Swordland tells the tale of Robert FitzStephen, a tough Norman soldier fighting on the Welsh marches in the 12th century. His military prowess has made him arrogant, however, leading him to provoke a Welsh rebellion that soon brings about a humiliating defeat and his capture. Left to stew in a Welsh dungeon by his overlord and supposed protector, King Henry II, FitzStephen’s quest for martial glory seems to have come to an abrupt end. But events on the other side of the Irish Sea now take a hand, and the dethroned Irish king Diarmait Mac Murchada has need of a tough Norman soldier to help him regain his crown. Will FitzStephen take this last chance and lead Mac Murchada’s soldiers back to Ireland? And if he does, will he be able to stake out a ‘swordland’ of his very own?
This story of Ireland and Wales in the 1100s is a very well-researched slow-burning narrative. While Swordland begins with a vibrant and bloody set piece, what follows is an over-extended series of political machinations and conversations which hinder rather than move the plot forward. The character of FitzStephen himself is interesting, with both Norman and Welsh origins as well as convincingly contemporary attitudes, but he is somewhat let down by the quality of the characterisation around him. There are too many minor characters who function only to interrupt the narrative flow rather than driving the story on. When the action eventually wends its way to Ireland, however, Butler ups the pace considerably and Swordland really starts to get going. The beautiful but dangerous landscape of medieval Ireland is well described, and the action scenes there are perfectly pitched and handled with real expertise. This is a book of two unbalanced parts with the second half far stronger.