Sunday, December 15, 2013

ANVIL OF GOD is a desperately intense tale of the Dark Ages, where people lived by the law of the sword

J.Boyce Gleason’s ANVIL OF GOD, Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles, is a desperately intense tale of the Dark Ages, where people lived by the law of the sword

I grew up on Elizabeth Captive Princess but the genre of historical fiction, with the exception of Wolf Hall, has often seemed stilted to me in terms of emotional logic. ANVIL OF GOD is a happy discovery. J.Boyce Gleason creates a world of warring Christians and Pagans with great emotional sense. The motivations of the characters and the beliefs that shape their actions, are completely convincing and emotionally very intense. Boyce’s pagan world derives from Norse mythology and the rituals described are visceral, more about the aesthetics of sensual human interaction than supernatural, but he leaves that question open.  

The story is based on the history of Charles “the Hammer” Martel, Mayor of the Palace to the Merovingian kings. The scant facts leave a lot of room for invention.  Martel was a warlord, who saved Christianity by fighting the Saracens, who had spread from North Africa to France. He used his sword, and an alliance with the Church, to fight his way through France and Germany, which he unified. Charles married a Bavarian princess, whose uncle was a pagan Bavaria. He unified Europe under his authority, but died before he could take the throne. With his death, the three sons warred over territory and succession. The two eldest fought pagan rebels in the East, including their sister, who defied her father to marry a rebel lord.  The person held responsible for this was Sunnichild, Martel’s wife.   

Boyce fills-in the blanks. ANVIL OF GOD begins in 741 with Sunnichild, the closet pagan, waiting for the return of her lord. Sunni loves Charles but is shrewd enough to eavesdrop on his conversation with his Church advisor, Boniface, and Carloman, his eldest son. It’s a matter of insurance. Though Sunni managed affairs of state while her husband was away and could predict his stance on issues, she needs to know what was on the table. At stake is the future of her son Gripho, an arrogant impulsive boy of 14.  Sunni’s concern is practical. Carloman, unlike his father who used the Church, is so devout he’s controlled by Boniface.

When Sunni learns Charles is dying, she prepares herself for what must come. When Charles announces his succession plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, with the choice middle territory for Gripho, neither Carloman and Pippin, the adult sons, nor the lords Charles asks for loyalty, are happy. After the funeral, Sunni leaves for the safety of Laon in France.  Though Charles didn’t persecute pagans, she fears Carloman will not be so lenient. Her secret weapon is Charles’ 18 year old daughter, Hiltrude.  Trained as a warrior and equal to men, Trudi, seeks out Sunni in despair over her father’s intention to marry her off for political advantage. Sunni helps her by teaching her lore to prepare for a ritual of female sexual power. Later, Trudi flees the palace to avoid a forced marriage.

The women in ANVIL OF GOD are strong behind the scenes forces, with chapters alternating between Trudi’s journey and the frenzied fighting, as Carloman lays siege to the castle, where Sunni found refuge, Pippin seeks escape for her and Gripho and a cessation of Carloman’s slaughter, and Gripho sabotages himself, piling up ill-considered deeds. The pace is intense and desperate and the outcome uncertain. In this epic tale, the characters of each brother, and how their beliefs influence them, have huge consequences for themselves and the people of their father’s empire.  And, in the end, Trudi, grows larger than life. Like a Norse Goddess, she fights a horrendous battle worthy of the legendary Charles, The Hammer.  I cannot wait to pick up this epic in Volume Two of the Carolingian Chronicles. Sample chapters at: