Friday, 9 May 2014

The War Wolf - first in-depth review of my novel

It is very rewarding when your work attracts this kind of attention.

"This eight week period in our country's history has fascinated me for many years as, not only is it, arguably, the most important series of events in the shaping of this nation ever to occur, but because these events are understood, or even heard of, by so few people. It has become a cliché that everyone in Britain, if stopped in the street and asked to name a single date in history that they remember, would say "1066, the Battle of Hastings". Yet very, very, few of them would have the faintest idea of the dramatic events of the four to six weeks before that. Or the notion that King Harold, just as William (the Conqueror) was about to sail across the Channel, had to rush north to fight against a second invasion from a Viking force, beat that force and then jog back down to the south coast for another fight. Or, incredibly, that Harold need not have lost the Battle of Hastings at all if a large portion of his allies had arrived at the battle 40 minutes earlier, or, even, if his men had not been duped by the Normans into breaking their shield wall. What would our country be like now if King Harold had won at Hastings? Our language, food, laws, governance and almost everything else stem, to a large degree, from William's success at Hastings. This trilogy of books sets out to tell the tale of those few weeks.

The problems, for a writer, in this period of history include the fact that names were very different then and very strange sounding to us. Another problem is that the real events were so incredible that they sound truly 'incredible'; not believable, even to the point of having important characters who happened to have exactly the same name. Peter Whitaker manages that quite well and the index and map at the back of the book are very helpful. Perhaps a 'who's who' might have been a useful addition.

The story itself is quite slow in building and is none the worse for that. This was a very complex situation and an understanding of the politics and family links of the time is important to the whole thing and Mr Whitaker sets this out in a form that is both accurate and yet readily understood and engaging. The characters fall into two categories. Firstly, many of the main characters are real people from history and, although it is almost impossible to know for sure, Peter Whitaker's rendition of them has the ring of accuracy that convinced me and I engaged easily. The second tier of characters are the fictional ones and these too are very well crafted. I could have lived without the 'love interest' story as, to me, it seemed to be unnecessary and inserted only because 'every book needs a love interest'.

The joy that Mr Whitaker takes in his history just shines out of this book and the descriptions of the lives, clothes, weapons and general life of this period are lovingly portrayed in a detail that brings real colour to the story. The scenes of battle are absolutely excellent, taking the reader right into the shield wall and yet flying out every now and then to give a bigger picture (a luxury that the leaders of the day didn't have).

But there are flaws. The main issue I had was not with the author at all but with the very poor rendition of this book into e-book format so that many simple words are misused in a fashion that is jarring to the reader. Come on Amazon, don't do such an injustice to a writer who has invested so much trouble in his work! But Mr Whitaker isn't squeaky clean either. The plot does lurch a bit and it feels, just a bit, as though he has gone back in the proof reading and thought "Oh yes, I'd better insert a bit there". Then there's the place names. It is my personal preference that the names of places contemporary at the time should be used and having an explanatory index at the back is great, so the book should use 'Grimms By' rather than 'Grimsby' and 'Jorvik' rather than 'York'. Yet here, the names change frequently, with one form being used on one page and the more modern form on another. I suspect that Mr Whittaker intended that the Vikings use their older name forms (Jorvik) and the Saxons use modern forms (York) but the result is, actually, a confusing muddle that jars the reader out of the time frame. And then there is a personal gripe of mine in that the invaders' nationality is referred to as 'Viking'. In fact, they were Danes, Norwegians, Geats and a few other Scandinavian peoples and the term 'viking' is a verb, so these people would 'go viking'; a bit like 'go raiding'. Given the historical accuracy of the rest of this work, it would have been nice to have made this distinction, not least because it is important to understand that these thousands of invaders didn't think of themselves as a single national force of 'Vikings'.

This, the first book in the trilogy, ends at a logical point after the Battle of Fulford Bridge and the stage is set for the next set of events as Harold surges north. Minor grumbles aside, this is a really good book and I will buy the next in the series to follow the plot. The fact that we all know how it turns out doesn't matter in the slightest; it's the telling of the tale that counts. If you know your history, then this book will impress with its accuracy, and if you just want a romping saga of sword swinging and medieval action, then it won't disappoint you either."


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