Dunstan by Conn Iggulden
‘I could have hung on that cliff all day, if they hadn’t broken my fingers. My hands have always been strong, but when bones crack, there is no true anchor, not even for an ocean of rage. Yet I clung on for a time even so. Near the end, as I glared at them without pleading or begging, all their laughter and mockery died away, which gave me some small satisfaction. That little crowd of men and women stood around the edge, just waiting for me to fall. They watched me hold on to crumbling earth with torn and swollen hands and yet remain to spite them.’
In the year 937, King Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a great spear into the north. His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day. At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury. His talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the royal court, to the hills of Rome – from exile to exaltation.
Conn Iggulden is a hugely popular historical fiction writer, known for his series depicting the rise and fall of empires. In this standalone novel, he has turned his attention to the creation of England as one united country, shown through the eyes of Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury and was later canonised as a saint.
In Dunstan, Iggulden has created a fascinating character whose actions don’t necessarily give the impression of a holy man. Instead of being humble and devoted to prayer, he is ruthless and unlikely to worship anyone but himself. Iggulden excels at creating a character who does terrible things in pursuit of what he wants, and yet we find ourselves rooting for him anyway.
At a young age Dunstan is taken by his father to live in a monastery. There he is bullied by other boys, but also begins piecing together the aspects of his character that will later see him become advisor to a number of English kings. Iggulden also offers fascinating explanations for the supposed miracles that later saw Dunstan canonised as a saint.
The book bears many similarities to Game of Thrones, with its delicate political machinations interspersed with scenes of battlefields and bloody murder. Each character is fully fleshed out and intriguing enough to warrant their own standalone novel.
The writing is brilliant. Iggulden knows when to show us detail and when to stand back and let the reader fill in the gaps with their imagination. There are also flashes of humour to alleviate the often dark subject matter.
The one problem I had with this book was its treatment of women. You could argue that the misogynistic opinions presented throughout the book are the views of the main character, who after all was living in the 10th century when attitudes were very different. But I found it incredibly frustrating that Dunstan dismisses all women as being easily corrupted and likely to corrupt the men in their life in turn. We are shown no examples of women with any redeeming qualities, and this became extremely tiring, especially considering the strength and variation in Iggulden’s male characters.
There are a few moments when the pace of the book slows to a crawl, and the ending felt very rushed, but overall this is an engrossing and fascinating book, with a brilliant main character and enough tension and intrigue to keep you reading long past your bedtime.
Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.