Monday 30 December 2013

Review of Wolf's Head by Steven McKay

Wolf's Head (The Forest Lord, #1)Wolf's Head by Steven A. McKay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed McKay's debut novel. It is action-packed, with quite a light touch on the historic and more focus on the fiction. The plot is pacey and quite simple, yet engaging.

The main difference with this telling of the Robin Hood story and others is the period it is set in. I found the details of the historical context, with mentions of the Despensers and King Edward II to be a bit forced. They didn't add a lot to the story in my opinion and felt like a bit of an afterthought. All the characters you expect are here: Robin, Will Scarlet, Little John, Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck. But despite mention of some of the robberies the band of outlaws carry out, the life in the forest never felt that much of a hardship.

I found some of the use of language a bit off-putting. For example, talk of people feeling adrenaline coursing through their veins (11 mentions of adrenaline), when adrenaline was not discovered until 1900, throws me out of the story. Call me picky, but I find this type of anachronistic language difficult to swallow in historical fiction. I have no problem with the use of modern turns of phrase in dialogue, as I understand that the writer wants to make it seem natural and easily understood, but mention of things that have not yet been invented or discovered, I find problematic.

Having said all of the above, I do not want to give the impression I did not enjoy the novel. It is an easy read, with characters that are likable with a clear sense of right and wrong. You root for Robin and his band of rogues, but you need to take it all with a pinch of salt. It is classic derring-do, but fun all the way.

4 stars - looking forward to the sequel.

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Sunday 29 December 2013

A trip to Northumbria - Part 2: Bamburgh Castle and Gefrin

I thought it was time to write up the second part of my trip to Northumberland, otherwise I ran the risk of writing about it next year!
Read about Part 1 here.
I drove up the coast through the rain to Bamburgh Castle. It is not that far from Dunstanburgh and it didn't take long. It is an extremely important place, both in terms of my novel, The Serpent Sword, and for the history of Bernicia, the more northerly kingdom of Northumbria in the seventh century. It was the seat of power of the Bernician kings. It is situated on an imposing crag, overlooking the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne. The site is incredible, its location makes it practically impregnable and it is an amazing vantage point over the surrounding land and sea.
Bamburgh Castle from the southern approach
Today it is a beautiful castle and well worth a visit. But, despite being the actual location where some of the events in my story take place, it did not impact me in the same way that Dunstanburgh Castle did. It is too sanitised. The whole structure is a reinvention of a medieval castle, rebuilt just over a hundred years ago.
The castle is an impressive, but sanitised, reinvention; removed from the real history
It still has the great views and some very interesting items in the halls and rooms, and a very nice cafe, where I had to stop for a cream tea (it would have been rude not to!), but it is lacking the ruggedness, the rawness of the castle just a few miles south down the coast.
Standing on the wall of Bamburgh Castle
It is a tourist attraction, first and foremost, and in being so popular, it has managed to lose that which attracts the tourists, or at least that which attracts me. It is somehow removed from the real history of the place.
Bamburgh Castle cream tea - it would be rude not to!
It was a documentary about a graveyard at Bamburgh, where they have found Anglo-Saxon remains, that got me started writing The Serpent Sword in the first place. The programme was called Meet The Ancestors, and there are lots of references to it in the museum in Bamburgh Castle, but I have not seen the programme since that very first time in 2001. I'd love to see it again, but I cannot find it on YouTube or online. If anyone has a copy, give me a shout!
After checking the time and realising I had less than three hours left until I needed to be back in Newcastle to meet my wife, I jumped into my little hire car, set the sat nav on my phone for a location on a small road in the middle of the Northumberland countryside, and sped off into the rain.
I was heading to one of the key sites in my novel and in the Bernicia of early seventh century - Gefrin. It was the site of one of the royal vils of King Edwin of Northumbria. Bishop Paulinus baptised the members of Edwin's court in the river Glen near there. It was destroyed by fire in 633, rebuilt several times, but ultimately disappeared and was lost in the mists of time until some aerial photos of the site in 1949 showed the outlines of  buildings in the fields.
The archaeologist Brian Hope-Taylor carried out many digs at the site and made several interesting finds. The site is now owned by The Gefrin Trust. It has placed some plaques and signs at the entrance to the field, but there is little else there to show its historical importance.
I arrived in the late afternoon and the rain finally decided to give me some respite. It was overcast, with broken cloud. The sun was attempting to shine through, but failing.
Gefrin lies north of the B6351 and there is a small lay-by where I parked. The road is small and quiet, with only a few other cars passing every once in a while.
Welcome to Ad Gefrin - informational sign
The gateway into the field is carved with goat heads and is evocative of the gables of the great hall that stood there in the Dark Ages. (Gefrin means "hill of the goats".)
The gate to the hill of the goats
As I stepped over the stile into the long, plush, rain-soaked grass, I was struck by the stillness. The large area is surrounded by brooding hills. Grey clouds billowed over the peak to the north. To the south, a farmer burnt some refuse on a bonfire, the smoke wafting on the slight breeze.
Surrounded by brooding hills
I traipsed through the grass, the rain drenching my trousers and feet (as I discovered that my hiking shoes were not at all waterproof!). A small brown bird, surprised at my approach, burst from the foliage and flew away, squeaking angrily.
Moody selfie in Gefrin
I stood there, dimly aware of time ticking by, and that I'd need to head back towards Newcastle and civilization soon. But as I surveyed the land around me, I could imagine the wooden buildings of Gefrin surrounding me. The smoke could have come from the forge, where Strang, and his daughter Sunniva, worked the metal for spear points and tools. The view of the hills could have been partially blocked by the great hall, its wooden-shingled roof, bejeweled and glistening with the remnants of the rain. The unusual, tiered, amphitheatre-like structure, where it is possible Paulinus preached to his recently-converted Christians or King Edwin addressed his subjects, would have cast its shadow over the grass.
The same flowers would have grown there. The same grass. It was easy to imagine how it would have been nearly 1,400 years ago.
I didn't have long to soak up the atmosphere. My shoes were sodden and making me uncomfortable. A car sped by on the road, breaking the silence. I had to leave this place and rush back to Newcastle.
The drive back was uneventful and I made good time. I drove through hills, small villages and forests, all the time thinking of the characters in my story walking these same lands, traversing tracks and old, crumbling Roman roads. Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.
I arrived back at Newcastle to find that Newcastle United was playing Inter Milan and the city was heaving with football supporters. I was pleasantly surprised that I was only a few minutes late back to our hotel, despite the stadium being right across the road.
I ended the day with a lovely meal with my wife at the wonderfully historic Blackfriars Restaurant. It was a perfect ending to a long, inspiring day. I hope to be able to return to Northumberland soon for more hands-on research - especially of the great food and beer!
Beer at Blackfriars Restaurant

Thursday 12 December 2013

Mini review of The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell

The Pagan Lord (The Saxon Stories, #7)The Pagan Lord by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More tales of Uthred from the master storyteller. This is not the best book in the series, and at times it felt a little like Cornwell was treading water, or trying to find a direction for the plot. However, the characters are strong as always and the final build up and grisly, gripping battle at the end provide the necessary and fulfilling pay off for the story.

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