'Sworn Sword' a book of action and contemplation
By James Aitcheson
Sourcebooks Landmark. 390 pp. $24.99
Reviewed by Frank Wilson
On Oct. 14, 1066, near Hastings in East Sussex, one of the decisive battles of history was fought. Decisive it may have been, but it was only the first step in the Norman conquest of England.
Three years later, the northern part of the country has yet to submit to Norman rule. Robert de Commines has been appointed Earl of Northumbria by King Guillaume, better known these days as William the Conqueror. One of the knights in Commines' service is a Breton named Tancred a Dinant.
Orphaned at a young age, Tancred had been taken to a monastery to be raised by monks. Entering his teens, he chafes at their tutelage and runs away. Caught stealing from a tent where soldiers are camping, he is brought before the commander, Robert, who asks him some questions, then unfastens a sheath from his belt and hands it to the boy. It is a dagger.
"It is yours, Tancred," Robert tells him, "if you wish to join me."
That scene takes place 10 years before the present action of this book. Tancred, protagonist and narrator of James Aitcheson's debut novel, is no mercenary. As the book's title indicates, his is a sworn sword. He has vowed to serve and defend his lord, even at the cost of his own life. It is a vow he takes seriously. When Lord Robert is killed during a rebel attack on Dunholm, Tancred is grief-stricken and guilt-ridden:
I had sworn my life to Lord Robert's service. By solemn oath I had pledged both my sword and my shield in his defense. . . . And now that pledge lay in tatters; the oath I had sworn to him was broken. I had not been there to protect him, and now he lay dead.
Tancred feels this way even though the reason he was not there was that Robert had ordered him to take some knights and try to break through the rebel lines. That mission had been a close call, and Tancred has suffered a nasty sword wound to his leg. Luckily for him, his companions do not abandon him and manage to get him to Eoferwic (as York was then called). There, he is brought back to health by a priest named Aelfwold, who is English - which is to say, not Norman - but who serves as chaplain to Guillaume Malet, the Norman count attempting to keep Eoferwic from falling to the rebels.
In connection with that, Count Guillaume would like Tancred to enter his service, escort Guillaume's wife and daughter to Lundune, and bear a message to a nun, of all people. Tancred is torn:
. . . without a lord, a man was nothing. There were some who tried to make their way alone, swearing oaths to none but themselves, but they were few and held in ill regard besides. . . . I had no desire to become one of them, but I had been with Robert so long that I was not sure whether I could bring myself to serve another lord, or at least not so soon.
Nevertheless, he agrees to the assignment, which proves perilous at every turn. He and his men just manage to make it downriver to Lincolnshire and, from there, to Lundune. Meantime, relations between Tancred and Aelfwold - the actual bearer of the message - grow increasingly strained. Eventually, even the nuns prove a formidable lot. To make matters still more complicated, there is the mystery surrounding the mortal remains of a once-prominent figure.
Sworn Sword is nothing if not action-packed, and Aitcheson is not chary about depicting how gruesome the action could be on a medieval battlefield. Tancred and his companions are killing machines, with almost a surgeon's knowledge of where to cut and slice the human body. This is not a volume for the faint-hearted.
But there is more on offer here than just the clash of arms. Tancred is very much a representative type of medieval man. Thanks to his time in the monastery, he is literate. He knows Latin. And he really believes that "for everything on this earth there was a purpose ordained by God . . . . From that at least I knew I ought to draw some comfort: the thought that He had a design for me."
We shall see. A sequel has already come out in England.
Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq. - The Epilogue."