Release Date:September 3 2008
Book Preview: "An Involuntary King"
Exciting shield-wall action brings the story of a young man fighting the odds to be a great king to life. Struggling against seemingly impossible odds, the king must deal with heart-breaking treachery and loss as he finds enemies both abroad.. and in his own camp.
Who knows how many worthy stories from the so-called Middle Ages have been lost to us? It’s a rich period, especially in England, where small nations and armies were constantly clashing and men and women could still be larger than life.
Young Lawrence, the hero of Nan Hawthorne’s sprawling historical novel An Involuntary King, yearns to be larger than life. When his father, the king, is cut down, the crown falls to Lawrence, and he vows to be worthy of it and of his young wife Josephine. But 8th-century Northumbria is a dangerous place for such vows"young Lawrence is soon tested on all sides, and the result is a rousing, involving tale of Saxon war and romance.
Although Hawthorne has done an evident amount of historical research (readers will take away a very pleasant sense of immersion in the medieval Saxon world), the main strength of An Involuntary King lies in its people. In addition to the central trio of Lawrence, Josephine, and the mercenary Elerde who in different ways threatens them both, there’s a huge cast of secondary characters, virtually all of whom are brought to life with colorful details and the author’s sound ear for dialog. Indeed, talk bubbles throughout this book, talk of high state affairs, the outpourings of the heart, and the joking prattle of old friends, and all of it works a kind of magic on the reader. Lawrence and Josephine’s world is one in which that reader will want to linger, and by the end of the book, many of its characters will feel like old friends.
The aforementioned mercenary Elerde won’t exactly feel like a friend, but his impression will be the strongest. He’s the novel’s most memorable creation, and Hawthorne would be well justified in giving him a book of his own some day.
Reviewed by: Steve Donoghue
Historical Novel Reviews Online
The Mercian spearmen, axemen, and swordsmen pulled themselves into stiff and watchful order as they saw the Crísliclandian shield-wall shift into a wedge. They were ready to take on the fighters though the river was at their backs, knowing that their archers would take the king's flank as soon as they dashed forward to surround them. They shouted insults and threats at the wall whose lines returned the ritual obscenities and catcalls. They braced for the onslaught when shield would crash on shield, the sounds of metallic collisions would begin.
One Mercian in the first line of the shield-wall had a Crísliclandian spearman in his sights, shouting and shrieking unintelligibly. He wanted to push forward to catch the man before he shoved his shield forward but could not leave his place in the tight line of overlapped shields. He leaned forward, his axe ready to hand once his own spear was in some Crísliclandian's guts. He did not hear the cries at first, and he made nothing of the sudden jostling from behind. These sounds and this eager shoving was what a shield-wall was. It was not until he felt the man pressing forward to take his place should he fall, suddenly vanish from behind him. He dared not look around, with steely eyes a shield's thickness away from his own. Unwonted movement at the corners of his eyes finally got the better of him. He glanced to one side, seeing the shield-wall shattered. The spearman he had menaced took the chance to shove the weapon he carried up into the Mercian man's groin. The Mercian never saw from what his comrades were running.
The men Lawrence had positioned across the river had let loose a volley of arrows that easily crossed the span of the river and into the backs of the Mercians in the back line of their own shield-wall. Even the formation had stayed intact. It was not until the third to last line started screaming and falling that the rest of the shield-wall realized what was happening. They did the worst thing men in a shield-wall could do. They ran. The wall, which provided so much protection for the most vulnerable parts in a fighter's body, melted away. Crísliclandian soldiers stepped in easily to finish the panicking men off. Those few who made it to the river and were able, slowly, in their heavy leather armor, to wade to the other side, realized instantly how much they had lost. The very men who had killed their companions had shot from there, and the men-at-arms with them were waiting with weapons ready.
Farther from the river Lawrence's cavalry, on their small northern horses, were ready to break the lines of archers who moved to outflank his center. At the moment the shield-wall had started to fall apart on the Mercian side, the king led his own horseman directly into the midst of the left row of archers. Most of the archers were in position, crouched behind a spiny hedgehog of spears sunk at an angle pointing towards the horses. The rest of the archers were still moving to take their own positions. Men-at-arms were scattered throughout.
Lawrence could hear the scream of horses whose riders failed to guide them between the spears. He himself avoided such a fate. He leaned over to the side in his saddle and slashed away at the men-at-arms who were interspersed among the archers. He prayed that Elerde's force was doing better. He did not have time to look up and see the Mercian shield-wall cut to ribbons.
The Mercian archers, who had been set to fire arrows down on the Crísliclandian shield-wall aft lines, did see it. They saw themselves cut off without hope from escape across the river. They fell back, one by one and in groups, leaving their positions and the fighting men. It quickly became obvious that the strategy, whether informed or coincidental, would not succeed as it had at Cannæ.
The ranks of the Mercian archers were catastrophically cut down where they were or as they fled. But it only takes one bow and one steady eye. As Lawrence wheeled his horse around to survey the effect of the rush on the right line of Mercian archers, an arrow flew from somewhere to the left and struck the king in his thigh near the hip. He was stunned. He did not register the simple detail that he had been struck. It took the blood running down his leg to make him look down. He saw the shaft of the arrow sticking out of his thigh and the blood pouring from the wound. He was in a tunnel of fog. He reached down and broke the shaft as close to this thigh as he could. The pain it caused was excruciating, and his consciousness wavered. He struggled for and regained his senses. He spurred forward to join in the routing of the remaining Mercians.
The field was strewn with the bodies of dozens of dead and wounded men. The king sat astride his horse gazing over the carnage with a dazed expression. Elerde rode up to him and cautiously peered into his face. "My liege?" he began.
Lawrence tipped sideways and toppled off his mount onto the ground. A dozen warriors started towards him. Horsa dismounted at once and went to him. They rolled him over and several gasped when they saw the short piece of the broken shaft in his thigh.
Horsa cried, "God's eyes, look at his britches! He has been bleeding out for some time. Quick, make a litter and take him to Harold's stronghold. We must get him to a healer immediately." They made a stretcher from a shield and pulled the king, who was already pale from loss of blood, onto it, and four of the warriors ran with him to the hall.
Elerde held his mount back as the king's body-men rushed after them. It was not his place. He would wait to be called.