Book Review: Black Monastery by William Stacey

This is another book that has come to me through I accepted willingly due to my interest and study of the early medieval period. It is a historical fantasy blending Viking and Eastern myth, telling the tale of a mysterious treasure located in the titular Black Monastery. However, the monks there have unleashed some ancient evils in the form of demons and ghosts.

OK, I need to get this off of my chest first. Some readers have commended the author for his research and this is good, mostly. Clearly the writer has an interest in the period – at least from the material point of view – however as an archaeologist who spent a couple of years studying the Vikings at undergraduate level, I was left with a few niggles.

For starters, the characters are supposed to be Danish but the writer uses Danish, Norwegian and Swedish names interchangeably. Bjorn for example was and is incredibly rare in Danish but is and was very common in Swedish – it is actually Norwegian in origin too. The naming conventions do not feel right, “son of” is rare as is the more common “(name)… the Bloodaxe” which would have added authenticity. For a good example of this level of research, read Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories.

The author also seems to lack some ideas about Viking culture. Several times a character speaks of a concept of Danish nationhood and there are many references to “Denmark” as a coherent nation. For me, this is the biggest howler. Their primary adherence was to their local Lord and this is how the bands and Earldoms were broken down. They would fight each other and would often work for opposing forces as mercenaries without any concept of turning against their brothers. There was simply no concept of a Viking nation – it didn’t exist and wouldn’t exist until King Cnut nearly 200 years later. Even Guthrum who had become the undisputed leader of the Danelaw in England didn’t see himself as being in charge of a nation, just Warlord of a very large area.

Most of this will not bother the casual reader but for those passionate and knowledgeable about the period are going to feel there is a disparity in the research – great in some areas, awful in others.

So now to the rest of it. Does it stand up as a work of fantasy? Mostly, yes. Fans of the historical fantasy genre are likely to enjoy it. It does its job in entertaining the reader and it is largely well written. The battle scenes flow well and it is clear that this is where the writer’s passion lies – very well done on that score. However, the language could have done with being a little more archaic. I soon grew bored with the phrase “gods-damned”. It doesn’t work and its overuse becomes an annoyance. Characterisation was weak if I am honest. I never felt that anybody was written with much depth, particularly our protagonist. I felt they were often people reacting rather than acting. Even in an action romp you need some depth.

Not bad, not great. Correct the historical inaccuracies – most of them at least – and add some depth to the characters and you have a potential smash hit here.

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