Review: Shieldwall – Justin Hill

My version: Paperback
Genre: Fiction, England, 1066
 Little, Brown Book Group
First published: 2011
ISBN: 9781408702789
Pages: 512

From the cover:
“The year is 1016 and England burns while the Viking armies blockade the great city of London. King Ethelred lies dying and the England he knew dies with him; the warring kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex and Northymbria tremble on the brink of great change. One man lives to bear witness to the upheaval: Godwin, barely out of boyhood and destined to become one of his country’s great warriors.
When Ethelred’s son Edmund takes the throne, determined to succeed where his father failed, he plucks Godwin from domestic peace to be right-hand man in his loyal shield wall. Godwin must traverse the meadows, wintry forests and fogbound marshes of Saxon England, raising armies of monks, ploughmen and shepherds against the Viking invader. With epic courage and ferocity, Godwin and Edmund repel the butchering Danes in three great battles. But an old enemy, the treacherous Earl Eadric, dogs Godwin’s footsteps, and as the final battle approaches, around the valiant English the trap begins to close.”

A nicely written and paced novel, rich with drama and intrigue and which begins at the start of a momentous period for what was beginning to become England. The 11th Century.

If ’11th Century’ says nothing to you – 1066 was the second half of the 11th Century. Better?

But that’s not just for fun, because this is actually a novel set in England of the early 11th Century, a century of invasions, clearly. Vikings are banging on Englands door every few years, they invade and conquer a couple of times, then there’s the pesky Normans, here just waiting and watching. In Normandy.

Beginning at the start of the century and concentrating on the situation in England – and wider afield sometimes – this is a story taking place before the momentous events of later on. Pre-Conquest happenings seem to have been non the less momentous as those later on, by the sounds of it. And as I found here, obviously benefit greatly from a little illumination, context and background.

But it’s not just a history lesson, though it is clearly well researched, and not just fleshing out the bare bones of history. Wikipedia could have told me that (and I did have to check a couple of times, to see if the characters were who I thought they were). Here, Justin Hill’s writing really brings the period to life, the landscape, the people, the politics, the prevalent mentality of the period. Fully formed and thoroughly immersed, I think you might say it is and one becomes.

We follow, at the start of the book, one Wulfnoth, who seems to have become an Anglicised ex-Viking invader. Then for the majority of the novel, his son Godwin guides the story through the period. And if you add a ‘-son’ to his name, as was the habit in those days, if you know anything at all of the period, you’ll understand the significance of the person Justin Hill is writing about. Whilst they are the embodiment of a people becoming ‘English’, they are also Viking invaders of the first wave. Now fighting against new Viking invaders, to form an new land, their land, ‘England’.

So this is the situation in England before the Norman conquest of 1066, that James Aitcheson and James Wilde are currently writing so evocatively about the after effects of. Where James Aitcheson’s stories of the Norman knight ‘Tancred’ show the invaders’ side and James Wilde’s ‘Hereward‘ series is about the guerrilla war of English resistance to the conquerors, this is a much more relaxed, panoramic view of the the events leading up to the conquest. As I say, there is drama and intrigue, politicking (and later, action) aplenty. And it is all handled with a confident, fluidic surety by Justin Hill. I think this is his first foray into the Historical Novel field, though you’d never know it. You can tell he had great fun writing this one, that’s clear from some lovely descriptive passages that are almost lyrical and must have felt lovely when just written. The book has in parts, an almost dream-like feel to it. You can feel him looking back into history, trying to see into the mists, attempting to make sense of and see what is forming. Then there come passages and events clear, sharp and bright. And heart-pounding action, of course. Best I can sum it up as.

Interestingly, if he’s got his research right and I can only presume he has, this is an England being formed by and fought over, by what we would think of as boys, young men at best. Godwin is barely 19 at the end of this, Knut is I think a little younger, and all the other main characters, Ethelred apart, are very young men.

If there was one quibble I had, it was the lack of meaningful action (by which I mean, fighting) in the first half. I saw somewhere he was writing a trilogy and even with having to follow historical events pretty closely (by which I mean that if there weren’t any battles, you can hardly write about them, can you?), there could have been a bit more mayhem at the start, even if you are largely setting up for a trilogy. The front cover illustration (of the paperback version I have) is also a bit non-descript. Not gonna be leaping off the shelves with that one.

Oh yeah, if I might recommend one thing to the author/publisher; it would be to change the photo of Justin Hill in the back cover (of the paperback version I have). To something more ‘read my book, you’ll really enjoy it’- like. Rather than the current ‘read my book – or I’ll break yer legs!’

Enjoyable though.

You can buy Shieldwall from The Book Depository

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