Review – King Hereafter

I don’t know why I never read any of Dorothy Dunnett’s books. I was aware of her as an author – I had noticed a set of books set in 15th century Italy, but it was not a period that interested me. It was only once I started to write myself, and take notice of what other authors thought, that I realised that many writers of historical fiction revered her. I wanted to find out why.

Two years ago I bought a copy of King Hereafter. I started reading and knew that this was something special. It is a long book, over 700 pages, and I was busy. I wanted time to savour it, so I put it to one side. Recently I came back to it and last night I got to the end. I am still held in its spell and want to get down my thoughts while they are fresh.

For those who have never read it, this is the story of Macbeth, but not Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This is the real man, Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney, who might have become King of Scotland, if Scotland had existed at that time. Because of him, it nearly did. It is the story of one man’s life, but also the story of a whole world.

The Macbeth we think we know is set in Scotland, a country north of England. This book opens out to reveal the whole world; of the interconnections between countries when borders were fluid, of families connected by blood and marriage, where who you married was sometimes more important than who your father was and cousins could be friends or enemies depending on circumstances.

Thorfinn is sent to England, to the court of King Canute and his wife Emma, who controls events like a spider in a web. He meets Earl Leofric of Mercia, and his wife Godiva (who had ever considered that Macbeth probably met Lady Godiva?). Thorfinn is an heir to Orkney, he must fight for his share. Later, he gains Alba, by battle and keeps it by marriage to the widow of the previous king. It becomes a great love story.

Movement is central to the story. The action moves, with Thorfinn, not just across Scotland and the isles, but to Norway and Denmark. There is a long journey to Rome to meet the Pope. Always Thorfinn, plans, makes alliances. It is only towards the end of this trip that you realise that one reason for the journey is to bind together the young men who will be the leaders of the future, the heir of his ideas, if not his body.

The book is about religion. Not just the conflict between Christian and Pagan, but the different branches of the church. It is important that the bishop that controls your priests, is consecrated by the right person, for whichever king controls him has power over you, and your country.

I was astounded by the authors breadth of knowledge, how could she know so much about the period. I had occasion to look up some fact (I think it was the date the “historical” Macbeth died.) and found that there are little known facts about his life. In fact, the merging of the characters Torfinn of Orkney and Macbeth the king is only speculation. But the world she has created, is so real that you believe it happened as she tells it, or if it didn’t, it should have. It explains so well the state of the world in the mid-eleventh century, the rise of Harold Godwinson in England, the battles of William for possession of Normandy, the arrival of that other Harold from the east, to take over the throne of Norway. Men who would meet a few years later, in 1066, to decide the direction history would take.

But enough of history. If all the characters were fantasy, it would still be worth reading, so beautifully is it written. There are great set pieces; The firing of the hall at Ophir where Thorfinn and his wife nearly die and the storm, again on Orkney which acts as the trigger for the final downfall.

And the battle which ends at Dunsinane, four chapters, sixty odd pages of frantic action, fighting, riding across the landscape of Scotland, moments, only moments, of rest. The plot twists, from success to failure and back, as allegiances change or fade away, there is bluff and double bluff, treachery on every side. But still, there is time for beauty. From page 616, but I could have picked an example from almost any page. Siward waits outside Dunsinane:

Above, the sky hung, changing colour like fine China silk, with homing birds on its surface like powder. Here, emptied by space of all texture, men’s voices spoke and called and were thrown back from hill to hill, as every channel glinted with spears and with acorn helmets of dulled steel or leather and shields like shells on a necklace. Behind, when he twisted round, he saw that the black smoke obscuring the sun had been joined by another burst, this time of pure flame, rising over the river. He said, “It looks as if Perth has gone…”

It then continues, for a page with practical discussion on when to attack. The section ends:

Ligulf was smiling. The black moustaches opened like pincers. “No indeed,” Ligulf said. “So what were you thinking of?
And smiled all the time that he listened, so that Siward thought the moustache-ends would be hooked on his ears.

