In less than two weeks, James Aitcheson’s new historical novel, Knights of the Hawk will be out.
It is the third book in a trilogy, and I loved the first two volumes* – so I’ll most certainly buy and read the third instalment of the story of Tancred a Dinant.
They make for a great read, these novels: good, solid, exciting adventures in a post-Hastings England, from a Norman point of view, with a well-meaning hero, talented in the art of finding trouble.
Tancred is a half-Breton who serves under Norman colours, and does not know too well what to call himself. He very much means to be a good knight, a good vassal, a good Christian, and is brave, honourable and smart – but also far too ambitious, outspoken and headstrong for his own good…
Aitcheson chronicles his struggles and rise, and does it well. He writes with good rhythm, engaging characters, excellent dialogue, and his recreation of Medieval England rings rich and true without overwhelming the reader with needless detail. What is even more, his people think, feel, fight, believe and talk like XI Century people.
So yes, I really like these books – and this is why I was surprised by a few of the reviews on Amazon. Now, let me explain: I did this some time ago, when the second volume, The Splintered Kingdom was just out in the UK, and the reviews were just a handful, all of them good to enthusiastic, but…
But most reviewers remarked on the violence and brutality of the fight scenes. One reader described them as “high-octane stuff”.
And I was perplexed, because I’d found nothing especially gruesome in TSK – and I’m a wimp. I have trouble reading very graphic descriptions of violence, tire easily of too much grit and gore, and have been known to abandon books out of sheer revulsion.
And yet Aitcheson, while never glossing over the unpleasant realities of his time-period, does not strike me as a “brutal” writer.
So I wonder. Have I developed a higher threshold for written violence over the years? It seems unlikely, and in truth I think it is something else.
I think it is that Tancred, hero and narrator, never shows a qualm when it comes to battle, killing and bloodshed. He has been fighting his whole life, with unabashed enthusiasm and a certainty of being on the right side. He enjoys it – and yes, it is a hard and chancy life, foes are in dead earnest, friends die, defeat and ruin are never far away, and yet to Tancred few things equal the battle-joy.
Not once in four hundred pages does he go through one of those crises of disgust and remorse. Fighting is his job – in a very unashamed and medieval way: he is good at it, he has developed a little of what he doesn’t know to be adrenaline addiction, and almost pities those who ignore the way of the sword and its dangerous joys.
Very politically uncorrect, very historically correct.
So I wonder: is this what creeps out reviewers? Not so much violence itself, as an attitude to violence? This brazen taste for battle – that works its high-octane charm on us, civilized people, even while we feel we ought to disapprove it?
* Actually, the second one I also reviewed for the HNR.