David Churchill – The Leopards of Normandy: Devil

davidchurchill-devilThe fate of England hangs in the balance of a fight between brothers

The noble families of Europe are tearing themselves apart in their lust for power and wealth.

Emma, Queen of England, is in agony over the succession to her husband Canute’s throne … while the sons of her brother, the Duke of Normandy, battle in the wake of his death.

Robert, the younger son, has been cheated of Normandy’s mightiest castle and sets out to take it by force. He emerges from a bloody siege victorious and in love with a beautiful — and pregnant — peasant girl.

Robert’s child will be mocked as William the bastard. But we have another name for him

… Conqueror.

The first instalment in the Leopards of Normandy trilogy paints a world seething with rivalry and intrigue, where assassins are never short of work.

The Leopards of Normandy: Devil was one of my most anticipated reads for the first half of the year. William the Conqueror is a fascinating figure in English history. The effects of his taking over England on the English language was huge and one of the more interesting topics we studied in linguistics class—linguistics not being my favourite topic at uni. And while this era of European history is quite interesting due to its eventful nature, it is also one I don’t know that well. Enter Devil and the chance to learn more about both William and this period of history. Devil was very much what I expected it to be, with some surprises and some elements that really bugged me. Despite these, I really enjoyed the story as much as I’d hoped to. 

Devil‘s story is less about William and more about his parents, Robert and Herleva. Churchill’s tale shows us how they meet, how Robert becomes the Duke of Normandy and how their relationship shapes much of that Duchy’s politics at the time. The relationship between Robert and Herleva was both a strong point and a weak point in the story. Their initial getting together bordered on the insta-love trope, though perhaps more correctly it should be called insta-lust, especially on Robert’s part. While I certainly believe that true and lasting love can grow out of initial lust, there didn’t seem much of a base or a development along those lines in their relationship. They met, they lusted and then they were in a full-blown, unbreakable, loving relationship, which felt a little unbelievable, certainly in the early part of the book. However, as the story went along and events took their course, their mutual devotion became more tangible and believable.

In fact, Herleva’s position, not just as Robert’s mistress, but also as William’s mother, and the struggles it causes in Normandy on personal and political levels was written with lots of feeling. The scene at the end of part three, where everything inevitably falls apart, was so well-written and the build-up to that moment so well-paced and constructed that it made me not just cry, but ugly cry. In that moment all three of them – Robert, Herleva and William – just broke my heart; it’s been a while since I cried this hard over a book.

Devil‘s narration is fragmentary, with viewpoints from many different angles and characters: Uncle Robert, Archbishop of Rouen, Aunt Emma, Queen of England, Dowager Duchess Gunnor, mother of Robert and Emma, Judith, Herleva’s best friend and maid, the Bellême family, who have their heart set on gaining a ducal seat, just to name a few. Some viewpoints are singular in occurrence, others repeat and they are mostly so the reader can witness a necessary event where our core characters – Robert of Normandy, Herleva, Uncle Robert the archbishop and little William – can’t be present. One of my favourite secondary characters and viewpoints was that of Jarl the Viper. His was not only an intriguing role in the narrative, but also one with a twist I hadn’t expected. The fragmentary narration is an interesting way of story-telling, though it left me wondering what the significance of some of the story strands were. Especially some of the scenes with the Bellêmes, which seemed to be significant at the time seem to peter out towards the end of the book, unless they are a set up for book two, but that isn’t as clear from the ending of the story as I might have wished.

The book is riddled with political intrigue and the power balance between different parties is constantly in flux. The constant question remained how much of Robert’s actions were due to his undying love for Herleva and how much were seated in a desire to gain the upper hand and not be dominated by the Church or his uncle. It’s a question that never was fully answered, though I tend to lean to the former, even if that is probably wishful thinking. There was some major dynastic politics at work, not just on the part of Uncle Robert and the family matriarch Gunnor, but also on the part of the Count of Bellême in Normandy itself and on the part of Emma and Elgiva on the other side of the Channel. The politics formed an interesting counterpoint to the romance between Robert and Herleva, even when these elements interwove later on in the narrative.

Despite the problems I had with the book, I loved The Leopards of Normandy: Devil. Robert’s and Herleva’s love story is tragic, yet surprisingly knows an unexpectedly happy outcome. The glimpses we catch of the young William are intriguing and I look forward to seeing him growing into the man he will be in the next book. Even if I know that at some point there will be the Battle of Hastings, Devil ends some thirty-odd years before that fated day and it will interesting to see how and when Churchill will take us there.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.