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review 2014-09-11 00:00
The Splintered Kingdom (The Bloody Aftermath of 1066, #2)
The Splintered Kingdom (The Bloody Aftermath of 1066, #2) - James Aitcheson Goodreads First-read.

Second in a series of historical fiction, part of trilogy of the Norman conquest of England. This book is a solid stand-alone novel (though I am the type that usually only reads a series from the first book, in this case, I will go back and read the first book before the third comes out). Once the exposition is set, the plot moves smoothly and quickly. Tancred, the hero (or anti-hero?), is a complex man. I really want to know what I missed about him in the first book. At times he makes decisions that most 21st century Westerners would not, but his reasoning is valid for his time and place. Towards the end it became a page turner and I forced myself not to read the teaser for the third book in the series.
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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 2014-05-16 16:41
Review: The Splintered Kingdom by James Aitcheson
The Splintered Kingdom - James Aitcheson

My name is Tancred. And I am your death.

In this action packed novel, the reader is drawn into the world of Tancred a Dinant in the years following the Norman invasion of England. It is easy to believe that after the battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror simply marched into England and lived happily ever after. In Splintered Kingdom, author James Aitcheson, exposes the truth about this period.

Tancred is everything a medieval knight is expected to be. He is brave to the point of recklessness, loyal to his lord and king, and ready to welcome a bloody death . . . . but not yet. He is ruthless with his enemies, but willing to stand up for those who are weak. Brash and impetuous, Tancred sometimes creates his own problems, but reader cannot help but cheer for him.

This novel begins with Tancred in relative peace and prosperity earned by his exploits in the invasion of 1066. Four years have passed, and, rather than becoming fat and lazy off his lands, Tancred finds himself marching off to war again. But will he fight the Welsh, English, or Danes? The Normans are hemmed in by enemies, and Tancred wonders if they will be able to hold onto this island they paid so dear a price for.

In the midst of as much battle action and gore as the reader could desire, we are also given a glimpse of the softer side of Tancred. He longs for a family and mourns the woman he lost. His skill in battle is employed to protect his friends as much or more than himself, and he is willing to sacrifice himself if he believes it will save those he loves. When he finds himself betrayed to an enemy, he is brought low and wonders if he will survive.

I could go on and on, but do not wish to give away too much. Aitcheson is a skilled writer who expertly recreates 11th century England and the people who lived, fought, loved, and died there.

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review 2013-12-03 00:00
Sworn Sword
Sworn Sword - James Aitcheson I'd say 3.5 stars maybe. Enjoyed it, but overall I can't help comparing it to Cornwell's Saxon series and because of that it just falls short.
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review 2013-10-21 18:14
Review: Knights of the Hawk by James Aitcheson
Knights of the Hawk (The Bloody Aftermath of 1066, #3) - James Aitcheson
Being English, I see Hastings from the English side. We were invaded. They came from Normandy. They won, we lost. Later, we fought back. And lost again. I 'know' of course, about how badly 'we' were later treated by 'them.' Think Robin Hood. It's taken for granted that the Normans are the bad guys. One-dimensional bad guys at that. Until I read James Aitcheson's 'Sworn Sword', I hadn't actually considered that there might actually be a Norman side to 1066 and all that. Which was why, to me at least, 'Sworn Sword' came as such a fresh, wonderful, confusing surprise. Suddenly here was I, an Englishman, rooting for Tancred á Dinant, one of 'them.' A horrid Norman.
 
After reading 'Knights of the Hawk', over a couple of days, though at more or less one sitting, I can safely say that the freshness, the surprise and the satisfaction, are all still there. And then some. Expertly written, with passion and verve, 'Knights of the Hawk' is by far the best book I will read all year. Five of Booklikes' finest stars. Straight out. No doubt. No other conclusion possible.

Expertly weaving his way in and out of what (little) we know of the history of this period (as Tancred says; "...the seasons turn and the years and the decades pass, the stories grow ever wilder, and the myths grow more powerful than the truth") James Aitcheson has created a novel - a series of novels now - brim-filled with the energy, with the sights and sounds and not least the smells, of daily life - and death - on and away from the battlefields of the new Norman Britain. Compelling and gripping and packed with nerve-tingling, nail-biting action, 'Knights of the Hawk' is a story that really could have happened, but one I now think only James could have written.
 
