Michael Joseph | 2017 (4 May) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
In 937, King Æthelstan must fight once more against the Vikings to preserve and protect the one English nation founded by his grandfather, King Alfred the Great. Fighting by his side is Dunstan, a young man from Glastonbury, who is himself on the verge of deciding what to do with his life. For much of his youth, Dunstan, with his younger brother Wulfric, was raised by the monks of Glastonbury but, whereas Wulfric chose the secular path of marriage, parenthood and business, it is not such a straightforward choice for Dunstan. Dunstan aspires. A gifted mason and engineer, Dunstan wants to build to the glory of God the greatest abbey church in the land. But almost as powerful as the pull of God is the appeal of a king’s patronage.
Dunstan is no ordinary man. More than a mason and architect with dreams of rebuilding Glastonbury Abbey, Dunstan is an ambitious and witty statesman. He is called from Glastonbury repeatedly to the royal court of Winchester where he serves an extraordinary dynasty of kings – brothers, nephews and grandsons. Under some Dunstan will flourish but others will drive him from the court, even from the country. Perhaps they can see deeper into his soul than Dunstan would like, because Dunstan is not entirely what he seems. Beneath the robes lies more than ambition – Dunstan is a man carried aloft by pride, ruthlessness, and worse.
Conn Iggulden is undoubtedly one of the finest writers of historical fiction – of any fiction – and I can’t sing his praises enough. In fact, it’s testament to my fondness for this author’s books and my trust in him that I didn’t hesitate to read Dunstan, a novel that is set in one of my least favourite periods of history. I studied Anglo-Saxon history and literature as part of my degree and it did an excellent job of killing any interest I might have had in reading historical fiction set during those years. But I knew that if anyone could bring the 10th century alive for me it would be Conn Iggulden. And I was right. Dunstan is an astonishing achievement, even for Conn Iggulden. Here is a period which has left relatively little evidence – documentary or archaeological – and yet it comes alive in these pages.
This is a novel driven by character. It’s not an action novel. There is an occasional battle but we don’t spend the book on the march with warriors or armies. Instead we spend time with one of the most fascinating historical figures of the age – Dunstan. A man who is presented here as both secular and religious, as an advisor to kings but also as a visionary. Beneath it all lies corruption and it is in discovering just how far Dunstan is prepared to descend that gives much of this glorious novel its tension and intrigue. Dunstan did not live a quiet life. He moved across the country, a country in recovery from years of war and under threat of more, where earls must live as nobles and not as rival kings, where the personality of the king is everything. Conn Iggulden presents us with a line of kings, some good, some evil, but they are all depicted as real people caught in a conflict. They have to protect England at all costs and yet they are only human. They love and hurt like everybody else. Dunstan is a witness to it all and he is closer than almost anyone to some of these kings. At one of these times of closeness, I wept. How Conn Iggulden can write!
The novel contrasts Dunstan and his brother Wulfric throughout and it is a deeply interesting and complex relationship. Dunstan undoubtedly has a vision of himself but a more realistic portrait might be the one perceived by Wulfric and other members of their family. Dunstan’s behaviour is at times shocking and disturbing. The novel is presented as Dunstan’s own chronicle, told in his own words, and so he doesn’t tell us everything. But there are gaps and those gaps shout out. We can be under no illusion about the lengths to which this man will go to achieve his glory on earth and in heaven. Our own complicated response to Dunstan is part of this novel’s pleasure.
Conn Iggulden wears his research lightly. It’s clear it’s there and a great deal of it but he uses it well, integrating the historical details thoroughly into the story. Glastonbury, Winchester, London, Rome and many other places are colourfully painted. There are sounds, smells and flavours of the past here. We experience life as a child in a monastery, as men and women of business in London, as a politician in Winchester, as a treasurer in the mints and mines of England. It is so completely engrossing. One aspect that I especially enjoyed is the use the Saxons made of the remains around them of the ancient Roman past. We see signs of that heritage everywhere.
Before reading this novel, I would not have imagined Dunstan as the obvious subject for a historical novel, especially one of this length. But that was before Conn Iggulden revealed him before my eyes and showed him to be the perfect subject for a novel on late Anglo-Saxon England. Dunstan is a novel rich in intrigue and drama, bringing to life the royal court as well as the country’s monasteries, cities and fields. And through it all we hear Dunstan’s voice, back from the dead, alive once more with a great story to tell, thanks to Conn Iggulden.