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;

 

 

The first kings of the ‘English’ – Athelstan and Edmund

(I’m re-sharing an old post which I’ve amended slightly, and added some new graphics).

England, Wales, Scotland, the smaller kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, Kent, Powys, Gwynedd, Dal Riada – for the uninitiated (including myself) the sheer number of kingdoms and kings that peopled the period in British history before 1066 can appear as a bewildering display of names, places, times and events, and perhaps never more so than when a historian is trying to sell a book and so makes a statement in their title that applies to that particular king.

Map designed by Flintlock Covers

Phrases such ‘the Golden Age of Northumbria’, ‘the Mercian hegemony’, ‘the rise of Wessex’, they all mask so many events that I find the phrases very unhelpful and perhaps worse, misleading.

I think that Athelstan and his younger half brother, Edmund, probably deserve their titles as Kings of the English. And it’s not just my opinion either. There was, according to Sarah Foot in her book on Athelstan, a concerted effort by the king and his bishops to have him stand apart from his predecessors – to be something ‘different’ to them. They named him king of the English, not king of Mercia (a post he held briefly before another of his younger brothers died) and not king of Wessex, for all that he was both of those things.

They changed his title, they crowned him with a crown, not a helmet. They wanted Athelstan to be something other than his grandfather, King Alfred, and his father, King Edward. It was a bold statement to make, and one they continued when Athelstan died too young and his half-brother, Edmund replaced him. He too was crowned using, it must be supposed, the same Coronation service. (For full details have a peek at Sarah Foot’s book on Athelstan – or read the first few chapters of King of Kings as the service appears in it as well).

So why the change? Essentially the old Saxon kingdoms, for all that they were preserved in the naming of the earls/ealdormens designations, had been swept aside by the Viking raiders. The old kingdoms had become a handy label to apply to certain geographic areas, and the kings of Wessex, whilst keen to hold onto their hereditary titles because of the permanence their own royal line had managed to acquire, were equally as keen to do away with regional boundaries. There was, it can’t be denied, a concerted and almost unrelenting urge to drive any Viking raider or Dane or Norwegian (the Norse) from British soil, and this is what Athelstan and then Edmund were tasked with doing.

Yet the idea of ‘English’ wasn’t a new concept. Why else would Bede have called his great piece of religious historical writing “The Ecclesiastical History of the English people’, if there hadn’t been a shared consciousness that the people in England, all be it in their separate kingdoms, didn’t have a shared heritage? Why the idea suddenly took flight under King Athelstan could be attributed to a new sense of confidence in Wessex and Mercia at the time. They were confident that they could beat the Viking raiders and they were convinced that England belonged to them.

Or perhaps it was more than that? The destruction wrought by the Viking raiders on the separate kingdoms must have been a stark reminder of just how insular the kingdoms had become, and the Viking raiders showed everyone just how easy it was to run roughshod over the individual kingdoms. Only in unity could the Saxon kingdoms of England survive another onslaught; only with unity could the Saxons hold onto their kingdoms they’d claimed about 500 years before.

It was a message that was learned quickly and taken to heart. Athelstan worked to reunite more of the Saxon kingdoms with the growing ‘England’, and he tried to do so by both diplomacy and through war. Yet, the Viking raiders hadn’t finished with England, and nor were they her only enemies. This also lies at the heart of Athelstan’s ‘masterplan’ his treaty of Eamont (if it truly happened – Benjamin Hudson in his Celtic Scotland is not convinced). Athelstan wanted to be a mighty king, but he also wanted England, and the wider Britain (also a concept already understood otherwise why else would that cantankerous monk – Gildas – have called his even earlier work than Bede’s “On the Ruin of Britain?”) to be united in their attempts to repel the Viking raiders. He was a man with a keen vision of the future and it was a vision that his brother continued, with slightly different direction and results.

Family Tree designed by Boldwood Books

The ‘English Kings” saw safety in unity, and of course, an increase in the power they held went hand-in-hand with that.

Yet at no point during the Saxon period can it be said that the emergence of ‘England’ as we know it, was a given certainty. Throughout the period other great kings had tried to claim sovereignty over other kingdoms, but never with any permanence. The earlier, regional kings, were powerful within their own lifetimes and within their own regions. Few, if any, were able to pass on their patrimony complete upon their death. This was a time of personal kingship, and it was only under Athelstan and Edmund that the leap was taken away from this to a more permanent power base.

