If I read a better, more satisfying book, of the Historical Fiction (or any other) genre this next year – I’ll be astounded.
Or for many years to come. Or at least until the next in the ‘Bloody Aftermath’ series.
The ‘Splintered Kingdom’ really is that good. Superbly plotted and well paced, it is a thought-provoking, richly nuanced and tremendously satisfying book. A vivid, convincing imagining of a tumultuous period in England’s history. A book alive with incident, battles, tense last-minute rescues and not least, perhaps the most satisfying of all; alive with possibilities for the future direction(s) of the story.
But hey, read on…
Set in 1070, The Splintered Kingdom is of course, a follow-on from the first in the 1066: The Bloody Aftermath series, yet is so self-contained that while you really owe it to yourself to go read Sworn Sword (now), you absolutely can get the most out of Splintered Kingdom without having done so.
(Better make sure your chair has a good cushion, grab a cup of coffee and/or a sandwich and a blanket, ’cause as the great Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin once so succinctly put it; I’m gonna ramble on, for a while here)
The Splintered Kingdom begins with our Norman knight Tancred a Dinant the newly installed owner of an estate on the western edges of the English midlands, called Earnford. In this case; a Frenchman’s Englishman’s home is now his castle (!). The estate was given to him by his lord Robert Malet, who…well look, you’re just going to have to read Sworn Sword now, aren’t you?
The area is close to the ancient Offa’s Dyke and therefore too close for comfort to the Welsh border. Life on the estate is generally happy and peaceful, judging by the lovely passages describing Tancred’s life and the countryside surrounding Earnford. However, tensions with their Welsh neighbours are never far below the surface (and in invading Britain, the Normans have of course, stormed in the middle of an age-old conflict between the English and the Welsh – the reason why Offa had his dyke built in the first place) and Tancred has to start by leading his men on a hunt after some of their women are captured and taken hostage. Tancred is obviously respected, perhaps even liked, by his subjects and has found himself a new woman, pregnant now with their first child. His assimilation into local life as the estate’s new Lord seems complete, even though we’re not more than four years after the Conquest; “French and English making merry together: I hadn’t thought I’d live to see it happen”, as Tancred says at the celebration the whole village throws following the safe return of (most of) the hunters and hostages. Clearly this is something of a pleasant surprise for him.
But, perhaps not surprisingly, Tancred soon finds out that while the ordinary English people on his property may, if not like him, at least tolerate him – the English rebels don’t like him. One. Little. Bit. He is a marked man and there’s a price on his head. The English rebels (remember, this story is told from a Norman point of view) have allied themselves with the Welsh and want him dead. Not just him obviously, Normans in general, but him in particular.
Then again, the English lords now opposed to Tancred and the Normans, were ones who fought alongside Harold at Hastings, but survived. They swore fealty to William, yet haven’t just gone quietly into the night. They are perhaps understandably more than a little miffed at the new King William giving their old lands away as rewards to his fellow Normans. So some have moved over the border into Wales and allied themselves with everyone’s ancient enemy, the Welsh. All in the hope of driving their new, common enemy, out. The Welsh they once had to hold at bay now help in attacking their old lands! Meanwhile, off in the north, the English rebels even ally themselves with the Norman’s old cousins, the Vikings, who are trying to invade again after Harald Hardrada’s failed attempt to beat the English back in ’66 at the battle of Stamford Bridge. Which of course, delayed and weakened Harold Godwinson’s progress south to fight William and the Normans. Old scores and generations’ old hatreds might have to wait. For now.
What James does especially well in The Splintered Kingdom I feel, is set out how all these many contradictions play on the surface, while always hinting at the tensions that simmer just beneath, as the story rolls on, gathering new elements, constantly building and unfolding. Like following a wisp of smoke as it grows thicker leading back to its fire, I thought. Or, given the way the country and life down on Tancred’s English manor is described at the start; as clouds gathering on a clear summer’s afternoon, with the promise of a coming storm.
And the storm comes.
