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James Aitcheson's previous novel, Sworn Sword, was something of a pleasant surprise. Similar in style to Bernard Cornwell's medieval-based books, it followed the adventures of Tancred a Dinant, a Norman knight based in England in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Whilst it wasn't' anything particularly new, it was exciting, readable and did the job of keeping the reader entertained.
Splintered Kingdom is set 12 months after those events. As a result of his heroics at York, Tancred has been awarded a manor of his own on the Welsh borderlands and is now a lord, commanding other soldiers. However, everything he has is threatened when rumours of an alliance between English rebels and the Welsh Kings begin to circulate. To counter this latest threat to the Norman Conquest of England, Tancred must mount a dangerous campaign, taking his men deep into hostile Welsh territory.
Much though I enjoyed Sworn Sword, I didn't get on with this sequel quite as well. Although there are some exciting battles and excellent set-pieces, the action seemed to be a little less frequent or exciting as the previous book. There were a few too many accounts of Tancred's army wandering aimlessly around the Welsh countryside, looking for an enemy to attack. Whilst this might be historically accurate (armed campaigns were long periods of inactivity followed by short bursts of bloody violence), it doesn't necessarily make for particularly fun reading.
In fairness, when the action sequences do occur, they are well-thought out, exciting and written well. Battle scenes in books are all too often confusing; with endless description of moves and counter-moves that lose all but the most ardent military historian or strategist. Whilst Aitcheson does indeed describe battles in some considerable detail, he does so in a way which is much clearer than many of his contemporaries. He creates highly visual accounts of the struggles so that you can almost picture them in your mind.
Aitcheson should also be praised for his attention to historical detail and accuracy. As a historian of the period, Aitcheson knows what he is talking about and whilst his insistence on using old English/Norman names for places is initially confusing for the modern reader, it adds to the sense of authenticity. The same is true of his attention to detail in descriptions of clothing or armour which provides enough information to be convincing without ever becoming overly detailed and boring.
For a relatively inexperienced novelist (this is only his second book), Aitcheson has a very well-developed writing style. Whilst I might not have enjoyed Splintered Kingdom quite as much as Sworn Sword, I still found myself wanting to read it at every opportunity. Aitcheson's straightforward and accessible style draws you into Tancred's adventures and once you have started reading, you won't want to stop.
This is helped by short(ish) chapters and regular breaks within chapters. It's one of those books that becomes slightly addictive. As you reach the end of one chapter, you are sorely tempted to start another, because you know there will be a suitable stopping point soon and because you are desperate to find out what happens next.
If there's a criticism of Aitcheson's style, it's that he does have a number of set phrases which he tends to rely on quite heavily. They are not so frequent that they become highly annoying, but they are used often enough to be noticeable and mildly aggravating. Similarly, there were a couple of occasions where the text became somewhat repetitive, with information that had been supplied earlier being given again, in case the reader had forgotten it.
Where I struggled even more with Splintered Kingdom was with the character of Tancred himself. In Sworn Sword, he came across as essentially a decent man. A hard man, certainly; someone who would not hesitate to kill if he deemed it necessary; but a fair and decent person at heart. In Splintered Kingdom, he is a lot harder to like. He is less tolerant of others, more arrogant and dismissive, colder and more emotionless. Here, he is a hard man in every sense, seemingly uncaring of the pains and worries of those around him and entirely self-absorbed. This made it rather harder for the reader to like him and a knock on effect of this was that when he was in danger, you didn't care quite so much what happened to him. OK, so this change is introduced for a reason (to show how additional power and responsibility has changed him) but it never quite rings true and feels like you are reading about a slightly different character from the one you met in the first book.
Despite a few more weaknesses, Splintered Kingdom is still a very enjoyable read. According to the notes at the back, Aitcheson is already hard at work on the third Tancred adventure and I can certainly see myself buying it when it becomes available.
Splintered Kingdom is available in Kindle, hardback and paperback formats and will cost you around £5-8, depending on the version bought.
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