‘Hereward’, James Wilde’s first book in the Hereward series was a stunning debut. The power and verve of the writing, the impact and strength of the hero the story revealed, gave ‘Hereward’ an edge and a pulsating wildness that I hadn’t felt from a book in a long time. As if the story, the book, had reached up and punched me in the face!
From the very beginning, James Wilde formed Hereward into a thoroughly believable and compelling character from the forgotten mists of English history. An action-packed, compulsive story that took no prisoners and a hero that then held a knife to your throat for the rest of the book.
In general, this is a familiar period – 1066 and the aftermath – and one also recently vividly explored, from the Norman point of view, in James Aitcheson’s ‘Sworn Sword’ and ‘The Splintered Kingdom’. Here, James Wilde presents it to us afresh by concentrating on a (perhaps to most people) unfamiliar English hero – Hereward ‘The Wake’. As the book jacket to the paperback of ‘Hereward’ puts it;
“The last Englishman. The first freedom fighter. The forgotten hero.”
(According to Wikipedia, Hereward’s ‘The Wake’ epithet; “meaning ‘watcher’, was popularly assigned to him many years after his death” So, whilst I can’t say ‘Hereward’, without also thinking ‘The Wake’, no one here in these books, says “Hi Wake!” And he’s certainly more of a do-er, than a watcher).
Right, so the question is then; after such an impressive start, can ‘The Devil’s Army’ live up to the startling promise of its predecessor?
Yes. It can. It does. And then some.
Of course, because we’re better prepared this time, because we know the main characters and we know the style, the second can never be as much as a surprise as the first one (in any series). So the writer has to perhaps work a little harder to keep it fresh, keep us interested and not re-tread old ground. Even if, like this, it is a ‘to be continued’ story.
With ‘The Devil’s Army’, Hereward’s character broadens, matures and takes on more responsibilities as the story progresses. He has to. He finds his inner rage tempered more than somewhat by the responsibility and pressures of the leadership that he hasn’t exactly sought, but which has pretty much come to him by dint of the rebels and him realising there is no one else willing or able to take that leadership on. He realises that being a strong leader isn’t just about training, leading warriors and the joy of battle, even though he might sometimes wish it were that simple. He needs to offer the people he says he is fighting for, something more than just a satisfyingly bloody fight and the chance of gratification through revenge.
“Once he had been little more than a ravening wolf, driven by rage and hungry for blood, shunned by all civilised folk. Now he was a leader of men who had been taught the value of friendship, honour and justice.”
His resistance to William takes shape and he needs fighters. As they fight back against the Normans, so more come to him, willing to fight. But they also come with family and friends who need to be found place to live. And food to eat. Ely, surrounded by the almost impenetrable forests and marshes of the Fens, might offer Hereward protection and a place to centre his fight-back, but it comes at a cost. The people need to see results, not an occupying force. Resentment grows and surprisingly, Hereward often has his work cut out convincing them he offers a better future than William. At the time he most needs his people’s help and support, Hereward risks alienating them.
“(Hereward) chose his words carefully, subtly reinforcing the notion that he was one of them, not an outsider who had seized control of their birthplace…They were scared; they yearned for a strong leader, a protector in these turbulent times, and they wanted to believe every word he uttered.”
He needs to offer the civilised folk a future. But a safe, secure future that is also in the here and now. Unfortunately, some of the English have also come to the conclusion that this is what they want, more even than the restoration of their heritage. They have come to the conclusion that by mercilessly crushing their fellow Englishmen, the ‘rebels’ supposedly fighting for them, a stable future is exactly what William can not only offer them, but also deliver – even though it involves burning, killing, and even starving their fellow countrymen to death.
And yes, what of William in ‘The Devil’s Army’? King William the Conqueror (variously ‘my Lord’, ‘The Userper’, or ‘The Bastard’ – depending on how far away you are from him I guess), is a constant dark and menacing presence, in the country and throughout this book. The Norman Alpha Male. No one is bigger (literally), stronger, or more willing to go further – or sink lower – to get what he wants. He is clearly intent on living up to a perhaps more modern interpretation of ‘The Bastard.’
And yet interestingly, on occasions James Wilde shows us that Hereward is also in danger of becoming just as ruthless and destructively determined as the man he is fighting to rid his people of. Hereward can surely see this and at times seems effectively powerless, forced both by necessity and circumstances, to stop it.
Hereward is of course the main character here, but other characters are satisfyingly developed as well. We learn more about his ‘brother’, Redwald. He is more of a courtier and politician than Hereward, but also an opportunist. His aims are murky, or at least not very clear. He sees much but says little. I don’t trust him one little bit. And Alric the Monk, Hereward’s companion and conscience personified, becomes a stronger character, while all the time demanding more and more of Hereward’s respect. Being Hereward is not easy when you don’t want to follow the sensible advice of someone who has your best interests at heart, and don’t know that someone you have always trusted, can’t be. The countryside of the Fens is wonderfully described and also plays a huge part in shaping both the resistance and the writing of the story. Almost a character in itself.
Add into the mix some huge surprises (that I certainly didn’t see coming) and a final battle the like of which one comes across only very rarely – a violent, blood-soaked ambush and chase, with attack and counter-attack that is impossible to tear your eyes away from – and with ‘The Devil’s Army’ you have powerful, evocative historical fiction writing of the very highest order.
And luckily for us, as they say in ‘The 13th Warrior’; ‘there are more…’
I may be getting ahead of myself here, but I really feel that just two books in, James Wylde has made the ‘Hereward’ series the one others will be measured against.