Feud by Derek Birks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
With a start that fair knocks you off your feet and takes your breath away at the same time, Feud opens with one hell of a bang and throws us almost physically back 500-odd years to England during the War of The Roses. There’s no time to settle, we’re straight in at the deep end of the action and incident of later Medieval England.
I know most books try and go straight at it and grab the reader’s attention with a violent start (those of the Historical Fiction type I want to read anyway), but few can have done it as successfully and convincingly as Feud. As an aside, it reminded me of the first of Robert E Howard’s Conan series I read way back when, as a teenager, where Conan also emerges from the forest into a clearing and straight into a fight. With Feud, the silence of an otherwise normal day in a forest clearing is shattered as steel-clad death thunders out from the trees and towards our heroes and is is as, exciting, tense and relentless start as starts come.
Our heroes are the various members of the Elder family. Mainly Ned, Emma and Eleanor and their friend Will, and we follow their feud of the title with the Radcliffe family of Lord Robert, Richard and – boo, hiss – Edmund, and their partially reluctant involvement in the larger feud of The Wars of The Roses. Neat, eh?
As I said, Feud is set in the Wars of The Roses. It seems it wasn’t known as The Wars of The Roses at the time of course, that came later. As did the white rose to symbolise Yorkshire, the red rose to symbolise Lancashire – and is a period of English history, prior to reading Feud of course, I’ll admit to knowing little to nothing at all about. It will take a few more readings of books on the subject to get me beyond beginner status of course, but a look at some websites have confirmed the feelings I got from reading Feud. Which is of conflicts between brothers, between families, between neighbours which were played out on a national scale with the rival throne-claiming ‘houses’ of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The whole country was dragged into a confusing mire of shifting alliances, death, revenge and destruction, all dressed up as a noble struggle for the future of England. There were some parts of the Feud story where I wasn’t entirely sure who was on whose side and who was supposed to be fighting who, but then I thought – and hopefully it was intentional – surely that reflects what the ordinary man in the muddy battlefield must have experienced. Whose side are they on? Are they friends or enemies? What were they yesterday? Are they still the same today? Who knows and who is bothered with such niceties when staring down the wrong end of a sharp pike?
Feud concentrates on the story of the local rivalry, the family feud between The Elders and the Radcliffes. A feud that has existed for some time but comes roaring back as the families use the Wars of The Roses as an excuse to try and settle old disputes. What the story shows is that the period, the clothes and the weapons might be different in Feud, but the themes and the emotions are the same as in just about any conflict you see on your TV today. The story takes us from this local family conflict up in northern England, to battlefields throughout the country. To Wales – not often you read about having to fight your way out of a nunnery. In, yes, but out? – to London and the south, all serving to reflect the countrywide scope of this terrible conflict. And all while the characters try to find each other, or kill each other, or even just find out who they’re supposed to be fighting. They, and we, are the whole time plunged into very hot frying pans and into even hotter fires.
Whilst it is generally a finely wrought book, a tale of many layers and nuances, it’s not all smooth reading. There are some what I would call ‘speed bumps’ along the way. A few things that perhaps don’t work so well, or at least jar a little. For example, early on, right at the start actually, after the hectic, breathless opening, the girl Emma Elder is captured by the opposing family. She then seems in an almost indecent haste to accept her fate. She (unwisely as she herself admits) opens the doors to the Radcliffs, gets captured and taken away, gets the chance to rest (or rather doesn’t) a while, goes downstairs, is greeted by Radcliff, told she is now his Ward asks to whom she will be married, told it is to be married to his son. And accepts her new fate. One minute free and enjoying life and running away from the evil neighbours, the next minute being told you’re now the property of the evil neighbours number one son – with number two son of the opinion that he has an option on her as well. And it’s “oh well, ho-hum, such is my fate, nothing to do about it.” I seem to remember her even refusing to be rescued, because of this forced marriage. Didn’t really convince, sorry. Seemed a bit quick in terms of the story’s time-frame, and the number of pages in between incidents. She seems more shocked and stunned that her wild, waif of a sister is already on her way to a nunnery, than she is of her own fate.
Otherwise, my only other reservation might be that after a hectic, fantastic start, the book becomes a bit bogged down in the central sections. It is in general maybe a bit too long and there were parts where I would have advised him to thin it out to maintain the momentum of that start. There were too many ‘extra’ incidents that were fun to read and were probably fun to write – which is probably why they were left in, but is always a mistake – which, when looking back at the story as a whole, didn’t really serve much of a purpose. Having said that, there were then a couple of parts that felt a little underdeveloped, like more explanation was needed. But really, that’s being me being overly churlish. You really should give it a go and see if you agree. Or not.
As a whole, Feud is a rattling good read. Interesting characters, incident a-plenty and a great introduction – for me at least – to a period I knew very little about. There were those reservations, as I’ve said above, but they in no way stopped me from thoroughly enjoying the story as a whole and more than ready to get stuck into the follow up, the second in the trilogy, which, if I’m not much mistaken, is called A Traitor’s Fate. This is clearly a series worth getting stuck into and is going to be well worth following all the way.