Review: The Harrowing by James Aitcheson

The Harrowing5 of 5 stars

My version:
Uncorrected bound proof (!)
Historical Fiction England, Norman Conquest
Heron Books
Sent by James Aitcheson

In the aftermath of 1066, a Norman army marches through the North of England: burning, killing and laying waste to everything in its path. The Harrowing has begun.

As towns and villages fall to the invaders, five travellers fleeing the slaughter are forced to band together for survival. Refugees in their own country, they journey through the wasteland, hoping to find sanctuary with the last stand of the Saxon rebellion. But are they fleeing the Normans, or their own troubles?

Priest, Lady, Servant, Minstrel: each has their own story; each their own sin.

As enemies past and present close in, their prior deeds catch up with them and they discover there is no sanctuary from fate.

I absolutely adore books like this, I really do. Books clearly written from the heart, that are trying to do something a little different, a little bit more with the genre. And pull it off, obviously. Spectacularly so, in the case of The Harrowing. 

If you’ve read any of James Aitcheson’s previous books set in the period just after the cataclysm in English history that was 1066 and the Norman conquest, or any of the many good books there are about just now that are set in the period, then you’ll be familiar with the period. However, that is just where The Harrowing begins to set itself apart from the others. In his previous series, James wrote about the years after 1066, but seen through the eyes of Tancred, a Norman knight. Now, Tancred did become more and more Anglicised as the books progressed and did come to understand and sympathise with the ideals and something of the plight of the English he was responsible for. The Normans here, are an evil, dark presence, most often only glimpsed in the distance, though the results of their passing and presence can be seen and felt all around. Actual contact, is kept to just a couple of incidents – this is because The Harrowing is written focusing on the plight of the English, two devastating years after 1066. And a thoroughly desperate plight it is. In order to put down the last of the English resistance in the northern parts of the just conquered kingdom, and thoroughly extinguish not just the rebellion, but any thoughts of the possibility of rebellion in the future of his reign, William decided to go all in. That meant a truly awesome and awful, search and destroy, slash and burn, scorched earth destruction of the lives, livestock and livelihoods of the English in the north. A policy that came to be known as The Harrying of the North, or simply The Harrowing.

I use the above, modern warfare terms advisedly, because while it is a Historical Fiction of course, set 950 years ago, it’s a very modern novel and not just in language and style. The landscape it describes the five characters journeying through, compares in intensity and devastation, and at times bleak economy of writing, with any modern, post apocalypse novel – or film. Such is the devastation wrought by the Normans in revenge for the English daring to rebel in their own land against William’s new austerity, that in the hardest hit areas of England, the counties of Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland, some reports claim around 100,000 people died. Out of a total population of between one and a half and two million. And they of course, were the lucky ones. For the homeless, destitute survivors, it got worse. Whole towns and villages were devastated, ruined, destroyed. People’s homes, history, culture, lost forever. The scenes that resulted, that are sparingly and superbly described here, would surely be recognisable to anyone familiar with modern post-apocalypse novels and films such as I Am LegendWorld War Z or Mad Max. But the devastation clearly wasn’t just confined to the landscape and property, people losing everything left them devastated as well. As with the films, survival was the name of the game. And that is what James is concerned with here. The landscape’s devastation an external manifestation of the characters’ inner mental shock and awe.

So, it is against this dreadful backdrop that The Harrowing begins and is set. The characters find each other, each looking for survival and maybe hope. They have no future, their past has been swept away. However, they do have one thing. Guilt. They each have secrets they want kept hidden and yet, as they journey onwards towards their hopes, these secrets come out and they are forced to confront them and each other, with what they’ve done.

(The population in the northern counties was very Danish. As someone who lives now in Denmark, I can recognises ‘Tova’ as the Danish name Tove, it’s pronounced the same. Her friend Ase, would be Åse. ‘Beorn,’ is Bjørn. And they played Tæfl (helps having those characters on your keyboard)).

The Harrowing is nothing less than a magnificent book, melancholy and moving, a truly mesmerising experience. Heartbreaking at times, heartwarming at others, this is without doubt a book written from the heart, to the heart. A story of people confronting their past, surviving their present and trying, somehow, to believe they might, just might, have a future. More so than his previous 1066 series, The Harrowing is also a wistful, poignant look back at the England, and not least the English people, that was lost, crushed by the Normans in 1066. That an England survived for you and I, is thanks to people like Beorn, Tove, Skalpi, Merewyn, Guthred and the handful of others.

What James has written, is their memorial. Simple folk, surviving in terrible times with few expectations. Folk crushed by the Normans and as history is written by the victors, all but forgotten. What they deserve, is – as James writes for Beorn:

“Someone to know his story, to know who he was. Who he really was. Someone to know what he’d done, and to go on and live happy and well so that all his striving didn’t turn out to have been for nothing.”

In a book that takes place over just eight days, this hugely impressive book will stay with me for much, much longer. The Harrowing is incredibly imaginative, stylish, intriguing, complex and simply wonderful. Be prepared to be entranced and enraptured, if not, check your pulse, you’ve died.

As I finish, there’s a tear in my eye, and a smile on my face.

You can buy The Harrowing from all the regular outlets, I recommend The Book Depositoryfree worldwide shipping!

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SwornSwordThe Splintered KingdomKnights of the Hawk 2




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2 thoughts on “Review: The Harrowing by James Aitcheson

  1. That sounds excellent. This was the working title for Gods of War, I am glad that James beat me too it now, this sounds far better suited.


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