Lighting up a previously dark age in my personal historical knowledge, Wulfsuna is a convincing and compulsive tale that starts with a bang of betrayal, battle and blood – and builds from there.
Wulfsuna, is the start of a series of books featuring the characters and begins in AD433 on the south-eastern coasts of what will later become England. The ‘later become…’ is hard to get away from when describing events of this period. That’s because – as I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you – they weren’t of course Anglo-Saxons at the time, we now call them. Saxons or Angles, though what they actually called themselves – apart from ‘Wolf Sons,’ I’m not sure. ‘E.S.’ goes for ‘Seaxon,’ deriving from the Seax, a dagger and ‘symbol of freedom’ (Seax, you’ll see features as a weapon in many Hist Fic stories) but doesn’t, in my mind, sit all that easily with them being from ‘Sachsen,’ in Germania. See, you really do struggle to describe the period in period terms, though I didn’t really feel it would do justice to the book’s depth, to reduce it simply to ‘Germans coming to England.’ Both terms belonging obviously to a much later date. As the book works hard to put over, these were very ‘fluid’ times and there was a lot of too-ing and fro-ing of peoples across the English Channel and the North Sea. Those terms again being later inventions of course. Oh bugger…
Anyway, what happens? Well, there is a lot of confusion. The Romans have departed, well, their systems have, as how many were actual ‘Romans’ and not Roman-icised Britons in the later stages – and therefore how far they would actually have had to travel, to return ‘home’, is perhaps open to discussion. The Legions have gone anyway, but many of the the mercenaries the Romans padded out their forces with, from many lands other than Britain and not just Angles and Saxons, are still there. After being away for 20 years, the Wulfsuna are returning to the islands of the ‘Brytons’ from the mainland. Some are returning to where they were actually born, as I read it, some coming over for the first time. Some have good intentions, want to settle and live a good life, others have different ideas and have brought old rivalries that were thought to been settled back ‘home,’ with them. They’ve been fighting for the Romans, generally against the ‘original’ inhabitants of Britain. But when more Angles started coming over – often to finish the job – some turned round and fought against the new ‘invaders,’ while some couldn’t see why they should fight against their own kind. The real losers, the ones who could genuinely say “Oi! We were here first!” are those we now call Celts, but whom the Angles and Saxons called ‘Wealisc,’ or foreigners. Interesting, eh? The foreigners calling the inhabitants foreigners. Having my whole family living in Wales and half now actually being Welsh on their passports, it gives me even more reason to tell them I spit (after winding down the car window first, of course) when I drive over the border from England.
I’m not going to give you any much more, because as it starts the development of the – for me anyway – pivotal elements, very nearly from the start. I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment – or shock – for you. I did think the situation and the dilemma(s) facing Wulfgar, as he tries to step into the leadership of the Wulfsuna, is very neatly summed up on page 32: “Now he was a Lord over a divided tribe in a strange land.” He needs help, but the tribal members who stayed in Bryton, only seem to raise suspicions, there are potential, blue-painted enemies everywhere (at least they’d be easy to spot, I suppose) and then they come across a young girl by the roadside. She may be good news, may be bad news. But it’s clear she’s destined to travel with them. Coincidences never happened back then, everything was either pre-ordained or the will of the old gods, or the new one. So, she is there for a reason but what it is, what it means and how their fates are entwined is one of the main threads of the story from then on.
Wulfsuna is full of convincingly developed main characters along with some interesting bit players. Wulfgar, especially Sieghild (to whom I warmed immediately) Acgarat, and many more. The young girl Morwyneth’s presence, as a young reluctant ‘seer’ woman, run out of town for having visions she cannot control, etc, is obviously a gigantic cliché. ’She’ features in many books of this kind and I did fear for the worst when she was introduced. You see, I don’t go with the “It seemed she had two choices: to deny herself the seer’s sight for the comfort of community, or accept her powers and spend a life in solitude.” (p71). That’s the cliché, that it’s a ‘burden.’ Nonsense. What a gift! Punch the air with a “Woo-hoo! I can see the future!” Keep quiet about it, improve your life with it, have a good time and use it to your advantage. But, really, no-one can do what she does. No one can see the future, either when they want to, or when, as pretty much here, when they don’t want to and least suspect it. Not before then, not then, not after. Proof? When did you last read ‘Clairvoyant wins Lottery?’ eh? Try never. Interestingly, I have seen the theory that deja vu, is actually the result of time travel. You think you’ve been in that situation before, because you have. Through stepping into a time ‘bubble’ of some sort at some point. Erm, however, to be fair to the good Ms Moxon, I thought Morwyneth’s subsequent development as the tale progressed, was very deftly handled and she could well turn into one of the series’ most interesting characters. It did though raise the question of the genre of the book – should it be filed under Fantasy? If she’s going to continue calling it ‘Historical Fiction,’ it maybe needs the visions and the being stalked by dead mothers toning down a bit in future volumes. It’s one thing having your characters believe ‘magic’ is the cause of things they cannot explain, it’s another thing to have magic actually happen in the story. Then, it’s fantasy. Morwyneth is built up as being ‘one with nature.’ In the absence of any meaningful technology in the period, it is nature which holds the (balance of) power. And those who can read the natural signs, are to be admired or suspected, or, as here, both at the same time. What is good is Morwyneth is used as an outsider to the Wulfsuna, to look at their culture and habits and compare, both to her own, Briton ways – and us and ours’ now. That alone would justify her presence for me. Quite apart from any potential Lotto-winning abilities.
