An Argument of Blood and A Black Matter for the King, by Matthew Willis & JA Ironside

There is little which is quite so exciting for me as discovering a fresh, new talent in historical writing. In Willis and Ironside I feel I’ve found two writers who can carry me back to the past and can show me a time when, amid the brutality and irrationality of politics, there were still great characters, men of vision and daring, and women of intelligence and foresight.

I have to admit, I was not keen to review these two books. They were, I was told, a two-book series about the Norman invasion, and how the invasion affected the lives of Normans and Saxons alike. I immediately thought that sounded wrong. Perhaps one book, and if there’s enough of a story, maybe a trilogy – a simple pair of books didn’t seem right to me. And at the time I was on a tight deadline (again), and I needed a pair of books to review like a hole in the head. However, Matthew Willis was persistent and persuasive, and I do like to support other writers, so I thought I should at least glance at the books. Give them a casual once-over. It need not take long, I thought. I could skim them, probably. 

I was wrong.

Matthew cost me several days of work. Thank you so very much. 

Not only did I find it impossible to put these books down, I found myself being dragged deeper and deeper into the horrible times leading up to the Norman invasion of 1066, and although I was at the time trying to write a story based on much more recent history, these two forced me to keep harking back to the Saxons, to Harold, to Edith Swan-neck, to William and his mercenaries … It’s often said that writers cannot read fiction while writing their own work, because they involuntarily take on the narrative style of the work they are reading – which is partly why I had to give up reading PG Wodehouse while writing my own stories!

In fact these stories are a lot more than a short war series. They are a rich, extraordinarily well-researched, and meticulously told history of love, jealousy, honour, betrayal, deceit and death. It gives one version – convincingly told – of the curious oath sworn by Harold to William, but it is also the story of different nations, different cultures, and the clash when two warlords desire the same thing.

The two books are told largely from two perspectives: that of William of Normandy, and Ælfgifa, the sister of Harold.

Choosing these two is a marvellous device, because it allows the authors to delve into the mindsets of the leading protagonists. William, of course, needs little introduction, the bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, a man who was almost caught and killed when he was only recently come to the throne, but who managed to cling on to his throne and, eventually, brought a force of mercenaries from all over Europe to invade England, suppressing the Saxon population with the most appalling repressive and brutal methods ever seen in Britain: the widespread slaughter and depopulation of vast swathes of land, while his men spread salt to prevent people being able to return to their homes and work again. 

However, while William was still laying claim to his Dukedom, over the Channel Ælfgifa was born. She was to suffer from several disadvantages. To be born with a hare lip, disfiguring birthmarks and a very small figure, meant that she was looked on with disfavour. In a superstitious age, many reviled her. Although her father was besotted with his little “Blackbird”, her mother detested the very sight of her. An unmotherly trait, but that was how things were. Although Ælfgifa was the daughter of a powerful Jarl, she would not be considered for marriage by any other families. Who would marry a woman such as she?

But then in Winchester she met an ancient abbess, who treated her as an equal, and who made Ælfgifa begin to think again about her position in the world. She had a good mind, and her disfigurement meant that she was able to make use of her mental powers without the usual distractions. 

I won’t go further. It would involve giving away some of the superb plot. All I really need to say is, if you like your battles bloody, but set in context, with stories about real people told with intelligence and sympathy, you have to try these books. Buy An Argument of Blood and immerse yourself in the politics of France, Normandy and Saxon England at the time of probably the greatest change the country has seen. A Black Matter for the King will be published in September.

In case I hadn’t made it obvious, I loved these books. Sweeping history, battles galore, treachery, a cast of glorious, well-depicted characters – all in all, a fabulous story told brilliantly.

A highly recommended pair of books.

One Response to “An Argument of Blood and A Black Matter for the King, by Matthew Willis & JA Ironside”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    More from young Michael in Devon. ;)


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