'In the aftermath of 1066, a Norman army marches through the North of England: burning, killing and laying waste to everything in its path. The Harrowing has begun.
'As towns and villages fall to the invaders, five travellers fleeing the slaughter are forced to band together for survival. Refugees in their own country, they journey through the wasteland, hoping to find sanctuary with the last stand of the Saxon rebellion. But are they fleeing the Normans or their own troubles?'
So runs the sales blurb on the back of The Harrowing, by James Aitcheson. In the acknowledgements, Aitcheson describes himself as a former [history] undergraduate at Cambridge University with an interest in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England, and evidence of this interest runs through the book. Like Bernard Cornwell's 'Last Kingdom/Warrior Chronicles' series, The Harrowing pays attention to period detail throughout and uses contemporary Anglo-Saxon names for settlements, as taken from the Doomsday Book, with a guide to their modern equivalent names in the preface. Some readers might find this annoying, others will appreciate the verisimilitude and others (like myself) will play the 'what did this settlement name become' game by trying to work it out before looking up the answer.
With 438 pages of fairly large type, the story is mainly written in the third-person limited subjective, present tense, style, with the events seen 'in real time' through the eyes and opinions of the protagonist, Tova. The main characters are a former slave and now servant and companion or ladies' maid (Tova), the lady she serves, (Merewyn), an Anglo-Saxon warrior (Beorn), a priest (Guthred), and a travelling storyteller and entertainer (Oslac).
In the harsh winter of 1069/70, the new Norman king, King William the Bastard (later more popularly known as William the Conqueror) punished the North of England for the rebellions that were occurring there. With its recent Norse/Danish history, the North had long thought of itself almost as an independent entity, and had believed that it was too far from William's reach for him to bother governing with any effectiveness. Consequently it became a hotbed of Anglo-Saxon rebellion to the Normans. William reacted with one of the most notorious counter-insurgency operations of the Medieval age, later described by some scholars as an act of genocide, ordering that the whole area from the Humber to the Tees be subjected to slaughter, looting and burning. An indiscriminate destruction of both people and settlements followed.
Opening with Tova and Merewyn trying to find shelter from the freezing weather after running away from their home, all the characters in the book are caught up in these historical events and band together for security. Each is running away both from the Normans or other enemies, and from his or her own past; each has a guilty secret which drives them north. The narrative covers eight days during which the characters travel through the cold and devastation towards what they hope will be safety. Alongside the story of the journey itself, Aitcheson also has each character tell their own story in a manner akin to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Each feels the need to unburden themselves by telling of their particular secret and sin, and each does so in the manner of a storyteller by narrating the full story from start to finish in one go.
Does it work? To my mind, the book promises more than it delivers. As a lover of the historical novel, I was interested in the setting and seeing how the character interacted with that setting. In this, Aitcheson delivers well. The characters and setting are plausibly Anglo-Saxon and you can believe both that they are cold and hungry, and that they are terrified of meeting the roaming bands of Norman troops. The scenes of indiscriminate death and destruction are reacted to appropriately according to the protagonists' backgrounds (mainly through the thoughts of Tova, the servant girl), and the general conversation between the characters is also handled reasonably well. Tova, through whom the third-person subjective narration is focussed, comes across as a strong-minded young woman finding her own voice and opinion outside the social conventions that previously bound her. This is a common enough literary trope and one which Aitcheson doesn't over-do, but the other characters don't react as I would expect Anglo-Saxon men to do towards a servant girl displaying such independence of spirit. They certainly show surprise, but are happy to let Tova make important decisions within the group which feels historically wrong and shows an unnecessarily modern attitude to my mind. I would have preferred the story to show that Tova earns their respect over time rather than it being part of their mindset from the outset. Given that we don't see into their thoughts aside from through their voices, it is perhaps unfair to criticise Aitcheson for the attitude of his characters. I feel, however, that the acceptance Tova's independence and equality within the party owes more to an eye on modern sales than to historical narrative.
Without giving away the ending or the revelation of the secrets each character holds, I felt that they were somewhat bland and obvious. One of them I had worked out long before the reveal, and only one of the others made me raise my eyebrows in surprise. The secrets did fit the setting and maybe would have been considered more significant by contemporary standards, but given that they form the core of the book, I feel they could have been better used by Aitcheson to weave some more mystery and interest into the story. Having each character narrate a long autobiographical tale was, to my mind, one of the weaker aspects of the book. As previously mentioned, this approach quite evidently owed a lot to Canterbury Tales, and The Harrowing's reliance on it as a way to tell the characters' backgrounds and reveal their secrets seemed to me to be a poor way of tackling what could have been a more entertaining slow reveal.
I quite enjoyed The Harrowing but, given the genre, couldn't help but compare the style to the way that Cornwell may have tackled it. Aitcheson writes conversation well, and he obviously loves the period he writes about. His characters are a little stereotyped, especially those who only appear as background, but are believably human at least. The setting of the Harrowing of the North is a dramatic one, and works well as the backdrop against which the characters struggle. The winter weather, too, is rightly treated as a significant part of the story.
I enjoy historical novels and generally read them multiple times. Overall, I found The Harrowing entertaining but light. It didn't exactly draw me in but neither would I have abandoned it were I reading it simply for pleasure. Given the early Medieval setting and promise of the story, I would have probably bought the book had I seen it at reduced price, but in this case I doubt I shall re-read it and at the full paperback price of £13.99 might have felt slightly disappointed. If you have an interest in the historical setting and see it for under £10 then it is an inoffensive book with an interesting plot, but something to while away the hours rather than immerse you in a different world.