I could quote much more, but I haven’t the time, or space.

I was dreading the end. I knew there would be death. The death of a man I had come to love. A man who had started with nothing, achieved so much with his strength and intelligence and lost it through forces he was unable to control. I delayed the last few pages, until I was alone. I knew I would cry, I am close to tears now.

The ending was heartrending, but magnificent, the only way it could end. A man must die but his memory lives on.

A quote from near the end, Thorfinn and his stepson Lulach, who sees things.

“What am I thinking? I was wondering,” said Thorfinn slowly, “what story the river will carry of me?”
Lulach smiled his sweet smile, and his swan-white hair shone in the sunshine. “So many stories,” he said, “that a thousand years from today, every name from this world will have faded save those of yourself and your lady. That is immortality.”

I do not just cry for the death of a man. I cry because I now know that this is the sort of book I want to write – and I know I never shall.

A book like this takes great talent and a lifetime of writing. It is too late for me. If I had read this earlier, would I have started writing earlier, or is it only now that I know a little about writing that I can appreciate it?

Who know? I’ll just have to try my best – it’s all anyone can do.

 

Review – Killer of Kings

I enjoy writing reviews of Matthew Harffy’s books. It is such an easy job with writing this good.

Killer of Kings is the fourth book in the Bernicia Chronicles series and Beobrand, recovered from his injuries, is on the road again. This time he is travelling to East Anglia. King Oswald has asked him to accompany a group of monks taking a present to King Sigeberht. They come across a village in flames. Beobrand tries to help, but he is outside his own king’s lands and is forced to leave. He rescues one girl, but already he suffers the guilt of leaving innocent people to die.

Reaching East Anglia they find the king has retired to a monastery and his relative Ecgric is king. Neither of them seem interested in defending their land from attack from King Penda’s Mercia and Beobrand realises he has been sent to support the East Anglian army.

The armies meet in a long and bloody battle. Beobrand narrowly escapes, but without his men and his horse. With an old friend he travels to Kent, meeting relatives for the first time since he left for Bernicia. In previous books one phrase has recurred – his mother’s dying words “You are not your father’s son”. Beobrand discovers the truth, but it is even worse than he suspected.

On the journey home he attempts to fulfil his vow to kill the man who defiled and killed his wife. Nothing goes as planned.

Meanwhile, back at Ubbanford, Reaghan worries, surrounded by  people who hate or despise her, what will happen to her if Beobrand doesn’t return?

Like the previous books, this volume is filled with blood and guts. The reader can have fun counting the different synonyms for blood, although I sometimes find it annoying.

Beobrand is developing as a character. He worries that he is unable to deal with the memories of the death he deals his enemies. The only way he seems to find peace is by more killing, but even revenge cannot sooth his soul. He feels the loss of his hearth companions deeply, they died because of him, he should not have survived. With the loss of his horse as well, I am starting to wonder if his mind can survive this sort of pressure. Where can the author take his character next? It will be interesting to find out.

I started reading the book one evening, I could have finished that night, but I forced myself to stop. I had things to do the next day, but I wanted to prolong the enjoyment. After all, I’ll have to wait many months to read the next instalment, to find out if Beobrand can find peace.

Definitely another five stars.

Book Review – Dunstan

In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day.

At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.

When I noticed this book, by Conn Iggulden, was to be published on 4th May, I was worried. I have written a book and am looking for a publisher. It starts in 937, Dunstan appears in it, although he is not the main character. How would it affect my own book? I had to check out the opposition.

As you can see from the blurb, the book is about Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester and London, ultimately Archbishop of Canterbury – and Saint. He lived through the period when England moved from a collection of minor kingdoms to the country it is today. Some might say this process began with Alfred and completed by his grandson, Æthelstan. Dunstan played his part by reforming the church.

