Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Oath of Blood - Wolfs Head #1

Author: Arthur Frazier (aka Kenneth Bulmer)
First Published: 1973
Pages: 108pp
Publisher: New English Library

Any book that opens Page One with a man being skewered by the broken mast of a sailing ship in the middle of a storm has to be good right? Well, I'm happy to say Oath of Blood by Arthur Frazier lives up to its gory opening scene and delivers a fantastic little novel about the clash of the Saxons, Normans and Vikings during the 11th century (1066 to be precise).

Arthur Frazier was one of many pen names used by the prolific Kenneth Bulmer. He authored many classic novels and much-loved series such as the science fiction of Dray Prescot (as Alan Burt Ackers), the maritime exploits of Abercrombie Fox (as Adam Hardy),  Roman adventure The Eagles (as Andrew Quiller),  U-boat adventures (as Bruno Krauss), Falklands war novels (as Adam Hardy) and adaptations of the TV series The Professionals (as Ken Blake).

I have had mixed experience reading Bulmer recently. I wasn't impressed with Dray Prescot - you can read my review here. But I had a better time reviewing the Adam Hardy opener for Strike Force Falklands. I'm glad to report with Oath of Blood he has finally won me over with his writing - this is a tour de force of a novel, brimming with authentic detail and history of the period. He introduces us to characters that make an impression and seem very real. The action is bloody, visceral and dirty with maiming, decapitations, severed limbs and brain-splattering axe fights scattered throughout. But mixed into the mayhem is a story of love and friendship which promises an epic story to come.

Oath of Blood is set in the year 1066, a pivotal moment in the history of England. Edric Ecgbertson, Saxon son of Ecgbert the Thegn of Furnaceden in Kent, a county of England, is sailing with his father back to their home after accompanying the Earl Harold into Norman territory. They are shipwrecked, and soon make way towards the closest settlement. Rather fortuitously, they are welcomed by an old friend of the Thegn, the Norman lord, Rolf du Lac. Accepting their fate, the Saxons are kept in captive hospitality, but are effectively prisoners awaiting their ransom before du Lac will release them as befits the current state of the on/off war between the Normans and the Saxons.

Rolf du Lac is an old friend of Ecgbert's; despite being on opposing sides, they have a deep respect for each other. Rolf also has a son and heir the same age as Edric; Simon du Lac and Edric become firm friends when they discover they both have a burning desire to be the best in combat. They spend many days sparring together and earning the same mutual brotherly bond and admiration that their fathers do.

Eventually both Ecgbert and Simon have to leave the Norman settlement. Edric remains behind as promissory for the ransom still to arrive, and this is where the plot thickens. Simon's younger, and much admired brother Odo returns home - but despite Edric's friendly approach, he is of a much different outlook than Simon. Also arriving at the castle of Saint Laurent is the beautiful Norman maiden Ysabel, thought to be the intended bride to Simon or Odo du Lac. Her encounter with Edric changes those plans, and has a major influence on the rest of the story.

Oath of Blood is only 100 pages long, but the text in this NEL edition is quite small and reads more like a 150-180 page paperback from other publishers. The detail and history covered in those pages is quite an achievement from Bulmer. I'll admit at times I was a little lost on the historic names and factual people that he has entwined into his novel, but if you just let it wash over you, it does become more understandable later on. In actual fact, the final significant battle in this first book covers a true-life incident that happened at Stamford Bridge in September 1066, and reading about it afterwards on wikipeadia was quite satisfying.

Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo.

Bulmer does have a knack of being able to add good supporting characters. In this book Edric and Simon are joined by Beorn, a Viking who has sworn himself to the Saxon cause, and Gilbert a thoroughly nasty Norman knight of the du Lac's. There are other lesser characters, but I'm hoping for a showdown between Gilbert and Beorn in a later instalment.

I am very glad I sought out a paperback copy of this novel. It is a crying shame that it's not readily available to us in eBook format. Many other Bulmer books have been converted and released so I can't fathom out why this series has been left out. In my opinion, it's miles better than any Dray Prescot book!

Very highly recommended - if you can seek out a copy, give it a chance. I am going to see this one through to the end (if I can get physical copies!).