Sphere 2012. ISBN 978-1-84744-497-4. 658 pages.Hawk Quest is set in 1072 in most of Europe, the North Atlantic, European Russia and Anatolia. All the main characters are fictional.
Vallon, a Frankish outlaw and soldier of fortune, is on his way through the Alps to join the Varangian Guard in Byzantium when he encounters a dying Greek scholar and his assistant, a Sicilian medical student named Hero, who are on their way to England to deliver a ransom demand to the family of a captured Norman knight. After the scholar’s death, Vallon is talked into accompanying Hero to England to deliver the letter. But the ransom demands a fabulous price, four pure white gyrfalcons, found only in Greenland. Vallon and Hero undertake the impossible quest, each for their own reasons – which have little to do with the captured knight – accompanied by the downtrodden younger step-brother of the captured knight, a German soldier, and an English peasant falconer and his giant dog. Pursuing them and intent on murder is the knight’s elder step-brother, Drogo, who stands to inherit the family estate if the ransom is never delivered. So begins an epic journey to the limits of the known world, from the everlasting ice of Greenland to the ship-destroying Russian rivers and the deserts of Anatolia, a journey on which the travellers find friendship, love, betrayal and heartbreak. Not everyone will reach the end.
Hawk Quest is a classic adventure quest on a grand scale. At over 650 pages, this is a huge book, and the story is big enough to justify the length. The journey itself covers a vast area, from the north of Greenland far beyond the Arctic Circle to Anatolia (modern Turkey). The travellers face just about every imaginable hazard – storm, shipwreck, hunger, cold, marauding Vikings, hostile tribes, cheating merchants, double-crossing officials, bandits, and dangerous wildlife including a polar bear. Not to mention Drogo’s murderous threat, and the perils posed by a beautiful, fiery Icelandic noblewoman, Caitlin, and her violent, selfish brother. Astonishingly for such a long book, the pace never flags and the tale is gripping from end to end.
Part of this is due to the quality of the writing. Lyrical, terse, poignant or humorous as occasion demands, the prose brings the events and landscapes of the journey to vivid life. On occasion I would look up from the book and experience a slight shock on realising that I was not watching an elk in the forests of northern Russia or on a glacier in Greenland. The various obstacles the company have to overcome are explained clearly enough that the reader understands enough to share the experience, so that erecting a ship’s mast or tracking an escaped falcon becomes as thrilling as any battle scene or chase sequence.The other reason why the book was so compelling was the characterisation, which I thought was outstanding. All the central characters of Vallon’s company are individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own reasons for joining the expedition, their own hopes and objectives and motivations (sometimes in conflict). All have their own talents and contribute to solving the problems faced by the expedition in their own way. Deep friendships and romantic relationships are forged on the journey. Even enemies can develop a grudging respect for one another and can co-operate when mutual survival depends on it (even if they promptly revert to type when the immediate danger is over). The variety of individual characters and the interactions between them was the best feature of the novel for me.
Was there anything I didn’t like? Very little. It took me a while to get into the story, partly because the storytelling in the early chapters has quite a number of flashbacks, which I initially found confusing, and partly because the captured knight’s Norman family and their military retainers all seem so thoroughly unpleasant (Richard, the younger son who joins the expedition, is an exception, but this doesn’t become apparent until much later in the book). Once the journey gets under way, the book gets into its stride and all these initial problems disappear. I also found the relationship between Caitlin and Vallon a little puzzling, probably because Caitlin’s thoughts are never shown and Vallon is – understandably, given his history – reluctant to think much about his emotions.
A word of warning: the cover strap-line breathlessly promises “An epic novel of the Norman Conquests”. ‘Epic’ is entirely justified, but ‘of the Norman Conquests’ is misleading. The Norman conquest of England is at most a minor background event. Readers expecting an adventure involving William, the Battle of Hastings, et al will not find it here. The title Hawk Quest gives a much more accurate idea of the novel.
A map at the front is invaluable for following the characters on their extraordinary journey. There is no author’s note, just a few comments on the price of gyrfalcons in medieval Europe and the dates of the handful of historical events mentioned in the novel.
Compelling, beautifully written epic quest spanning most of the world known to medieval Europe, with high adventure, convincing characters and a vivid sense of place.