Review: Swordland – Edward Ruadh Butler

Swordland Edward Ruadh ButlerSeries: The Invader Series 1

My version: Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction Medieval Wales, Medieval Ireland, the Normans, 12th Century
Accent Press
First published: 2015
Supplied by Accent Press

From the cover:

A tale of war, death, lust and scheming, set in the starkly beautiful landscapes of medieval Ireland and Wales.

Robert FitzStephen is a warrior down on his luck. Arrogant, cold, but a brilliant soldier. FitzStephen commands a castle – yet although his mother was a princess, his father was a lowly steward. When a Welsh rebellion brings defeat and a crippling siege, his highborn comrades scorn him, betraying him to the enemy. A hostage of his cousin, Prince Rhys, FitzStephen is disgraced, seemingly doomed to a life of obscurity and shame.

Then King Diarmait arrives…

Diarmait is the ambitious overlord of an Irish kingdom. Forced to flee by the Hight King of Ireland, he seeks to reclaim his lands by any means possible –  and that includes inviting the Normans in. With nothing left to lose – and perhaps a great deal to gain – FitzStephen agrees to lead the Irishman’s armies, and to drive Diarmait’s enemies from his kingdom. His price? Acceptance, perhaps…or perhaps a kingdom of his own?

‘Swordland,’ was, to the Vikings – the Ostmen (as they came to Ireland from the east, I’m guessing), of Edward Ruadh Butler’s novel Swordland – if I’ve understood it right – areas of a country that they, erm… ‘visited,’ which they reckoned was ripe for the taking, subduing, robbing, maybe even settling. But the land would need to be taken forcibly, by using a sword. The Ostmen who loom large in Swordland, are those Vikings who have settled in Ireland after raiding – founding what is now Dublin, and also beginning the establishment of many of the other major coastal settlements around Ireland: Limerick, Cork, Wexford, Waterford, amongst others. These settlements seem to have begun life as Viking longphorts – A longphort being a term used in Ireland to describe a Viking ship enclosure or shore fortress. As you can see, I really got caught up in myself in this book and I could go on (and on and on), but for me, it goes to show just how damn addictive Swordland was. Once started, it’s almost impossible to stop.

Swordland comes thundering off the page like, appropriately enough, a Norman warhorse charging at the enemy; cutting a swathe of fresh, energetic and adventurous Historical Fiction storytelling. For what I think is Edward Ruadh Butler’s first novel, Swordland weaves a confident path through what, to the uninitiated, can be the confused and confusing, constantly shifting alliances and treachery that passed for early Irish power struggles. Twelfth century Ireland seems to have been a patchwork of rival kingdoms, each with their own king, but which were, in theory at least, supposed to be subject to the High King of Ireland. Raiding and endemic warfare was the order of the day even before the first waves of Viking raiders began arriving in the 9th century. Then, when the Norsemen’s direct, but barely house-trained, descendants the Normans arrived over from England, the whole thing got really complicated – and very bloody.

Add in to all this a Norman knight with an axe to grind, a man who desperately wants to prove himself both to himself and – despite his mixed origins – to those of his countrymen who abandoned him to the enemy and you have a book that can only be described as exuberant, passionate, supremely exciting Historical Fiction, that does everything you read Historical Fiction for – and does it with great enthusiasm.

It is interesting, along with Tancred from James Aitcheson’s Sworn Sword, to hear history from the Norman side. FitzStephen’s problems, those of being, merely by dint of birth seen as not worthy enough, even though he clearly was, to be valued by his supposed superiors is, admittedly, not a wholly new concept. But, seen from the bad guy’s, the Norman’s side of the fence, it is still – at least for me – a reasonably fresh concept. It allows Edward to be more objective towards his main character, creating a man we can have sympathy with, while also being allowed to fill the gaps with our own preconceptions of how the Normans were actually the villains of the piece, the unfeeling conquerors. That’s probably thanks to years of Robin Hood, and seeing the poor, downtrodden Saxons being kept subservient under the Norman lash. Seeing as we English, owe the Normans so much (not least a large part of the language I’m currently writing in), and are in love – generally – with the Normans’ ancestors, the Vikings, it is sometimes contradictory for us to think that they’re still the bad guys. Let’s face is, the Saxons were the original invaders, the people who actually came up with the name Welsh for the Celts who were here when they arrived (the names Wales and Welsh can be traced to a Proto-Germanic word Walhaz, meaning foreigner, and stranger. Strangers in their own land, eh?). Yes, FitzStephen does want to rule over/will kill, these ‘original’ people of the lands he finds himself in, but while keeping an edge of Norman harshness to him, Edward Ruadh Butler draws this more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a Norman knight. FitzStephen wants to reach a level of success – for him that means owning large amounts of land – that will bring him back equal with his Norman peers, though I get the feeling that once attained, he wouldn’t see it as actually being satisfactory, only bringing temporary gratification. Edward Ruadh Butler’s FitzStephen is evidently destined to be better than that.

After harsh years of disappointment and suffering in Wales, in Ireland FitzStephen learns quickly that Irish kings have not just a predilection for back stabbing, but are quite willing to stab you in the front, if the need arises. The latter, I think, actually appeals to FitzStephen, as at least in Ireland, he can actually see the people who have come to kill him. It can’t be long before he realises the Normans he thought were his peers people, turned out to be the real sneaky backstabbers.

I will admit to rarely ever reading the back blurb before I start on a book I’ve been sent for review. I want to come fresh to it, see where it takes me. And Swordland took me in so many new and excitingly interesting, often unexpected, areas and most often didn’t go where I thought it was going to, so many times. Swordland, is a magnificent start to The Invader Series, positively bristling with a wonderfully adventurous spirit, full of new names, new places, new faces and no little wit.

You can buy Swordland from The Book Depository

*My family now live in Wales. One of my nephews is called Rhys. My name is Stephen. I live in Denmark, home of the Vikings. I was always going to like this book!
Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m guessing young Ruadh hasn’t got an ø, on his keyboard. In Danish, Ostmen, should really be Østmen; to mean ‘east men.’ Problem is ‘ost’ means ‘cheese’… To be fair, the Ø is a relatively modern invention, 1940s-ish, and replaced the oe in written Danish. An Ø is pronounced a little like the ir in bird.

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