The Year of the Horsetails

Written by R.F. Tapsell
Review by Lynn Guest

Early Middle Ages, Eastern Europe. Nomadic hordes, the fierce Turgons under the rule of their charismatic leader, the Kagan, have conquered the steppes and control the vanquished with ruthless cruelty. Bardiya, a warrior from a subject tribe, flees for his life across the Carpathians to be taken captive by the Drevich, an agricultural people. But when the Turgon pursue him, the Drevich are threatened by this evil empire. Only Bardiya has the military skill and the knowledge of Turgon warfare to save these peaceful folk from extinction; but first he must win their trust.

Written in 1967, this is a gloriously old-fashioned blood and thunder historical novel. Men are men, friends are loyal, traitors are devious, the enemy seems invincible and the women are for rescuing. Much of the novel is devoted to battle scenes, and these are superb. The movement of infantry and cavalry is always clear, the tactics interesting and the outcome kept in doubt so the reader is in suspense. The body count, it must be admitted, is appalling – I estimate 500,000 die within the year of the title.

Tapsell was an expert on Eastern Europe, and his knowledge and love of the landscape and the early peoples enrich the story. The hot sun on the endless grasslands, the swamps and forest villages, and the bitter winter are all lovingly depicted. If he was not very interested in psychological insights, the novel is none the worse for that. Bardiya is a shrewd, stalwart leader of men, a faithful lover and an appealing hero. The Kagan is a truly terrifying opponent in the style of Attila. Other characters are slotted in where needed. Tapsell wrote two other novels; it is to be hoped they too will be reprinted. This is a wonderful read.