It takes a strong man to do this and the Dunstan we see in this book was certainly strong. I was reminded of the Thomas Cromwell we have met in the books by Hilary Mantel. Both are men from the lower orders. Both achieve high position by their own intelligence and hard work. Both are unpleasant characters who tell their own stories. Mantel’s Cromwell, however nasty, is understandable, even, at times, sympathetic, that is the genius of her books. In this book Dunstan is just plain nasty.

It starts, not in 937, but three years earlier, as the thirteen year old Dunstan is taken to Glastonbury by his elderly father. At the same time his younger brother Wulfric also enters the monastery, but far from looking after him, Dunstan despises his brother. Why? Because he thinks he is weak and Dunstan considers anyone weaker than him is there to be used. Despite Wulfric’s later business success, which mystifies Dunstan, he must drop everything to do his brother’s bidding.

Dunstan rises. He tells us it is because he is lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but we are left to imagine the things he does not mention. The book covers his life and the reigns of seven kings. Dunstan is not interested in battles or even politics, just in how much money he can raise to complete his projects, the Abbey at Glastonbury and Canterbury Cathedral, which he believes will be his legacy. He was an interesting man, with a great interest in science and engineering, never happier than when working in his forge. It should make him more human, but he is too arrogant of his abilities. Everyone is there to serve him. One sentence sums up his attitude: “I have always forgiven my enemies, but only when they have been punished.”

As every hero needs a flaw to make him human;  a monster needs a spark of humanity to gain the reader’s sympathy. The Dunstan revealed in the book has none.

I should rejoice that a ray of light has been shone upon this period. The late tenth century has been comparatively neglected, perhaps because of the lack of major battles, and Dunstan’s is a story that has been waiting to be told. I have read a lot of books set in the Anglo-Saxon period. Most, good or bad, give a flavour of life at that time, this one doesn’t. It could almost have been set in any period.

The author prides himself on the depth of his research; the first person he thanks is his researcher. So why are there so many errors? At one point someone arrived in a pony and trap – yes, there were horses and various types of cart but the expression suggests something other than this period. Elsewhere, someone is searching the crowded streets of Winchester for a girl. He cannot spot her bonnet. Bonnet? Is this a time slip novel and Jane Austin has found her way into the tenth century? Later someone, still in Winchester, looked “up the high street to the cathedral spire in the distance, dominating the city.” Winchester does not have a spire today and, I must admit, I had to look it up, doesn’t appear to ever had one.

I was particularly interested in one event – the death of King Edmund. It forms an important part in my own book. It is described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

A.D. 946. This year King Edmund died, on St. Augustine’s mass
day. That was widely known, how he ended his days: — that Leof
stabbed him at Pucklechurch.

There are not many exact dates, or even places, for events that can be identified during this period. St Augustine’s day is 26th May and Pucklechurch is easily found. So why, in this book, does this important event take place on All Hallows Eve (31st October) and at Winchester? There seems to be no reason to change it. Dunstan then says that Eadred was crowned in May 946 (it was August 16th, that year). If such facts, that can easily be checked, are incorrect, how can we trust the rest of the story?

I suppose the ordinary reader will not care about these details. It covers most of the events of St Dunstan’s life. It gives plausible explanations for the “miracles” performed by him. It has the usual replacement of personal names by more “understandable” versions, although I was a bit distracted by “Beatrice” – apparently a version was around at the time, but, to me, it sounds anachronistic. Apart from the errors, it is well written. At 480 pages I finished it in two days.

Two days when I could have been writing. I managed just over 4k words this week before I switched to reading about Dunstan.

Am I being unfair, because it doesn’t fit with “my” version of the period? I hope not, but I was glad Byrhtnoth wasn’t mentioned in this book – favourably or otherwise. I’m sure that if I didn’t know the period, I would have liked the book. I remember reading and enjoying the author’s Emperor series about Julius Caesar and then reading several of the Conqueror series. I didn’t read them all, I’m not sure why, perhaps I wasn’t interested enough in Genghis Khan etc.