Not that it was a smooth transition and it did have the side-effect of allowing other men, those not related to the royal family, to evolve their own individual power bases in the old Saxon kingdoms. The ‘English’ kings had to do more than just rule their own kingdom, they had to rule their ealdormen and earls, their warriors, bishops and archbishops. The number of names of kings might start to deplete in the after math of Athelstan and Edmund’s kingship, but in their place spring up more and more powerful men, men that these English kings  had to rely on.

Becoming King of the English was very much a mixed blessing, bringing with it new and greater responsibilities and more, it brought with it the need to expand personal government further, to have a greater persona to broadcast.

King of Kings is available now, and Kings of War is coming in July 2023.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle Entry for 1016

Primary sources are never without problems. They hold bias, they hold perceived bias, but they are, more often than not, an insight into how people perceived an event as soon after it as details are available to the modern historian.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, with it’s many recensions is a fantastic source, but riddled with problems which can, quite often be clearly seen precisely because it survives in different versions.

For the true student, it’s worth investigating the bias of the different ASC’s and taking note of them. Over the years a number of approaches have been taken to the ASC starting from when it was just accepted as the source for Saxon England. This means that for a time all the different recensions were amalgamated. Now, the individuality of each recension is truly appreciated, because as with all early sources, quite often, what isn’t said is just as important as what is said.

(The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also benefits from a latinised version that was written by Ealdorman Æthelweard at the end of the tenth century and this can likewise be used in a similar way as the Old English recensions.)

Yet, for the sake of not infringing anyone’s copyright, when publishing my books and listing information on my websites, I have to rely on the older translations of the ASC as these are the ones I can use freely. Whilst this isn’t ideal, it does allow me to still make a very valid point, and that is this, the entry for the year 1016 (the year Cnut claimed the English kingdom) is vast, and I mean vast. Compared to previous year’s, 1016 is massive. (I’ve copied it below from http://omacl.org/Anglo/part4.html, but this resource seems to have disappeared, but there is another version available here: https://archive.org/stream/anglosaxonchroni00gile/anglosaxonchroni00gile_djvu.txt) if you want to take a look. I am not sure, as I look at this in 2023, which text this refers to, but possible A). Not until 1023 does an entry even half as long as this appear, and I’m starting to consider if this was all a lot of political rhetoric and whether, the entries for previous years have been purposefully shortened, or amended to show the inevitability of Cnut’s accession to the kingdom of the English. I need to do far more research, but as 2015 roles round to 2016, I can’t see a better time to more fully study the time period and this I plan to do next year.

