Thursday, 10 March 2016

Fire & Steel - King's Bane 1 by C R May - Reviewed by Rob Bayliss


The author has kindly offered a paperback copy for the draw and an ebook copy for the runner-up. To enter please leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.



Cerdic chuckled. “I think you underestimate your influence, all men of worth have heard the tale of Eofer king’s bane. Tell your prince of my plans here and remember,” he said, “there is always a place for you among us.” The Briton laid a hand on Eofer’s sleeve and fixed him with his gaze. “I offer you good land and honour, king’s bane. Dark soil in which to sink your roots. Settle your family here among us and I will make you one of my most powerful lords.”
 Since reading Brennus – Terror Gallicus for the Review by this author, and thoroughly enjoying his style of blending the fantastic and historical accuracy I went on to read his Beowulf -Sword of Woden trilogy and was awestruck by them. Indeed I nominated Sorrow Hill (Book 1) as my Book of the Month last year. So when the author, Mr May, mentioned that he was developing a historical fiction series using Eofer Kingsbane, a minor but nonetheless heroic character from his Beowulf books, I was intrigued. With Beowulf of course we have the tap root of English fantasy literature, and Mr May made full use of the fantastic enabling gods to walk the earth. How was the author going to use the king’s bane and where would his tale take us?
Firstly, who is Eofer King's bane? He is a warrior, renowned in the north for slaying the Swedish king Ongentheow at the battle of Ravenswood. Eofer is of the Engles (Angles) whose homeland is in modern Denmark; sandwiched between the Jutes to the north, the Saxons to the south and threatened by the expansionist Danes to the east. The Angles, Jutes and Saxons, since Roman times, have long been involved in the politics of Britannia to the west. They have sailed there as mercenaries, traders and lately as settlers. The exploits of the British warlord Arthur put paid to further expansion in these fertile lands; but since his recent death, civil war has rent the old Romano-British land and opportunities are rising once more.

C6th Century Saxon Warriors. Painting by Angus McBride.

It is the early C6th and we first meet Thegn Eofer and his ship’s crew plying the German Sea and the Mare Britannicum. He and his hearth warriors are hired by a British chief Cerdic to take him and his small war band of exiles from Brittany back to Britannia. Eofer and his warriors assist Cerdic in defeating an ambush set against their advance. Impressed by his ally’s martial prowess Cerdic, has a sense of destiny and offers Eofer lands and position should he chose to accept them. Eofer is not only given this offer but also increases his retinue by adding the shield maiden Spearhafoc- a young British archer - into his hearth troop. With the loss of his ships to Cerdic’s enemies, Eofer and his comrades travel overland to Anglia in the east, where the Englisc have a tenuous foothold. On their way they pass The Ringing Stones (Stonehenge) where  the superstitious Spearhafoc performs a ritual and becomes convinced that Eofer has a destiny to carve in Britannia. Eofer, already persuaded by Cerdic's offer takes this as a further sign that his Wyrd (fate) will lead him back to Britannia; that the future of his people does indeed lay in this fertile land. But first he must convey his belief to his king and there are the not so small matters of honour that must be settled in old Engeln….
 Scholars of the period will recognise the name Cerdic as the founder of the Cerdicings - the House of Wessex - and will have pondered why the royal house of an Anglo-Saxon “invader” would have a British name. Some historians, such as Peter Beresford Ellis in his informative, but politically biased, book called Celt & Saxon took the traditional picture of warlike and expansionist Englisc invaders to the next level of being genocidal, ethnic-cleansing invaders. Certainly there was bloody warfare between Englisc and Wealisc (both were hero societies after all) but many place names in England carry a Brittonic root describing a geographical feature suggesting a continuity. It is difficult to believe, considering the population levels of the time, that these invaders could arrive in such vast numbers to utterly overrun and replace existing, established populations. 

Cerdic - from John Speed's 1611 "Saxon Heptarchy"

That England is essentially an Anglo-Celtic land has since been borne out by recent genetic studies that indicate an intermingling, rather than replacement. This suggests that the change from Celtic to Anglo-Saxon was more of a gradual cultural and language metamorphosis than one born by the sword alone. Indeed the C7th laws of King Ine indicate that distinct Wealisc communities in the Wessex of his time still thrived and were under the king’s protection as were his Englisc subjects.
Fire & Steel is a beautifully crafted tale and in this humble reviewer’s opinion is nothing short of a work of genius: linking the legend of Beowulf to the creation of the Kingdom of Wessex. The details are well researched and there are some beautifully illustrated maps to trace the journey undertaken by the protagonist and his followers.
The prose is exquisite, combining modern English with Old English terms or equivalents. Within a few pages this language becomes as second nature to the reader. The land of old Engeln has anglicised place names making them very familiar and recognisable to the reader. Suddenly these lands aren’t Scandinavian, they’re distinctly English.  But as the Engles prepare for a new life in Britannia they take care to conceal the tombs of their ancestors lest invaders rob them. Indeed in modern Denmark there is barely a trace of the people that once held sway there, as if they had never been. There is a wonderfully described scene when the tomb of Eofer's grandfather is opened and the veil between the living and the dead is as gossamer:
Gleaming , the ancestral sword of their clan lay across the lap of the long dead earldorman and Wonred  spoke as he moved forward to lift it with reverence from the lap of his father.
“Father, this is your grandson, Eofer, called king’s bane. Slayer of Ongentheow, king of Swedes, hall burner of the king of the Danes… The Allfather has guided us to another land, a better land where the people can grow, prosper and bring the worship of the real gods to the people there. Before we leave these Wolds we will move to smite our enemies. Your grandson Eofer will carry Gleaming to Anglia so that it will remain in the clan always…”


