Cometh the Hour
With a careful hand and keen appreciation for the era’s material culture, Annie Whitehead, the inaugural winner of the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition, depicts five tumultuous decades in early medieval Britain. In her third novel, she puts a human face on the Game of Thrones-style drama involving the kingdoms of Deira, Bernicia, Mercia, and East Anglia. The story spans from 604 AD – when the devious Aylfrith of Bernicia attacks neighboring Deira, abducting the king’s sister, Acha, and sending her other brother, Edwin, into exile – up through the Battle of the Winwaed in the year 655. Every personage once lived.
The family tree and dramatis personae prove critical, since there are many characters, viewpoints, and relationships to track. The action sometimes feels episodic, and some significant historical events aren’t shown firsthand, but subsequent scenes make it clear what happened.
The battle scenes, seen from close-up, are fierce and forceful. “War is for men, but it is the women who suffer,” states one newly-made widow, all too correctly, and Whitehead devotes significant attention to the women, including peace-weaver brides, mothers, abbesses, and loyal wives set aside after their husbands tire of them. Among the most sympathetic portrayals are kind-hearted Carinna (Cwenburh), a princess of Mercia, and Derwena, whose love-match with Carinna’s cousin, Penda, helps hold their large family together. Then there’s Queen Bertana of East Anglia, whose scenes are brief but memorable. Her reaction to her husband Redwald’s religious conversion is a hoot!
Penda of Mercia, a pagan in an increasingly Christianized land, emerges as the strongest hero. Alliances frequently shift, with motivations changing over time, and the story demonstrates how overzealous ambition can warp one’s nature. As a result, not all characters retain readers’ sympathy throughout, and the transitions are skillfully done. A solid choice for fans of the period.