Sometimes my Saturday recommendations are books that I picked up on a whim. Books that I read with a growing sense that I was seeing something wonderful and special unfolding before my eyes. Sometimes they are books written by well loved authors so I am fairly certain that I am going to like what I see. Sometimes they are books with which I’ve had a bit more to do, yet are still eagerly awaited.
This week’s book is one of the latter. I saw it at first draft stage and was blown away with it, and I can assure you that the final version is even better.
The Reluctant Berserker by Alex Beecroft explores a period of history for which the records are regrettably murky, but the art and the poetry are sublime. The centuries between the departure of the Romans and the flowering of the great Saxon kingdoms are called the Dark Ages and to modern eyes appear to be a time of savagery as the people teetered in the balance between Christianity and paganism yet there was enormous grace, sensibility and faith as well.
That spirituality is important to the story is evident from the opening line which could have been taken directly from Beowulf or the Dream of the Rood. In hearing a breeze bourn run of harp notes Wulfstan is doomed, although it takes him a while to realise it. There’s this gorgeous sense of melancholic inevitability about it all – man is whirled by his fate as a leaf on a stream – which may not sit well with a modern reader raised to believe that anything is possible if you put your mind to it but was part of life to our Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Another thing that may not sit well with modern readers is the prescriptive attitudes to sex but this is a serious historical novel rather than an historical fantasy and, as such, reflects the attitudes of the time.
Wulfstan is a typical warrior, massive, agile, aggressive, the elite of his band. He is valued by his lord for his ability and feared by his fellows for his sudden uncontrollable rages. His closest friend is Cenred, the only man who can safely approach him when in the grip of his ire. He takes pride in his status and only he knows his darkest secret, his shameful urge to be more ‘womanly’. This is a secret that can never be told. For Wulfstan to desire other men is acceptable – women are in short supply and prone to die in childbirth so taking a male slave or servant lad is a good substitute – but Wulfstan MUST be the one to do the taking. Any suspicion that he desires to be the one taken would ruin him. Naturally the suspicion arises, with tragedy as a consequence and Wulfstan is left with a terrible choice to make.
On the other hand, the beautiful, delicate scop [itinerant musician and poet], Leofgar, appears to be everything a man might desire as a yielding and compliant bed mate but is actually an assertive and pride-filled top. A scop is both despised and feared. He is dependent on charity for bed and board but if angered can make a rhyme to flay the bones from a man’s pride. To humble himself to another man’s desire is beyond Leofgar. Naturally he is placed in a position where he either has to bow or be broken.
How both men deal with their choices, their burdens, their persecutors, makes up the rest of a book filled with delicious details and fancies expressed in the flowing language of a scop. Other beauties are period appropriate yet strong female characters following their own minds, the innocent faith in the goodness of Mother Church, the acceptance of the power of the unseen world over man’s fate and that the villains, even the most cruel and abominable villains by modern standards, are obeying the dictates of their own social status or natures. I really admire that.