Sworn Sword sweeps us into the 11thc just as the English are on the rise after their devastating defeat at Hastings just over two years before. From the outset we are thrust into a world of where life depends on who wins the battles. Bloodshed and loss is now a way of life for most people since William of Normandy clawed the English crown from the head of the usurper’, Harold Godwinson.
|The Death of Harold on the BT|
With the opening focusing on an English uprising in the streets of Dunholm, strong hold of Robert de Commines, Lord of the North, we meet our protagonist, Tancred, a Breton, commanding his own conroi. Tancred and his comrades have been trying to fight off the attack when Tancred hears that his beloved Oswynn Is murdered by the marauders; but there is no time to grieve, for he must save his lord, Robert, set upon with his men in the mead hall. Tancred leads his conroi to the rescue but they are too late and Lord Robert is burned alive with his comrades inside the blazing hall. The Normans are slaughtered almost to a man, but Tancred, who has been badly injured, is carried by his surviving friends Eudo and Wace to the relative safety of York. There the trio find refuge in the house of Robert’s vicomte, Guillaume (William) Malet.
Tancred spends some time under the care of Malet’s priest, Aelfwold who tends his patient’s wounds and saves him from developing a life threatening infection. When he is well, Malet gives the now lordless knight an ultimatum: owe him a debt for the succour and hospitality he had provided him with, or carry out a mission that would set him free of any obligation owed. Reluctantly, he accepts, for he would rather stay behind in York to exact revenge upon the English who killed his lord and his woman Oswynn. But little did he realise when he gave his oath to Malet, that he would become embroiled in a secret that holds the fate of the kingdom in the balance...
I approached this novel with caution, a) because I am a die-hard Anglo-Saxon supporter and b) because the Normans did terrible things to the English during the invasion, so when I realised this was going to be a story told from the point of view of one of the invaders, I was unsure as to whether or not I was going to enjoy it. It’s not that I am so narrow minded I can’t enjoy a book from any other viewpoint other than the English one, it is that I didn’t want to read something that promoted the Norman invasion as a good thing and that William was a good guy fighting for his rights, and by the shedding of much English blood, winds up on the English throne. Although Tancred fought on the Conqueror’s side at the Battle of Hastings, he views the English with suspicion and believes that the rightful King now sits on the throne, this is a book that tells the story of one man’s journey to find a new purpose to his life, now that his beloved lord is no longer in the world.
What I liked about James Aitcheson’s portrayal of an England in the aftermath of Hastings, is that it shows the reader how the scene would have looked to just such a man, especially as it is written in the first person, without making it heavily pro-Norman or pro- English. Although the latter are seen as pretty much the bad guys in a way, and the former as the righteous, it’s understandable, because we are seeing it from Tancred’s point of view and as far as he is concerned, he and his comrades are vindicated, for they represent loyal supporters of the rightful King, assisting him in keeping the peace in his new kingdom that was bequeathed to him, quite honourably by his cousin Edward, and stolen from him by the usurper Harold Godwinson. Presented as thus, I found it easy to glide into the story from the start.
Tancred himself is portrayed as a battle hardened, traumatised character who, having lived through the horrors of Hastings, loses his lord and beloved in that one night at the siege of Dunholm. Lord Robert had taken him into his service and saved him from a life of poverty and starvation when he was a young run away from the cruel monastery he had been brought up in. Oswynn was the English girl who he had taken as his lover and Tancred, devastated by both losses, swears vengeance on the young, arrogant claimant to the throne, Eadgar Atheling, the perpetrator of their deaths. The design of vengeance and the need to atone for not preventing their murders embeds itself throughout the book and sets the theme for the sequel, Splintered Kingdom.
Tancred is a likeable character, although at times morose and stubborn. In swearing an oath to the man who he is indebted to for saving his life, he is set upon a course that will force him to examine his own values in order to find a new purpose in life after Commines death. He is like a lost soul, searching for his rightful place in the world and along his journey, we meet the beautiful, but changeable Beatrice, who appears to be hiding a tragic past of her own. Their relationship seems doomed as Beatrice’s impenetrable facade and Tancred’s equal aloofness, makes their liaison a difficult one although they are both inexplicably drawn to each other.
We also meet Aelfwold, the priest who saves Tancred’s life with his healing skills. Aelfwold comes across as a gentle, loyal servant of Malet’s, charged with a secret mission for his lord in which Tancred is forced to become involved. Malet extracts an oath out of Tancred to pay back the debt he owes to him, by accompanying Beatrice and her mother to safety in London when Eadgar’s forces threaten York. But the mission doesn’t finish there, Tancred must continue to Wilton with Aelfwold who has a message for a mysterious woman about a ‘body’. Tancred and his friends, Eudo and Wace become suspicious of Aelfwold. Is he the amiable holy man he appears to be, or is there something more sinister lurking beneath his priest’s mantle?
|The medieval priest|
So, to summarise, Sworn Sword is a great read, an engaging plot, interesting characters and a couple of great battles, one which marks the end of the book and paves the way for Tancred’s next adventure. Mostly this book is very enjoyable and I am looking forward to read the next books in the series. There were a couple of things, however, that raised my eyebrows, but they were only minor: one was the cheek-plates on Eadgar’s helmet and being a re-enactor I know that these Coppergate type of helms were not likely to have been worn in the 11thc but belong to a much earlier time. Also the description of a two storey monastery building with a long corridor and rooms leading off it sounded more like a Gothic manor than an pre-Norman building. However these are the most negative things I could probably find and certainly do not spoil what is a fantastic debut and story. I highly recommend this book especially to those who are looking for good quality historical fiction about the consequences of the Norman Invasion on England as a whole.
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This review was written by Paula Lofting
Paula Lofting is the author of Sons of the Wolf a novel also set in 11thc England before the conquest and is told through the eyes of an English warrior Wulfhere.
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