Adventures in Bookland: The Harrowing by James Aitcheson
James Aitcheson made his name with his Sworn Sword trilogy of novels set in the years after the Conquest, which followed the fortunes of one of William’s knights. In this standalone novel, he puts his previous hero, Tancred, aside to look at the aftermath of defeat from the point of view of the English and, in doing so, makes a huge step up as a writer. As a scholar of the period, there’s never been any doubting the historical accuracy of Aitcheson’s work, but in the taught prose of The Harrowing, he proves himself completely as a writer.
Five refugees from the reiving Normans, who are laying waste the north to snuff out any possibility of future rebellions, come together, fleeing through a brutal winter towards hope of sanctuary. The story follows them through their flight, as well as telling the tale of what formed and made them all: fleeing noblewoman; servant; warrior; priest; and bard. In line with his historical training, there’s always been an anti-heroic theme to Aitcheson’s novels, but this goes further: in its bleak depiction of small-scale battles and large-scale despoiling it presents a far truer picture of the nature of medieval warfare than the action fantasies – the male equivalent of chick lit – that generally get published under the label of historical fiction. In fact, The Harrowing was so good that not even it being written in the present tense – one of this reviewer’s pet literary hates – served to diminish it. Highly recommended.
(Review first published in History of War magazine, issue 32.)