The Last English King is a fictional account of the rise and fall of King Harold, whose death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 brought about massive changes in the way English society was ruled. Having read the similarly themed Warriors of the Dragon Gold around 12 months ago, I was interested to see how the two accounts compared.
Julian Rathbone manages to weave a very interesting story from amongst the intrigue of 11th century political life. People who are interested in history, and particularly in this period will find it is fairly accurate in terms of people dates and so on, whilst people who are not particularly fond of either straight history or historical fiction will still find a gripping story of murder, betrayal, intrigue and politics.
For the most part, Rathbone succeeds in really bringing the period to life. In particular, the key characters of Harold, Earl of Wessex (the future King Harold) and his predecessor Edward the Confessor behave like real people (which, of course, they were, but Rathbone brings them to life in a way which no dry history book ever could.) They are fully fleshed out characters who break free of the historical stereotypes that we might associate with them. His Edward the Confessor is not the saint remembered by history, but rather a man who suffers from all too human faults. Similarly, Harold is not the slightly incompetent, heroically doomed barbarian warrior-king we may be familiar with from our school-days, but rather very much a man of his times: a complex, ambitious, vain, loyal and intelligent man who is also an excellent military commander and strategist. Importantly, with Harold at least, you really sympathise and grow to like him, and he becomes very poignant figure, especially since you know what his fate is. You almost want to scream out a warning to try and stop the course of history. Seeing Harold die is like seeing a friend killed.
It's clear that Rathbone has done a huge amount of research for this book, and every page drips information and adds to the highly authentic atmosphere of the book. As well as exploring the main events of the period in an interesting and engaging way, Rathbone also manages to cram in lots of incidental facts and information, which are usually interesting and informative. You certainly come away from this book a little wiser than you perhaps were when you started it.
Yet, this is a double-edged sword. Sometimes Rathbone gets the balance wrong and tries to cram in too much information. Some of the incidental asides feel a little strained and have only tenuous links to the main story - as if he did all the research and is damn well going to share it all with you! This can break up the flow of the main story and leave you wishing he would get on with it. Although generally readable, he can have a rather flowery style at times. Many of his sentences contain lots of clauses and sub-clauses which can sometimes make it a little tricky to get at what he means. I counted one sentence which was over six lines long with 7 different sub-clauses. I had to re-read that one several times before I fully understood exactly what was being talked about! Personally, when I'm reading a book, I like clear sentences where the meaning is obvious. If you're having to go back and re-read sentences on a regular basis, it means the author is not always doing his job of communicating clearly.
Rathbone also perhaps sometimes assumes a little too much knowledge on the part of the reader, glossing over some pretty significant events of the period and only referring to them only in passing. This is despite the fact that some of these events had huge implications for other parts of the story he is telling. I have to say, had I not read Warriors of the Dragon Gold (which explores these events in far greater detail), I would probably have remained completely ignorant of some of the themes and ideas Rathbone attempts to introduce.
The book also has an annoying narrative structure. The story unfolds as told by a narrator - Walt - who was one of Harold's bodyguards and one of the few survivors at the Battle of Hastings. The net result of this is that instead of having the events unfold before us in "real-time", they are being reported to us after the event. This undoubtedly removes some of the urgency and immediacy of the events and robs them of some of their dramatic impact.
Worse still, Rathbone often handles Walt's flashbacks in a contrived fashion, lending a very annoying and artificial air to all the proceedings. You get a bunch of characters talking (in the "present"). Suddenly, there'll be a really clumsy sentence like "This reminded Walt of that fateful day 20 years ago..." or "As he drifted off to sleep, Walt dreamed of the old days..." It's a very poor way of returning to the "main" story and drains the book of atmosphere.
It's hard to see why Rathbone takes this approach. The book is at its best when reporting past events and had they been told in "real time" it would have been far stronger and much more engaging. The characters of Walt and his companions really add little to the emotional or excitement levels of the story and I found it very difficult to warm to any of them or care about their fates. They really slowed the plot down and I inwardly groaned every time we left the past and returned to Walt's present. Personally, I think it would have been a much stronger book had Rathbone just concentrated on the events he was telling us about, rather than trying to be all clever-clever and introduce all sorts of cod psychology and blatant anachronisms. In fairness, Rathbone acknowledges the anachronistic style in the foreword, but seems to think they are both clever and funny. For me, they were neither.
All told, The Last English King was a pretty fun book to read. It's easy to pick up (chapters are short and have regular breaks in them) and not too taxing (mainly due to Rathbone' over-simplification of some plot lines and characters). On the whole, though, I'm unlikely to ever pick it up again and Warriors of the Dragon Gold remains a far superior book about the events of this period.
The Last English King
ISBN: 0 349 10943 5
Available new from Amazon for £5.99 or used from 1p
© Copyright SWSt 2008
Walt, the last of King Harold's bodyguard, the one who survived Hastings, wanders across Asia Minor with Quint, an intellectual renegade monk. On the way, he unfolds the events which led to the battle which was to effect the destinies of every English man and woman.