Hereward: End Of Days – James Wilde
I read Hereward: End of Days as part of Transworld’s second annual Historical Reading Challenge. When I chose it, I didn’t realise that it was the third in a series, so when it arrived and that became obvious, I was a little bit concerned that I was going to be in over my head and unable to make head nor tale of what was going on. Thankfully, that was not the case.
It helped that I already had a basic knowledge about Hereward the Wake, the leader of the last region of England to hold out against William the Conqueror, so that helped, but I think even without that knowledge most people would be able to pick up Hereward: End of Days and have a fairly good idea of what was going on. There was a course a lot of plot that I missed, not having read the first two instalments, but Wilde does a fairly good job of giving you the important plot and character details than you need fairly early on. This means that the references to past events could, for all intents and purposes, be back story for a story that begins in medias res.
In general, it’s a good siege novel. You’ve got a lot of the standard archetypes of the genre; traitors behind the walls, feints that turn certain victory into certain defeat, disguised ventures into the enemy camps, personal revenge, and a final heroic stand. Despite the fact the almost formulaic nature of the plot, it still works out well, and there are a few subplots that don’t follow the typical narrative. In particular, the minor character Rowena and her search first for her husband and then for vengeance, and the partnership between the Norman knight Deda and the Viking Harald Redteeth. While all of them are inextricably linked to the main plot, they added an extra component that made it a more rounded story than just Hereward vs. the Conqueror. It might help that, for all intents and purposes Rowena and Deda were introduced in this book. They may have featured in earlier volumes, I don’t know, but their relationship to the main plot was new for this volume, so rather than dropping into their stories half way, I felt that they began where I did.
I did have a couple of issues with the book. The first was the matter of language. This may have been covered in an earlier volume, but there were lots of scenes in which Saxons were having conversations with Normans, even at the highest level, though it’s fairly well established that the Normans in general did not learn the language of the land they were settling in the earlier years of the conquest, and it’s unlikely that the English patriots were speaking Norman French. This leaves Latin, but I doubt most of the characters featured here would have a good enough knowledge, though there were a few priests bouncing around. I understand why it was done in terms of narrative, but I’d have liked some form of explanation.
My other issue is the way that Wilde, both in the text and in his author’s biography, attempts to be trying to recast Hereward as the English proto-patriot, much in the same way that Braveheart treated William Wallace. I’m 100% in favour of raising awareness of figures like Hereward, but something about this just doesn’t sit right with me. Partly it’s mildly offensive to me to recast historical figures for political ends, partly because, at this stage, you can’t really say that England would have been better off under the Saxons, but it’s mostly because no one can really relate to Hereward on this level. Yes he was English, but at this distance to the average person, that means nothing. There’s nowhere for the emotion that I think Wilde is trying to evoke to be funnelled, because the Normans are such an intrinsic part of English history that to cast them as the villains by necessity casts the modern English worldview as the villain. There’s barely any reference to the fact the Normans were subjects of the French king, so I don’t think he’s trying to criticise the EU, and it just feels a bit misplaced.
That said, this angle is only subtext and only appears really at a few junctures throughout the text, so in general Hereward: End of Days is simply a solid example of action based historical fiction. I also liked the way that Wilde worked with the rather hazy end to the historical Hereward in a way that was neither counter-factual nor incredibly depressing, and also setting up possibilities for a sequel. Though (evidently) you can start with the third in the series, I wouldn’t recommend it, and I’ll be keeping an eye out of the first volumes.