Book Review: Conquest by Stewart Binns

It is 1066 and England is about to undergo the most cataclysmic change of history since the arrival of the Roman legions. On one side, the last Saxon king Harold II. On the other side, William – Duke of Normandy, William the Bastard, William the Conqueror. The story is recreated on the Bayeux Tapestry which despite being a pro-English piece of propaganda, sites in a museum in Normandy. Harold would be killed at that battle and England would once again be ruled by those of Norse descent. The period of Norman Conquest would see a time of bloody battles but also an immense building programme of castles, towns and cities and

In the middle of the two men is a third – Hereward the Bourne. What? Never heard of him? Neither had I and I hang my head in shame – not just at this gap in my own knowledge but also at his omission from the history books. Actually, some people doubt his existence but regardless of this, his story is no less impressive and if he did exist, no less important.

This is the first in a series of novels charting the history of England (I believe the final part is about Magna Carta). This book is a fictionalised biography of Hereward as he and his armies retreat to the Fens and the Isle of Ely to resist the Norman advance. An outlaw in life – a proclamation made by Edward the Confessor – for killing a Priest (in this book – the sources say it was for civil and familial disobedience), he goes to Wales and then Scotland on various quests and errands. He meets Macbeth, helps him to train his army and eventually returns home to take up arms.

The writing style is easy on the eye; it is not a heavy read by any stretch of the imagination and it is an easy book to absorb yourself into. But there is a lot of explanation, almost too much (within the dialogue and the narrative) and at times I find myself willing the pages on so the story can move go somewhere. I’m not a great fan of exposition and here there’s just too much – but at least it doesn’t come in lumps as so many other books that fall into the trap do. The narrative also reads like narration at times, as though Simon Schama himself is reading it aloud.

When writing historical fiction, it is important to get the environment right. That is, it must feel that you are in the right time and place. Binns certainly manages that. Though he doesn’t go into the same intricate depth as Jean M. Auel in her Earth’s Children series, there is enough there for it to feel satisfyingly medieval. The petty politics and power struggles that are going on around the Saxons and their would be Norman conquerors is also satisfyingly handled.

William the Conqueror is satisfyingly depicted, a mean and shrewd warlord who loves war as much as he loves his god. In contrast, I had mixed feelings about Hereward. He was almost too much the knight in shining armour, travelling the British Isles putting right the wrongs like a medieval Sam Beckett.

I’m sorry to say that the battle – when it comes – is stodgy and passionless, lacking the pace of Cornwell’s Saxon Stories and the finesse and technical detail of Sidebottom’s Warrior of Romeseries. I felt let down, especially with such a big build up.

Good book, but flawed.

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