Pattern welded Saxon sword - Thegns of Mercia blog


 The author skilfully weaves the religion and spirituality of his characters into the tale and makes it tangible and perfectly believable.  It is a great gift that this author has, that as a reader, you become fully immersed in this world that is both strange and yet eerily familiar. It is not an easy book to put down and it will take you a while to return to the C21st; whereas moments before you would have been tasting the salt tang spray as Eofer's Snaca rides mountainous waves, or the mounting tension before shieldwalls clash.
There are some wonderful characters in this novel: the superstitious Spearhafoc, like a woodland sprite dedicated to her thegn.  Oswin Word-Poor, a would be scop who’s poor verse causes his comrades to cringe at first but we watch amd listen as he hones his craft. Brave Imma Gold and Thrush Hemming, a pair of Eofer’s most trusted warriors. And Eofer king's bane himself of course; brave, honourable yet concerned that his fame- wealth endangers those around him, both from fiend (enemy) and perhaps friend alike.
I was swept along to the last page, which I regretfully turned, but fear not, for the saga of Eofer king’s bane has only begun. So don your helm, heft your shield and grasp your ashen spear for, as in the much improved wordcraeft of Oswin Silk-Tongue :
“Battle-play befits a thegn,
Bravery belongs to an eorle.
Heft Gleaming, bear your shield forward,
Under steep helms in the press of enemies,
Slayer of warlords, doomed leaders…”


C.R. May was born in Bow, East London before his family moved to South Ockendon, Essex. After hearing that Ockendon translated as Wocca's Hill in Saxon, a lifelong passion in history was kindled, which has taken him from Berlin to the site of the battle of Little Big Horn (via Erik the Red's Icelandic hall!). The influx of Germanic adventurers was recorded in the place names around him and, inspired one day, he decided to weave his own stories into this history. You can read and discover more information at his blog and the author may be found at Facebook

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Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his own fantasy series. Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.


28 comments:

  1. Great review Rob. This book is definitely on my to buy list. It sounds fabulous!

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    1. Thanks Louise, this book was breathtaking

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  2. Brilliant review. This book and author sounds fabulous and just the type of book I love to read. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

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    1. Thanks Marsha. A very talented author is our Mr May.

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  3. Great review Rob. This book is definitely on my to buy list. It sounds fabulous!

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  4. I have the other works by Cliff and am looking forward to this one.Hæl wæs ðu.

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    1. You know Cliff's style Mark, you're not going to be disappointed!

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  5. I would want to enter this but i have already purchased it! Great review Rob and congratulations Cliff

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    2. Ooops deleted it! I will try again...Thanks Paula, I hope that it lives up to Rob's great review.

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  6. Sharon Connolly10 March 2016 at 21:03

    Great review, Rob.

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  7. Great review, sounds like another one to add to the wish list

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  8. Your review has certainly got me interested, Rob.

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  9. This book looks great - I'd love to win a copy

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  10. Fantastic review on a period of history I enjoy exploring.

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  11. Always interested to read more from this period...

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  12. Exciting! I have never been disappointed in a book Robert Bayliss reviewed so I look forward to refine this one.

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  13. Exciting! I have never been disappointed in a book Robert Bayliss reviewed so I look forward to refine this one.

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  14. Another outstanding review, Rob! I'm going to stick close to you; you lead me to great looking books I'd not otherwise find.

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  15. A well written and interesting g review about an exciting book. I really want to read this now. ...
    (Please!)
    It is a subject matter I am only just beginning to explore and I am excited to find this book.

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  16. A well written and interesting g review about an exciting book. I really want to read this now. ...
    (Please!)
    It is a subject matter I am only just beginning to explore and I am excited to find this book.

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  17. Already reading one of Mr May's books and am engrossed! This series sounds fabulous. Great review!

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  18. Love that cover! I definitely want to check this out.

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  19. Love that cover! I definitely want to check this out.

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  21. Would love to be considered, always love finding new authors :)

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