kai. a younger man than Hakon and one with a silken tongue and very good cooking skills. The journey ever northwards still contains much of old Norse legends and, because it takes place on the cusp of winter, sees them battling terrible weather in order to reach their destination through an almost deserted landscape.

It is really from this part of the story onwards that I felt the tale faltered a little. It’s still well written but I had some problems with the more fantastical elements of the storyline and these detracted from my overall enjoyment of what had started out as a very entertaining read. I also felt that the author’s great skills in producing characters as engaging as Hakon and Kai faltered a little, relying more on stereotypes than previously.

With all that said, this is a very well articulated story. The author has a good style that means that although the book is quite long, it disappears under the reader’s eyes at a fast rate. I picked the book up to only read the beginning (and work out how long it was as I was reading on the kindle), but soon became embroiled in the storyline and was then unable to put the book down, reading it over one weekend.

I would recommend the book to fans of historical fantasy and look forward to the next book in the series.

And you can buy it here:

Book Review – Blood and Blade by Matthew Harffy

Here’s the blurb from the book

“635AD. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and third instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell. 

Oswald is now King of Northumbria. However, his plans for further alliances and conquests are quickly thrown into disarray when his wedding to a princess of Wessex is interrupted by news of a Pictish uprising.

Rushing north, Oswald leaves Beobrand to escort the young queen to her new home. Their path is fraught with danger and uncertainty, Beobrand must try to unravel secrets and lies if they are to survive.

Meanwhile, old enemies are closing in, seeking brutal revenge. Beobrand will give his blood and blade in service to his king, but will that be enough to avert disaster and save his kith and kin from the evil forces that surround them?”

Blood and Blade by Matthew Harffy is the third book in his Bernicia Chronicles following the exploits of his, quite frankly, bad-tempered warrior, Beobrand. He’s no hero – he’s too self-involved, grumpy and lacks any likeable characteristics, even though the author is at pains to explain this away due to the tragedies that have befallen him in Book 2.

However, these do not excuse the foul natured monster that Beobrand has become, and I did struggle to understand why any man, or woman, would want to spend any time with him or rely on him in his guise as a warrior or a lover. He is, quite simply, lacking in any likeable qualities, without even the spark of any humour to soften his harshness, no matter how often Athelstan tries to recount his exploits in the mead hall and make them appear heroic, it simply does not work for me.

The constant shifts in point of view in chapters is annoying, but this is something that I personally don’t understand or like in any novel so it’s not a particular complaint about this author. I’m always left feeling that if the chapter needs a shift in POV then it’s either not a chapter and needs splitting, or the author needs to approach this part of the novel in a different way – give the voice of the story to a different member of the cast.

The storyline of Blood and Blade is somewhat simplistic, and you do reach a certain part of the novel and know exactly what has to happen before it reaches its end. Nothing unexpected happens to bring the novel to its conclusion. This is somewhat of a shame. I would have liked even the idea of a different ending.

The author is at pains to show society, as he perceives it, at this time, and the insistence on the small details is repetitive, as is the constant recounting of Beobrand’s aches and pains, recovering wounds and new ones that he receives.

I would reiterate, Beobrand is no hero, but neither is he an anti-hero. He’s been thrust into a time in history that is very exciting, and yet it seems that with his constant moaning and complaining, that he has no appreciation of this and is never likely to. For a young man, he often appears to be about 100 years old.

On a final note. I still do not like the way the author treats women of this period. They are either witches, bed companions, or someone else’s bed companions, and they are presented as petty and mean to each other. This might be a novel about a (very) grumpy warrior, but Anglo-Saxon women were and should be, given the place in society that they earned and deserved. Much of this is, obviously, to do with the author’s interpretation of this time period, and I suppose, it is worth remembering that it is a work of fiction and not fact. Still, this is also a shame and I hope, something, that is corrected in later books to allow the author to reach a wider fan base.

Overall, the novel was enjoyable to read and you can buy it here;

 

 

Anglo Saxon or more correctly, Anglo-Danish England and the Norman Conquest

I’m an Anglo-Saxonist at heart (or indeed any ‘British’ kingdom from about the year 500-1000). I don’t know why, but I love everything about this time period. Although my first passion was Elizabeth I and some of the Tudors, II read mostly about the years 500 until the Stuarts but get a little ‘bored’ when it becomes more modern (I know why but I’m not confessing to that here). 

Yet, many people seem to think that British history starts with ‘1066 and all that’ and having been doing some research of late, I think I just might have devised a reason for this.

The Anglo-Saxons, or the Anglo-Danish, or the early ‘English’ kingdom(s) if you prefer, arise out of the mists of the past (don’t use that naughty phrase about the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon England) as shadowy characters that can never be quite fully glimpsed. They didn’t live in ‘castles’ as we know them, they didn’t fight on horseback with shiny armour and swords and triangular shields, they actually liked their women (go Anglo-Saxons) and they seemed to be, for all intents and purposes, quite welcoming to any who came to their shores (in general), or maybe I should say that they were quite good at co-habiting with different nationalities. They used funny words, like witan and aetheling. They had funny names like Aethelred and Aethelflaed and their houses were built from wood.

Now the Normans, they’re a whole different society. They just about did all those things above, and had good proper names like William and Henry and Matilda. They’re familiar to us and even though they changed the national language from Old English with a bit of Latin, to mostly French and a bit more Latin, those words became a part of our society and we accept them as normal. The Norman Conquest was no steady infiltration, as it appears the original Anglo-Saxon settlers initiated, and then the Vikings, and then the Danish. No, the Norman Conquest swept the board clean, and into the void, they poured all aspects of their society and it was very different to anything that had gone before.

The onset of feudalism, the highly stratified society that formed all combined with the other changes to make what had gone before even more alien. And of course, the chroniclers of that period helped to disperse those ideas down to today’s historians.

Effectively, some sort of jarring rift occurred with the Norman Conquest. 1065 became the last year of one ideal that had governed Anglo-Saxon England for nearly 600 years, and 1067 became the first year of an ideal that would govern from then on, and in doing so, made everything that had gone on before seem too strange for modern audiences to even comprehend, or want to comprehend. And it’s a shame because the Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture and a fascinating history, that was so much more than having a fight with France, or trying to ‘nick’ the throne from your father, or your brother, or your uncle, or trying to take over the Welsh, the Scottish or the Irish.

The entire outlook of Anglo-Saxon England was different to the Normans and that’s why I think many people don’t bond with the Anglo-Saxon age. The lack of familiarity makes it too hard, too uncomfortable and maybe, too much work! So, hats off to all my fellow Anglo-Saxonists. Enjoy untangling the web of unfamiliarity and remember, when it all gets a bit too much, you can always take a ‘breather’ in the post Conquest period!