||February 26, 2010
Treachery in Dark Age Northumbria
The Amber Treasure
Cerdic is the nephew of a great warrior who died a hero of the Anglo-Saxon country of Deira.
Growing up in a quiet village, he dreams of the glories of battle and of one day writing his name into the sagas. He experiences the true horrors of war, however, when his home is attacked, his sister kidnapped, his family betrayed and his uncle's legendary sword stolen.
Cerdic is thrown into the struggles that will determine the future of 6th century Britain and must show courageous leadership and overcome treachery, to save his kingdom, rescue his sister and return home with his uncle’s sword.
My uncle stood on the battlefield, surrounded by the corpses of his men.
They had died defending this narrow gully through hills which blocked the approach to the city of Eboracum. The city lay to the east under a pall of smoke which arose from a hundred burning houses. King Aelle had taken the army there to capture it but, mindful of reports of an enemy warband coming to lift the siege, had sent Cynric and his company around the city to the west to intercept them.
There are times, when the fate of nations rests on just a few men. A mere eighty men had marched through the night to reach this sunken road. They planted their flag in the ditch, so it streamed in the wind, revealing the image of the running wolf emblazoned upon it. Then, they gathered about it and waited, but they did not have to wait long. For, soon after dawn, over three hundred spearmen had come down the road, and needing to reach the city urgently, had attacked at once. The narrow confines of the gully had funnelled the enemy and brought them on to the spears of Cynric’s men.
The enemy had paid dearly for each step they took, bled heavily for each wound they inflicted and three had died for each of our own men slain. But, in the end, it had not been enough. One by one, Cynric’s companions had perished and as the company dwindled, it was pushed back down the lane. Time and again, my uncle had rallied his men and they had charged back into the fray, regained ground and forced the enemy to retreat.
But now, as the sun sank and the sky turned a crimson red, matching the blood-stained clay of the road beneath them; Cynric’s company were all dead.
All dead, that is, apart from my uncle, Cynric and the grim faced Grettir. The pair stood on the road in front of their battle standard. Cynric: tall and fierce, with hair the colour of autumn leaves, which in the dying light seemed almost like flames; Grettir: shorter, stocky and muscular with black hair and bushy eyebrows.
Cynric thrust forward his great sword and pointed it at the shield wall. It was a magnificent weapon, forged from rods of twisted iron overlaid with the strongest of steel, crossed by a bronze guard and finished with an elaborately patterned pommel. With it he now gestured at several enemy warriors, picking out − or so it seemed − his next victims. Strapped to his other arm, was his own bright blue shield, which was dented and scuffed from a hundred sword and axe blows. Grettir had abandoned his and now both hands grasped the shaft of a fearsome axe that had, already today, slain a score of foes. Together, they glared down the lane and waited for the enemy to attack once more.
There, in front of them, still many more than one hundred enemy warriors remained and they, having now reformed their shield wall and seeing that only two foes were standing, came on again. Eboracum lay just a mile beyond this lonely pair standing beside their flag, which now hung limp in the still evening air. If the warband could reach the city, they could swell the numbers of the beleaguered defenders and the city might hold. If that happened, more of the Eboracii tribesmen from the surrounding lands would come here. They would save Eboracum, then the Angles and Saxons − like Cynric and Grettir − who had risen up from their scattered villages and came here to capture the city, would be slain. Then, there would be no English city; no English kingdom here north of the Humber; perhaps even no English race anywhere.
All that was needed was to kill these two men and march onto Eboracum.
For Cynric, this was equally just as clear. All he had to do was plant his feet on the bloody soil and survive just a little longer. He glanced at Grettir and smiled thinly at him. Grettir just nodded back. Both men knew they would die here … it was just a matter of when.
All She Read
The Amber Treasure is the story of Cerdic, a young Angle living in the Dark Ages kingdom of Deira at the end of the sixth century AD/CE. During his lifetime Cerdic is fated to find himself in the midst of the last Celtic attempt to drive the descendants of the Germanic invaders from what was once their land. Starting in childhood, Cerdic is as much subject to the legends and songs of the great Northumbrian warlords told by the bards as any other boy. It is how he learns what warfare really means to him as a person that makes The Amber Treasure the gripping and satisfying tale it is.
Cerdic is the son of a farmer of higher rank, the nephew of a warrior lord whose heroic death is the impossible standard for a young man's plans. He lives a secure life in the Villa, the old Roman farmhouse now crumbling but nevertheless symbolic of a time he cannot quite understand. He has every reason to believe his placid life will continue as it is, that is, until Celtic raiders come and steal a precious treasure from the Villa, amber jewelry presented by the king as reward to the great hero's wife and now the possession of Cerdic's mother. The Celts, which Denning calls "Welsh" from the old English word for foreigner, take more than the jewelry. They take other precious things, his older brother's life, his sister as a slave, his innocence and youth and his trust in both a Welsh slave and his own half brother, his father's unacknowledged and bitter bastard. As part of a small force he travels to Welsh Elmet to get his sister and the treasure back and to avenge the violation of his home and trust. His heroism in freeing all the captives leads to his involvement in a larger effort to prevent a huge Celtic force from overthrowing Deira. The constant impact of disappointment, disillusionment and compromise not only constitutes Cerdic's own growing maturity and leadership but sets the stage for his future adventures.
