Daughter of the Wolf: Victoria Whitworth

★★★½

This is the most recent novel by Victoria or V.M. Whitworth, also author of the Wulgar novels. I wasn’t entirely blown away by The Bone Thief, but I found much more to enjoy in this story set in what’s becoming a rather familiar world: Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It is 859 AD, two centuries after the days of Edwin and Oswald, and while King Osberht maintains an uneasy peace from York, his noblemen quietly test their strength and the sea-wolves harry the eastern coast. In Donmouth, where a hall and minster both fall under the authority of the lord’s family, Radmer and his feckless younger brother Ingeld divide worldly and heavenly power between them. And Radmer’s daughter Elfrun, struggling to make the transition from girl-child to woman, is about to find herself elevated to a terrifying level of responsibility.

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The Bone Thief: V.M. Whitworth

★★★

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.

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Dunstan: Conn Iggulden

★★★★

This was a welcome chance to delve back into the unfamiliar world of early medieval England, as well as a long-overdue introduction to the writing of Conn Iggulden. Several of his other novels are waiting on my shelves and it’s just chance that Dunstan got there first. I should add that I knew nothing about St Dunstan before reading this, although if I had, I would surely have felt a kind of proprietary interest in him, as a local Somerset lad and the man responsible for Glastonbury Abbey’s first flowering. Iggulden gives us a thoroughly worldly saint, shrewd, ambitious and unscrupulous, very rarely sympathetic and yet always fascinating: the partial architect of a new, united England.

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The Half-Drowned King: Linnea Hartsuyker

★★★½

The Norway Trilogy: Book I

This rollicking tale of Viking adventure opens with oar-dancing in the first sentence, which boded very well for the rest of the story. Based on the sagas of Harald Fairhair written by Snorri Sturluson in his Heimskringla in the 13th century, it looks back to the Norway of the late 9th century, a fragmented peninsula of petty kings and ruthless raiders. Focusing on the stories of a brother and sister fighting to realise their destinies, it’s an engaging tale spiced with the beliefs of medieval Scandinavia.

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The Winter Isles: Antonia Senior

★★★★

Lyrical and heartfelt, this novel set in 12th-century Scotland feels like a natural successor to King Hereafter. It occupies much the same territory, following the ambitious young lord Somerled as he negotiates the rivalries and alliances of the Western Isles and develops a name for himself as a fearless warrior. Based on a figure who is as tantalising a blend of history and myth as Macbeth himself, it’s a novel that lingers on the feel of the wild land and the yawning breadth of the playful, fearsome, lovely sea, despite the occasional savagery of its battle scenes. With characters you truly grow to care about, and with a wonderful star-crossed love story at its heart, it’s a rewarding read.

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Oswiu: King of Kings: Edoardo Albert

★★★★

The Northumbrian Thrones: Book III

In this third and (currently) last instalment in The Northumbrian Thrones, the ramifications of Oswald‘s untimely death spread across the feuding kingdoms of Britain. It is now 642 AD and the unification that seemed within reach during the reign of Edwin has crumbled away. Even Northumbria is no longer united. Oswald’s younger brother Oswiu faces a long, hard battle to secure his kingship against the mightiest ruler in the land: Penda, ambitious and ruthless king of Merica. But Oswiu has one advantage that Penda lacks: the posthumous, miracle-working reputation of the murdered Oswald.

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Oswald: Return of the King: Edoardo Albert

★★★★

The Northumbrian Thrones: Book II

Having warmed to Albert’s Edwin in its second half, I was keen to follow the struggle for Northumbria into its next generation. Oswald opens in 633, with High King Edwin’s death in battle against Penda of Mercia, and Cadwallon of Gwynned. His fall throws his kingdom’s future into the balance as predators circle the vacant throne. Cadwallon would have Northumbria as a client kingdom, but there are still men living who have the right to rule as independent kings. These come from two rival families: the Yffings (descendants of Edwin) and the Idings (descendants of Edwin’s predecessor, Aethelfrith). And whoever becomes king must now face up to this new power that has grown, unchecked, in the west. Northumbria desperately needs a worthy leader, but the one who can best answer that call is, ironically, the one claimant who wants nothing less than to be a king.

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Edwin: High King of Britain: Edoardo Albert

★★★½

The Northumbrian Thrones: Book I

There’s a bit of a thrill in reading a story whose exact dates are lost in the mists of time. In this first novel of Albert’s series, we are in the early years of the 7th century, perhaps in 616 or thereabouts. The Romans are long gone, leaving their ruins and their roads behind them; the raiders from the east have yet to come over the grey whale-road. Britain is split into kingdoms, roughly following the lines of the old tribal lands from the days of Boudica. But times are changing. A man who has moved from host to host, keeping one step ahead of the king who wants to kill him, has a dream of a united country, its petty kings subject to one overarching High King. It’s a grand dream, for a man who doesn’t even have a single kingdom to his name yet, but Edwin is shrewd and brave and has loyal men. As he inches his way back to power, his own rise is mirrored by that of a new religion, brought over from the Franks: a religion which will change the face of Britain forever.

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Blood Feud: Rosemary Sutcliff

★★★★

After starting my Sutcliff journey with Sword at Sunset, I always intended to read The Eagle of the Ninth next, but things didn’t quite happen as planned. I have a lot of great big thick books lying around at the moment and, while hunting for something short as a kind of palate-cleanser between epics, I unearthed this little novel. It was allegedly written for children but, in the tradition of the best children’s literature, it’s equally rewarding to read as a grown-up. In fewer than two hundred pages, Sutcliff spins a stirring tale of honour, bravery and adventure, the Viking sea road and the golden domes of Byzantium. How could I resist?

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Meadowland: Thomas Holt

★★★

John Stetathus doesn’t want to go to Sicily. As a fretful middle-aged accountant in the Byzantine civil service in 1036, the last thing he wants to do is to leave his comfy life in Constantinople, and traipse off overland to supervise the delivery of the pay packet to the Emperor’s troops. But he has ‘a knack for languages and a fatal tendency to listen to people‘, so his fate is sealed. And what makes it even worse is that there isn’t any decent company on the way. All he has are three Varangian guards: great brutish Northerners who don’t offer the slightest hope of civilised conversation. But travel wears a man down and so, one night (having a knack for languages), he begins in desperation to talk to them.

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