It is five years since the slaughter at Hastings and the English resistance still hasn't been extinguished. The Norman invasion of Britain is bogged down, literally, in and around the English rebels' stronghold at Ely. Something needs to be done to rescue the conquest and someone needs to do it. Now. Step forward Tancred á Dinant. A Norman knight who came over with William, who fought at Hastings and who ruled lands in the west of England as vassal to his sworn lord, Robert Malet. But who has, despite saving the day on frequent occasions in the years since Hastings, fallen somewhat in the esteem and pecking order amongst his fellow Normans. He can't understand why he is 'reduced to this escort duty', guarding supply wagons, instead of being richly rewarded for his efforts in securing the England for King William. Wealth and fame, battle honours and leadership, look to be passing him by. While he could be forgiven for giving up and going home, he's still the only one who actually delivers the goods and gets the Normans into Ely.
 
Then, when they've achieved what they set out to do, reached a point where they might have expected to be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of all their labours, it starts to unravel for Tancred. He has go against his sworn lord and he suddenly finds enemies where he thought he had friends. Hell, as a Norman, you must realise you're in trouble when you realise you identify with the English leader who stood between you and all you thought you ever wanted. Hereward. "He and I were more similar than I'd realised. We both strove for recognition for our deeds, and struggled against the weighty oaths that bound us. Both of us had at one time led whole armies into the field, yet now found ourselves in somewhat humbler circumstances, lacking the respect we craved and which for a while at least we had commanded." However, as we find out later, by removing Hereward for the Normans, Tancred has in fact removed the obstacle stopping him from getting on with living his own life.
 
That's just the first part of the story, as the book can be said to divide itself into two parts. The first, is in line with what we know of the early years of the conquest. The character of Tancred is James' invention, but the events the books have described and the five years it took before William had anything that passed for total control over his newly conquered kingdom, the treachery, the back-stabbing, the rebellions at Ely led by Hereward, all happened. Exactly what happened, we don't know. But I'll go for James' version if it comes to a vote.
 
The second half of the book moves away from inserting Tancred into known events, and we sail (literally) off into the unknown. Into Tancred's own, self-determined future. He has to leave, to find himself. He has lost his faith in the Norman system, so he must find someone from his past, who can give him a future he can believe in. He has been a part of the Norman war machine, he must now go in search of who he, Tancred, really is. "The Breton had become a Norman, had become bound to England." By freeing himself, Tancred realises it can be he who decides who he is and what path his own future should take.
 
It is of course, the character of Tancred that carries the book. We've a reasonable idea of his character from previous novels, but through the course of 'Knights of the Hawk', he fills out. He's always been adaptable, resourceful and believable, now he's a much more nuanced and fully-rounded character. Actually, he's got the decency you normally associate with being English! But Tancred is sometimes too decent, not devious enough, too trusting to imagine for instance, someone might be laying a trap for him. 'Friend' or foe. As the book progresses, Tancred adapts. I won't say he 'learns', but he becomes more aware of other possibilities than the one he has rushed headlong into. He is a Knight, an honourable one at that, but this belief in his own honour and trustworthiness, as proved time and time again in the most desperate of circumstances, sometimes blinds him. That his fellow Normans might see his honourable actions in a different way, in a maybe more cynical way and use his trustworthiness against him, that's what he doesn't see at first. And it causes frustration, which leads to rashness which leads to murder and exile. Not just from a land and friends - also an ideal. Of honour. Leaving all he knew behind and seemingly having his options reduced, as it were, actually helps him become a more complex character.
 
'Knights of the Hawk' begins stealthily, but like a hunting party in the midst of the mists and marshes of Ely, it creeps up and ambushes you. Rich with compelling dialogue and vigorously peppered with heart-stopping action, desperate feats of derring-do, incident and intrigue, this is a book that keeps you on your toes at all times. Not least with the unexpected alliances that pop up. Unexpectedly. The tension, the suspense and the don't dare breathe even though you're just reading the book, in case you give Tancred away - those sequences are astoundingly well-handled. There are highs and lows and heartbreaks, great tragedy and blinking away the tears optimism. There is so much to remember this book for, but (for now) the way James draws out a scene, twisting the tension level up and up and leading to the final delivery of the outcome - while you're trying not to break the tension and flick a look at the last lines to see how the paragraph ends - is what I will perhaps remember perhaps the most from this novel. If you're going to say you 'devour' a book, then this is delicious. Oh, and an ending that is…well, you'll have to read it, wipe your eyes and trust that Tancred is back soon.
 
This novel has really showcased what a really fine new, young writer we have on the Historical Fiction (battle) field, in James Aitcheson. It surely won't be long before we're comparing people like Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, to James. There is a maturity and confidence to his writing, that if you'd said this was James 20th book, you'd believe it. The surprising thing is, 'Knights of the Hawk' is just James' third outing - we really are spoiled to still have so much to look forward to from him.
 
And we learned that 11th Century Welshmen liked cleaning their teeth. A lot. 
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