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review 2014-07-28 19:23
Review: Conquest, Making of England #1 by Stewart Binns
Conquest - Stewart Binns

This is probably going to be seen as a guilty pleasure and I have glanced at reviews which would suggest it is quite possibly not all that cool to say (a bit like admitting to thinking The Da Vinci Code was one hell of a rattling good and enjoyable read, which is was, you know it), but … I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Yes, I can see what is wrong with it, but as a whole, it holds together nicely, and with a relatively unobtrusive style and is an all round rattling good tale.


Of course, I’ve come across Hereward several times. Several recent book series have featured the 11th Century Fenland Terror. James Aitcheson has had him in his tale. James Wilde has written three, soon to be four, excellent novels based on him and his exploits, real or imagined. The brilliant Marc Morris, in his The Norman Conquest non-fiction look at the people who brought you 1066 and all that, mentions Hereward several times and provides a good look at all the facts, the few there are, about him, as well as mentioning some of the more speculative stories. Whether you come from other books to Marc’s book, or go from there to other Herward stories, you can see that (amongst others) the two James’ do at least touch base with what is ‘known.’ As does Stewart Binns here. However, and perhaps even more than James Wilde (at least until I’ve slapped some peepers on #4 ‘The Wolves of New Rome’), he picks up the Hereward ball and runs more than a little further with it. Wilde and Binns both seem to agree on Hereward’s struggle with his anger issues, but they solve them in different ways. I don’t think James Wilde has his Hereward at Senlac Hill, nor does James Aitcheson. Their Herewards only really come front of stage in the period after Hastings. I think both Binns and Wilde are also implying that Hereward, real person or not, is possibly the source for the later development of the Robin Hood myth. Something that possibly Robert Holdstock might like to comment on (if he hasn’t already done so and quite honestly, after struggling through the stream of consciousness nonsense that was most of Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory, I finally let him go his own way) in a ‘Mythago Wood’ novel. I don't know.


The story begins, perhaps surprisingly, in the mountains of Greece. To where the heir to the Eastern Roman Empire, travels in search of enlightenment from a legendary old warrior, now turned hermit. Turns out, the old warrior knew the Prince’s father, fought for him in the Varangian Guard. The warrior is now 82, but instead of giving the Prince the One to Ten of what to do, tells him a story, from which he can draw his own lessons from. It is the warrior’s life story.


You’ve guessed by this point, that the old hermit, is Hereward, though he does seem to have the name Godwin for some reason. He begins telling his story from his wild childhood days, through his rebellious youth, to adulthood and maturity, through many of the period’s historic milestones his lifespan has encompassed. He was, of course, at Hastings and tried to rally the English forces thereafter, but had to, in the end, leave and travel abroad.


There are several nice touches. Here, Hereward has to persuade a reluctant Harold to take the throne. Where Harold actually sympathises with Edward’s position and therefore, William’s claims. You can see, with some of the incidents that go on in Harold and Hereward’s time in Normandy, where some of the tactics they would later use against William, come from, for instance. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence for any of the above, though if I remember rightly, James Wilde does have Hereward on the continent before Hastings. Here, Edward, on his deathbed, makes Harold his successor. Again found in other books and history. After the rebellion dies out, Hereward agrees to go abroad (James Wilde has his Hereward meeting William, but only after the battle, Morris says there is a legend that they met), to save England from further turmoil and anguish at William’s hands, but that could be blamed on Hereward.


As a whirlwind tour of the period’s hotspots and big names, in Britain and (the rest of) Europe, it is undoubtably a great read. Some of the people he meets, may be stretching it a little, but then I don’t know enough about (for instance) Spanish folk-law to comment with any certainty. In that respect, it read a little like Tim Severin’s Viking trilogy, just crammed into one book. Severin has one Viking journeying to all the places associated with the Vikings’ history, meeting most of the big players and generally living the fullest life imaginable (another excellent read/guilty pleasure if you’re one of the costumes and corset Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction lilly-livers elsewhere on Goodreads). Maybe this is like that but on steroids, having to pack it all into one book and all. And it can feel a bit mechanical for that. Like he had to check all the names and places of his list and he was damned if he wasn’t going to get them all in! The stuff about a mystical talisman too, I could have done without. Never liked fantasy elements creeping in to what essentially wants to be read like a true story. Takes it all on a bit of a seers and sages trip. It’s better when it has even its tenuous grip on reality. But, people of the time believed in all that and the One God to rule them all hadn’t replaced the touching of wood to ask for the help of the spirit who lived in that wood … still hasn’t really, has it?


So, it gets a solid three stars from me. However, it gets a fourth star solely for mentioning, on several occasions (starting on page 385) the Bishop of Aarhus. Why? Well, that’s the town in Denmark where I now live! Cool, eh? It is Scandinavian’s oldest town, I read today, though in Viking times, was called ‘Aros.’ However, I haven’t checked when the name changed, so I can’t call young Stewart B. on it. Not that anyone would know where a town called ‘Aros’ was…hmm…not that namy people know where Aarhus is, so much of a muchness.


Leave your ego at the front cover and enjoy a good romping read. I for one will certainly be getting hold of the next in what I think is a trilogy. These sort of things usually are.

Oh yeah, read the dedication at the start. A very interesting, quite possibly unique, sentiment. I’ve not come across its like before. Proves his heart’s in the right place, whatever you think of the rest of the book.

