The English Civil War really makes my blood boil. So much violence and bloodshed, so many families torn apart, whole communities devastated, the cultural landscape permanently altered. The 1640s are pretty far down my list of decades I wish I could visit. They do make an awesome setting for a historical novel however and Giles Kristian has captured the chaos and uncertainty of the period really well.
Set in 1642 the story follows the Rivers family, landed gentry from Lancashire. Sir Francis is loyal to the King, and expects his family to follow suit. An unexpected but avoidable tragedy sends his younger son Tom on a self-destructive journey during which he signs up with the rebel army. He is not fighting for any cause except personal revenge. This is one of the aspects of the book I enjoyed immensely. Whilst there was much genuine ideology on either side of the conflict, the civil wars were also an opportunity for settling private scores. Rivalries amongst the aristocracy could be played out on the battlefields, grievances against landowners taken out on the womenfolk left behind.
It’s all in here, the anger and rage felt on both sides, the lack of organisation, the killing and mutilation. As I have already admitted, I’m not a squeamish sort. The battlefield action is vivid; blood and body parts churn up with mud and excrement. Where people are concerned it takes a lot to make me wince. Animals, however are my weak spot; I have to turn over RSPCA adverts on TV because they make me cry. I mention this for a reason – in the 17th century the aristocracy, and anyone else who had the resources, fought on horseback. The horses didn’t all survive. There, you have been warned.
The Bleeding Land is full-on and hard to put down. That most cavalier Royalist Prince Rupert plays a fairly prominent role in proceedings, but the man at the heart of it all is largely absent. King Charles puts in the odd cameo appearance, but is almost incidental to the action. I wonder if this reflects Kristian’s opinion of the man or if this most uncharismatic of monarchs will make a bigger impact in the next book? I wouldn’t mind a little bit more Charlie, for all his faults he was an interesting chap. This is the first in a series, and despite the appalling destruction these are only the initial stages of the conflict. The story ends in a bit of a cliffhanger for the Rivers family and I’m interested to see where Kristian takes them next.
I’m rather pleased with myself for choosing this one as part of the Transworld Reading Challenge, I knew it was going to be a good one as soon as I felt that first twinge of anger at the futility of the fight. My hackles rose, my eyes narrowed and my shoulders tensed – and all without even a sniff of old Cromwell. Well done Mr K on getting so convincingly under my skin!