Head of Zeus | 2017 (9 February) | 494p | Review copy | Buy the book
Viper’s Blood is the fourth novel in David Gilman’s powerful and uncompromising chronicle of the Hundred Years War. If you haven’t read the others in the series, beginning with Master of War, then tread no further with this review. Much has happened to our hero Thomas Blackmore in the years since the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and so spoilers for the earlier novels are inevitable.
It is 1360 and although Sir Thomas Blackmore and his men remain in the military service of Florence they are currently fighting alongside Edward the Prince of Wales, and Black Prince, and his father, the mighty Edward III, in France, a country that has good cause to fear the knights and long bow men of its greatest enemy. France’s king has been caught and is held to ransom in England. The dauphin, weak and uncertain, relies on his counsellor Simon Bucy for advice, as the English threaten the very walls of Paris itself. But Bucy has more on his mind than the Wars – he is intent on the destruction of one man, Thomas Blackmore, the nemesis of France, and he will stop at nothing in his desire to see him dead. And then one day Bucy sees a way. A peace treaty between France and England gives him the chance to throw Blackmore into the lap of the Englishman’s greatest enemies, a nest of vipers if ever there was one.
Thomas is not the man he once was. Grief has done that to him. But with his son Henry by his side, Thomas is intent on wreaking vengeance on the men who almost destroyed his life and that of his son. He has loyal men around him, many have been with Thomas since Crécy, and their support is absolute. Just as well because they have quite a time in front of them as they follow their king’s orders on a journey of battles and hardship that will take them across northern France to Paris and then to the Alps and northern Italy. And everywhere they go they will find conflict, division, distrust, murder and bloody violence. For this is the age of war and plague. Chivalry has died.
Viper’s Blood is a compelling and dark chronicle of war, lightened only briefly by the camaraderie and affection between soldiers. But this is now not really a war of pitched battles. Those are in the past and still to come. Instead, there are skirmishes, the seizure of towns, the slaughter of communities, the scramble for land and roads. And when Thomas and his mean leave France for Italy they find no peace. The cities there are constantly at war with one another, the situation merely aggravated by the neighbouring Hundred Years War.
Thomas and his men are little different from the other routiers who terrorise Europe at this time, despite his rules forbidding rape and needless slaughter. But be under no illusion – Thomas is as violent as any and we see his ruthlessness on more than one occasion. And we might warm to his men but there are sudden, shocking reminders – one in particular – that they are no different violence, particularly towards women, lies only just under the surface.
This is the man’s world of war but women suffer in it perhaps more than most and I must admit to struggling with the novel’s representation of women. They don’t come out of it well – whores, witches, rape victims, greedy thieves or innocent princesses seems to sum them up. I’m fully aware that this is a historical novel about medieval warfare and, as such, I don’t expect women to play much of a part, but I wish I had a pound for every reference to a woman’s breasts, clearly her most notable feature. I really felt the loss of Blackstone’s wife in this novel – she’s missed.
Viper’s Blood tells the story of a journey from fight to fight, covering much of France and northern Italy, following Thomas Blackstone’s quest for vengeance. There are moments of extreme action and violence, offset by times of hardship on the road. I really enjoyed the depictions of Paris and Milan – 14th-century Europe is described so well, with its walled towns hiding from mercenaries and roaming armies, vulnerable to disease and greed. I also liked the camaraderie between Thomas and his men, especially Killbere. I did feel a great deal for Thomas’s son Henry whose life seems terribly harsh and yet he never complains. Thomas can be a hard man to like, particularly in his behaviour towards Henry. Even his memories of his wife seem chilled. But Thomas is a damaged man, albeit a remarkable warrior.
Viper’s Blood is an exciting, bloody and well-written tale of Europe at a time of terrible crisis. Surely, there can have been few worse times in history in which to live than the mid 14th century? It’s harrowing at times, chilly in others, and, perhaps, is a little too long, but it is certainly a fine addition to a series that continues to bring these cruel years to life in such rich and meticulous detail.