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Hereward by James Wilde

1062, a time many fear is the End of Days. With the English King Edward heirless and ailing, across the grey seas in Normandy the brutal William the Bastard waits for the moment when he can drown England in a tide of blood.

The ravens of war are gathering. But as the king’s closest advisors scheme and squabble amongst themselves, hopes of resisting the naked ambition of the Norman duke come to rest with just one man: Hereward…

To some a ruthless warrior and master tactician, to others a devil in human form, Hereward is as adept in the art of slaughter as the foes that gather to claim England’s throne. But in his country’s hour of greatest need, his enemies at Court have made him outlaw. To stay alive – and a freeman – he must carve a bloody swathe from the frozen hills of Northumbria to Flanders’ fields and the fenlands of East Anglia.

The tale of a man whose deeds will become the stuff of legend, this is also the story of two mismatched allies: Hereward the man of war, and Alric, a man of peace, a monk. One will risk everything to save the land he loves, the other to save his friend’s soul…

When you are only a handful of pages into a novel and the title character is already running about naked – in the depths of winter – dispatching Vikings left, right and centre, I think you can rest assured that the novel you are embarking on is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

Hereward, the character, is a man of extremes. He is loyal, single minded and driven. He is also violent and dangerous, yet there is a constant internal struggle as he tries to keep his inner demons in check. When the novel begins, his first answer to any situation is “who do I have to kill to solve this”. As the novel continues, his character matures and he comes to realise that violence is not always the way. It’s nice to see a character question his own motives rather than just continue to blindly follow them. He becomes quite introspective and through this the reader gets insight into what actions and events made him the way he is.

Alric, the monk, is the stabilizing force in Hereward’s life. They meet under difficult circumstances, and initially there is suspicion on both sides, but as their friendship deepens a strong bond forms.  They rely on one another for support. Alric sees it as his mission in life to try and guide Hereward on a righteous path. Needless to say, this could well be the toughest job in the world.

The second half of the eleventh century makes for a fertile setting. Most of Europe is a political powder-keg as various tyrants attempt to grab as much power and land as is possible. Other historical figures like Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror feature prominently.  The story includes the run up to, and aftermath of, the Battle of Hastings which is a definite highlight of the narrative. I particularly enjoyed reading about King Harold’s grizzly end.

I’ll be honest and admit that prior to reading this novel I had never heard of Hereward, but I’m Scottish so I think I can be forgiven. He is certainly not as well known as his more famous contemporary Robin Hood. This is a real shame as there certainly appears to be more evidence of Hereward’s existence than Hood’s. Hereward’s campaign of guerrilla warfare against the occupying Norman forces has its basis in historical fact and I think this makes the novel all the more entertaining.

The only criticism I have, and it is a small one, is that the novel feels a little bit like it is a prologue to a much larger story. Just at the point where I was completely engrossed in the main protagonist’s journey the novel ended. In fairness, thinking about it, I suppose that the best fiction should work this way to a degree. It draws you in, takes you to places you have never been before and leaves you hungry for more. Put it this way, if there is not a sequel to Hereward then there is no justice in the world and there is a good chance that I will be forced to go on a rampage of my own.

Overall, James Wilde’s début novel is fantastically realised. There are strong, believable characters, lashings of fast paced action but this is matched by some excellent intrigue and betrayal that helps to keep the plot moving forward. Hereward is a great example of the historical fiction genre. I recommend it highly.

Hereward is published by Bantam Press on the 23rd June 2011.

 

Hereward


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