Wulfgar: Book I
I seem to be drawn to early medieval historical fiction at the moment. The Bone Thief has been floating on the edge of my awareness for a while so, when I spotted it at the library the other day, I decided it was time to find out more about it. Happily, it turned out to offer a useful sequel both to the tale of (St) Oswald told in the novels of Edoardo Albert, and to the story of Alfred’s struggle against the Danes, as narrated by Bernard Cornwell in the Uhtred novels. It’s a perfectly engaging adventure story, even if I couldn’t escape the niggling feeling that the characters never quite come to life.
Set in 900 AD, The Bone Thief follows Wulfgar, subdeacon at Worcester Cathedral and a devoted adherent of Athelfled, Lady of Mercia and daughter of the late Alfred of Wessex. When the Lady’s husband falls seriously ill, and Mercia comes under the predatory gaze of Athelfled’s brother, Edward of Wessex, it’s decided that the vulnerable kingdom needs some divine help. Mercia has no powerful saints of its own, so the Bishop decrees that one should be imported. And who better than St Oswald, whose resting place at Bardney has been once again taken by the Danes? The saint’s tomb has been desecrated, but whispers have now reached Mercia that his relics were safely smuggled out of the church beforehand.
The Bishop decides that Wulfgar, who speaks a little Danish, is the perfect candidate to go north and rescue the bones of this mighty saint. It’s not the most obvious choice. Wulfgar is in his mid-twenties (though he often comes across as younger) and is still scarred from a childhood of being bullied by his vicious half-brother, Garmund Polecat. A West Saxon by birth (and thus an object of suspicion for any sensible Mercian), he has come to Mercia with the Lady, whom he adores hopelessly from afar. As Wulgar is clearly unable to defend himself, the Bishop sends him off with Ednoth of Sodbury, a belligerent young landowner. Yet this already dangerous mission is complicated further when Athelfled’s cousin, the charismatic and ambitious Athelwald Seiriol, asks Wulfgar to deliver some secret messages for him to Danish friends in the North.
Initially I thought this was going to be an odd-couple journey, with Wulgar and Ednoth slowly getting to know one another and to rely on each other. I looked forward to the development of an easy, bantering partnership such as I’ve enjoyed in many other books. But in fact these two are rapidly joined by others: by Father Ronan, a worldly and pragmatic priest from Leicester, and the shrewd Gunnvor Bollandottir. I wasn’t all that convinced by the idea that these two, especially Gunnvor, would have so rapidly thrown in their hand with these scrappy young innocents from Mercia. She, in particular, seemed to be predominantly a plot device to help the relic-seekers on their way, and also as an object of frustrated desire for poor Wulfgar. While Wulfgar himself did develop across the course of the book, becoming more self-confident, I didn’t feel that Ednoth had much characterisation at all. Although I felt sure that he and Wulfgar would be the central characters, Ednoth was marginalised after the arrival of the others and doesn’t have much to do beyond sulk, pick fights and generally prove himself entirely unsuited to the role of discreet escort. As regards the plot, there are also some highly convenient deus ex machina moments, which feel convenient rather than plausible.
I have no idea how this book was marketed, but for me it feels more like a young-adult novel than a fully fledged entrant on the historical fiction scene. That’s not to say it’s bad; far from it – I enjoyed it – but it does focus very much on Wulfgar’s psychological growth from boy to man (as I said, he comes across as much younger than his purported age). If I think about it in retrospect, Wulfgar is an entirely inappropriate person to have sent on this kind of quest, where someone older, more capable and lower-key would have been ideal. Indeed, the only more unlikely person to send on sch a mission would be Ednoth. One is left wondering about the Bishop’s good sense, as these two inexperienced young men blunder their way through the Danelaw like firebrands in a powder store.
Having said all this, Whitworth has evidently done her research. The author’s note at the back discusses the historical sources for her story (scanty, like all other evidence from Anglo-Saxon England) and her decision to introduce tension between Wessex and Mercia. I emphasise again: this isn’t a bad novel, just a little light and requiring the odd suspension of disbelief. If you’re in search of a historical adventure for the summer, it might be just the thing for a long journey or a beach read. And it’s the first book in a series: the sequel, The Traitor’s Pit is also out, but there hasn’t been any more to date. Whitworth has, however, more recently, published Daughter of the Wolf, which is set in Northumbria in 859, and looks well worth a read.