The Voyage of the Short Serpent: Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

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Hereward: James Wilde

★★★

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.

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Gentlemen of the Road: Michael Chabon

★★★★★

First of all, a very Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and that the new year brings you all sorts of splendid things. For my own part, 2018 has arrived hand-in-hand with well-meaning resolutions, such as easing off on book-buying. I have such a treasure-trove of things to read that I could quite happily spend the entire year reading books I already own, and that’s doubly true because I received some fabulous things for Christmas. The best presents, as always, are those you don’t expect and this lovely little book, a gift from J, displayed a startling understanding of my psyche: here is adventure, derring-do, disguise, intrigue, sardonic wit and rich, luscious prose, all bundled together in 200 pages of 10th-century adventure on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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Eaters of the Dead: Michael Crichton

★★★★

We all know not to judge books by their covers (even if we still do it), and this is a very good example of why it can be dangerous to do so. Both title and cover suggest this is a gruesome horror story. A quick glance at online reviews shows that some readers have been (legitimately) baffled to find themselves, instead, reading a pastiche of an academic text edition, complete with introduction, footnotes and bibliography. They’ve responded with low ratings and that’s a shame, because this novel is a daring blend of fact and fiction: a pseudo-intellectual sleight of hand which playfully offers a historical ‘source’ for the greatest of Western medieval legends: Beowulf.

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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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