Monday 18 June 2018

Swords of the King by Charlene Newcomb

shortlisted for Book of the Month


Battle Scars : Book 3

Fictional saga / LGBT


This is the third book in Ms Newcomb’s series featuring Henry de Grey and Stephan d’Aigle, two men bound to serve their king, Richard I of England. In the previous books we’ve travelled with our knights to the Holy Land, held our breath as they’ve done their best to safeguard the realm of England against Prince John’s attempts to usurp the throne, and now we are in the year of Our Lord 1196, in France.

Richard has returned to his realms substantially changed after his time as a captive. Throughout the book, Ms Newcomb manages to convey that the king is living his life in the fast lane, as if determined to outrun fate. Is Richard aware that time is running out? Not really. It is more that his experiences have left him so filled with hatred for some of his former allies—Philippe Augustus of France being one of them—that his to-do list has grown unmanageable. Richard wants revenge. He wants to rub the Capetian king’s nose in the dirt. He wants to shore up the Angevin empire, he needs to do something about Flanders and the Bretons, and, of course, there’s the knotty issue of the succession—and of Richard’s dear brother, John.

Ms Newcomb does an excellent job not only or presenting this convoluted political landscape, but also of adding the human dimension. Richard is generous to those he trusts and sufficiently self-confident to extend the benefit of the doubt to his younger brother. John, on the other hand, is simply biding his time. Richard’s mother despairs at ever getting her favourite son to spend sufficient time with his queen to sire that much-needed heir. Richard’s former sister-in-law, Constance of Brittany, trusts no Angevin further than she can throw them—rightly so, seeing as she has a young son, Arthur, to look out for.

However, despite all this fascinating history, it is Henry and Stephan who star in this novel. Mostly told through Henry’s POV, we yet again get a sensation of time running out. Both Henry and Stephan are fully aware that they’ve made an enemy for life out of John and as their king seems disinclined to put in the effort required to bring forth the pitter-patter of little feet, they are now starting to realise John may well become their next king. God help them then…

It isn’t only Henry and Stephan who walk in fear of John. Their good friend Robin (a rather delightful and creative version of the Robin Hood of legends) is equally affected. This fear seeps into their everyday life, it colours their thoughts and affects their decisions. Most elegantly, Ms Newcomb thereby makes John, who is rarely present, a central character in the story. The shadow he casts taints everything in Henry’s and Stephan’s life.

It doesn’t help that Henry and Stephan share more than the friendship one would expect between two men who have repeatedly faced death together. They are also lovers, thereby made doubly vulnerable. However, despite their fears, despite the growing sense of premonition, it is through their love that Henry and Stephan find solace. As in the previous books, Ms Newcomb manages to convey both passion and intimacy between her two knights. This time round, their relationship is threatened by expectations: the king demands that Henry marry and Henry can do little but acquiesce. How all this ends and how it affects Stephan and Henry I leave for the reader to discover for themselves.

Swords of the King ends on a sad note. It can do no other as Ms Newcomb is bound by the historical facts. I dare say only one man rejoices at the turn of events in 1199, and that man’s name is John…

I hope to meet Henry and Stephan again. I hope to see what life they make for themselves in an England ruled by their very own personal nemesis, King John. Until then, I can but doff my cap and thank Ms Newcomb for having introduced me to this vividly depicted world of Richard Lionheart, his mother and his loyal knights.

© Anna Belfrage

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