If it weren’t for Giles Kristian it’s very likely that I would have left the Vikings where I last saw them – in the exam hall at University. But meeting Giles at English Heritage’s Living History Festival with its Festival of Historical Writing in Kelmarsh in July 2011 changed all that. I was persuaded to pick up an oar and sail with Raven Blood Eye and his lord Sigurd aboard the dragon vessel Serpent. Giles’ Raven trilogy is superb (I read all three in a weekend and you can read my review here) and so when I heard that he was turning his attention to another time I’m not too familiar with – the English Civil War – I was surprised, intrigued and most definitely not worried. That is because, if ever you should need a storyteller guide, that guide is Giles Kristian.
The Bleeding Land is the story of two brothers, Edmund and Tom Rivers, who stand on opposing sides of the great and terrible battle of Edgehill in October 1642. One brother, Tom, fights for Parliament while Edmund, or Mun, fights alongside their father for King Charles. However, neither fights out of any sense of glory or God’s cause. One fights for little more than tradition while the other, Tom, has been driven to it because he can do nothing but oppose the royalist Denton family that brutally defiled his true love, Martha. She had sought vengeance from Lord Denton for the cruel death of her father but instead found her own end by his brutal hands.
This is no ordinary or familiar tale of families split by war. There is no glory here, no right and no wrong. Charles I is no majestic being and Parliament has yet to demonstrate anyone worth dying for. Prince Rupert, the nephew of Charles and his most enthusiastic and perhaps most able military leader, may be a tall, peacock cavalier but it’s hard to ignore the petty reality of the man inseparable from his little dog. While Edmund must deal with the fear that the man facing the wrong end of his musket may be his own brother, Tom is adrift. The scenes describing his desolate search for refuge in London are alive with the smells and sights of the time and place.
But war doesn’t just affect the soldiers on the field. In Civil War there are no safe places. Armies march up and down roads, towns are robbed of men and resources and family estates pay with violence for the choices of their sons. The Rivers home is no different and as Edmund and Tom fight their battles, their mother and sister are caught up in their own war, trying to save Shear House from cannon while worrying about the fate of their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers. Women more used to drawing room arguments now have to don armour plate and lead their households from the front.
The Bleeding Land is the beginning of a new saga for Giles Kristian and for us. Despite the change in period it has everything we’d expect from the author of the Raven trilogy – thrilling battles, colour, pace, violence, gore, drama, meticulous historical detail and, above all, superb character insight and development whether male or female. All of whom are paying for the decisions of kings and parliamentarians who don’t care a jot for them. It was a traumatic time for England but The Bleeding Land makes it personal and heartfelt.