“That’s all that we can ask of the gods, lord. To give us an ending worthy of a man when the old girls hover over our life thread with their shears.”
|Norns - weavers of men's fates - deviantArt (lucreciamortishia)|
If you’ve read the previous two books in this excellent King’s Bane series, you’ll now know that Eofer Wonreding has been instrumental in convincing King Eomer Engeltheowing that the future of the English lies not in old Engeln but in the new lands of Anglia in the old Roman province of Britannia. This is where we catch up with the King’s Bane. He and his hearth troop are part of the king’s consolidation of the English settlement, now that old Engeln has been abandoned in favour of this new land of opportunity. The King’s son, Icel, has a plan to expand into what will become the English Midlands as shown in the rather wonderful map, which, as ever in the King's Bane series, is quite a work of art in itself.
|Scathing map by Simon Walpole - reproduced by kind permission of the author.|
This is a frontier world, contested between the Welsh kingdoms of Powys, under their king Cynlas Goch, in the west, the kingdom of the peaks to the north ruled by Sawyl Penuchel, and the Anglo-Welsh Lindisware to the north west. Powys is eager to expand its power and territory at the expense of English settlers and the Kingdom of the Peaks. The long established Lindisware should be a natural ally to the English, but harbours doubts over the ability of the English to weather the approaching storm from Powys and fears retaliation, should they openly declare for Anglia.
To the south are Saxons, newly arrived Germanic immigrants like the English. Although they have a shared culture and tongue they have always been rivals and the Saxons are keen to keep on good terms with Powys, offering their services as Mercenaries as the Germanic newcomers have done since Roman times.
|Angles - Angus McBride|
Recent studies and genetic mapping seems to indicate that there was far more of a racial fusion between the Germanic incomers and the native British than the previously supposed ethnic cleansing. Indeed this is borne out in many English place names that carry show both Brythonic and Germanic roots. The Scathing mirrors this; this isn’t a case of Welsh versus English, the reality is far more fluid and complex than that. This is a world where a warlord (whether he be Briton or Angle) can carve out a kingdom and perhaps found a dynasty.
As a stand alone book this novel offers superb characterisation and in its creation of the dark age world. As book three of the series, it builds upon all that has gone before, as we see the birth of Mercia, what will become the English heartland. Eofer, his hearth troop, and his British allies under Ioan the rustler, will be instrumental in bringing this new kingdom into the world. Robbed of their snacca (ships) by geography, Eofer and his duguth take to horseback to mount weakening raids and reconnoitre deep into disputed territory, while Icel gathers his forces for the decisive clash of arms that must surely fall between him and Cynlas. In the midst of his campaign Eofer receives word from his brother-in-law, Heardred, king of the Geats, requesting help. Adventure overseas beckons but first he must serve his lord, Icel.
As ever the author gently introduces Anglo-Saxon terms into the story, words whose meaning quickly becomes known to the reader. The result is that the reader becomes utterly immersed in this honourable, yet savage, world, where fickle gods are all too real and omens can’t be easily ignored. Now that we are in Britain of course, Mr May introduces a Welsh Brythonic element into the mix.
The result is an absolute treat and a joy to read. We meet the historical figure of Gildas along the way, the British priest famous for his accounts of the time and his dislike of the invader. It just might be that we discover the reason for his animosity within these pages! The wind-ups and drunken banter between warriors is very amusing, proving as ever that people don’t really change. I don’t think I’ll think of beer as just beer ever again, after enjoying Mr May's prose!
The ale was weaving its spell. Soon the father of the gods would enter their minds and the giddinesss would be upon them. Rank and seniority would be forgotten, and Eofer would discover the true feelings of his men.
To my mind The Scathing must surely cement Mr May’s reputation as one of the premier authors of this fascinating period of history. His skill in bringing this time period to life is second to none, being easily on a par, if not arguably superior, to some of his better known contemporaries. Within these pages you sense the exhilaration and fear of the shield wall, see the world through the claustrophobic eyeholes of the warrior’s grimhelm, smell the metallic tang of spilled blood and taste the thirst quenching ale enjoyed by the victors. In actual fact I would go further; such is the author's skill that when you read this, you begin to think of the world like one of his protagonists; was there meaning in that crow's call? Was there meaning in that distant rumble of thunder?
|Sutton Hoo helmet|
All too soon Snarly Yowl - Blaecce Shucca - heralds change and brings the tale to its end as threads are cut by the Norns, the old girls overlooking men’s fates. Be warned, unlike some authors, Mr May is fearless and unpredictable in this regard. Yet threads remain in the warp and weft of this series with which to weave another tale; this reader waits expectantly. Brilliant work Mr May!
|Black Shuck - Arkanimalcentre|
C.R. May was born in Bow, East London before his family moved to South Ockendon, Essex. After hearing that Ockendon translated as Wocca's Hill in Saxon, a lifelong passion in history was kindled, which has taken him from Berlin to the site of the battle of Little Big Horn (via Erik the Red's Icelandic hall!). The influx of Germanic adventurers was recorded in the place names around him and, inspired one day, he decided to weave his own stories into this history. You can read and discover more information at his blog and the author may be found at Facebook.
Rob Bayliss is a reviewer at The Review and is currently writing his own fantasy series. Information on his writing projects can be found at Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow.