I bring another of the books I discovered thanks to Rosie’s Book Review Team, and although this is the first fiction book by the author, she is well known for her historical books and her work on TV.
Dark Hunter: A town under seige. A killer within by F.J. Watson
The year is 1317, and young squire Benedict Russell has joined the English-held garrison of Berwick-upon-Tweed after the spectacular Scottish victory at Bannockburn three years earlier.
Serious and self-doubting, he can’t wait for his time there to come to an end. Living on the disputed territory between Scotland and England is a precarious existence, and as the Scots draw ever closer and the English king does nothing to stop them, Benedict finds himself in a race against time to solve the brutal murder of a young girl and find the traitor who lurks within Berwick’s walls.
Fiona Watson is a medieval historian and writer. She is the author of A History of Scotland’s Landscapes, Scotland from Prehistory to the Present, and, with Birlinn/ John Donald, Under the Hammer: Edward I and Scotland. She was the presenter of the BBC TV series In Search of Scotland.
Fiona lives in rural Perthshire.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
I have never read any books by the author, but she is an expert in Scottish history and has written and talked about it often, and that is evident when reading this novel, that fits well in the historical fiction genre, with the added attraction of a mystery, the murder of a young woman, thrown in. The investigation of that murder would have been difficult enough in normal circumstances, but it becomes almost impossible in the trying and tense times Scotland, and particularly Berwick-upon-Tweed, are living through in the historical period the novel is set in.
I don’t want to discuss the plot in detail. I am not referring to what really happened during the siege of the city (that is easy to check, and the author doesn’t stray from the facts but puts plenty of flesh onto the bare bones that have reached us about the event), but to the mystery introduced by Watson. I don’t want to spoil the story for readers, and there are plenty of details that I feel need to be read to be appreciated, but I am pretty sure that most mystery readers would enjoy the story because although it is not conventional, they will recognise many of the elements of stories with amateur sleuths (a good observer, with no special training but clever, with particular talents to go beyond and see what others don’t, a keen eye for picking up clues and examining evidence, some very peculiar allies, some early forensic analysis of the scene of the crime, and even a cipher). But there are plenty of themes that play a part in the story and that will easily connect with all kinds of readers: doubts about one’s identity and profession (particularly relevant for the protagonist, a young man on the verge of adulthood); the difficulty in really knowing and understanding others (and not jumping to conclusions and judgements about those around us); how to go beyond appearances and listen to one’s heart; the importance of learning to accept our own priorities and ignoring other people’s opinions; issues of national identity, loyalty, duty…; conquerors and conquered and their relationship (changing at times), and particularly the way women are victimised and pay a big price in war situations (something we are all thinking about at the moment); the social differences of the period and how those dictated one’s fate…
There are many characters in this novel, and in some ways it made me think of Shakespeare’s historical plays, where there is a vast cast of characters with very complex relationships of power and influence between them. Here we have the same, with the complication of the added fictional characters. Although with so many characters it is impossible to get to know them all in-depth, the author’s skill in making us see things from the protagonist’s perspective means that it is difficult to tell apart the historical characters from those she has created for the story. Benedict is the perfect protagonist for this novel. He is an outsider, both to the situation and to the place, and that makes him the perfect guide for the reader, as we feel as puzzled and uncertain as he does. He is naïve and has little experience in soldiering and real life, as he was following religious studies before a family tragedy changed his fate and threw him in the middle of a dangerous and fairly alien situation. On the one hand, he is more educated than many of the men around him, even those in charge, and that gives him unique skills that help him solve the mystery and discover other behaviours far from exemplary. On the other, he is new to the politics and to the struggles for power that underpin many of the events that take place, and his view of army life and of the situation he finds himself plunged into, at least at the beginning of the story, is simplistic and unrealistic. He expects people to behave according to high moral standards, but he soon discovers those around him are only human beings and far from perfect, and the “enemies” are not big scary devils either. As the story is narrated in the first person and present tense from Benedict’s point of view, readers` opinions are coloured by his judgement, sometimes pretty quick and one-sided, and only get to appreciate the nuances of some of the other soldiers and inhabitants when the protagonist is confronted with evidence that contradicts his first opinion. To give him his due (and I did like Benedict because he is passionate and devoted to what he feels is his mission, and is willing to give a chance to people ignored by the good society), he is willing to acknowledge his mistakes, to change his point of view, and he is, at times, a good judge of character, even when that means going against general opinion. In her acknowledgements, the author describes Benedict as “priggish” and “naïve”, but she also refers to “his kindness and gentle spirit” and to a “less jaded view of the world” that reminds her of her son, and I cannot argue with that.
