I literally counted the days until the release of Hawk Quest. A favourite author of mine, Ben Kane, proclaimed the book ‘bloody brilliant’ and his was not the only voice urging me to grab hold of what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best novels of 2012 – not just as a work of historical fiction but as a masterful piece of storytelling. It’s a weighty tome and I did resist the handy kindle version, opting instead for the entirely non-handy but rather lovely hardback. At almost 700 pages, and they’re pages packed densely, your back and shoulder won’t thank you as you struggle to carry it around but your aches and pains will be rewarded.
Hawk Quest transports the reader back to England during the 1070s, a time when Normans were stamping their control on their new kingdom. This was a time of cruel justice, stone walls, hunting, starvation and even, as shown here, cannibalism. The novel begins close to the wall left by the Romans, a reminder that this is not the first time that the English have been conquered. Vallon, a Frankish knight, and Hero, a young Sicilian scholar, have a mission. A Norman knight, Walter, has been captured in Anatolia by Seljuk Turks. His ransom is high – four gyrfalcons. Perfectly white, these falcons are found in Iceland and Greenland and traded in Norway. To find them is dangerous but there is something about Walter that makes the risk worthwhile.
With the ransom demand delivered to Walter’s family in England, Vallon, Hero, rough German soldier Raul, the English falconer and serf Wayland with his large and silent dog, set off for the north to find the birds, pursued by Walter’s jealous brother Drogo and his men. Their quest will take them to the extreme north and west of the known world. They will meet the victims and winners of this violent time – Danes, Vikings, Normans and English, all misplaced and on the move. They will rescue women and fall in love and they will risk their lives, scaling cliffs for falcons, fighting wild beasts, battling slavers, encountering barbarity and true courage, Lap hunters, devious merchants and rulers and they will travel from the north to Russia and Anatolia. Throughout, they tell stories and we learn of the past lives of our heroes and realise the significance of their quest.
Robert Lyndon took a decade to write Hawk Quest (read more about the journey to publication here) and the result is worthy of the effort – it’s an ambitious, delicious feast of a novel. Adventure follows adventure and each is as well written, brilliantly imagined and as exciting as the one before and the one that follows. The pace never relents and the quest never diminishes. This is partly because the characters who drive the story on are never static. They change as they travel and as we learn about them it very much feels as if we are on the journey with them. Vallon, Hero, Wayland and the girl Syth are all complex and always interesting and we reap the benefits from their interaction with a cast of fascinating, always well-rounded characters who cross their paths by sea and by land throughout the novel. And then there’s the dog…
Hawk Quest is a debut novel. It’s difficult to imagine how it could have been improved upon. It certainly succeeds in transporting us back almost 1000 years to a time when the unimaginable could lie just around the corner. I just hope we don’t have to wait another ten years for the next Lyndon novel.