Well bibliophiles, Richard Abbot over at Kephrath is back with another guest review. His book In a Milk and Honeyed Land was published by Trafford Publishing and is available on Amazon. You can visit Richard’s website by clicking here. As always, the Bookworm is happy to have Richard’s input!
Let me first say that I really enjoyed this book and have no hesitation in awarding five stars. I had come across the title a little while ago, but was prompted to actually read it through a book club – and am extremely glad this happened!
The Bone Thief is set in tenth century England, at a time when there was no united kingdom but rather several different regions under separate leadership.
The region I know best, having lived in it for many years, is Wessex – in the south – whose capital at the time was Winchester.
The main character, Wulfgar, a junior but well-trained priest, grew up there. But the story really begins in Mercia, a great swathe of the west of the country stretching roughly from the Thames north through the Midlands.
And most of the central events take place in a Viking controlled region known as the Danelaw, covering much of the east of the country from London northwards to Leicester and York. Quite apart from the political difficulties this caused, it had a lasting impact on religious life, as it separated two major centres of Christianity from each other.
Whitworth captures this division of the land beautifully via use of dialect (still mostly alive today in regional British accents) together with the occasional use of specific Norse words and phrases.
This puts you as reader in the same place as Wulfgar – most of the text is readily understandable, some parts need a bit of puzzling out, and for some you have to deduce from context or the helpful explanations of other characters.
The main plotline is straightforward – Mercia needs religious relics to boost the residents’ flagging morale, and Wulfgar as a bright but rather timid cleric is chosen to find and retrieve something suitable.
But the outworking of this plot is fascinating, as Wulfgar is forced to continuously reassess who he can trust and who he cannot. The people he meets – both friend and foe – are memorable and compellingly drawn, and are instrumental in leading him to rethink his original rather naive view of the world.
Trust and faith are at the centre of this book. One of the many reasons I loved the book is that religious thought and feeling is treated realistically and sympathetically by Whitworth. Wulfgar and others struggle to live according to their ideals, in the midst of great challenges and difficulties. Often they fall to meet their own expectations. They are neither blindly literal nor cynically manipulative in their faith; rather, it shapes, constrains and illuminates their lives in creative and credible ways.
Wulfgar’s travels are actually over quite a small part of the land, but the story touches on the whole sweep of the British Isles and beyond. Key friends and enemies come from towns across much of southern and central England. One of Wulfgar’s travelling companions is from Ireland. Meetings with the Vikings bring in links with Scandinavia. And the relics themselves – of Saint Oswald – contain other historical echoes from the north. As a child Oswald fled from Scotland, and then grew up with the monks of Northumberland. He reigned as king from Bamburgh, and helped set up a Christian centre of learning on Lindisfarne – another region I am very fond of. Despite the seeming narrow sweep of Wufgar’s journeys, the future United Kingdom with all its multicultural diversity is already starting to emerge.
There were some stylistic features I did not like. In the first part of the book Whitworth uses a device of having sudden short paragraphs to arrest attention, which rather breaks up the reading experience.
But as the book gets properly under way this device is abandoned, and the text starts to flow in a smoother and more engaging way.
Quite why this irregularity was left after editing I am not sure, but once this habit is dropped the prose reads much more fluently and is less intrusive. A glossary and some historical notes round the work out nicely – the only missing feature is a map, but it is easy enough to find something suitable online if you are curious.
I would thoroughly recommend The Bone Thief to anyone keen to engage with this period of history, as seen through the eyes of an educated but rather unimportant figure. The major political and military events of the age – the formation of the Danelaw, for example, or its ultimate absorption into a whole nation, are hinted at in conversation, memory, or expectation, but are not described in depth. You will not find descriptions of great battles or Viking raids – you will walk alongside a person, and a nation, trying to find out how to live in a culturally diverse world poised on the brink of substantial change.