Adventures in Bookland: Knights of the Hawk by James Aitcheson
It’s fascinating, sometimes, to step behind a story and into the intentions of the writer. Now, James Aitcheson is a skilled writer and this is an excellent book – it fully deserves the glowing reviews it has received on Amazon and Good Reads and elsewhere. So let’s just take those reviews as read, and move into the swampy mire that is the mind of the writer at work.
Now, I thought I had this book worked out. Laconic hero – from the Norman side although a Breton so, I suppose, a double enemy of the Anglo-Saxons – faces English folk hero in Hereward, who proves to be as ruthless and determined a killer as, well, William. Nice set up of Hereward as the adversary, the assault on the Isle of Ely, Hereward’s escape around the half way point of the book, and I’m expecting it all to continue through further encounters and skirmishes until a final denouement 150 pages later.
Only, it doesn’t. James does a story swerve on the reader, and completely dumps his expectations in the fen fastness into which Hereward’s legend disappears.
That’s when I started thinking about what James is doing here and in the previous books about Tancred, and I kept on thinking, following trails and suggestions, through to the end of the book. There’s a clue, I think, in the title of the first: Sworn Sword. Many of the warrior societies of the early and high Middle Ages were held together by oaths, by the pledging of service and loyalty and arms through the giving of word upon the sacred. With limited recourse to law or recompense from human society, a surer, although post-mortem sanction was required to hold men in check, and the giving of oaths before and to God provided that, for failure to uphold an oath meant sure and eternal punishment in the afterlife. Or did it?
That is what James Aitcheson is doing in these novels, I think. He is working through the implications and understandings of an oath-bound society, using his hero to investigate the consequences of this within an imaginative recreation of a historical society. And it’s quite, quite fascinating.
Knights of the Hawk ends with Tancred largely cut free from his previous oaths and obligations, to kings and lords and even the woman he had loved. Now, it will be fascinating to see where James takes the story, for both literally and metaphorically, Tancred ends the story at sea – and the sea can take you anywhere.