Fergus Sheppard’s world changes forever the day his car crashes near the village of Allingley. Traumatised by his near-death experience, he stays to work at the local stables as he. He will discover a gentler pace of life, fall in love – and be targeted for human sacrifice.
Clare Harvey’s life will never be the same either. The archaeologist’s dream find – the peat-preserved body of a Saxon warrior – is giving her nightmares. She can tell that the warrior was ritually murdered, and that the partial skeleton lying nearby is that of a young woman; their tragic story is unfolding in her head every time she goes to sleep.
Fergus discovers that his crash is linked to the excavation, and that the countryside harbours some very dark secrets. As Clare’s investigation reveals the full horror of a Dark Age war crime, Fergus and Clare seem destined to share the Saxon couple’s bloody fate.
After reading the synopsis for Saxon’s Bane, the book immediately piqued my interest and I put it on my books-to-look-out-for-list. Then last November, I had the pleasure of meeting Geoff at WFC. We chatted for a bit and I admired the huge helmet that was on display at the Solaris table during his signing. It was a lovely chat, which made me want to read my review copy for Saxon’s Bane even more. It took me a bit longer than I’d planned, but I read the book over Christmas and I’m glad I got to read it before the end of the year so I can include it in my favourite debuts post tomorrow, because it was a wonderful read.
Saxon’s Bane is a fantasy with a historical thread woven into it, but there are also heavy overtones of horror. The book has two timelines, one set in the present and one set in Saxon time. The present day story arc is told through two main characters, Fergus and Clare, with Fergus being the one getting more page time. Through his experiences in the narrative Fergus develops from a not-so-likeable salesman to a more mindful, present and peaceful person. I loved the role nature and horses played in Fergus’ healing process, both mentally and physically. The descriptions of his PTSD and his memories, or perhaps more accurately his fear of remembering, were harrowing. Also his mantra “Always face the pain” was powerful and made me admire his courage.
Clare is our window onto the past, quite literally. Not only is she the archaeologist excavating the site and studying the Saxon’s body, but it’s through her dreams that we witness the past. The dream sequences were quite well done and I loved the glimpses of Saxon life we got through them and discovering the Saxon’s history by seeing it instead of deducing it from the archaeological evidence. The tale of the Saxon Aegl and his lover Olrun is quite romantic and also somewhat interwoven with myth and magic. Gudgion also cleverly uses Clare’s academic background and mannerism to drop in some background information. I found it quite an unobtrusive way of info-dumping. While Clare is lovely and her role in the story pivotal, I never felt like we got to know her as well as we do Fergus—Clare always seems to stay at a distance.
I loved the cast Gudgion surrounds Fergus and Clare with. There is the wise Eadlin, who not only recognises the connection between Fergus and Trooper, but also gives Fergus some grounding in the Old Ways. There is the vicar, John Webster, who is a good and kind man, though perhaps not your typical small-village vicar. Mary Baxter, Fergus’ and Clare’s landlady and the rest of the church choir and even the unpleasant characters such as Jake Herne and Dick Hagman; they are all quite well-drawn and make the village come alive. In fact, the village of Allingley, and the surrounding countryside, is almost a character in itself. It reflects the peace and the turmoil felt by its inhabitants and formed a gorgeous backdrop for the story.
Gudgion’s love of horses comes through quite clearly, but what also echoes through the text is a love of music. It’s there in the way emotions and impressions are described – for example, Fergus describes the village as starting out as being an Elgar landscape and with the advent of summer becoming a Vaughan Williams landscape – and of course the large presence of the choir in the book. The description of the music during the Easter service was breath-taking and had me running to Spotify to look up the piece described. Rereading the sequence with the music in the background on made it an even richer experience.
I really loved Saxon’s Bane. Gudgion’s writing swept me away and had me feeling as if I was walking the bridle paths with Fergus. The narrative was atmospheric, spooky and absolutely convincing. It is a wonderful and powerful debut for Gudgion and one that hasn’t had as much coverage as it deserves in my opinion. For my part, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for any future work from Gudgion.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.