Review: Leopards of Normandy – Devil, David Churchill

 Not to generalise or anything, but medieval historical fiction tends to be either frilly costumed romance or gritty grimy blood-smeared battlefields.  Basically, either marketed for girls or for boys.  Of course, if you’re a girl like me who tends to be nauseated by the former then the latter may seem more attractive so it was with cautious optimism that I started the first volume of the Leopards of Normandy series.  I read Conn Iggulden’s similarly-themed Wars of the Roses series with a sinking heart last year and having read publicity material comparing the two, I was concerned that Churchill’s book would feature the same kind of two-dimensional characters.  Instead, I got to read this well-drawn and fascinating account of a corner of history too-long left unsung.

The House of Normandy feels like real pre-history; like most people, my awareness of who’s-who doesn’t really kick off until 1066 so this was a novel that had me reaching for Wikipedia to do some background research.  Churchill gives us a little bit of background as to how they gained their duchy with a nicely drawn scene with the first Duke Rollo the Strider in the year 911 but then we move forward to 1026 when the duke Richard the Good lay dying.  His two sons Richard and Robert stand before him, his his mother the Dowager Duchess Gunnor stand next to him and in the background is his brother, another Robert, Archbishop of Rouen.  Richard the Good leaves his dukedom to his eldest son Richard but he made his younger son the Count of Hiemois.  Both brothers are alike in ambition but lacking loyalty and Robert chooses to take the castle Falaise as his own even though it is traditionally property of the duke.  Robert argues that it falls within his territory but Richard sees things differently.  The division is naturally catastrophic.

Robert the Devil

Churchill draws out the conflict with confidence and his battle scenes are well-choreographed.  We watch as the struggle between the two brothers goes back and forth and of course their territory suffers.  Still, this is not just about the blood and battles, there are real characters and real relationships to capture the imagination and help to conjure real people.  The central character in this novel is the young Robert, he who took a castle who was not his and was known as Devil on the battlefield.  He also fell in love with Herleva the tanner’s daughter and made her his woman and the two of them had the child who went on to be William the Conqueror.  While I had heard that before he was the Conqueror, William I was William the Bastard, I had never really thought about his family background.  Churchill draws a love story between Robert and Herleva that is similar in tone to Anya Seton’s Katherine – the prose style also reminded me rather of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series which is another one that I have always been very fond of, although to be fair this series was far more bloodthirsty in content.  While we know deep down that humans have always really remained the same at their core, it is easy to imagine that medieval aristocrats must have been lacking in emotion to have entered into such alliance-oriented marriage – in knowing that certain characters made their choices for passion rather than politics, it is easier to believe that we might have understood them were we to have met them.  Robert’s struggle to do right by the lady who he loves and the land that he lords over is a compelling one – he is not living in an easy time and there are many who would see him fall.

Herleva of Falaise, heroine

As well as having to manage his own lands, Robert also has to contend with his displaced English cousins Edward (future King St Edward the Confessor) and Alfred who have been exiled from England after their father’s defeat, all while their mother Emma married Canute.  Again, this was another aspect of history about which I knew little but once more it was dramatised with feeling and drama.  I was also impressed with how Churchill managed to keep control of this huge cast of characters without the cast list ever seeming unwieldy.  Although there is a helpful cheat sheet of who’s who towards the front, I managed all right without it.  When Robert’s brother Richard marries, Robert takes Herleva to the celebration and the two of them sit and look around at all of the grand lords, realising that almost all of them are connected by blood or marriage but this is no cosy family.  These people are playing the game of thrones.  Fans of Mr G R R Martin are sure to enjoy this.

I have some fairly exacting standards when it comes to historical fiction but Devil did actually manage to live up to them.  It was an entertaining read that I rattled through very quickly and more to the point, this feels like a series that is heating up.  I cannot really think of another novel which covers this time period so it does have a really fresh feel.  We are looking at a time that is so very, very long ago – back when priests were still sometimes allowed to have families, when paganism was still within living memory, when the boundaries of nations were constantly changing.  Truly, this was the era when crowns were won and lost and The Leopards of Normandy were truly on the rise.  I have a feeling that Mr Churchill might very well be one to watch.

three-half-stars
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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Leopards of Normandy: Devil by David Churchill
Published by Hachette UK on February 26th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 480
Goodreads
ISBN: 9781472219190


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