England 1642: a nation divided.
England is at war with itself. King Charles and Parliament each gather soldiers to their banners. Across the land men prepare to fight for their religious and political ideals. Civil war has begun.
A family ripped asunder.
The Rivers are landed gentry, and tradition dictates that their allegiance is to the King. Sir Francis’s loyalty to the crown and his desire to protect his family will test them all. As the men march to war, so the women are left to defend their home against a ruthless enemy. Just as Edmund, the eldest of Sir Francis’ sons, will do his duty, so his brother Tom will turn his back on all he once believed in…
A war that will change everything.
From the raising of the King’s Standard at Nottingham to the butchery and blood of Edgehill, Edmund and Tom Rivers will each learn of honour, sacrifice, hatred and betrayal as they follow their chosen paths through this most savage of wars.
Heartbreaking, harrowing, visceral, inescapable, detailed, stunning, gorgeous and riveting. Those are some of the first words that sprang to mind after finishing Giles Kristian’s The Bleeding Land. I’m having a good reading year historical fiction-wise and this book was another highlight. Kristian takes his reader along on an adventure and while you know, overall, how it’s going to end – this is historical fiction after all – I found myself holding my breath at key scenes, hoping against hope that things would turn out differently. If that isn’t a testament to the author’s skill, I couldn’t think of a better one.
The Bleeding Land opens on the fields at Edgehill, just before the first pitched battle of the English Civil War in October 1642. To me the Civil War was only some lines in my history books, something which led to the execution of King Charles I, the Commonwealth and to the Protectorate led by Oliver Cromwell, to an era in which Puritan morals led to the closing of theatres and a forced conforming of the Arts to their strict world view. With The Bleeding Land, Kristian made the era come alive for me, made it three-dimensional and took it beyond the political reasons behind the War to the motivations of the people not in power who fought its battles.
There are three components that make The Bleeding Land such a fantastic read: its characters, the battle descriptions and Kristian’s carefully woven prose. Of course the plot is exciting enough in its own right, but it’s these three things that lift it up to something extraordinary. To start off with the last element I named, the prose in this book. Kristian chooses his words carefully and – according to the Author’s Note – strives to both reflect the language and tone of his chosen era, but at the same time keep the text accessible to modern-day readers. An example of this is his use of the verb gnar, which means to snarl or to growl; I’d never encountered this word before, but understood it immediately and it fit the narrative perfectly. Gnar was used relatively often, but other words weren’t used as extensively, but were dropped in and added just that right touch to remind the reader that this is a different era and the language spoken quite different from ours. Kristian’s writing is evocative and I found myself shivering on the couch at the freezing weather in the book even if we’re currently having the hottest week so far this summer.
Kristian’s evocative prose is at its most graphic in the battle scenes contained in the narrative. They are visceral and harrowing. Don’t look for descriptions depicting battle as glorious and honour-filled, no, Kristian shows us the fear the men feel just before going into battle, the way their bowels turn runny and panic sours the gullet; the way that once the charge has started, it’s either kill or be killed and you don’t have time to have scruples about killing a man; the way that after the battle, after you’ve come down from the adrenaline rush it invokes, you’re haunted by memories of what you’ve witnessed; and how there is nothing glorious about death in battle. He writes this so well you can almost smell the stink of the battlefield and hear the ear-deafening noise that accompanies a pitched fight. Kristian also seems to know what he’s doing with regards to the weapons used and how they can be used and as regards the choreography of a fight, as you will, the natural ebb and flow of it and the strategies that were used, which makes it all the more convincing.
The last leg of Kristian’s tripod is his characterisation. Not just or even mainly the Rivers family, but also those we catch glimpses of briefly and those that surround the different Rivers’ children. The story is told from the points of view of Mun (Edmund), Bess (Elizabeth) and Tom (Thomas) Rivers, the three children of Sir Francis and his wife Mary. They each have their own tale to tell, Mun is a staunch Royalist and fights for the King in an elite horse troop, while Bess and their mother have to fight to protect their home, Shear House, from the rebels who want to take it. Tom chooses to fight on the Parliamentarians’ side, not from a deep-seated conviction that they are right, but because they oppose everything that he hates and give him a chance at vengeance. They are each given believable motivations, sympathetic qualities, flaws and interesting conflicts to resolve; in short they’re complete characters. Of the three, Tom is was my least favourite, not because he chose the ‘wrong’ side, but because he made his choices from a place I found it hard to connect to, that deep a rage and hatred is something not many people will experience. In contrast, Mun and Bess were easier to connect to, Mun because of his sense of duty and Bess, because of her loving nature and her circumstances during the siege of Shear House.
With The Bleeding Land Giles Kristian has opened up a whole new era of British history, which has been largely unexplored in historical fiction, and shown that it was more than a political schism that tore the land, it tore families, lovers and friends apart and divided them sometimes right down the middle. It was a painful time, but also a formative one. The Bleeding Land is a stunning opening to what promises to be a fascinating trilogy and I can’t wait to see how the Rivers family will deal with the consequences of events from this book. This was my first experience with Kristian’s writing, but hopefully it won’t be my last, I’ll be keeping my eyes out for his Raven books and for the next books in this new trilogy. The Bleeding Land comes highly recommended and was definitely one of the best reads of the year so far.