Saxon’s Bane by Geoffrey Gudgion
Fergus’s world changes forever the day his car crashes near the remote village of Allingley. Traumatised by his near-death experience, he stays to work at the local stables as he recovers from his injuries. He will discover a gentler pace of life, fall in love and be targeted for human sacrifice. Clare Harvey’s life will never be the same either. The young archaeologist’s dream find the peat-preserved body of a Saxon warrior is giving her nightmares. She can tell that the warrior was ritually murdered, and that the partial skeleton lying nearby is that of a young woman. And their tragic story is unfolding in her head every time she goes to sleep. Fergus discovers that his crash is linked to the excavation, and that the countryside harbours some dark secrets. As Clare’s investigation reveals the full horror of a Dark Age war crime, Fergus and Clare seem destined to share the Saxon couple’s bloody fate.
I’ll begin with a confession, I’ve been told its good for the soul. I have spent the last week agonising over how to write anything resembling a coherent review of this book. Not, I should stress, because the book is bad, quite the reverse in fact, the book is wonderful. The problem I have had is trying to adequately convey in words the myriad of thoughts and feelings that this particular story has provoked.
The trauma that Fergus experiences are utterly horrific and his life is changed fundamentally by surviving the ordeal he goes through. His journey through rehabilitation and onwards to full recovery is covered in depth and these introspective moments are fascinating. The evolution of his character is suitably profound, from a seemingly satisfied tech salesman to an individual suddenly seeking something far more fulfilling. After the car crash, his old life seems like a bit of a bad joke, the trappings of capitalism no longer have quite the lustre that they had before.
The crash and the archaeological dig seem linked, and it’s up to Fergus and archaeologist Clare, to discover the truth. Just what is going on with the residents of Allingley and how do events in the present day connect with what has happened centuries past?
I’ve always liked the idea that places can retain echoes of past events. Call it whatever you want, a ghost, a presence, a shadow, it doesn’t matter. The suggestion that something gets left behind is an intriguing one. Couple this with the notion that certain individuals, particularly those who have survived a traumatic event/been close to death, are more in-tune with these places and you have the building blocks of an absorbing mystery.
The fantastical elements in this novel are actually quite subtle and are handled with a very delicate touch. Some of the characters are utterly dismissive of the weird things that are going on while others embrace them entirely. I rather like this approach, as I’m sure different readers will almost certainly take different interpretations from the events that unfold. It’s always interesting to read a novel that has that kind of ambiguous quality. This is the sort of fiction that when you finish you want to talk to other readers about.
Not unsurprisingly, the scenes set in the Saxon era are often violent and dark. The writing certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to describing in visceral detail how warriors die in the heat of battle. Based on the evidence of these chapters alone, I’d love to read an entire historical novel written by Gudgion. I’d imagine it would be brutally evocative stuff.
The only, very minor, issue I had was with the villain in the modern chapters of the novel. All the other characters felt rounded and realistic but the villain came across as little under developed. Fergus and Clare are so well observed I think it would have been nice to have had that same level of insight into the motivations of their nemesis. I just got the impression that there was more going on behind this character’s actions that were never fully explored.
Geoffrey Gudgion’s dark fantasy is a melting pot of many ideas. Elements from comparative theology, folklore, horror and historical fiction all blend together to form a compelling narrative. This novel pleasantly surprised me, it’s far more contemplative and thoughtful than I expected. This is an impressively solid debut from an author I’ll be looking out for again in the future.
Saxon’s Bane is published by Solaris Books and is available now.