The Bleeding Land, by Giles Kristian
The English Civil War is not a particularly popular period in which to set historical fiction, when compared with blockbuster periods like the Tudor dynasty and the Napoleonic Wars – and when you think about it, that’s pretty hard to understand. It has religious conflict, political and class conflict, it has Englishman set against Englishman, it covers most of the British Isles and it has a breathtakingly dramatic and, in many ways, unlikely conclusion. The explanation, perhaps, may be the historical complexity (what is characterised as one war was actually two, and it was definitely a British rather than an English conflict) or the lack of clearly defined good guys and bad guys. Whatever the reason, Giles Kristian’s decision to set his new historical series in the period is welcome, and a significant move away from the Norse saga that was his Raven trilogy.
Kristian takes full advantage of the dramatic possibilities inherent in a civil war – the focus is on one family, the Rivers, landed gentry whose seat is in the North West, and whose patriarch is a loyalist Member of Parliament. His sons, Edmund and Tom, are young men who are drawn to the coming war – but thanks to some cunning manoeuvres by the author, they end of fighting on opposite sides, Edmund as a Royalist and Tom as a Parliamentarian. As can be imagined, this is the ideal setup, as the narrative switches between the two boys, who end up on the opposite side of several engagements. More pertinently, family loyalties force Edmund to take decisions that place his family loyalty above his loyalties to the crown for the sake of his brother.
There’s also a third narrative strand, focused on the boys’ mother and sister, back at the family home and organising its defence against a Parliamentary force that’s determined to seize it. It’s this section that, for me, was the most thought-provoking in terms of the reality of living through such a time. The social order is turned upside down and people are forced to choose a side – and there’s seldom a choice that they can make that will not result in a family member, friend, employer or patron being on the opposing side. There’s no clear front line in such a war, only the certainty that things will never be the same again.
The Bleeding Land is an enjoyable, pacey and action-packed slice of historical drama, but it manages to pack in enough politics and intrigue to give it a decent amount of depth – and unlike many such novels, the reader may struggle to decide who they are really rooting for. Kristian is an engaging writer (though I found the frequent repetition of the phrase “rebel scum” to be an annoying tick), and this looks like being an excellent series of books.