Saturday, 31 May 2014

A good story set against an interesting historical background

A review of 'The Northumbrian Saga' by AH Gray.

Aethelwin is the neice of King Osbert of Northumbria and a dedicated supporter of both him and her family, ‘The Peace Weaver’, the first part of this saga, is set against the turbulent times of the 9th century AD when Britain was overwhelmed by Danish and Norwegian invaders; popularly known as the Vikings. This provides an interesting historical backdrop against which the story is told but it can be a little confusing with many unfamiliar names and the particular character of Anglo-Saxon England at this time. You do not have to be a student of the early medieval period to enjoy this book and it is difficult for an author to balance an honest historical account of the time with the need to keep the reader entertained.

For the most part ‘The Peace Weaver’ manages to maintain the balance, never tipping into a historical essay and so becoming dry or forgetting its’ period and resulting in a superficial account of the fall of Northumbria as an independent kingdom. I enjoy descriptive writing and so appreciated reading about York, a place I know well, as the centre of the major events.

The story is told from Aethelwin’s point of view, which offers a female perspective on a period of history that is dominated by men. Unfortunately it also means that the several battles occur in the background with the women waiting for news. This is accurate but it does rob the book of both the tension and the excitement that such events can generate. There is one exception to this when the Northumbrians attempt to recapture York and Aethelwin is caught in the middle of the action, but events appear blurred, lacking a blow for blow account of how the Northumbrians managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

I also found the use of modern words somewhat jarring, they don’t occur everywhere throughout the text but when they do they are noticeable. This incongruity can be solved easily with a little editing.

As for Aethelwin she did not have my sympathy throughout the whole of the book. It should perhaps be remembered that she is only 13 at the beginning when she is married off by her family; she lacks experience and has a vaulted judgement of her own importance to her family and the king. Her relationship with her husband could have been examined in further depth perhaps, it would make her fall from grace all the more poignant if the reader believed that at one point there was genuine affection between the two. Her later exploits in a York under Danish rule also do little to endear her as she seems motivated only by a dream to free Northumbria of the Vikings and, consequently, fails to establish any meaningful relationships with anyone who cannot be useful to her in this pursuit. One aspect that I did like was the development of her relationship with her half-sister as this helped to show their growth and maturity.

I did not find any real surprises in the development of the plot, however, but despite the lack of tension I was intrigued enough to want to see what happened next. It was not a chore to get to the end; in fact I enjoyed it. Indeed, Aethelwin’s situation at the close of the book seemed very authentic and made her a character easier to sympathise with.

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