11 December, 2012

Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon. Book review

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.


Beth said...

Well, you already know how much I loved this one, and I think your review is spot on.
The flashbacks towards the beginning also caught me out - I needed to re-read some parts to sort things out, but in the end I think it was an effective way of conveying aspects of the narrative without dragging the reader through a lot (such as the journey to England) right at the start of the story.
It's a mark of Lyndon's desciprive capabilities that five months on I can still remember many of the places the characters visited as if I'd read the novel last week.

Cygnet Brown said...

I enjoyed your review of Hawk Quest. I too find the characterization and imagery expressive.

Carla said...

Beth - thanks! I'm glad it wasn't just me that was puzzled by the flashbacks. I think the Greenland and Iceland landscapes were the most memorable for me.

Cygnet Brown - Hello and welcome! I'm pleased you liked the review.

Rick said...

What an intriguing-sounding story! It sounds very much like a classic fantasy quest, but minus the standard 'fantasy' elements - and set in the real historical era that is broadly the prototype for most fantasy settings.

'Norman conquests' is sort of a hoot. But from the geography mentioned, it could bring in the other Norman conquest, of Sicily - and also the battle of Manzikert (1071, IIRC), which ended Byzantine rule over most of Anatolia.

Pedantic Quibble alert: 'Caitlin' is the Gaelic form of the name, not the most obvious variant for an Icelandic lady! (But what is her ancestry?)

Carla said...

Rick - yes, that's not a bad description; a classic fantasy quest set in a real historical era.

Manzikert gets a mention in the background (it's where the to-be-ransomed Norman knight was captured). One of the main characters is from Sicily, but even so the Norman conquest of Sicily is no more than background (if even that).

Well spotted; I thought exactly the same about Caitlin as a name! The author evidently expected pedantic quibbles such as this because he explains almost straight away that she has romantic Irish ancestry. Which is entirely likely; if I remember rightly there were a few Irish settlers in Iceland before the Norse arrived, and there were a lot of contacts between Iceland and Ireland as part of the North Atlantic trade routes.

Rick said...

Not just any real era either, but one that was a sort of prototype for Middle Earth. Gondor seems to reflect a Byzantium that Westerners have not yet started sneering at, while the western empire has dissolved, but for wandering paladins.

The author covers himself from pedantic quibbles well! But I can offer an even more pedantic one: 1072 is very early in the Western adoption of 'Catherine' in any form.

Which cuts both ways, to be sure: So early in the usage of the names, the various standard language forms probably hadn't jelled yet.

Carla said...

Good point. I don't know whether Caitlin would have come into use in Ireland in time to be transmitted to Iceland for a heroine's romantic ancestry in 1072.

Yes, Gondor does have a flavour of Byzantium about it, although the concept of a Steward 'standing in' for the emperor for several centuries doesn't have a parallel as far as I know (you probably know more Byzantine history than I do, but my impression is that whoever had the top job de facto tended to grab the title as well). I think somewhere in one of his letters Tolkien said something about Aragorn's restored kingdom being something like a restored Holy Roman Empire, which would fit.

Rick said...

True, Byzantium had no equivalent to the ruling stewards. But it conveys a sort of honorable decline. Middle-Earth is certainly not a direct parallel to any historical period, but the flavor suggests the era broadly around 1000 more than anything else.

Carla said...

I can never make my mind up. The Shire always makes me think of the 18th century (among the well-off, at any rate), with the postal service and the habit of letter-writing and the obsession with being 'respectable' and Bilbo's country-gentry lifestyle. Then as the story moves further out from the comfortable Shire it has a feeling of moving backwards in time, so things like the watchtowers on the Barrow Downs and the great road make me think of post-Roman Britain. Then the trolls and orcs and wilderness is reminiscent of Norse myth and saga. Gondor, as you say, has a distinct feel of decayed grandeur, and Byzantium might be the closest parallel. Although the whole 'Return of the King' aspect conjures up vaguely Arthurian images for me. Depending on how long you like to imagine Roman culture clinging on in Britain after 410 (quite a while in places, I would imagine), I wonder if some people thought of themselves as sort of officials or stewards keeping their patch going as best they could until the Emperor could return, such as whoever rebuilt Wroxeter in the sixth century to Roman measurements, or whoever built the halls at Birdoswald.

Which I think is why Tolkien's Middle-Earth endures so well. It's so complex and multilayered that it draws on and can accommodate all sorts of parallels, depending on the reader.

Rick said...

Your overall impressions are very similar to mine, including the 18th century flavor of the Shire.

Your final point puts me in mind of Tolkien's remark on 'history, real or feigned.'

Carla said...

Yes, indeed, I probably had that phrase in mind. 'Applicablility' was the term he used, if I remember rightly.

Rick said...