I am enjoying this reading challenge, set by Transworld Publishers, enormously. I read my first one just before I started this blog. It was Victoria Lamb’s The Queen’s Secret, a rollicking good Tudor story that I reviewed on the Waterstones website as my bookseller reviewer alter ego Jane Sharp. (http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/victoria+lamb/the+queen27s+secret/8613123/)
For my second choice I went back five centuries more to the late eleventh century. William the Conqueror has conquered, and any resistance put up by the English is dealt with brutally and cruelly. William means to have this land regardless of how much earth he must scorch or blood spill. There is some hope however. Hereward refuses to admit defeat, no matter the odds stacked against him. Now, this is a sequel so I was a little concerned that I may struggle to keep up with the characters and action, but it was not a problem at all. The first chapter puts us right where we need to be; in the End-Times surrounded by mud and blood and sweat and fear. Hereward and his ragged, depleted army drag a Norman prisoner through the fens of the east, struggling to evade the king’s men and gain some time to regroup and re-plan. Hereward is made of strong stuff, battle sharp tactician, bold, cunning, loyal, fierce. And downright terrifying. Once the red mist descends it would take a foolish man to intercede. Or a priest.
One of the elements I liked about this book were the relationships Hereward had with those close to him. Alric the priest acts literally as his conscience, urging mercy and clemency, for the sake of Hereward’s immortal soul. His wife, Turfrida, is a strong and wise woman. Hereward relies on her prophecies and good sense as much as he does Alric’s moral musings. His loyalty to his brother Redwald is absolute. Beneath the fearsome warrior lies humanity. Unfortunately, this makes him vulnerable, and William will use any advantage to rid himself of this troublesome enclave of resistance. The story is a blood-soaked one as those fighting for independence under Hereward harry and tangle with the Norman soldiers.
There are a lot of battle scenes, which are full of chaos and terror. The violence is not restricted to these encounters either, it is a brutal world they live in. Wilde gets this across in visceral fashion, and I did occasionally wince as a head, or worse, got lopped off. Ha, who am I kidding, no I didn’t, I loved it! The fiercest of the rebel fighters are huge great men, fearless and brave, swinging enormous swords with bravado, accuracy and passion. The Normans are cold, heartless, dead-eyed swine that only a mother could love. I’ve never been over keen on the Conqueror, and this book pushed me right off the fence, and in my historical fiction that’s just what I like.
I had so much fun reading this book, it’s definitely a great holiday read. It’s involving and exciting and has a good fast tempo. The background of suffering is well conveyed too, people across the country starve, driven to desperate measures to survive as William decimates the land. I will certainly go back and read the first part to pick up on how the important relationships were forged and the battle of Hastings lost. I have a sneaky feeling there might be a third part at some point too.
Thank you Transworld and Elizabeth Swain for organising this challenge, Hereward: The Devil’s Army is another winner!