The castle is vulnerable, with only a small regiment of guards. To do their part, the men of the village each serve a shift as lookout from time to time. On this night, James, the village cobbler, is a few minutes late for his shift when the castle is attacked by a band of Welsh separatists. James arrives just in time to see Godfrey, the blacksmith, whose post he was to take, shot dead with an enemy arrow.
With a battle raging around him, James can’t take time to think about Godfrey, though his friend’s death will later haunt his dreams. He’s never been in a battle, but he follows his instincts, managing to foil an attempt by the enemy to breach the castle’s southeast wall. During the course of the non-stop action we meet other characters, including the Lord of the castle, William Marleigh, his son Stephen, and the vengeful, dangerous Welsh fighter, Craith.
Clearly an expert in medieval warfare, author Corey Holst relates this initial battle in his novel Defender of the Realm in great detail, including materials and maneuvers, the workings of weapons and defenses, and the technological terminology to go along with it all. He adds bits of humor to keep it light. When James’ boots squeak on the stairs as he sneaks up on Craith’s men in a castle tower, he says to himself, “I must really speak to the cobbler about this.” When he sees Allyn, the falconer, standing his ground against the Welsh with blood on his face, an axe in one hand and a sword in the other, James thinks Allyn “did not appear to be in the best of moods.”
The English win the fight and take the surviving Welsh as prisoners. Almost immediately afterwards, Lord William tells his son Stephen that he has arranged the younger man’s marriage to Elena, the daughter of the Lord of Loxley. Stephen loves his father but he doesn’t like being told what to do, nor does he want to get married. He reluctantly heads off to Loxley to meet his fate, taking Allyn and James with him.
Along the way the three men come upon a young woman who has been cornered, along with her horse, by a pack of wolves. James rushes to her rescue while Allyn and Stephen try to follow. The two end up saving the horse and losing James and the young lady, who fall into the rushing waters of the river Severn. After a harrowing float in the rapids and down a waterfall, James drags the woman to the shore, believing she’s dead. He trips over a log and lands on her, which sets her to coughing. When she regains her composure she thanks him for saving her life. “James thought in the back of his mind that how he had ‘saved her’ was by tripping and falling on her. Silence is the better part of valor, he thought to himself.” In many ways, that proves to be a mistake.
Stephen and Allyn catch up, and Stephen takes the opportunity to pretend to be Allyn’s servant “John,” introducing James to the lady as the son of Lord Marleigh. James and Allyn play along because Stephen is a nobleman, and therefore the boss. The deception would be fine for an hour or so, except the young woman turns out to be Elena, Stephen’s betrothed. James tries hard not to fall in love with her, but it’s too late, he’s already fallen.
With lies on all of their lips, on to Loxley they go. This can only work out badly. When Stephen disappears on an errand to London, James fears the dire consequences he’ll suffer when the impersonation is discovered, as inevitably it must be.
James is unassuming and honest, an everyman with whom we easily identify. His friend Allyn is a rascal of a foil, and Stephen, although noble, quickly becomes their friend and equal. The relationship between the three is the believable camaraderie of young men. Elena comes across as independent, willful and brave. No wilting maiden she—the man who wins her wins an ally.
Holst gives his characters modern speech, which we hear in the way the young men joke with each other and in the intimacies between Elena and James. He even uses words like “yeah” and “really” to catch a modern vernacular, giving casualness to the speech of the young allies that surely the young people of the day must have had in their own way. His easy style allows us to become immersed in the details of 12th century life.
We are entertained with numerous subplots, such as Allyn’s various drinking adventures and Stephen’s essential trip to London, while at the same time we are horrified by the realities of war, such as the dire fate of the Welsh prisoners and more terrifying battles later in the book. You didn’t think the Welsh would give up easily, did you?
Defender of the Realm, book 1 in the “Defender of England” series, is an action-packed story for lovers of adventure, mayhem, heroism and friendship. Be sure to read the epilogue!
I’ll be chatting with Corey Holst, along with authors Maggie Secara and Greg Bell, in an evening of fantasy, faerie, fun and Faire at Faire(y) Tales For Grown-Ups, May 26th, 6:30 p.m. at the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. We’ll talk about why millions of people love to immerse themselves in history and fantasy, so much so that they dress as their favorite characters to participate in anime cons, historic re-enactments, and Renaissance Faires.
Music begins at 6:30 p.m. with the marvelous Hollienea on harp, and the authors will talk at 7 p.m. Come join us!
Read Petrea’s reviews:
The Dragon Ring by Maggie Secara
Looking for Will: My Bardic Quest with Shakespeare by Greg Bell
Petrea Burchard is a Pasadena photographer, blogger, voice-over talent and author. Her story “Portraits” is included in Literary Pasadena (Prospect Park Books, 2013). She contributes book reviews to Hometown Pasadena, for which we and our readers are very grateful. Find more Petrea doings, writings, and photography at PetreaBurchard.com and LivingVicuriously.
Petrea’s novel, Camelot & Vine, can be bought locally at the Pasadena Museum of History, Hoopla! in Altadena and the Flintridge Bookstore and Coffeehouse. The ebook version is available on Amazon.com.
Read Hometown Pasadena‘s review of “Camelot & Vine by Petrea Burchard.”
Photo, top right, a pond in Wales found at Centre for Ecology & Hydrology: CEH.ac.uk.