A.D. 1016. This year came King Knute with a marine force of one hundred and sixty ships, and Alderman Edric with him, over the Thames into Mercia at Cricklade; whence they proceeded to Warwickshire, during the middle of the winter, and plundered therein, and burned, and slew all they met. Then began Edmund the etheling to gather an army, which, when it was collected, could avail him nothing, unless the king were there and they had the assistance of the citizens of London. The expedition therefore was frustrated, and each man betook himself home. After this. an army was again ordered, under full penalties, that every person, however distant, should go forth; and they sent to the king in London, and besought him to come to meet the army with the aid that he could collect. When they were all assembled, it succeeded nothing better than it often did before; and, when it was told the king, that those persons would betray him who ought to assist him, then forsook he the army, and returned again to London. Then rode Edmund the etheling to Earl Utred in Northumbria; and every man supposed that they would collect an army King Knute; but they went into Stafforddhire, and to Shrewsbury, and to Chester; and they plundered on their parts, and Knute on his. He went out through Buckinghamshire to Bedfordshire; thence to Huntingdonshire, and so into Northamptonshire along the fens to Stamford. Thence into Lincolnshire. Thence to Nottinghamshire; and so into Northumbria toward York. When Utred understood this, he ceased from plundering, and hastened northward, and submitted for need, and all the Northumbrians with him; but, though he gave hostages, he was nevertheless slain by the advice of Alderman Edric, and Thurkytel, the son of Nafan, with him. After this, King Knute appointed Eric earl over Northumbria, as Utred was; and then went southward another way, all by west, till the whole army came, before Easter, to the ships. Meantime Edmund Etheling went to London to his father: and after Easter went King Knute with all his ships toward London; but it happened that King Ethelred died ere the ships came. He ended his days on St. George’s day; having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued. After his decease, all the peers that were in London, and the citizens, chose Edmund king; who bravely defended his kingdom while his time was. Then came the ships to Greenwich, about the gang-days, and within a short interval went to London; where they sunk a deep ditch on the south side, and dragged their ships to the west side of the bridge. Afterwards they trenched the city without, so that no man could go in or out, and often fought against it: but the citizens bravely withstood them. King Edmund had ere this gone out, and invaded the West-Saxons, who all submitted to him; and soon afterward he fought with the enemy at Pen near Gillingham. A second battle he fought, after midsummer, at Sherston; where much slaughter was made on either side, and the leaders themselves came together in the fight. Alderman Edric and Aylmer the darling were assisting the army against King Edmund. Then collected he his force the third time, and went to London, all by north of the Thames, and so out through Clayhanger, and relieved the citizens, driving the enemy to their ships. It was within two nights after that the king went over at Brentford; where he fought with the enemy, and put them to flight: but there many of the English were drowned, from their own carelessness; who went before the main army with a design to plunder. After this the king went into Wessex, and collected his army; but the enemy soon returned to London, and beset the city without, and fought strongly against it both by water and land. But the almighty God delivered them. The enemy went afterward from London with their ships into the Orwell; where they went up and proceeded into Mercia, slaying and burning whatsoever they overtook, as their custom is; and, having provided themselves with meat, they drove their ships and their herds into the Medway. Then assembled King Edmund the fourth time all the English nation, and forded over the Thames at Brentford; whence he proceeded into Kent. The enemy fled before him with their horses into the Isle of Shepey; and the king slew as many of them as he could overtake. Alderman Edric then went to meet the king at Aylesford; than which no measure could be more ill-advised. The enemy, meanwhile, returned into Essex, and advanced into Mercia, destroying all that he overtook. When the king understood that the army was up, then collected he the fifth time all the English nation, and went behind them, and overtook them in Essex, on the down called Assingdon; where they fiercely came together. Then did Alderman Edric as he often did before — he first began the flight with the Maisevethians, and so betrayed his natural lord and all the people of England. There had Knute the victory, though all England fought against him! There was then slain Bishop Ednoth, and Abbot Wulsy, and Alderman Elfric, and Alderman Godwin of Lindsey, and Ulfkytel of East-Anglia, and Ethelward, the son of Alderman Ethelsy (59). And all the nobility of the English nation was there undone! After this fight went King Knute up with his army into Glocestershire, where he heard say that King Edmund was. Then advised Alderman Edric, and the counsellors that were there assembled, that the kings should make peace with each other, and produce hostages. Then both the kings met together at Olney, south of Deerhurst, and became allies and sworn brothers. There they confirmed their friendship both with pledges and with oaths, and settled the pay of the army. With this covenant they parted: King Edmund took to Wessex, and Knute to Mercia and the northern district. The army then went to their ships with the things they had taken; and the people of London made peace with them, and purchased their security, whereupon they brought their ships to London, and provided themselves winter-quarters therein. On the feast of St. Andrew died King Edmund; and he is buried with his grandfather Edgar at Gastonbury. In the same year died Wulfgar, Abbot of Abingdon; and Ethelsy took to the abbacy.

It could be as simple as many events taking place in one year but I harbour the feeling that Cnut might have wanted to portray Edmund as a great warrior to make his own triumphs that little bit greater. After all, Æthelred II receives no treatment as detailed as Edmund throughout his 30 years on the throne and Edmund ruled for a matter of months. While Edmund is still shown as being unable to take decisive military action against Cnut, he fares much better than poor old Æthelred (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)! Perhaps I should count the words Edmund receives compared to Cnut as a really basic indicator of the bias of the entry?

There are many events planned for the anniversary of Cnut’s accession to the English kingdom, and I know that much will be said and written about the event. Maybe by this time next year, there might be many, many theories abounding about the ASC but for now, I’m happy to be questioning the information I have, or don’t have, and raising the interesting questions of just how much the people of Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-Danish England used propaganda? It’s certainly not a new tool and it’s one the people of England understood a thousand year’s ago just as well as they do now. Cnut’s Queen, Emma/Ælfgifu had a book commissioned about Cnut shortly after his death, and the latinised version of the ASC that I mentioned above, was also a political statement by it’s author, thought to be an ealdorman, and so a member of the nobility.

Be wary of what is accepted as fact, just because someone took the time to a) write it down and b) ensure it survived to modern times!

books2read.com/Cnut

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!