Monday, 29 June 2020

A Light in the West - Wolfs Head #3

Author: Arthur Frazier (aka Laurence James)
First Published: 1973
Pages: 111pp
Publisher: New English Library
Not currently available in eBook format

Warning: As this is part three of a six-book series there are bound to be some spoilers in this review. My reviews of the opening two books are here and here.

I had been looking forward to starting the third installment of the Wolfs Head saga for a while. The previous two had been written by the prolific Kenneth Bulmer, and he had won me over with his mixture of historical attention to detail and fast-paced visceral action. However, books three and four are penned by his stable-mate at New English Library, Laurence James, for whom I have already been particularly impressed with, due to his Piccadilly western fiction series, 'Crow'. It was with some excitement that I picked up A Light in the West this weekend in order to continue the rollicking story of the Saxon, Edric Ecgbertson and Norman Lord, Simon du Lac in medieval England.

In keeping with the previous title, The King's Death; A Light in the West follows on almost immediately after the end of the preceding book. Following their overwhelming and bloody victory at the Battle of Hastings, The Normans now rule England. Their leader, William the Bastard, has risen to be crowned King of England and has left the land in the control of his warrior-bishop Brother Odo, whilst he strengthens his role back in French Normandy for a while. Simon du Lac was awarded the demesne of Furnaceden in Kent - the family home of Edric Ecgbertson  - by his new King. He has taken his forces, accompanied by his second Guy Vermeil, and taken over the Saxon hamlet as his own. At the end of The King's Death, Simon had just killed Edric's father, Ecgbert, who had attempted a doomed retaking of Furanceden - helped only by the one-handed woodsman, Alaric, and a young boy named Nebba.

As A Light in the West begins, Edric is returning from a failed rescue of his father, and Simon is settling into his new role. He takes for his bride, Elfleda, the Saxon woman once romantically linked to Edric. Fast forward a year, and they now have a child, Agnes. Edric has arranged for his wife, Ysabel and his own two children to stay with her family back in Normandy, protected by his Viking freedman friend Beorn. This allows him to organise his band of outlaws, the Wolfs Heads, on their campaign of hate against the Norman invaders, and Simon du Lac in particular. With his family in a safe haven, Edric is free to roam the Kent countryside without fearing for their safety.

During one of his regular trips to London, Simon has an audience with King William and Bishop Odo. They berate him over the continued harassment of his subjects by the Wolfs Head band, and his inability to deal with them swiftly. He is promised more men, but its clear that his standing is at risk with the royal family.

Edric is also travelling. Although he and his band have been successful in proving themselves a menace to the Normans, they are slowly losing men, and arms are becoming tough to acquire. Refusing to attack whilst Simon is absent causes bad feeling between the leader and some of his followers.

While her Norman lord is away in the English capital, Elfleda takes the opportunity to spend more time outside the walls of Furnaceden. Accompanied by the knight, Guy Vermeil and a small group of swordsmen, she enjoying some relative freedom, when they come across a small band of monks. However, the monks are not what they seem, and disaster falls upon the Norman party. On his return to Kent, Simon is horrified to hear the news and his hatred of Edric Ecgbertson and the Wolfs Head band tips over into madness!

Laurence James takes the helm from Bulmer exceedingly well. His prose is more eloquent, suffused with better description of the land and the people of 1067 England. His use of historical language does occasionally tip into overuse in places however; maybe a bit too many "forsooth's" and "dost thou's" for my tastes, but it adds to the overall setting, so I forgive him.

The one thing that is not in James' favor, is that A Light in the West does not contain any major battle scenes. All of the action takes place in small skirmishes, so this books feels like it might be consolidating things on the blood and guts side. Added to this, the action scenes we do get are not written quite as blood-thirstily by James as they were by Bulmer, which surprised me.

That said, this installment still has a lot of plot within its meagre 111 pages. Plenty of things happen to keep the reader engaged. I even felt that the last couple of chapters contained too much plot - I did wonder if the author had to pad out his plot just a tiny bit to make his page quota?

A big plus, was the return of the Norman knight, Gilbert of Falaise. Last seen being sent packing by Edric and Beorn in book one. I love Gilbert. He is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, with his withered arm and his penchant for torturing everybody at the drop of a hat. His scenes with the young Wolfs Head boy, Nebba were great! I hope to see more of him again, as I'm sure Beorn has got first dibs on chopping him in two.

The end of the book introduces some new characters, and expands the locale into Wales and northern England, all of which is good news, adding some variety to the cast and alternative settings to keep it fresh. Despite the minor downsides to this part of the tale, I'm still enormously enthusiastic about the second half of the six book series. I believe that James wrote the next title, and then Bulmer wraps things up with the final two.

Highly recommended. Seek them out online while they are still cheap and available. Unfortunately no eBook version available yet.

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