In 2012 more than in any previous year, I found myself playing catch up at my beloved Boston Public Library, the best public library in the world. Some of you will already know of my affection for the sumptuous solidity of the McKim building – and especially for the soaring beauty of Bates Hall, under whose towering windows and glowing green lamps I’ve written three novels, ten short stories, and roughly a thousand book reviews. The BPL (both the gorgeous old McKim half and the less-than-gorgeous newer Johnson half) is one of the basic cornerstones of my Boston existence (along with the Atheneum and of course my beloved Brattle Bookshop)(at the latter of which generous gift certificates can always be ordered in my name …); for years, I’ve prowled its shelves in happy times and sad, and I never leave empty-handed.
But just recently, just in the last year or so, I’ve found myself gravitating more toward the newer books, constantly reminded of the dozens and dozens of new titles that simply eluded me in 2012. Through Open Letters Monthly and my various other reviewing homes, I manage to cast a wider net than I ever have before – I’m constantly hounding my publicist friends for review copies and then lugging them home from the Post Office (the review copies, not the publicists). But even so, plenty of books get by me – and I see them all lined up at the BPL like just so many enticements! So from time to time I’ll be combining those two favorite things of mine – the Boston Public Library and reviewing new books – to do some catching-up here at Stevereads. Starting today with:
by James Wilde
Pegasus Books, 2012
James Wilde is the pseudonymn for Mark Chadbourn, the British author of (among other things) the quite good fantasy novels The Silver Skull and The Scar-Crow Men, the first and second volumes in the “Sword of Albion” series (with the third, The Devil’s Looking Glass, set to make its US debut in mere moments), which are set in a not-quite England shot through with sorcery and presided over by a lethal, larger-than-life hero, Will Swyfte. The American covers of those novels feature brooding male model Paul Marron dashing about in doublet and hose, which he seldom dons in real life. Under the name James Wilde, Chadbourn published a novel in the UK called Hereward: The Devil’s Army which in 2012 got a hardcover American edition retitled (and better titled) The Hour of the Wolf, and a glance at its cover – a dark, eye-catching design by Jeff Miller at Faceout Studio – is enough to warn that more things have changed than just the author’s nom-de-plume. The product-description, “A Novel of Medieval England,” accompanies the grim image of a hooded man holding a broadsword as though it were a chalice. Not a doublet in sight.
And yet, not so much has changed. The Time of the Wolf takes place deep in the midst of the 11th Century English fen country and surroundings, which were reputed to be just as full of sprites, faeries, and demons as anything in The Silver Skull – and might well have been, for all we still know about the day-to-day realities of the time. Turmoil was the watch-word, turmoil was everywhere. The year is 1062, and England is a bloodstained chessboard of competing powers. The nominal king is Edward, but he’s weak and distracted, and several of his earls are jostling for more power. The Church watches warily for any chance to increase its power. Vikings maraud, the ones in this book lead by the unrefined but intelligent Harad Redteeth. And most ominous of all, just across the Channel a ruthless warlord named William the Bastard is busily building an army and a navy, intent on nothing less than the conquest of England. Such is the board, but what individual pieces – the spies, the priests, the over-powerful noble families, the humble village-dwellers – were doing at any given time is almost as much a matter of conjectural fancy as the stuff found in Chadbourn’s (very well-researched) fantasy novels.
Even more so the character James Wilde chooses as his conflicted hero: Hereward, the indomitable warrior posthumously nicknamed “the Wake” (meaning alert, watchful). Even in his own time, Hereward was very nearly as mythical a figure as Will Swyfte: exiled by his own father (and declared an outlaw by the King) for rowdy behavior when he was still a teenager, larger-than-life adventuring in many countries before returning to England in 1069 and taking up arms against William and his conquering Normans, sacking Peterborough Abbey and fighting William’s forces at the head of a motley little army. Hereward offered himself as a focal point for local resistance to the Normans – and Wilde became convinvced, we’re told, that this story should be the basis for a novel (no mention is made of Charles Kingsley’s best-selling 1866 novel Hereward the Wake, but I thought – perhaps over-hopefully – that I detected an echo here and there in Wilde’s book).
Certainly in The Time of the Wolf Hereward gets a novel after his own heart. The thing is swimming in blood up to its (probably gouged) eyeballs. Wilde may not mention Bernard Cornwell by name, but it’s hardly necessary: Cornwell’s trademark hysterically omnipresent hideous violence speaks for itself. Even in the first pages, in an opening scene that culminates with Hereward rescuing the monk Alric from Redteeth and his men, the barrage of glass-shards and police sirens is unrelenting:
“He’s defenseless,” the monk stuttered.
“Good,” Hereward angled his sword above the mail shirt and drove it into the man’s chest until the tip protruded from his back. The Northman gurgled, eyes frozen wide in shock. When Hereward withdrew the blade, hot blood trailed from the body where it had been opened to the air.
There are quieter moments scattered throughout (some of the best of which involving exchanges between our Dark Ages Odd Couple of Hereward and Alric), and even the furtive, utterly doomed gesture at a romance. The sources for the outline of Hereward’s life suggest a three-dimensional invidvidual, and occasionally Wilde tries to show us that person – before lapsing back to his favorite single-dimension, the Realm of Evisceration. This sub-genre of historical fiction – call it yore gore – has been undergoing a steady expansion since Cornwell re-introduced it to modern bookstores nearly two decades ago. Conn Iggulden, Steven Pressfield, Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Simon Scarrow, and the rest of their blood-spattered peers (no peeresses, since no sane woman would write this way in a million years) may serve as the models or prods, but with The Time of the Wolf Wilde has proven that he can hack and slash with the best of them.
The book leaves open the possibility of sequels, and history is uncertain what eventually happened to Hereward, so the potential for a nice meaty series is there. Wilde’s particular vision of his hero – a man as tormented by his own homicidal rages as he is by the evildoers who elicit those rages – is compelling enough to make readers of this first volume hope for many more.
With apologies to Charles Kingsley, of course.