Book Review: The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian
If war is Hell, then civil war must be Hell’s nastier, more vindictive sister*. This is the message I took from Giles Kristian’s historical novel “The Bleeding Land”.
I’ve been waiting a long time for some quality historical fiction set during the English Civil War. A few years back I posted a question on Bernard Cornwell’s forum asking if he would ever tackle the subject. He said he had no plans to but finally a writer of equal quality has come along to take up this banner.
Giles Kristian plunges the reader straight into the opening volleys of the battle of Edgehill. Mun (Edmund) and Tom Rivers- the book’s protagonist brothers-are on opposite sides. The cavalry begin their charge and the reader is hooked immediately as the action withdraws back through time to relate how the characters got into that situation. I remained engrossed as the narrative made its way inexorably back to Edgehill and the carnage that followed.
The book primarily relates the story of the Rivers family, members of the English gentry, and the effect the war has on their relationships, both internally and with their associated circle of relations and neighbours. Don’t worry though: This is no turgid soap opera and there is an abundance of action and fast moving excitement. There are several levels of conflict: The war itself between King and Parliament, and then there is the internal strife within the Rivers family which leaves the brothers on opposing sides. The author does not shy away from the cliché of “a family torn apart by civil war”, but that is where convention ends. It is very human feelings of revenge and family loyalty that ultimately lead to Tom ending up a rebel while Mun and his father join the King’s army. In many respects this is what makes the book so engaging. It’s a human story rather than an exploration of 16th century politics. Men join the fight for very personal reasons that happen to align with the macrocosm conflict rather than blindly falling into line with arguments from a conflict now long past.
I may have read it wrong but it seems that the author deliberately does not “pick sides”. There are bastards in both armies, as there are men of integrity. Bravery and foolishness appear in equal measure, and that-along with the way the politics of the time play a background role-make it hard for the reader (well this one anyway) to discern any possible bias. If anything this brings across the true tragedy of a land ripped apart by a civil conflict.
The sights, sounds and especially the smells of 17th century England and London are vividly described and the reader is drawn into the time setting and kept there. Giles Kristian has obviously done his research well and there is plenty of technical detail to delight the history nerd and military buff, particularly in the area of weapons and armour. Something I personally applaud is his inclusion of historical facts that may make some readers uncomfortable, because (while true) they don’t fit with conventional portrayals of the past that are actually based on modern perceptions. For example, some folk may wonder why an Irishman is fighting for the King of England and I imagine that it will not just be the characters in the book who might be surprized by the King’s Scottish accent.
A host of memorable characters bring the story to life and their portrayal ensures the reader is gripped because he or she cares about them while being dreadfully aware that they are in the middle of a very dangerous situation and not all of them can survive it. As an added bonus, fans of Giles Kristian’s Raven novels will be delighted to spot a couple of familiar faces (presumably descendants) lurking in some scenes.
Tension is maintained throughout the narrative by the constant anticipation of the inevitable, relentlessly approaching battlefield meeting that must eventually occur between the two brothers. Blood proves thicker than water on a couple of occasions but the reader is always wondering just how long that can last, particularly as the bodies mount and the experience of war hardens the brothers’ hearts.
There is a plenty of violent, bloody action. This land is not so much bleeding as drenched in the gore, bone shards, splattered brains and entrails of the slaughtered.
I mentioned Bernard Cornwell at the start of this and it was not completely by accident. It’s probably Cornwell’s style of work that this book evokes for me most, but Giles Kristian adds several layers of depth to create a much richer experience. To give an example of what I mean, when all the boys-own adventures for the male characters are over, Kristian goes on to portray the consequences for the women who were left behind.
All in all, a cracking read. “The Bleeding Land” is an excellent, gripping book and I am looking forward very much to the next book in the series.
Title: The Bleeding Land
Author: Giles Kristian
Publisher: Bantam Press (26 April 2012)
*I’m referring to the Old Norse belief that Hell was a woman who ruled the underworld where the unworthy dead went, not being sexist