If you want an interesting read about a neglected historical figure, buy the book. If you know anything about Anglo-Saxon history avoid it.

Description – Embellishment or Info-Dump?

How much description do you add to your story?

Do you go into lyrical descriptions of the world surrounding your characters: that fantastic sunset, every detail of that market scene, the name of every bird that sings in the forest as your hero passes on his horse, or every blow in the battle and every drop of blood that falls?

Or is it  ‘Just the facts, ma’am’?

I have been catching up on some reading. I have read two books, both long, both include a lot of description, but with very different results. Both are set in the Anglo-Saxon period.

The first is “Under Lynden Church” by Lindsay Jacob. I am not sure where I first noticed it, but it was £2.64 on Kindle and looked interesting.

It is partly set in modern times. An archaeologist finds a grave, deep below a village church, not far from Cambridge. It is connected, in a way not immediately apparent, to events in the ninth century. It is the time of the Danish invasion, but King Alfred is barely mentioned. This is East Anglia. King Edmund (later St Edmund) is dead. The last of the Wuffingas fights against the Danes, as well as the neighbouring King of Mercia.

Most of the action is set in Ely and the fens, as is some of my book. It had all the signs of being interesting. None of the characters appear to be real people but that is what writers of historical fiction do (all fiction for that matter). They take a situation that might have happened and work it into a story. Nothing wrong with that. This story was good, I wanted to enjoy it, but…

It was hard going, I seemed to be reading it very slowly – it was on my Kindle and the percentage counter never seemed to move. That was when I realised it was 545 pages. I struggled on. There is a lot of description of people struggling through the fens – I felt I was with them every step of the way. I soon wondered if I should give up, but a book has to be exceptionally bad for me to give up. I would go halfway then decide whether to finish it. At that point I was interested enough to carry on and eventually finished it.

I was disappointed, because it could have been so much better. The author had found a good plot, she had obviously done a lot of research, but it was if she had then decided that was it and published everything, in the rough order of the plot, dropping in the “modern” part of the story at random. With a good editor it would have been half the length and a decent read.

For example, the archaeologist meets someone in a pub and there are several pages of the man’s family history, from birth, through school, various jobs, his relationship with his wife, her affair with another man and how they now enjoy sitting at home watching television. It’s not even revealed by conversation and is completely unnecessary.

On the other hand, characters are neglected, ignored for long periods of time, then reappear. Sometimes they have changed, with no explanation of why. Others remain the same throughout, never evolving from their first appearance to the end. I remember a scene of people returning from a battle. A woman is upset, her lover has died. It stopped me in my tracks – her lover? I scrolled back a couple of pages (yes, just a couple) She had arrived at the camp. They must have met because he was there, but there was no mention of a meeting, much less becoming lovers. Why waste page after interminable page of tramping through mud and then throw away such character development. If you want to keep reading, want to find out what happens to the characters, you need to know them.

The characters were too alike. The men were all weak, downtrodden, miserable – apart from the nasty bullies. The women were all heroic – the main character (Emma?) leads the army. Is she the woman in the coffin? Perhaps not, because there are other woman just as worthy. I lost track of all the coffins and burials at the end.Was it the end, I wasn’t sure, and by that time I just didn’t care.

After that, I had to read something else. as you need a glass of water after a large, slightly dry sandwich, all bread and little filling.

Recently I was in the local library. I went there to do some local history research, looking up someone in a directory. To get to the local studies area you have to pass lots of books (they still have a few despite the effort nowadays to fill libraries with computer screens!). I saw a couple of interesting books and checked them out.

This was how I used to read – go to the library – take out as many books as I could – read them – return them – take out more. I sometimes wonder how many books I’ve read over the years, whole series when I found one and liked it. Attracted by a title, not many had attractive covers when I was young, not in the adult section anyway.

