England, the early eleventh century. Godwin Wulfnothson inherits his father’s title and grows close in allegiance to King Ethelred’s son, Edward. The two work together in supporting the ailing king and in raising armies to defend England against the invading Danes. Throughout this, Godwin is harried by a deceitful noble, Eadric; the two are locked in a dynastic feud.
Shieldwall, the first in a cycle of novels telling the story behind and up to the 1066 Battle of Hastings, tells a straightforward story, that of the rise of a decent warrior, trusted by royalty and beset by a scheming nobleman nominally on the same side of a wider conflict. To some extent, that’s the archetype Bernard Cornwell has been working through several whole series of books. That said, when it’s done well, it’s great. And for the most part, Shieldwall delivers.
A sense of history is achieved through use of archaic place-names, while modernising pretty much everything else; the position takes a little time to adjust to, though it proves effective. Though there’s plenty of action, there’s greater emphasis on the political machinations and infighting between clans, and on the variable value of personal oaths and allegiances.
The pace is deliberate, even slow in places, and at times variable; we get a real feeling for the passing of seasons, and what it means to be both on campaign and left at home, wondering and fearing the worst. As the narrative opens up from personal journey to countrywide political military drama we perhaps inevitably lose the focus on protagonist Godwin, though we gain in scope.
A serious book (it’s not an unabashed action piece), Shieldwall is very well written in places, some sections giving insight (I’d never come across the idea of the timing of Lent being a virtue being made of a necessity at the end of the winter used in fiction before), and in starting sixty years before the Norman Conquest, provoking us to consider the contexts of a pivotal moment in English history that’s not often seen in terms of being part of a continuum.
Hill, Justin. 2012. Shieldwall (London: Abacus), 497 pages, 978-0349123370