The first two or three chapters I did find something of a rocky road – some of the dialogue felt like it was written in the way you would tell someone else what happened, rather than the character describing whist IS happening. The first chapter or so did feel a bit rushed as well, too much information and character swings too early. As it was the start of a series, there wasn’t the need to bring us up to speed so quickly and it felt a little forced. I also wondered if she hadn’t gone through multiple alterations before publishing and actually forgotten to put it back in some of the neccessary parts. Like this one: ‘“Wulfgar leaned on the side of the boat, his iron-splinted vambraces winking in the sunlight.” ‘Vambraces’? What are they? Where are they, are they on Wulfgar, alongside him, where, what? Clearly they’re open to the air, glinting in the sun, but there is absolutely nothing in the preceding or following passages to give a clue as to what they might be. We find out later, but at the time of first reading they just stop the reading flow. Stop it like someone suddenly slapping you. I have seen a review which mentioned something about (they thought) the innappropriate use of some words in the story. They flagged something about the girl making a ‘deal with herself’ as being wrong for the time. ‘Deal’ being a much later word, or similar. I’m no expert, so I couldn’t say. However…the words that worried me and the reason, wasn’t so much for them being wrong for the time period, more for them being wrong for the situation being described at the time, standing out unneccessarily and thereby interrupting my flow. Like cycling along a nice smooth cycle path and suddenly being jolted by hitting a rock you didn’t see coming. It happened a few times over the first couple of chapters. The one I’m thinking about right now, was this (P59): “Safe at last, she clutched her abdomen where the ache…” When writing about a lowly, uneducated, lonely girl in a middle of nowhere life in a village in the middle of nowhere, 433AD, ‘abdomen’? No. Stomach, yes. Fits her, fits the passage. She’s not a doctor in the 21st Century, she is the afore-mentioned lowly farm girl. Yes, it’s from Latin, but first began to be used in the mid 16th Century – were I to get all pedantic on your asses. My point is that it stopped me and that was irritating and it made me wonder about the word, instead of being concerned about her. However, from about Chapter Three and onwards, I realised it wasn’t happening any more and it all got a considerably smoother, with a much more satisfying flow thereafter.
Wulfsuna oozes with passion, not just from its characters, but from its author. Clearly, ‘E.S.’ is passionate about this formative period of English history and that comes over very strongly. As does her enjoyment of the tale she is writing. If anything, the book, the series, seems like her attempt at time travel. It all feels right and is – eventually – convincing in its portrayal of life, fashions, thinking, warfare and not least, the landscape. The descriptive passages I found most enjoyable of all, I think. The after-impression I take away from Wulfsuna is that it is a tale full of yearning for a time, attitude, honesty, we have little idea of, nor really total understanding for. To read and fully appreciate a book like this, you need to take your 21st Century head off. To do that and fully immerse yourself into the period, it obviously takes a strong and well-written tale…like Wulfsuna then! After, as I say, the bumpy start, I began to forget myself, forget I needed to go online and book a new travel card, up-date computer software, get the shopping in, ring my Mum and Dad in another time zone…and begin to worry about how they’re going to pitch camp tonight, where they’re going to find enough to eat, why is he riding to tell them all that, is she really in touch with the spirits… And when you get to the end, while the bad news is you’ve finished the book, the good news is, there’s a second and maybe more books on the way.
The above was what I posted last week on my Goodreads review. This is extra.
I, perhaps like many, was always under the impression that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, etc came over to the British Isles, after the Romans left, in pretty much a single wave of conquest. However, If you want a clearer idea of idea of what the latest (well, up to when the book was written a few years ago) thinking based on archaeology, is, I can thoroughly recommend Britain A.D. by Francis Pryor. In fact, that book would be a lovely primer, for this one. As would Matthew Harffy’s The Serpent Sword. They might put a few things in place before you dive in. Wulfsuna also does a very good job – from the cover and inwards – of showing how the Anglo-Saxons moving into the British Isles, were both the fore-runners of and sprang from, pretty much the same source as, the Viking peoples. Unless you keep that in mind, you could become a little confused and have trouble perhaps pinning the period down in your mind, with the talk of gods that have similar names to the ones you know from the Vikings, but clearly aren’t the same – and are a couple of hundred years before Vikings came to prominence. Remember, they – like the languages – sprang from the same Germanic source and, just as the peoples moved away from each other, their beliefs, while similar, developed nuances of their own. Luckily, we have people like young Miss Moxon on hand to help.