Warnings of trouble brewing elsewhere in the supposedly conquered kingdom come and Tancred is ordered away to help the fight. Something that he imagined he would relish, but when confronted with the reality, he’s suddenly not so sure; “For all the times in the past year that I had longed to lead my conroi into battle, I had never thought that when the summons came it would feel like this.” Is Tancred perhaps a changing man? Is England changing him? Can he square his Viking warrior roots and lust for battle, with the demands of looking after a growing local community who depend on him? Conflicts, tensions and enemies mount, the fragile control the Normans had over the kingdom starts to shatter and Tancred must set off to defend a land he once helped conquer but now calls home. Nothing is straightforward, nothing is as it seems – there are twists, turns, contradictions, shifting alliances and, as my old Grandma used to say; “dirty dickery” galore – as you’ll find. The principle of my enemy’s enemy being my friend and the least worst choice, abounds. The whole thing careers unstoppably onwards, via tense chases, ambushes and more double-crossing. On to a nail-biting climax in York, Tancred’s old stamping ground from ‘Sworn Sword’. You just knew it. It can’t be stopped.
I really did feel a lot of times, ‘The Splintered Kingdom’ read like there was a film playing in my head. A film, where everything seems nice and peaceful and sunny and tranquil and relaxed. But you know when you bought the ticket that it said ‘thriller’ and you know there’s a shock or double cross coming. Soon. You know it, there must be. But you just don’t know when. You know it’s coming. You want the character to look round and see what you can see is behind him. You want to skip ahead to the end of the paragraph and find out, but you don’t dare spoil the tension. You can’t close your eyes of course. You can’t stop it. You know it’s coming, but even so, when it does – BANG! It’s still a shock. You’re thrilled to be thrilled. I had several of these moments during ‘The Splintered Kingdom’. I could HEAR the sweet music playing as I read and then tripped and fell headlong down a bank into a huge surprise (a couple of times the wife had to ask why I was saying ‘Ha!’ out loud). And there is one HUGE surprise towards the end of the novel. One which suddenly throws the whole thing open again and makes you wish James hadn’t stopped where he has (I’m currently wrapping pens, paper, more coffee and ProPlus pills to send over to Wiltshire – I need to know!).
“Oh, good grief!”
OK, not long to go now.
Where Sworn Sword and The Splintered Kingdom really do score for me, is how they play against my expectations of the Norman period. James Aitcheson studied History at Cambridge University so clearly knows his medieval and Norman onions. As I mentioned in my review for Sworn Sword, and which I’m going to bore you with again here: The conflict between the obvious ‘reality’ of this story and my previous understanding of how beastly the Normans were towards the English, post-invasion, is one of many dichotomies this novel/series presents me with. The plucky but unlucky English hero Harold, is, to the story’s Norman hero, ‘Harold the usurper’. These are not (all) the arrogant, confident, all-conquering Norman knights I thought I knew from my history lessons. They are land-owners worried about their property and especially worried about what might happen while they’re away campaigning in Wales or elsewhere. Speaking as an Englishman, the Normans should be ‘the enemy’! Here, it’s the English (not to mention the Welsh) who are. It’s also the English who are the rebels. “That can’t be right!” I tell myself. THEY’RE in OUR country! Tancred is, but shouldn’t be, an immensely likeable character – he’s a nasty Norman, for goodness’ sake! He’s surely not how a Norman should be, my imagination cries. So, contrary to the stories of the Norman Conquest we (English) have grown up with, here is a genuinely likeable Norman knight who seems to truly care for his English subjects. He’s not the aloof, brutal French warrior an English reader of this story would expect after countless ‘Robin Hood’ stories and films down the years (OK, just me then). The Splintered Kingdom, Sworn Sword before it and Tancred, are nothing if not a challenge to my expectations.