His love interest (and there is one, as there should be in a novel that is also a coming of age story) is, perhaps, my favourite character, and Lucy is fascinating and unusual for many reasons. It was refreshing to see a female protagonist (quite a few women appear in the story, although most don’t have big parts, as seems to be the case in many war stories) who isn’t conventionally beautiful but is irresistible nonetheless. The fact that she has to face many challenges, (other characters call her “a cripple”) but never bends to conventions or hides behind closed doors make her unique, although I have a soft spot for all the women in the novel, as they have to endure trials beyond those of the men, with little if any, acknowledgment.
Berrick-upon- Tweed plays a very important part in the novel, and it is more than a setting, as it does reflect the feelings and the changing fortunes of Scotland, England, and the people inside it, with its changing loyalties and sense of self. The author includes a map of the town with the main locations that play a part in the story, and that helps us better imagine the comings and goings of the characters and the intrigues that take place. (There was no cast of characters included in my copy, and I am not sure if that is to appear in the final version or the paperback copy, but I think it might be useful to readers to have a bit of added information about the characters, especially those based on real historical figures).
I enjoyed the writing. Apart from the first person present tense narration of most of the novel, the first chapter contains a brief fragment, in italics, told from a different point of view, whose meaning we don’t fully understand until much later in the story (but we might suspect from early on). There are descriptions of places, people, and everyday life that give us a good sense of what living in that period must have been like, and despite the tense atmosphere, there are lighter interludes as well. There are beautiful passages, some contemplative, reflective and poetic, and also some very tense and action-packed moments, although the rhythm of the novel, which takes place over a year, reflects well the seasons and the experience of the men at the garrison, with a lot of waiting, preparing and hanging around, and some frantic moments when all hell breaks loose. The alternating of quiet moments with fast-paced ones (and those become more frequent towards the end) accommodates well both, the historical events and the mystery, giving each enough time to develop. Mine was an ARC copy and there might be changes in the published version, but I share a couple of fragments I highlighted:
I stretch and walk again, trying not to think about the passing of time, for such thoughts only draw it out like an arrow that is never sprung.
Wandering downstairs before bed, I stand outside in the yard for a moment, watching the moon —waning now— cast her patient gaze upon us. The stars lie above, held up by angels. I pray that all will be well.
I see, too, that we live in difficult times precisely because those, from the king down, who should behave the most honourably, the most justly, are little better than liars and thieves. This I have learnt.
The ending… As I said, the historical events are easy to check, and the novel remains faithful to them, although it emphasises how things change and nothing is settled forever. As for the fictional characters, especially Benedict, the ending is fairly open but hopeful, and I liked that aspect in particular. And, do not fret, the mysteries are solved.
I really enjoyed this novel, set in a historical period I knew very little about, and I particularly enjoyed the feeling of closeness and of sharing what it must have been like. I would recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction, particularly those interested in Scottish history, lovers of mysteries set in the past, those who enjoy puzzles and ciphers (I always feel I would like to be shown the actual text they are trying to decipher), and readers who enjoyed The Name of the Rose might want to check this one (although it has been a long time since I have read it or even watched the movie, so take that with a pinch of salt). This is not a cozy mystery, though, and readers should be warned about the use of strong language at times, violent scenes (not the most explicit I’ve read, but this is a war after all), torture, rape, and violence towards women (again, not explicit but disturbing nonetheless). But anybody who enjoys well-written and well-informed historical fiction set in the XIV century, are interested in the Scottish-English conflict and don’t feel the warnings apply to them, should check this novel. Fiona Watson’s move to fiction is a success, and I hope this will be the first of many of her novels to see the light.
Thanks to the author, the publisher, and to Rosie and her team for all their support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, keep being kind, and keep safe.
Ah, and I wanted to let you know that I’ll be away from home for a couple of weeks or so, so don’t worry too much if you don’t see me around. I am not sure how much I’ll be able to connect while I’m away (I hope for a nice break with friends, so fingers crossed!), so I might not appear or be able to say much when I do, but don’t worry. I’ll be back soon. Stay well!