Epic is a word which is often overused, but there's no doubt that Warriors of the Dragon Gold is fully deserving of it. Spanning around 70 years, it tells the story of the intrigue behind the battle for the English throne and the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. As if that wasn't enough, it also finds time to try and solve a mystery behind the Bayeux Tapestry why there is a single reference to a woman and a monk, who appear nowhere else in the entire tapestry and what their role was in the Norman invasion.
Author Ray Bryant does a brilliant job with the writing. It's clear that he's done a huge amount of research and has a massive array of facts, figures and dates at his disposal. The story has the potential to be immensely confusing such is the proliferation of characters permanently inter-marrying and creating complicated relationships and alliances between them. Yet, for the most part, the reader never feels overwhelmed by them such is the skill with which he weaves all this detail into the plot. Just occasionally, it can be a little tricky to remember who is currently allied with whom or related to whom, as alliances and friendships shift, but Bryant always makes sure he comes in with a timely reminder to help the reader along!
Equally, the settings are hugely evocative too you can really imagine the huts, villages and dwellings he describes it's very much like stepping back in time you can almost see and smell the things which are being described. More importantly, there's actually a feeling of change. As time progresses, the descriptions of the English Countryside and villages change. Theres a real feeling that life under the Danish Kings was different from life under the English Kings and so on. Again, this is important. Had there not been this feeling of change, there might have been the danger of the book falling flat or becoming static. As it is, you really get the impression that this is a time of flux in the history of the country.
The evocative descriptions are complemented by some very well-rounded characters. Of course, it helps that many of them are genuine historical figures, so Bryant already has some information on their looks and background to work with. Even so, you always feel like you are dealing with real people rather than just dry figures Bryant has read about in the history books. The fictional characters are just as convincing and well-realised, well-balanced and nuanced. In fact, its sometimes difficult to tell the fictional characters from the real ones. Despite what school history lessons might teach us, the book does not portray the various invading armies as barbarians, nor the English kings as good. Bryant refuses to give in to clichés and refuses to be judgemental presenting all the characters as products of their time intelligent, violent, scheming, cunning, unpleasant, courageous, loyal and greedy. In other words, everything real people are. All of the characters display several of these characteristics throughout the book, and as such, you can identify with and feel sympathy with of all of them at different times.
If there is a criticism, it's that sometimes the book perhaps over-stretches itself in terms of the number of characters. There are large sections which concentrate on just a couple of the key characters (the future King Harold and his loyal friends) and some of the others sometimes get a little bit marginalised. Key characters suddenly disappear for 100 pages or more, leaving you to wonder where they are or what they are up to. In one sense, I guess that's probably a credit to the writer that he populates his book with such interesting people that you want to know what happens to each of them. The other slight criticism is that some characters are dismissed in a slightly dissatisfying manner. Having followed them for a large chunk of the plot, they are then written out of the book in just a few sentences saying that they died in exile or lived for another 30 years, which can be a little unsatisfying.
The excellent setting and characters are backed up by an exciting storyline. Of course, the history of this period is littered with so many battles, murders, and usurpations of the throne that it naturally lends itself to a thrilling tale. However, there is still the danger that it could have been little more than a turgid history lesson. Bryant though, skilfully weaves all the events and character together in a gripping page turner that will keep you reading long after you feel you should close the book and go and do something else!
The central idea of trying to solve the riddle of the mystery woman in the tapestry is also fascinating and entirely plausible. Bryant's suggested solution is so compellingly written and so consistent with the other real historical events he writes about that it's almost impossible to think of an alternative thesis. Again, perhaps there is a slight criticism that Bryant takes a little too long to present his idea. The initial set-up is dealt with in around the first 100 or so pages, then the key protagonists more or less disappear for the next 250 pages before being reintroduced in the final act. Although Bryant's mystery and his suggested solution are both fascinating, there is just a slightly anti-climactic feel that it is over so soon. Having said that, the rest of the plotting is so compelling and the various intrigues so riveting that the chances are you wont actually realise this until youve actually finished the book!
The book also has a slightly understated, but very powerful ending. It ends on the morning of the Battle of Hastings a brave and interesting decision. Other writers might have been tempted to carry on the book to its logical conclusion and end after the battle. Yet Bryant realises this would be over-egging the pudding opts for a far more poignant ending. It's another example of Bryant treating the reader with intelligence assuming that everyone already knows the outcome of the Battle of Hastings and that there is no need for him to spell it all out.
Finally, a word of warning. My copy of the book was almost 500 pages long, which perhaps doesn't sound too daunting. The text on each page, however, is very densely packed, which might put a few people off. Realistically, you're probably talking about a book of around 700 pages or so in normal typeface, so it might take you a while to get through it. The book is so rewarding, though, that if you give it a chance, it will suck you in and you won't feel like it's a hard slog.
This is probably one of the most interesting, compelling, intelligent and entertaining books I have read in a long time. Effortlessly weaving genuine historical characters and events with fictional ones, Warriors of the Dragon Gold will be of interest to anyone interested in history or who just enjoys a damn good story!
Warriors of the Dragon Gold
London: Knight, 1987
ISBN: 1-84067-384-2 (paperback)
Availability: RRP is £5.99, although it can be picked up for a couple of pounds from Amazon or charity shops.
© Copyright SWSt 2007
A powerful novel that sets out to solve two of the great mysteries of the Conquest era.