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English History: As Told By 'Crusader Kings II'

Max Reads "A Fall Of Kings" by Sarah Shannon.

I had a roommate who loved Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and all the other Paradox Interactive strategy games in that vein. I once came back to our room to find him scratching his head, wondering how Korea had managed to expand an empire that ran through China, most of Russia, and down the middle of Africa in what could only be described as a "blue line of imperialism."

Another friend of mine, another addict to Crusader Kings, and it's ilk, once regaled me of a story where he'd exploited a not-quite-glitch where he could send prostitutes into a castle under siege, only for this to backfire when it led to the eight-year old king dying of a heart attack (I've heard of "going out with a bang" but really?).

There's loads of these stories if you look for them, fun bizarre stories of alternate histories, and what-ifs. I feel like one of the biggest appeals of Crusader Kings II is that you can accidentally create vibrant, thought-provoking, and sometimes downright hilarious stories on small or large scales. Even though I've never played them, I've always been excited to talk about the ridiculous alternate histories my friend's have concocted.

(My favourite is the one where someone using several mods, got Cersei Lannister sacrificed to an Aztec Sun God).

So naturally, A Fall Of Kings by Sarah Shannon instantly caught my attention. It's a story that follows an alternative history, and an alternative Norman invasion of England in 1066. Now, the problem that I hadn't foreseen was that I'm not the best when it comes to history...

I'm aware that this essentially undermines my point, I know the broad strokes of the battle of Hastings, of the Saxons, and the Normans, and the years leading up to, and after it. But I'm not immediately aware of the ways Shannon has diverged from the 1066 of our reality. As a result I'm in an odd situation where I'm not able to comment on the unique selling point of the novella, but I have Wikipedia open, while I read this so that I can check up on characters and plots, and see what's changed, and what's stayed the same. As far as I can tell, the changes in history don't start until the midway point. So while the events depicted happened over 950 years ago, I'm reluctant to talk about them in too much detail, as they start to diverge from history around the battle of Stamford Bridge.

Edgar Aethling, a real figure from English history, is about 15 at this point, but nonetheless ambitious and determined to become the king of England. Indeed he's tried before to become king, but found himself with little support, and his cousin Harold on the throne. There's a small problem in that we are told his actions, instead of being shown them; it seems very tactless for him to ask an ally of the king "What are your feelings of the king?" and yet he does just that. However as the book progresses we see that despite his youth and brashness he is exceptionally cunning and dangerous.

Compare to the much more cautious Edwin, the Earl of Mercia, (again a real figure) he knows war, and unlike Edgar does not want to rush in to a fight with Hardrada's forces. Indeed, early on we see him losing his patience, as Edgar constantly suggests places to counterattack the Vikings moving up through Sheffield. Sadly however, he's forced to do just that, despite seeming to know that he will fail, and be defeated as they don't have enough men to mobilise against the invasion. Unfortunately for him, most of his allies tend to side with Edgar's decisions to engage and fight the enemy, rather than to hold back. Not out of their own desire for glory and heroism, rather out of recognition that their situation is rather dire, and they need to push back before it's too late, which provides a nice contrast to Edgar's personality; his brother Morcar, and aide Leofwin want to attack out of practicality, Edgar wants to be a hero. Even when Edwin makes risky choices on the field of battle, we see how he's measuring the risk against the success. Edwin is the closest thing to a protagonist in the book.

The story switches points of view between several characters, Saxons, Normans, and Vikings among others. We see the Vikings through the eyes of Tostig Godwinson, brother of English king Harold, and who's basically mad with rage. Determined to control both England and Norway. His first chapter is refreshing, after seeing Edgar and Edwin talking calmly and nicely to each other, it's refreshing to see a ruthless invader, and his cackling henchman. He's wise enough to not lash out when it would lead to himself being hurt, but we always see that rage bubbling below the surface. Were Tostig and Copsig (his aide) like this in real life? I don't know, I'm not good at history, but I love how Shannon presents him in the novel. While he's a raging madman, you can see his motivations. It's saved from being too over the top when we hear characters talk about Harold's own temper and fury, as a comparison of the traits the two brothers share.

Shannon doesn't shrink away from how young some of the characters are, we see teenagers and preteens forced into horrible situations, having to battle and fight. And while some (such as Edgar Aethling) revel in it, the reader is left disconcerted, and even confused at how much pressure these children are under, and the horrible situations they are forced into. Despite never meeting in person there seems to be a few shared "kindred spirits" moments between the sons of King Harold and William The Conqueror. Other child characters who are central to the action meet, and struggle to verbalise their thoughts and feelings, as well as realise they have very little power in the grand scheme of things, despite their ranks.

Shannon has a talent for writing combat encounters well. Showing that no matter how short, battle in this time period is brutal and bloody. We don't see any "clean" cuts, but we do see lots of weapons getting stuck or inflicting nasty gashes and wounds on both sides. She also makes a good show of showing people's attitudes and fears of war and battle. There are those who want to fight and battle, and those more anxious about it. Those more reluctant to fight are also shown conflicted over their desire to stay alive, and their need to be seen as strong warriors.

I'm not quite sure what genre A Fall Of Kings falls into. It's a historical fiction, obviously, and it's very character-driven. There are further elements of a war story, and even some from political thrillers at times. The story is the first in the "Champions Of Anglia" series, but it also seems to be the only book in the series as I can't really find any other mention of it, aside from referring to this book. A tad disappointing as the last chapter leaves me eager to find out what happens next in this altered timeline.

That being said, even on it's own, the book holds up, it's an enjoyable read with lots of twists and turns that grab you, even if you're not completely in the know about history. And if we're honest, I learned a lot about Normans and Saxons from reading it (although I admit I had about sixty Wikipedia pages, and a book on medieval Europe that I borrowed off my fiance's father open in front of me while I did).

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