Book Review: Hereward – The End of Days
by James Wilde
Pegasus Books, 2015
James Wilde’s punch-throwing, spear-throwing, axe-wielding, farm-burning, blood-letting, eyeball-gouging, tongue-uprooting, viscera-exposing, gore-spattering, armor-splitting, throat-slicing, knife-hurling, village-razing, ten-knuckled series of historical novels starring Hereward the Wake continues with his delightfully moody new book Hereward: End of Days. The story began in The Hour of the Wolf and continued in a couple of later books (and they’re one ahead over in the UK) is here brought forward with Wilde’s usual skill at writing something that’s both a satisfying continuation of earlier books and a legitimate stand-alone adventure story.
As hinted, these books are not Downton Abbey.
The story started in The Hour of the Wolf with England on the verge of invasion from Normandy by William the Conqueror. The Mercian fighting man Hereward (modern-day readers won’t recall that he was the hero of a best-selling Victorian novel by Charles Kingsley) is pushed into the role of resistance leader, a role he plays throughout the next few books. Of course history rolls right over any chance that resistance will succeed, and as The End of Days opens, Hereward and his handful of fighting men have been routed on the battlefield and driven into wandering exile as William’s Normans, aided by William’s strutting, charismatic Viking ally – and Hereward’s dedicated nemesis – Harald Redteeth.
In the hugely enjoyable alternate-England fantasy novels Wilde writes under the name Mark Chadbourn, the narrative focus rests entirely on the dashing hero of the series, but the opposite is true in these Hereward novels: Hereward himself, basically a stock brooding freedom-fighter type, is less interesting than virtually all the less heroic characters around him, from his perfidious brother Redwald to William the Conqueror, who’s heard stories of the common folk of his conquered land giving scraps of food to Hereward and his resistance fighters:
“The English think him a hero,” the king roared … “They give him scraps now,” he continued, “and they tell tales of his exploits around the hearths. I know – I have heard those tales. Bear-killer. Giant-killer. A sword filled with God’s fire that will take the king’s head. My head!”
And by far the most interesting character of the series, Harald Redteeth, continues to steal every scene he’s in, the Javert to Hereward’s Valjean, always ready to fight and equally ready to sneer at his sometime allies:
“I have fought beside your kind time and again,” the Viking said. He cracked his knuckles as he regarded the knight. “I have seen into your heart, and it is a cold place. You build castles out of stone, and great churches that are chill and empty. And you kneel and you pray and you listen to the echoes come back and you shiver. You count your coin in your counting houses, and make marks upon your ledgers. You put women in their place. Not shoulder to shoulder as is their right, but lower. They should bow their heads to their husbands now, eh? ‘Tis no surprise you find comfort in sheep.”
As the wide-angle history of the Norman Conquest makes clear from the beginning, Hereward’s story is one of steeply diminishing returns. Although this series strongly resembles Bernard Cornwell’s books about King Alfred, the big difference is of course that Alfred ends up being king and “the Great,” whereas neither Hereward nor anybody else could turn back the tide of Norman invasion, which puts a capstone on the heroic underdog story Wilde is telling. But he’s telling it so well that his readers will stick around until the bitter end.