Historical novels have always been my favourite kind of recreational reading. From Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel to Georgette Heyer’s Regency bucks to sterner stuff like Henry Treece’s bloody tales of Saxon and Roman Britain, I escaped from a dreary suburban childhood into a more exciting and venturous worlds. I went on to Alfred Duggan, Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful Sharpe series and the comic adventures of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman. Along the way I discovered George Shipway’s Knight in Anarchy, possibly the best book in the genre I’ve ever read.
I was fussy. I could never come at Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian – too much salt water, not enough human interest and action. Nothing Arthurian; I couldn’t care less about Merlin and the Holy Grail. I avoided Stonehenge and the Druids, likewise those fraudulent and indefensible enterprises the Crusades. The Tudors and Stuarts, the American Civil War and the Napoleonic wars appealed to me strongly as did certain elements of Victorian England. I was a confirmed Ripperologist.
But I began some years ago to find satisfying books thin on the ground. I subscribed briefly to an English magazine, the Journal of Historical Fiction, which published short and long reviews and interviews with writers. It wasn’t much help. I was dismayed to see how many books were Jane Austen and Bronte spin-offs. I never cared for Mr Darcy, Emma, Heathcliff, Rochester or any of that lot. There was a plethora of Conan Doyle pastiches and the few I’ve sampled never measured up to Nicholas Meyer’s first class The Seven Per Cent Solution.
My friend Michael Wilding put me on to C J Sansom’s Shardlake series – five books to date set in the reign of Hendry VIII. Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer who becomes involved in espionage, the investigation of crimes and the political and religious maelstroms of the time. Great books, and I await the next.
With that vein payed out for now, I was delighted to discover Robert Lyndon’s Hawk Quest. This is a 600-page blockbuster set in the 11th century and containing all the elements of historical fiction at its best – a journey, exotic settings, arcane historical information, violent adventure, romance and redemption. I don’t have space to describe its course in detail but it covers Italy and France, Norman Britain, Iceland and Greenland, Russia and Mesopotamia, and the characters include a Frankish mercenary, an English archer and falconer, a Greek scholar, an Icelandic noblewoman, a Norman warrior, sundry Vikings, slaves and merchants, mostly treacherous rogues. Throw in rare and exotic white falcons. What more could you want?
Robert Lyndon’s research into this period must have been colossal but it sits very lightly on the narrative. No editorialising; we are told only what we need to be told to fill out the story and keep it moving. Most importantly, he avoids archaisms of language. The characters speak in more or less contemporary idiom with just a touch here and there to remind us we’re in the 11th century. It’s a difficult thing to pull off and Lydon scores full marks with it.
This is Lyndon’s first book. Apparently he is a noted falconer himself and I hope he can bring that experience of that art and his story-telling powers together in further novels.