King Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in the summer of 1013, when this novel begins. We follow the story of Wulfgar, a ten-year-old boy in the service of Edmund (later named ‘Ironside’), son of Ethelred the Unready and the focus of English resistance against the Danes. The history of this struggle is little known—and Edmund surely one of the least celebrated of England’s warrior kings.
Fen Flack tells the story in Henty-like style, with Wulfgar mostly a passive recorder of the great events. Wulfgar accompanies Edmund as he travels across England, and we thus overhear his conversations and confrontations, and the story is mostly relayed in expositional dialogue. This has the advantage that the history is presented clearly, but it lacks immediacy, and a ten-year-old’s perspective on the politics of the day is necessarily simplistic.
The book works best when Wulfgar is an active protagonist—the vulnerability of a child in a soldier’s world is engaging. However these scenes are too few and far between. Wulfgar never really breathes as a character; he is a tool by which the ‘history’ is conveyed. This is a shame. My children would certainly enjoy discovering this obscure English hero, but they would need a more visceral narrative than this to hook them.