I saw this thick paperback at a bookstore in a small English town this summer. It is the first novel by the English author, who has written on history and exploration, according to the brief biography. The cover calls it “an epic novel of the Norman Conquests” which isn’t really the case. I suppose the publisher thinks this will catch people’s eye with an historical event they’re familiar with, especially in England.
Actually, the novel takes place in 1072, six years after the Norman Conquest, and only the initial chapters take place in the England recently taken by the Normans under King William. The sprawling story takes the main characters from the Italian Alps to Northumbria, thence to Iceland, Greenland, the North Cape of Norway, the White Sea and Rus, the Varangian Way down to the Black Sea, and Anatolia in modern Turkey. As I noted, it’s sprawling.
|Here's the cover of Bill's UK edition.|
Vallon, a Frankish knight turned fugitive, comes across the Greek medical student Hero and his master Cosmas of Byzantium while sheltering from a violent storm. Vallon is headed south fleeing France, while the others are headed north toward England. Cosmas is dying, but first he passes a secret to Hero that leads Vallon to change his plans and send him and Hero on a quest that will span the continent. Norman knight Walter is a prisoner of the Seljuks following the battle of Manzikert in Anatolia. Following medieval custom, a ransom demand is being sent to his family in northern England with Cosmas as the messenger. Hero convinces Vallon to join him with the promise of riches unspecified. He also passes him a ring with certain “powers” that Vallon cannot remove from his finger.
The quest eventually comes down to delivering four extremely rare white gyrfalcons to the Seljuk Emir Suleiman. These can only to be found in Greenland. The rest of the novel follows the adventurers as they gain fellow travelers Walter’s brothers Drogo and Richard, German soldier Raul, mute orphan English boy Wayland and his dog, orphan English girl Syth, English sailor Garrick, Icelandic “princess” Caitlin and her suitor Helgi, and assorted others. Don’t ever assume that a character’s importance guarantees their survival either. Oh, and Wayland manages to capture six precious white gyrfalcons, including a remarkable “haggard” that will feature prominently in the tale. A number of the travelers have secrets that will come out, some to great consequence.
The journey must contend with Viking pirates, Cumin nomads, devious Russian nobles, and all manner of people as they journey through the Europe of the late 11th Century. In the end, nothing is quite as it seems and surprises await at every turn.
This could have actually been 3 or 4 separate books in my opinion. I count readers fortunate that it’s all included in one 750 page volume. The ending seems to hint at a sequel, but that’s for another day.
This book has a large map of the lands traveled, that could have benefitted from some more detail. Also, a glossary of falconry terms would have been highly appreciated. Overall, it’s a great adventure story set in a time about which most of us know little. I recommend it for those with the time to invest in reading it.