The book I took this time was one I had seen mentioned, a review in the paper? A blog or website? Somewhere I had noticed it. This was another Anglo-Saxon book, but set much earlier, in the seventh century, in Northumbria. A popular time and place. The book was “Hild” by Nicola Griffith. It was also long, 640 pages in the Kindle version and costing £6.99. The library book was 625 words and of course, free.

Hild is the story of St Hilda of Whitby. Her early life, from the age of three to… I’m not sure of a her age at the end, late teens? Long before she became a nun and abbess.

Hild was the niece of King Edwin. Her mother brings her up as a seer, she becomes adviser to the king, but it is a precarious position. What will happen to her if she fails to tell him what will happen? There is nothing supernatural about this. An intelligent girl, she trains herself to watch everything and everyone. She roams the countryside, watching the animals, learning about plants, witnessing the weather. As part of the court she watches people, what they think, how they react, how to behave and how to influence them.

The royal court moves regularly. She learns about the different places and watches as they change. Over the years religion changes. Paulinus comes to the north with King Edwin’s new wife. He is determined to convert the pagans to Christianity – his brand of Christianity. He hates the Celtic monks and tries to destroy them. All the time Hild watches, judging, is this new religion good or bad? How will it affect the Kingdom?

Apart from politics, Hild works with the other royal women, in the weaving shed and dairy. With her mother and the queen she helps to set up trading links, both within the north but further afield.

She grows tall, she trains as a warrior, she carries a seax. People fear her because they do not understand her. Her fear is losing the people she loves. She fights to protect them – sometimes violently.

There is much description, but nowhere is it superfluous. The reader stands at Hild’s shoulder, learning with her. The places and countryside, the details of everyday life, what women do, and men. I learned so much of life at that time. I think I will have to buy a copy, just for reference.

But as well as useful, the descriptions are beautiful, like poetry. It was a long book, but I didn’t want it to end.

So, two books. One has taught me how not to write, the other an inspiration to aspire to.

Better get writing again.

Preview – Kin of Cain

Matthew Harffy has written three books in the The Bernicia Chronicles series. They are about Beobrand a young thegn in 7th century Northumbria. You can  read my review of the second in the series, The Cross and the Curse here. The fourth instalment will be published later this year.

kin-of-cainKin of Cain is a novella (86 pages), to be published on 1st March. It is a gobbet of flesh tossed by the author to keep his readers quiet. I had already ordered it, but was offered a ARC for review. It is a prequel to the main series, set several years earlier. Beobrand’s elder brother Octa, is new to the household of King Edwin and desperate to prove himself.

As usual with this author, it is straight into the action. A cheerful winter’s night in the mead hall is interrupted by a scream. It is a simple tale, one of the oldest. An invincible monster roams the land. The king sends his best warriors to destroy it. Octa is pleased to be chosen as one of them, he soon changes his mind. The trail takes them through a mysterious, mist covered marsh, to towering cliffs and thundering seas. Will they catch the monster? Is it an animal, or something else. Can it be killed? Who will die and who survive?

The only fault, for me, is the use of the term “slaughter-dew”, an Old English  kenning. It suggests a bath oil for shield maidens. But with so much blood spilt, another word is definitely needed. It sprinkles on the ground, it drips from torn flesh and smears the blades of weapons.

I loved the twist at the end, where connections are made and loose ends tied.

This is a great book, to be consumed on a winter’s evening in your favourite chair, perhaps with a glass of red. A distraction from the never-ending news of pontificating politicians.

Better still, huddle close to the hearth in your lord’s hall. Sip your mead as the scop recites this song of heroes.

But beware. What is that screaming, out in the winter darkness?

Book Review – The Mercian Brexit

I have discovered a way to keep up with my writing and have time to read as well – read shorter books!

mercian-brexitI recently noticed this short story, subtitled An Anglo-Saxon Short Story of 957, by prolific author M J Porter. How could I resist? It was only £1.19 on Amazon and took only an hour or so to read.

