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This book left me with mixed feelings.

I bought it on the basis of seeing Nick Hyam interview the author who is a multi-award-winning documentary producer working for the BBC. It is the first book in a series of four that starts before the Battle of Hastings (the Battle of Senlac Ridge) and goes through to the signing of the Magna Carta.

On the plus side, the book reveals a lot of historical detail and gives the readers a sense of the political and military turmoil in England both before and after the famous battle. I found it illuminating to learn of the almost chance nature of the famous defeat, and of the brutality that William demonstrated both before, and in the years after the battle. The book ends just after the Siege of Ely in 1071.

However, despite reading it to the end, I did struggle with it for several reasons. First, on a minor note, although it is based round a real historical character (Hereward of Bourne – known in legend as Hereward the Wake), I was never quite sure how much was fact and how much of his story was fiction. At least with Dan Brown or Scott Mariani they always tell you at the end which bits of the plot are factual and which are made up. There was no final note from the author to inform me.

Secondly, the quasi-evangelical moralistic tone started to annoy me. Throughout the novel Hereward is fighting to defend England and we hear speeches and see his thoughts about this worthy purpose. And as well as the nationalism, there are also worthy thoughts about leadership. It started to have the feel of a medieval hagiography. There’s nothing wrong with that. It just didn’t appeal to me.

Thirdly, the writing didn’t do it for me. The structural device is that the old warrior is describing his life to some youngsters, and perhaps, because of that, the narrative tends to be linear. As an ex-English teacher I have marked thousands of compositions that read, “And then we did this … and then we did that .., and then we did this …” I’m afraid I found parts of it boring. I wanted more conflict-tension-resolution. I also found the style to be almost romantic and lyrical. This suited a hagiography, but it didn’t create a page that drew me in and made me want to read.

I won’t be buying the other three books. In his interview with Nick Hyam the author admitted that telling a story in prose rather than on TV proved to be harder than he had expected. On the basis of this book I don’t think the author has quite succeeded in overcoming the difficulties he faced.

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Someone said, “If you like Dan Brown, you’ll like this.” They were wrong. I like Dan Brown, but I loved this. I did really enjoy this book for several reasons.

First, the plot was fantastically intriguing. Three seemingly unrelated incidents happen to different people in different parts of Venice. The author then skilfully takes us on a journey where we are invited to link the incidents together and then use that knowledge to resolve the ending. What I particularly liked is that, for the most part, it seemed credible. The plot doesn’t depend on anything that stretched the imagination beyond reason, and its complexity keeps you on your toes right to the end.

The second reason for enjoyment was that unlike some novels that race across the world and back, this book, for the most part, was firmly grounded in Venice (despite the fact that Venice is sinking). The stink of the city was both literal and metaphorical. It provides a reinforcing backdrop to the corruption and crime in the place involving the police, the mafia, the church, the criminals, and the spies. But the reality of the city also gave space for the reader to pause and enjoy, and to learn about Venetian life. It gave time for the characters to eat at the restaurants, and to occasionally make love. And of course, the duplicity of the Venetian mask also provided another overarching metaphor for the plot.

Thirdly, and partly related to my previous point, I enjoyed the detail which gave the text a convincing authority. For example, we learn about the influence of the Mafia on the city, the techniques used by people traffickers, the protocols for paperwork on a US military base, the operation of drones, the Italian justice system, some of the conventions used by computer hackers. I knew I was reading a novel, but for the most part, the detail encouraged me to believe wholeheartedly in the world I was being invited to inhabit. The book was interesting.

My fourth reason for enjoyment was the flesh that the author gave to the main characters. I cared about them. I enjoyed watching their relationships develop. They weren’t cardboard cut-outs, but were “real” people capable of subtle feelings and interaction. The female detective was interestingly different. I really wanted them to be ok.

Notwithstanding the above, I have a couple of minor quibbles. ¬†First, I have read all of Dan Brown and most of Scott Mariani and one of the things I really dislike about their novels is that they sometimes have to employ completely unrealistic solutions to getting their characters out of plot conundrums that they have written them into (survival despite being ridiculously outnumbered, for example). Personally, I was unconvinced by how the author got two of his characters back to Venice after they had briefly left it. It didn’t seem credible to me, and was a weakness. Secondly, I was invited to care for a major character for most of the book, and the relationship that he was forming, and then this person was summarily dismissed towards the end. I felt very let down. Perhaps this thread will be picked up in a future novel.

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