|The Wild Hunt; An Anglo-Saxon Saga|
Normally, I’d rather drown myself than approach a story perched on the proposition of “I must avenge my father’s death. I must wrest the kingship from a usurper and rule a people who need me.” Not that these stories scare me. Rather, they make me unkind. I just want to turn the lot of them on the spit of history till their dripping fat causes the flames to leap the fireplace and burn the castle down. Too bolshie to be reliably bolshie, I can’t cry for anyone who’s born to the heights of privilege whose tragic loss is to suddenly become like the rest of us.
So what of a novel that starts out with that classic injustice of a prince wronged by the murder of his father at the hands of nobles pledged to them both but framing him, the son, for the vile patricide of this (assumed to be loved) king?
No way, I would have said.
The but is Garry Kilworth, who is not only no royal watcher/lickspittle of elites, but whose whole life has been devoted to the study of and travel amongst the lowlife of the world, us plebes, serfs, or in current mediaspeak, everyday people. And as I’ve written before, a number of times, Kilworth’s storytelling is so alive, it does seem as if he’s been everywhere and done everything. Much of this is because he has, not as a tourist or dilettante, but in the course of a life.
So I picked up The Wild Hunt with a lump in me thwoat, not wanting to hate it but having to leave that possibility open.
Nothing in this novel plays as I expected.
First, this sneaks in to murder expectations as swiftly as the Bolshies dispatched the last tsar and his family at Yekaterinburg:
“Who were they fighting for but a man with a personal grievance?”
Next, this writer of many historical novels throws us into a different time and place, one rich with (though there’s a handy guide in the back) unpopular terminology such as a hare’s form (not a shape nor a burrow but a depression where the hares spend their days), a badger’s holt, a thurse, Sleipnir, hornbeam trees, churls (where we get ‘churlish’ from), the thegns, a morgengifu, and a host of gods who people had to please but who were themselves, as unreliable as humans.
“It was not enough to be the favourite of one god.”
And this world is so real, people are walking on the roof of it now in modern quests, using modern wands.
“The young prince paused on the ridge above the river, turning in his saddle to look around him. Which way to take? Directly south were the East Saxons. Not particularly friendly neighbours. Then the Jutes below the big river, who seemed to go quietly about the business of living . . . Neighbouring the Mercians was the border with the wild Celts, whose princes had been displaced by Osric’s people. The Saxons, Frisians, Jutes, Franks and Angles had arrived in shiploads and slowly but surely had taken over the land for farming. They had driven out, enslaved or absorbed any Celts who opposed them. It was a big boiling pot of new peoples who were now trying to get a foothold in this land.”
So it isn’t just a revenge/avenge story in some made-up world, but one in which, other than their gods being classified as myths by our society devoted to the One True God, it could be a non-fiction history, a fraud, but who cares nowadays when something is done with such charm. The tone is deadpan, the perfect method for capture, such as the time when Osric comes upon two rotting corpses swinging in a breeze, and “heard the two dead men arguing about who was responsible for the murder they had committed together”. The prince, still a prissy young shit, says:
“Why don’t you just accept what the Wyrd have designed for you?”
“Hah!” cried one of the men whose feet had been pared to the bone, “what next, world? We can see the monster Hellmouth and he waits impatiently to swallow us into his gut. I think I prefer hanging here, thank you very much.”
“And who are you, moaned the other man, “to criticise us -- you having murdered your father.”
Osric tugged Magic’s mane to halt him. “And who told you that?”
“It’s common knowledge, “chorused the hanged men, clearly delighted to have another person to quarrel with, “every thegn and churl knows that.”
Osric decided to spend the night near the gallows, in case the dead men had more to tell.
I don’t know about you, but I just love
this scene, as I do the quite underwhelming kill of a dragon that's such a tiddler, any hero would have thrown the thing back.
As for our hero, Osric, and his story, if I were to tell you the whole thing, the individual elements sound cornier than Doritos to me. He comes upon elves, and in particular, a startlingly beautiful contemporary who is of course, a platinum blonde. He accidentally kisses her and of course, being as handsome as he is and so uncouth, she not only doesn’t charge him with sexual harassment, but announces that by his act, they are betrothed (furthermore, [grrrr] she’s as over the moon as he is confused). But that doesn’t stop a torrid night, his first action with a real girl even if she isn’t human. She isn’t his hand, his heretofore only experience. But soon enough, he wants to leave because other than this, there’s nothing to do in Elfworld. He’s forever hungry because they’re vegan, and worse than that, non-farmers and non-traders, so they forage in the forest, living on the ultimate diet to keep their model-thin appearance. Frustratingly, they're great archers but for a game that is kill and release to life. His dirty habit of eating kills disgusts them but they tolerate him--a damn sight more than he would if he ruled and the habits were reversed, but he’d have his own woods anyway, and any poachers would end up like those talkative swingers.
And another trope. The thief companion. I know. But it works here.
And the gods. They proffer asides here. It should annoy the shit out of at least this reader. But they’re like flowers dropped on my head as I traveled through this tale.
And they get so involved. As involved as the God of America is expected to be in high school games.
Undermining every trope, every tried and tired cliche, is Kilworth the storyteller, the man who is so in love with the story that he won’t tell it as it’s always been done. And he won’t ignore what he’s supposed to.
“I do not love her. I once thought I did, but now it has come to marriage I see the folly of my feelings. They were shallow ones, interested only in the coupling and not in the living-with. I’m sure it would be a disastrous marriage of two quite different souls.”
“Indeed,” said the astute Thief. “she would rule the roost.”
“There is that to take into consideration,” as if he had not already thought about this aspect of the affair and acknowledged the importance of it. “Also the fact that I would have to spend a great deal of time with her father.”
“The gods save you from that!” Kenric said emphatically. “The man eats like a pig and flies off into a temper at the least imagined slight.”
“It’s all part and parcel of being a king,” agreed the Thief. . . .
[the king] loved being seen as the generous, benevolent lord who rewarded his people for their services. And, to be fair, those who were rewarded loved it too.
And so it came to pass that I, the reader, was rewarded too. For the writer never fell out of love with the story he tells here. It is surprisingly political, often so funny that I snorted, and told with an interest that never flagged. Although Kilworth has written over 70 novels, he’s clearly still enchanted by the quest to find and do a great story’s bidding.
And unusually for most novels, this novel doesn’t sag in the middle like an old nag, nor drop off like a hyena’s bum at the end. It’s quite obvious throughout that this is not a writer who thinks “I’ve written x-number of words today.” Rather, I expect he dreams the story when he can no longer write it, eager to leap onto its back come morning. I finished this one (for the first time) as dawn poked its fingers through the slats in my blinds. But I’ll be back.
Cover artist: Chris G.