The Amber Treasure is the story of three swords, the image that is the spine of this novel. Cerdic's warrior uncle's sword stands for the heroic heritage the young man longs to live up to. The second is a fine newly forged sword that is too rare and dear for anyone to wield until it is won by an unworthy man. The third is the sword of a long dead Roman that Cerdic takes from the hand of the first man he kills in battle, the sword that is the reality of war to both the young man and to us, the readers. The symbolism here is also emblematic of one of the things about this novel I most appreciated. Unlike so many depictions of the Middle Ages of late, Dennning provides us with a credible disillusion with battle and glory that is untouched by false modern sensibilities. Cerdic's falling out of love with his uncle's legacy is the natural outgrowth of real experience, coming from an intelligent and reflective mind. It is a grim recognition of the consequences, not a lecture from a distant post-modern future.
Denning presents us with an interpreted early England that does not much stray from what is known but rather offers a flavor of it enhanced with engrossing descriptions, such as the King's hall, the nature of shield wall battle, the stink and fascination of the city of Eoforwic.
The author has a knack with characterization as well, constructing distinct and consistent main and secondary characters, Cerdic's family and friends, the leaders he watches for how to inspire and also not to inspire men and how to make decisions, the enemies who become clearly human to him, and the two young men who challenge his prejudices. Along with the imagery of the swords, the common binding of the novel is a bard, Lilla, an almost unworldly figure who represents the illusion of glory. You know Cerdic has fully matured when he turns to Lilla at a critical moment and tells him to tell his tale another time, for something more important must come first.
This novel is intended to be part of a continuing story and as such is told by Cerdic from the perspective of many years later in his life. I look forward to what Denning does with this.
All in all, The Amber Treasure is a strong and engaging tale told with skill and eloquence, and is satisfying and yet thought-provoking by an able storyteller.
I purchased the book on Smashwords. It will be released on Lulu.com soon, as well as Amazon in the near future. You can learn more at http://www.theambertreasure.com .
Cerdic is the younger son of a minor lord living in a quiet Anglo Saxon village in sixth century Northumbria. His people are settled and the Welsh (Romano-Britons) seem contained behind the Pennines. Cedric fully expects to live out his live as a gentleman farmer, hopefully with the beautiful Aidith by his side. But as he listens to the tales told by Lilla the bard, he can't help but dream of following after his uncle, the great warrior Cynric, and finding glory in battle.
And then the village is sacked by the Welsh and war does come. His brother dead, his sister abducted, and his uncle's legendary sword stolen, Cerdic must move quickly from boyhood to manhood. As the Welsh army masses, can he find the courage to avenge his family's losses?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Amber Treasure. Britain in the Dark Ages fascinates me and it's fertile ground for novelists. Here, Cerdic is an extremely engaging central character. He's a somewhat reluctant hero, and he retains a very sane revulsion for the gore of the battlefield, unlike his friend Eduard. But he's a natural leader, and when the chips are down he is as brave as a lion. Sometimes he falls back on a sense of entitlement thanks to his high status family, but he always regrets it and takes subsequent responsibility for anything that went wrong.
The world in which he lives is vividly realised and Denning's research is impeccable. Village life and social structures are described without resort to exposition, and the political background is equally easily absorbed. But where Denning really comes into his own is in the battles - he sure does write a good fight. The heaving and sweating of the shield wall, the fear, the adrenalin, the confusion - these are the scenes I will most remember from this book. Underneath the historical narrative, there's a coming of age story. Cerdic may well have dreamed of battle glory but the truth is little like he imagined it to be. His journey is a picaresque one. He must face up to war, the responsibilities conferred on him by birth, and to the family secret which eventually threatens a whole nation.
In fact, my only real criticisms are practical: there are a few proof-reading slip-ups, and the font chosen has peculiar spacing, which doesn't make for the easiest reading.
If I'm not deceived by the last page, a sequel is planned for The Amber Treasure. I think plenty of people will keep an eye out for it. I'd recommend it to fans of historical fiction, this period particularly, and I also think it will appeal to the teen/young adult readership.
If Britain before the Conquest is your kind of reading, you might also enjoy Raven: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian, set amongst the waves of Scandinavian raids. Flint by Margaret Redfern is set later, at the time of Edward I, but I thoroughly recommend it. Young adult and teen readers might also enjoy Bloodline by Katy Moran, set in the Dark Ages and with a subtle supernatural edge.
You can read more book reviews and buy The Amber Treasure by Richard Denning at Amazon and Waterstones
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