[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Sworn Sword is an historical novel set in the 1060s in England. James Aitcheson is a scholar, and the story of Tancred a Dinant, a knight in the service of William the Conqueror, is painstakingly researched, opening a window into a distant period of British history. There is no fantasy or magic in this book, but it is set in such a distant historical time that it does seem like another world.
Almost everyone knows the date 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, where William of Normandy deposed King Harold. William had relatively little trouble in bringing the south of Britain under his control, but it took another several years to subdue the north. Sworn Sword follows Tancred on adventures during that turbulent period.
Tancred is sworn to the Norman lord Robert de Comminges. While they are staying in Dunholm, the English rebels ambush the Norman army. Comminges is killed and Tancred badly wounded, but he manages to escape with two comrades. They enter into the service of Guillaume de Malet. The rebels are on the march, though, and soon besiege the city in which Malet lives, (modern-day York). Malet gives Tancred an assignment; guide Malet’s wife and his daughter, Beatrice, to safety in London, and then accompany a trusted member of Malet’s household while he delivers a message. Tancred reluctantly agrees, but harbors doubt about the message and the messenger, a priest in Malet’s household who happens to be English. It is no secret that Malet’s mother was English, and as the quest to London progresses, Tancred begins to wonder if he is aiding treachery against King William.
The battle scenes are deftly done and generally the descriptions of daily life are grounded and interesting. The book sags in the middle, on the journey to London, mainly because this section of the book relies a lot on character, and the characters are not well-enough developed. A boat chase down a river is suspenseful, but the quieter sections, where Tancred begins to gather clues that things may not be what they seem, fall a bit flat. Because the characters are not complex there isn’t very much tension between the things Tancred sees and hears and what he thinks he knows about the others.
The women characters are generally not well drawn here, which is no big surprise since they play no part in the plot. Beatrice, Malet’s daughter, seems like a puppet; the lovely high-born woman out of Tancred’s reach, and her actions seem dictated, not sprung organically from her character. The widow of King Harold, Eadgyth (we’d pronounce it “Edith”), displays more will and passion in one scene than Beatrice does in the entire book. Since Aitcheson does plan other books, I suspect that Beatrice will be a recurring character. I hope Aitcheson works on giving her some layers, some nuance, some depth. Tancred’s stated grief over the death of his camp-follower lover, Oswynn, is not convincing because Tancred only shares one memory of her, her black hair falling across her face. This may be some kind of poetic shorthand, but it isn’t the way the early stages of grief work, and it makes Tancred seem shallow rather than deep. These problems made the middle section of the book drag a little.
This book comes to life in the battle scenes, especially in the secret mission Tancred and his men are sent on near the end of the book. The final plot twist and confrontation are plausible, well-described and suspenseful.
The quality of research and world-building in Sworn Sword kept me reading, as did the action sequences, even when it was hard to set aside disbelief about the characters. The use of old English spellings added a perfect sense of strangeness, reminding me that my main characters were speaking French and were, in fact, invaders. Readers of military science fiction and military historical fiction should add this book to their shelves.