This is an historical novel that recounts the famous rebellion mounted by Hereward the Wake and other dispossessed Saxon lords against William the Conqueror and his Norman forces around 1070-71. Charismatic and known to be a berserker (thought that’s not something that Brown dwells upon) Hereward, once an Earl of Britain, led a rebellion from the fens of East Anglia, his base being upon the Isle of Ely, which could only be reached by crossing the treacherous marshes – a difficult route known to a select few.
Determined to crush this irritating foe, William sends his men against Hereward and his small band of loyal men. Against impossible odds, with nothing left to lose, Hereward and his Saxons fight the loathed Normans, their courage, skills as archers and strategists and the mazed fens their only defences.
Told from the perspective of Ranulf Redbeard, a survivor of the York massacre and a brave warrior, the plight of the last stand of the Saxons against the Normans is savage and moving. While the subtitle of the book claims it’s a novel about Hereward, this rebel, upon whom stories and legends are built, he deosn’t dominate the action or the emotional heart of the tale. On the contrary, he’s surprisingly narcissistic and uncharismatic and it’s hard to warm to him as a hero – even with his flaws. It’s Ranulf who shines in this tale and perhaps that was Brown’s intention.
Of the novel itself, it’s well-plotted and draws from history without overplaying the didacticism, but it does read like it needs a final edit in parts. There is a repetitiveness of words that’s a tiny bit irritating, but not enough to detract from reading pleasure. There is also a tendency to paint heroes and villains very much in black and white and I think this too has cast Hereward, who in this novel at least has his own demons to struggle with, not so much in interesting shades of grey as it does into the shadows.
Overall, however, I really enjoyed this book and will read Brown’s Housecarl, for sure.