The year is 957. After generations of fighting, England is one country, but King Eadred is dead. The only heirs are his nephews, brothers Eadwig and Edgar.

Eadwig is the eldest and becomes king. He has been brought up in Wessex and he and his advisers favour the south; the former kingdom of Mercia and the rest of the north are useful only to pay taxes and their needs are ignored.

Edgar was brought up by the Ealdorman of East Anglia, he is known in the north and Mercia would prefer him to be their king.

Will England be split once more? Can two kings rule?

This story brings to prominence a single event that will affect the whole future of the country, with more than half an eye on current events.
Eadred tries to make his currency the only one used, Mercia uses its own version.
Haakon, King of Norway visits to talk about trade deals.

I am glad to say that Byrhtnoth gets a mention – his decision will be a major factor in what happens.

The book appears to have been written in a hurry. At one point Edgar’s age is given as sixteen, later he is fourteen. Otherwise, it is an informative glimpse into a little known incident in history and proof that nothing, however important it seems at the time, is ever new.

Finally, to anyone who is interested, my writing last week was on target – 7,167 words over the week. I’m past 35k now, although some will have to be re-written – I brought in a major character who I discovered was in Ireland at the time!

Book Review – Death’s Bright Angel

One of the best things about the recent Historical Novel Society Conference was the Bookstall and the opportunity to buy a book and get it signed by the author.

I bought a few books, not too many – at least I could still lift my suitcase when I departed. Since the conference coincided with the 350th Anniversary of the Great Fire of London, I bought two books on that theme. I might buy a third; the reading by C. C. Humphreys at the Gala Dinner whetted my appetite.

I will write reviews of them all, but I start with Death’s Bright Angel by J. D. Davies. I didn’t actually buy this at the Conference. I had ordered it and intended to meet the author to get it signed. The book was released on 30th August but it didn’t arrive until after I had left home – thank you Amazon! I understand that copies arrived at the conference bookstall eventually.

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Part of my haul from HNSOxford16

Death’s Bright Angel is the sixth in the Quinton Journals series by J D Davies and Matthew Quinton has learned a few things. In the first of this series this Gentleman Captain knew nothing about sailing a ship – now he does. The book opens with a battle, a duel rather, between two ships. England is at war with both Holland and France and Matthew is searching the North Sea for their fleets. The ship he finds is French and they fight it out, cannons blazing and blood staining the decks, until one surrenders. Matthew wins, but his ship is damaged.

This theme continues. Success, but at a cost. He enthusiastically helps to burn the Dutch merchant fleet, an action to hit the economy of Holland and perhaps provoke rebellion. The destruction of a nearby, innocent village causes him to think again.

He is summoned back to England by the King and tasked with investigating a possible Dutch plot against the country. His pregnant wife is angry. She is Dutch and Matthew has bankrupted her father – his ships were among those burned. She has more to worry about when she discovers that her husband is working with the beautiful and enticing Aphra Behn, writer and secret agent. As the heat rises in early September 1666, Matthew Quinton, racked with guilt, must find the conspirators. What do they plan?

A fire starts in London, the East wind blows, the fire spreads. Should Matthew help to fight the fire or save his wife? Did the Dutch start the fire, or do they plan something worse?

This book is a thrilling race against time, combining action with a vast knowledge about the period. Historical characters make their appearances, King Charles II and his brother James, Samuel Pepys buries his cheese. The reader is there, in London during the Great Fire, walking, or rather running, through the streets, dodging the flames, pulling down houses and rescuing innocent people from xenophobic mobs.

There is more to this book, though, than a good read. Instead of the usual historical notes at the end, there is an essay, raising new theories about the causes of the Great Fire of London. The author is an expert on the period and has looked into original documents. When you consider that the burning of the Dutch ships occurred only two weeks before London’s fire, it would be difficult to conclude that there was no connection. Or perhaps it was just an out of control baker’s fire.

Two books for the price of one – what more could you want?

My next review will be The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor