Defiant Unto Death is the second novel in David Gilman’s Master of War series, a sequence of books which follows the life and ordeals of Thomas Blackstone, English archer and rogue knight, through the torments of the early years of the Hundred Years War. This is a review of a sequel and so do be warned that there may be very slight spoilers below for the first novel, Master of War. Defiant Unto Death would actually stand well on its own, covering an almost entirely contained time of Blackstone’s life, but I would certainly recommend that you first give yourselves a treat and set the stage with the most excellent Master of War.
It is 1356 and ten years have passed since archer Thomas Blackstone was knighted on the field of Crécy by Edward, Black Prince. Since then, Sir Thomas has built a life for himself in a small corner of France, lord of a manor, protector of its peasants, servants and fighters, and, perhaps most important at all, husband to Christiana and father to their children. But the times cannot leave the Blackstones in peace. Caught in the Hundred Years War, the relentless, bloody fight between England and France, Blackstone and his men achieve glory and notoriety, notably in the taking of an especially valuable castle from France. While Thomas’s manner does little to win him friends among English aristocrats, his deeds make him France’s most wanted man. The Savage Priest, surely one of the most despicable characters that I have encountered in historical fiction, is despatched to destroy Thomas. The war becomes personal, a battle to survive, and in this world where even noble wives take to their horses, don armour and sword, nothing is as it should be. Evil itself pursues Thomas Blackstone across the battlefields, fortresses, towns and forests of a bloodied France.
The first novel in the series, Master of War, is a fine adventure in which we follow Thomas Blackstone’s path to Crécy, from obscurity to heroism. Now, in Defiant Unto Death, we are in the company of a strong, feared and resolute knight. As Blackstone has grown in confidence and prowess, so too has David Gilman’s storytelling. Defiant Unto Death is a violent, tempestuous, glorious novel that throws its readers into the belly of the Hundred Years War and spares us nothing of its horror and brutality. I was gripped from the very beginning and the book never once let go of me until its end by which point I was exhausted by its intensity, thrills and trauma.
Defiant Unto Death is a much less episodic adventure. It includes pitched battles, notably the Battle of Poitiers, but in this novel they are stages in Blackstone’s destiny, almost obstacles, albeit welcome and thrilling to read, in the path of the main purpose of the story – the vendetta between Blackstone and the Savage Priest. This conflict affects everyone in Blackstone’s circle, it drives Thomas into the most desperate of dangers and it has devastating repercussions. There are parts of this novel that I could barely cope to read due to their horror and I cried more than once at what I was reading.
The women in Defiant Unto Death have a strong and equal role to their men. I was less satisfied with the female characters than the male in Master of War but I have no such issues with this novel. The women are important figures in their own right while also having to cope with the uncertainty, fear and potential grief of war, not to mention the very real threat of death and rape. Christiana is a fine character, an equal to Thomas, and their relationship is a driving force behind the novel. Thomas himself is complex, troublesome and brave. He’s not a perfect hero any more than he’s a perfect knight. But he does his best. He’s a fascinating character to spend time with.
Defiant Unto Death is a consuming read. Action-packed and fuelled by adrenalin, it brings to life one of medieval Europe’s most relentless wars, when friends and enemies could be found on both sides of this tightly contested war between neighbours. David Gilman writes so well, managing to stir the blood while moving the reader, at least this one, to tears. Its mix of fact and fiction is very well balanced. It might be early in the year but I have no doubt that this will feature among my top historical fiction reads of 2015.
Master of War