The drama and violence of the English Civil War sliced families to shreds – both literally, on the battlefields and in fiercely contested streets, and psychologically, brother pitted against brother, father against son. Mothers, sisters, wives left with the shell of a home to maintain and facing very real danger themselves. This human tragedy is brought starkly into focus by Giles Kristian in his series begun with The Bleeding Land and now continuing with Brothers’ Fury. The land that bleeds is England and the brothers are Sir Edmund (Mun) and Tom Rivers. Mun fights for Prince Rupert and the crown while Tom belongs to Parliament. Neither fight for ideology, instead the elder fights for tradition and the good name of his father and the younger, Tom, for a mad and dark vengeance, inspired by Lord Denton, the barbaric aristocrat who killed his true love.
In the middle is sister Bess, a young woman and new mother of a baby that has lost its father. Bess is driven by her own goal – she will travel the torn, unsafe land to find Tom and reunite him with his brother. Supported by peasant Joe and Alexander Dane, an enigmatic and dangerous hand hired by her grandfather to protect her, Bess sets off into the heart of enemy territory. Meanwhile, both Mun and Tom have their own battles to fight and missions to accomplish, as they get caught in the politics and deception of civil war when there is almost none to trust and propaganda can play an equal part with guns and swords.
At the heart of Brothers’ Fury are Tom, Mun and Bess but they are supported by a host of vivid and colourful creations, men and women fighting their own cause and surviving as well as they can, some even profiting. The conflict within the Rivers family is mirrored in others, notably Lord Lidford and his young son Jonathan who slowly comes into his own through the pages, achieving great feats of bravery. War makes a man grow up fast. We have some of the familiar characters from The Bleeding Land, especially Mun’s loyal men. It’s a fair bet, though, that not all will survive to the next. Others are not at all what they seem, for good or for bad. Many, though, you will remember.
Giles Kristian is a master storyteller. In addition to an army of characters, he also brings places to life, most vividly here, London. Lichfield, Oxford. The research is worn lightly but effectively. As someone born and bred and living in Oxford, I know the streets well and I now see my own town very differently thanks to Brothers’ Fury. The segment of the novel set in Oxford will bring you to the edge of your seat and it was extra special for me to follow the chase through streets with old, now disused names, passing colleges or pubs that I know well. The Lichfield chapters put my heart in my mouth due to the horrific conditions endured by those on the defence and those on the attack. It’s hard to imagine (thank heavens) how utterly terrifying and dangerous it would have been to tunnel under the walls of a town while under bombardment.
The violence and drama are paired perfectly with the very human story of the two brothers and their sister. At times the events they suffer seem extreme, even touched by melodrama, but then you take a moment and realise that it is very likely that the truth would have been far stranger than fiction. That during the English Civil War behaviour took place in our streets, between neighbours, that we could not comprehend. Recently, I visited Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. The church has bullet scars on the exterior of the walls, the result of fighting through the streets. Similar scenes would have taken place across the country, no matter the size of the town.
Despite the horror of it all, and these are dark times indeed, there is hope and there is even humour. This comes through the endurance and camaraderie between men on both sides. There are also little moments of gold when Kristian makes reference to other characters from beyond these pages that, if you’re a fan of other English Civil War fiction, you’ll be delighted to pick up on. Look out, too, for references to Kristian’s other work, his superb Raven trilogy. In other words, keep your wits about you and you’ll be rewarded.
Brothers’ Fury is a highlight of 2013 for me, just as its predecessor The Bleeding Land was for 2012. I would argue that Giles Kristian has reached greater heights in Brothers’ Fury. The story is told with greater confidence and the vision is expanded, fitting little crucial adventures within a grander context. There is a lot of movement to the novel and it grips. How it grips! Brothers’ Fury is exhilarating and also personally involving, even upsetting in places. ‘This war has made killers of us all’, says Mun. In Brothers’ Fury we are not spared the consequences of this dreadful truth.
Do make sure you’ve read the excellent The Bleeding Land first.