Rating: 4 Stars
I received a free copy of this book from the author, G.K. Holloway, in exchange for an honest review.
Yes, another fiction text! This was one I knew I'd not be able to say no to. My love for Anglo-Saxon England would not allow such nonsense. I was interested to see how fiction authors deal with all the mysteries surrounding 1066 - particularly that of the succession of Harold, whether or not he swore any oath to William, and Harold's unfortunate death.
I might also say ahead of time, that I think it is terribly unfortunate that Harold was never able to reach his full potential as king. By the majority of the non-fiction accounts I have read thus far, they indicate Harold was a fair and just ruler and it is always intriguing to me to wonder how England might look now had William not been successful and the Plantagenet dynasty never followed. I also find that fiction or non-fiction, I really loathe William the Conqueror. Really, I mean I just hate him so much. I know war in the middle ages was awful and horrible atrocities were committed and it almost seems worse somehow, and it seems quite strange to hate someone who lived 1,000 years before me, but I do.
From the get-go I was drawn into this novel, which traces the events from Edward the Confessor's marriage to Edith, Harold's sister, to the many trials and tribulations (some very rightfully deserved) of the Godwinsons, to Harold's oath, Edward's death, and then the devastating battles that ensued as Harold's country was attacked both by his own brother, and the man he supposedly promised to support for the crown.
Something I appreciated before the text was a list of main characters, because even with my background in non-fiction, man those Anglo-Saxon names are a trip and it is almost impossible to keep everyone straight. One thing I am interested in looking into more is how many of the characters were actual people and how many might have either been invented or a combination of real people. Obviously not the most well-known historical figures, but the supporting ones. This list of characters would be especially helpful for those who are unfamiliar with, or just learning about the time period.
One aspect of the story I was supremely excited to see was the inclusion of Edward the Exile, Edmund Ironside's younger son. In so many of the non-fiction books I read that cover the larger history of England, even Edmund Ironside himself doesn't always get a mention. So, Edward and his brother (also named Edmund) rarely make appearances unless it is a specific text devoted wholly to this time period. This was incredibly important to me, as it shows the thoroughness of the research necessary to write a great historical novel of such and important and turbulent time in England's history. The only part that bothered me was the statement about Edward the Exile 'dropping dead' not long after arriving back in England from his exile in Hungary (where it is believed that he and his brother spent the majority of the lives, having been spirited out of England in order to escape being murdered by Cnut after their father Ironside's ((likely)) murder). Unfortunately there are theories that either Harold himself, or someone in his family, had Edward the Exile murdered to stop him from succeeding Edward the Confessor. Since the Exile's son Edgar was considered too young to rule, another obstacle was cleared for Harold. I wish this aspect had been explored a little more, though it just may be that there is so little evidence as to how Edward the Exile died, the author's best bet was to simply say he died and move on.
One of the parts I was most interested in was how the author would portray the meeting between Harold and William in Normandy, after Harold's capture by Count Guy. Controversy has swirled around this meeting for nearly one thousand years. I don't doubt that Harold swore an oath to support William's claim, but I am inclined to believe it was under duress. If Harold's life was being threatened, or the life of his nephews who were hostages of William's, Harold would have had no choice. There is also the matter of whether or not Harold swore the oath over the holy relics in William's possession, which would have made the oath irrevocable; it has been posited that the relics were hidden within the table/casket and Harold did not actually know he was swearing on them. Within this text, it is presented as a Harold being drugged in some way, combined with the fact that he was repeatedly kept from seeing/retrieving his nephews. Eventually when Harold is about to depart, knowing that he has been made to swear an oath he does not intend to keep, he still is only able to take one of the boys with him. I have no doubt that treachery by Williams abounded in this situation (just as Harold himself used treacherous means to achieve his own ends in other situations), and that Harold did not willingly support the claim. How could he, when he was angling for the crown himself? I found the portrayal of these scenes accurate and interesting; again the research behind the novel is evident.
One thing that is difficult for me - in any fiction text that relies on it - is the sheer amount of dialogue that occurs toward the middle to later third of the novel. This is most likely a personal thing, as I am typically a non-fiction reader, so I do not often have to deal with dialogue. It has been a while since I have read much fiction at all, so I don't know how much would be considered too much, but toward the middle it seemed to get especially heavy. Yes, I know dialogue is necessary in fiction, but my brain is wired mainly for non-fiction so it takes some getting used to for me. Additionally, I did find some of the dialogue to be out of place, or word-use was simply incorrect for the time period. This will be less noticeable for those with less knowledge of 1066 England, but the instances were noticeable to me. There were not many, so this is not a major issue.
After Harold and his men won at Stanford Bridge, it was hard for me to keep reading, but only because I knew what awaited him at Hastings. While Harold was no saint, I do believe that having been chosen by the Witan, and given the controversy surround his trip to Normandy, he was the rightful king and William the usurper. But I can hardly fault him completely, given what would play out in England for the next 400+ years, culminating in the dawn of the Tudor dynasty. As for the text, the battle scenes are written well, and you almost feel as though you are there while you are reading. Leading up to Hastings we also see what William and his men are up to, raping, murdering, and pillaging as they go. There is a particular that was very difficult for me and I ended up skipping over involving the murder of an infant. I do not stomach scenes like this very well, especially being a mom to a young child. I ended up skipping over most of the text having to do with the activities of William's men. I know soldiers and mercenaries did terrible things, as they continue to do in our lifetime, and whether or not this actual event occurred, I did not even want to subject myself to reading it. This is the mark of a talented writer though - evoking strong emotions such as mine indicate Holloway has done something quite right, and it made me even angrier at William and his invasion.
So, in summary, I can recommend this novel for those interested in the time period and the people, my dear Anglo-Saxons, who inhabited England before the Norman Invasion. I personally always say to start with non-fiction first so you have an idea of what the 'historical' parts are vs, the 'fiction' parts. This is an engaging, lively novel that will bring history to life for you, and if you are already well-acquainted with the period, you will find many figures you know and love - or in my case with William, abhor!