Five long battle-weary years have passed since the Battle of Hastings and Tancred, a Breton knight who won his reputation if not his fortune fighting by William of Normandy’s side, has changed. In this, the third in James Aitcheson’s fine Conquest saga, Tancred has moved further from his Norman and Breton roots. Now lord of Earnford in the Severn Valley he is beginning to think of England as home, his allegiances are becoming more complicated and his experiences of this new land are turning him into an increasingly fascinating hero.
In Sword Sword and The Splintered Kingdom, we watched Tancred’s brutal fight to protect and avenge his lord, William Malet, while doing his duty by him. This most recently involved taking the sword to the men in the service of the Conqueror’s most persistent rival, Eadger the Aetheling. In Knights of the Hawk Tancred’s allegiance to the Malet family becomes much less straightforward and, despite his heroic efforts to beat William’s English enemies from Ely and the fen marshes, Tancred is almost forced into becoming a knight with a personal mission of his own.
One of the great strengths of this series is the way in which Aitcheson brings to life the towns and landscapes of Britain as it was a thousand years ago. Saxon names are used (a full glossary is included) and this enables the reader to piece together a mysterious, ancient land which has tantalising touches of the familiar about it. In Knights of the Hawk, this vision is expanded to include Ireland, showing what a devastating impact the Norman Conquest had on people even this far away. Mind you, we also learn more about the indigenous English and Irish and this was no perfect world brought low by invasion. Slavery is a theme here. It wasn’t introduced by the Normans. Nor were the Normans the first invaders.
In previous novels, Tancred was used to treating the English, the enemy, with suspicion at best and violence at worst. While he still regards Harold as an usurper and William’s Conquest as legal, in Knights of the Hawk Tancred gets to know men and women from all sides of the divide and new names are added to his retinue, not all of them from the continent.
The novel, as with the others, is narrated in the first person by Tancred and it has a strong early English feel to it. This does take some getting use to but it contributes greatly to the story’s atmosphere. The book is action-packed from start to finish with edge-of-the-seat dramatic sequences which are thrilling to read, whether they’re skirmishes in the fens, assaults on castles or the struggles of ships along a dangerous coast. I did enjoy cameos from famous names of the time, not least William the Conqueror himself. Tancred is much more likeable in Knights of the Hawk, possibly because we are shown a more human side to his personality through many of the pages. It’s love for a woman that drives much of this story on.
I enjoyed Knights of the Hawk enormously. This series, unashamedly and confidently action-focused, is coming into its own as the stories become more complex and Tancred’s character and friendships become more varied. These few years of English and British history are utterly fascinating, not to mention crucial, and they come alive here.