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review 2014-05-13 17:32
Cold Heart, Cruel Hand: A Novel Of Hereward The Wake and The Fen Rebellion of 1070-1071 by Laurence J. Brown, Derek Richardson
Cold Heart, Cruel Hand: A Novel Of Hereward The Wake and The Fen Rebellion of 1070-1071 - Laurence J. Brown,Derek Richardson

bookshelves: published-2004, historical-fiction, conflagration, britain-england, medieval5c-16c, revenge, war, norfolk, paper-read

Read in June, 2009

My cover is unavailable on GR:

Dedication: For Kaye, with love

Front Quote:

Cold heart and cruel hand
Now rule across the land

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles


They left York by the Jubber Gate, what remained of it, like thieves in the night. Behind them smoke from the blackened timbers of the burning City billowed skywards, choking the night air, obscuring the moon, covering their escape.

[..]the fens, a stinking wilderness of sky and mud. It was rumoured that the fen dwellers had webbed feet, that nature had intervened to prevent them sinking into the endless marshland.

Sweyn II Estridson (Svend Estridsen) April 28, 1074

A great fictional read about a very obscure part of English medieval history, although a proof reader would not have gone amiss and the book length may have been reduced by, say, four pages if all the modern curses had been taken away. But I loved it, all those 'bloody' villains - and what about the coracle action to set the bridge aflame.

Yes, loves me some neat coracle action.

Seeing that history can never be construed as a spoiler, I will add that Hereward ultimately loses the battle to keep the Isle of Ely out of The Conqueror's hands.

3.5* upped to 4* for a great hero.

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review 2012-12-23 00:00
The Sound of Shiant
The Sound of Shiant - Hereward L M Proop... The Sound of Shiant - Hereward L M Proops It's hard to know how to categorise this. It's historical fiction, certainly, and it's a murder mystery complete with investigating detective, and there's enough paranormal flavour to make it (I suppose) fantasy, so take your pick. The setting is Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and the dialogue is littered with plausible Scottish dialect and Gaelic, but don't let that put you off, because it's all very easy to read.

The plot is simple. It's 1882, and policeman Edmund Forrester is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young man from a fishing boat. The boat owner swears he fell overboard during a storm, but the victim's parents think there's more to it and the incident occurred in the Sound of Shiant, a mysterious body of water near the Shiant Islands hedged about with rumour and myth. Naturally, as soon as the hero begins to investigate, he's faced with opposition and downright obstruction from most of the locals, with a few more helpful souls and even just a teaspoonful of romance (sort of). Oh, and there’s a comic relief sidekick, as well.

My biggest problem with the book is the historical details. I don't know what Stornoway was like in 1882, so I'll assume the author's done his research there (although I did wonder a bit at the idea of pubs with booths), and London's Metropolitan Police did indeed have a Criminal Investigation Department and a small number of Detective Inspectors at that time (although only just). And all the characters seemed to smoke cigarettes constantly which seemed a bit unlikely. It was the divorce that got me. Forrester is divorced from his wife, yet he attends her second wedding, which takes place in church with the bride wearing a white dress amidst the usual celebrations. Why did they divorce? Because he devoted too much attention to his job.

Now divorce in 1882 was a very rare business indeed (a few hundred cases a year), and involved proving in court adultery, cruelty, desertion, bigamy or something equally major (and no, being obsessive about your work was not one of the allowable causes). There was always blame (one spouse had to sue the other for divorce), and even a hundred years later it was incredibly unusual and stigmatising for both parties. To this day it remains difficult to remarry in church (in England, anyway; Scotland is a little different). As for the white dress - you had to be rich to wear anything so impractical (even for a first wedding). It's not that any of this was actually impossible, I don't suppose, but the implausibility of it grated on me, and I almost gave up at that point.

What kept me going was the setting, the beautifully described Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides, or nowadays Na h-Eileanan Siar) and the waters round about. There was Gaelic and dialect scattered about everywhere, which seemed to my inexpert ears to sound exactly right. My Gaelic is negligible, but even so I recognised a few phrases and even spotted the odd occasion where a character mistranslated for the non-Gaelic-speaking main character.

Unfortunately, a nice way with language isn’t enough, and the book was a disappointment to me on almost every other level. The murder mystery wasn’t any mystery at all, the supernatural aspects were revealed in the prologue and the ‘hero’ is one of the most uninteresting and unlikeable I’ve ever come across. Determination to get to the bottom of things is a fine quality in a detective, but in this case it manifests as an aggressive refusal to give up, wilful disregard for his own or anyone else’s safety and some breathtakingly stupid decisions. Plus he decided at an early stage that the supernatural element was involved, even when he was told repeatedly that such things belonged to mythology. It’s an odd thing when the sophisticated English detective is more superstitious than the traditional islanders. A strange book. I couldn’t get past the improbabilities, but for those with a better developed ability to suspend disbelief this is a perfectly readable little story. Two stars for the atmospheric setting and the Gaelic.
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review 2012-03-25 00:00
Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adve... Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adventures - Garth Nix A cute little e-collection from Garth Nix, with a novella (the best of the set) and two short stories. Its strength is in the world-building and Nix's deft character development, particularly for Mister Fitz. However, this definitely has the feel of a work in progress; at the moment it's picaresque and the action, while entertaining and enjoyable, doesn't seem to advance the plot or maturation (though it's hinted that Mister Fitz becomes a darker character, and Sir Hereward more ambivalent about him and their mission over time). While not a young adult piece, I really fail to see why it needs a warning that it's intended for adults. Yes, there are some gooey deaths and references to sexual behavior, but it's pretty tame compared to something like Bella and Edward's pillow-snapping sex in Breaking Dawn.
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review 2011-12-09 00:00
Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adventures
Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adventures - Garth Nix Katharine is a judge for the Aurealis Awards. This review is the personal opinion of Katharine herself, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of any judging panel, the judging coordinator or the Aurealis Awards management team. To be safe, I won't be recording my review here until after the AA are over.It if had been longer, I think I would have enjoyed it more. It seemed a little dull without the chance to build up to what happened, and basically seemed like it was still a work in progress. However, it has potential.
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