However, despite his many outward complications, I think Tancred is in reality a simple man. His problem is simply that he is constantly torn between two sides. As I mentioned earlier, I think it is perhaps important to remember that the Normans were at this point only a few of generations from their Viking origins. Normandy, comes from ‘Northman’, after all. A Viking called ‘Rollo’ (not enough ‘Rollo’s, or ‘Rolf’s around these days, I feel – even here in Denmark) founded what became Normandy, in A.D. 911. Tancred’s own Viking roots are never far below his outwardly calm surface. His feeling that his sword arm itches when battle is near and the feeling of battle calm, even joy he gets during a fight, is pure Viking. His heart often says fight, but his head says no. As one interesting passage puts it; “‘The sword is not the answer to every problem,’… ‘Sometimes it is better to keep it sheathed and stay your hand. You would be wise to remember that.'” And remember it he often has to. But luckily for us – not always!
This concept of the inner dichotomy in Tancred’s personality – between the old-fashioned, hot-blooded Viking warrior constantly spoiling for a fight and the lord and master of an English estate, with people looking to him for guidance and protection – is broadened, brought out of Tancred and reflected many times across the story itself. A little awkward that, but inner personal struggle reflecting external, historical conflicts, I guess I mean. Alliances come and go, between people and groups who really shouldn’t be in alliances and which all serve to keep Tancred on his toes, constantly wondering if he can work out which way history will have him move. That’s just one more reason why it is such a splendid book, so many possibilities.
And I really hope that the possibilities presented by Tancred’s personal struggle, of feeling fellowship with his English ‘subjects’, while still being bound by Norman rules, could be something explored in future Tancred stories. The clash of loyalties and realities is actually similar to that we should have seen, but didn’t, in Bernard Cornwall’s recent ‘The Death of Kings’ (whilst I thought it was the best in the series so far, the struggle between Uhtred’s Viking roots and his English loyalties was not, I felt, given the space the problem deserves. A bit of a wasted opportunity, if you ask me). Here, Tancred is conquerer, turned defender. Many of his own countrymen turn against him as his actions challenge their expectations and his fame irritates them. And speaking of ‘countrymen’, Tancred mentions several times that whilst he is unquestionably on the outside, a Norman, he is in fact Breton, not a Norman by birth. And Bretons have common Celtic, Welsh even, roots, don’t they? Sweet. So where should his loyalties now lie when it’s the Welsh come knocking at his back door? And, bear with me here; is it a subtle, but significant, nuance added to Tancred’s character that he now wears his hair long? In the ‘British style’ (apparently). Not in the short, severe style favoured by his fellow Norman knights. Something else they criticise him for. Outwardly English, inwardly Norman. Could it be an indication Tancred is in danger of ‘going native’? Normally something English people do when THEY live too long in a foreign country. If I were to speculate over future developments; could it indicate that Tancred, comes to bear arms against his former countrymen? In the future, I’d have Tancred come to question where his loyalties really lie. ‘Home’ or ‘abroad’? Really put him on the spot and see which way he jumps. If I were James. Just a thought…
I don’t want to make this sound like this is the perfect historical novel, but it’s certainly on the way there. There were a couple of incidents I thought were a little awkward, but it’s close and the series is getting closer. If ‘Sworn Sword’ showed great promise, then ‘The Splintered Kingdom’ delivers. And then some. If you thought the first one was good, just wait until you read this. If you haven’t read the first one – what are you waiting for? Go buy it – and this one, now!
You can buy ‘The Splintered Kingdom’ from Amazon.
You can download ‘The Splintered Kingdom’ from Apple’s iBooks.
You can buy ‘Sworn Sword’ from Amazon.
You can download ‘Sworn Sword ‘(as I did) from Apple’s iBooks.
I’m English. I grew up in and around the western English midlands. I lived half my life up in Yorkshire, not that far from York. In my younger – drinking days – York always had a reputation as a ‘fighting’ town – so not much changed in 1,000 years? I now live in Denmark, where the Vikings come from. I speak Danish. The rest of my family have lived in south Wales for around 30 years. My maternal Grandmother always insisted our family surname was of French origin.