Hereward: Book I
It’s been a while since I spent some quality time with a murderous early medieval Englishman. Unfortunately I don’t have any more Uhtred books lying around just at the moment, so I’ve had to transfer my allegiance to an equally bloodthirsty kinsman of his: Hereward. In this first volume of a series, James Wilde tells the story of the legendary Saxon warrior who became the figurehead of rebellions against the Normans after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s pretty sound sword-and-shield stuff, with bloody battles, an odd-couple pairing at its heart and a maverick hero. It doesn’t ever transcend that, but it’s an engaging way to encounter this rather dark period of English history.
In November 1062, two fugitives meet in the ravaged village of Gedley in Northumbria. One is the monk Alric, trying to outrun a vicious band of Vikings led by the formidable Harald Redteeth. The other is Hereward, whose first appearance surging out of a pool of blood belies his noble birth – but gives a good idea of his innate savagery. Joining forces against their common enemies, the ill-matched companions struggle to safety and realise that their paths lie in the same direction, at least as far as Eoferwic. And so they set out, each battling his own demons. Alric is tormented by the memory of an accidental murder; Hereward by false accusations and a desire for vengeance. The young monk believes he has found a way to do penitence for his sins, by bringing the tortured soul of this warrior to God. Needless to say, Hereward disagrees:
In my dreams, I see the path ahead littered with corpses. I must cross rivers of blood beneath a sky lit by fire. No peace for me, churchman, and peace is all your kind speak of. Our ways lead in different directions. I go to the setting sun, where the dead wait. You face the dawn.
And yet friendship has an odd way of growing out of difference. In Eoferwic, as Hereward struggles to make a place for himself among the men of the hated Earl Tostig, Alric believes they might at last be able to find peace. But popular unrest is growing, and the imposition of the southerner Tostig as Lord of Northumbria is as a spark to kindling. Wherever Hereward goes, it seems, trouble is never far behind. And England at this period is nothing but trouble. As Tostig faces rebellion in the north, his brother Harold Godwinson prowls impatiently around the court of the elderly King Edward, hoping to be named the heir to the throne. But Edward isn’t such a fool as everyone believes, and his hatred for the over-mighty Godwinsons has pushed him into making overtures to the ferocious William the Bastard of Normandy. Of course, a Norman can never be permitted to sit on the throne of England… but it looks as though William hasn’t got this memo.
Hereward and his peers are certainly living in interesting times, and yet Wilde’s pacing is sometimes rather odd. After so much focus on the politics and ambitions of Harold Godwinson, the climactic battles of Stamford Bridge and even Hastings itself feel rather rushed and crammed in. One gets the feeling that Wilde isn’t actually that interested in them – he knows they have to be there, because they’re the link between the ‘old’ England and the new Norman domain. But his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it. I suppose it felt peculiar because this genre usually revels in lavish, sprawling battle scenes… but Wilde’s interest seems to be in the less formal encounters between Hereward and his enemies – whether those are Vikings, Frisians, or the Normans.
The characterisation wasn’t always as rich as it could have been – it’s very much on a par with Cornwell’s character development in the Uhtred series, in fact – and I regret to say that female characters are few and far between, and don’t blossom much beyond being wives or love interests, no matter how cunning or clever we’re told that they are. There’s also a surprising shift of pace halfway through the book, where the odd-couple bond between Hereward and Alric – which I’d assumed would drive the novel with its clash of worldviews – seems to slip onto the sidelines, and Wilde suddenly becomes much more interested in Redwald, who was relatively minor beforehand. If I continue the series, it’ll be interesting to see how that develops further down the line. And I hope Alric gets a bit more to do, because at the moment he doesn’t seem to do much except pray for Hereward’s soul (which is never appreciated) and fall into swamps. Monks, eh?
At the risk of sounding pedantic, the writing didn’t always flow as smoothly as it could have done, with some odd choices: ‘weaved’ rather than ‘wove’ was one which rather jarred. But I fully accept that one doesn’t read a book like this for its literary gloss. One reads it for vengeance and hall-burnings, battles, shield-walls and the protagonist’s frankly implausible ability to take out large numbers of much better-armed enemies. As such, this ticks many of the boxes and, even if it isn’t on the same level as Ben Kane or Manda Scott, it’s a perfectly solid read for those wanting a little Dark Age berserkery. Hereward teeters on the point of becoming rather intriguing – a kind of proto Robin Hood with anger-management issues – and, if his proud statement at the end of this novel is anything to go by, the stakes will only get higher and the battles more savage:
I will bring terror. I will bring blood. And England will be made free once more.
Has anyone read any of Wilde’s other series, out of interest? If so, what did you make of his writing style there? Did they flow more easily? Were there strong female characters alongside the sword-toting mavericks? I’m not sure if and when I’ll get onto his other work, as there are six books in the Hereward series (at least?), but it’s good to be prepared. And a change is as good as a rest. Let me know your thoughts…