Fire and Steel
Now here’s the thing. The Dark Ages bore me. As a historical period I find it generally mundane and uninteresting. As the subject for books and movies it holds little more interest. Not, for some odd reason, Vikings, by the way. Vikings oddly interest me. But all the thousand mud-dwelling peoples that flit around NW Europe between 410 and 1066? Yawn.
Saying that, every now and then there’s something set in the era that interests me.
Fire and Steel manages – and this is critical for me – to avoid the pit falls and cliches that plague the era. And, given the fact that the book references both Arthur (as in KING Arthur) and Beowulf, it’s pretty impressive managing to stay on track and not make me run for the hills. The Arthurian and Beowulf connections are very subtly handled.
The story is interesting in that it tells the tale (or at least the first part of the tale) of the Angle invasion that to some extent creates a unified English identity and helps forge a nation out of a land that has erstwhile been just fragmented tribes. Apparently this is a spin-off from another series, with one of that series’ side characters as its protagonist, but it’s kind of hard to tell. It works well on its own and while there are moments where the background is probably better fleshed out if you’ve read the others, it is well enough covered that you do not strictly need it.
The battle scenes are well written. Detailed without being ‘info-dump’, graphic without being offensively so. In fact, the latter part of the book is more or less one great battle, with several different scenes. This is portrayed nicely and quite cinematically. The characters are believable and maintain a camaraderie that allows the reader to bond with them. In particular, I was impressed with the naval scenes, right down to the terminology and the clear knowledge behind them. The plot moved along at a good pace, never managing to get bogged down and, if I had a complaint about any of the above it would be that it ends rather suddenly. Not on a cliffhanger, just sort of ‘here’s the army all ready for war. See you next week on Dark Age arse-kickers.’ I guess that will probably niggle me into reading book 2 when it comes out, mind.
My only real trouble with the book is the same one I have with nearly all works set in the Dark Ages. With the exception of the main half dozen characters, I was a little confused about who was being referenced at all times (not the fault of the book, you’ll note, but of me for my inability to cope with Dark Age naming.) Similarly, I was befuddled with the locations and geography to the extent that for a while, during the fighting in Denmark I was under the impression we were in Britain. Again, that’s me. Oddly, I can cope with modern geography (it’s one of my strengths) and I can transpose that very well into and out of Roman geography and Latin naming, but when I get to the Germanic-influenced centuries in between I get lost easily. And I zipped to the maps a few times to try and orient myself, but you know what it’s like on kindle, a bit of a pain in the but flashing back and forth. So that’s my complaint with the book, and you can clearly see that I’m following the age-old rules of breaking up: ‘It’s not you, darling, it’s me.’ So those of you who don’t suffer my utter bewilderment with the Dark Ages will presumably be fine.