By Alex Wallace
The Norman Conquest of 1066 is for England what 1776 is for America: the moment that their nation was born. Despite their well-known dislike for the French, it cannot be denied that England as we understand it is a very French-flavored creation (it’s not for nothing that it is said that English is a language made by Norman soldiers hitting on Saxon barmaids). In America, worlds where the Patriots never won the Revolution are common. Steven H. Silver (an American) asks a similar question (as we are a genre about asking questions) about England: what if the Normans failed to conquer the country?
The result is Silver’s 2020 alternate history novel After Hastings, published by Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press. The plot begins almost immediately after the point of divergence, as Harold Godwinson sits on the throne of England. The Church is not particularly happy about this, at first refusing to accept Harold’s right to rule. Backroom deals ensue, and the seeming compromise is that the Archbishop of Canterbury needs to be replaced. This dispute spirals out of control, and England finds itself caught in civil war.
What struck me so much about After Hastings is how much it feels like an online work of alternate history; it’s not a common form in published work, and doubly so for those not from Sea Lion Press. In any case, this book easily feels like it could have been a timeline on alternatehistory.com. There are many short chapters, many viewpoints (some of which are only there for one or two scenes), and a very clear sense that characters are there to reveal certain things about the narratives.
I know that I am one of the people who uses my colleague Liam Connell’s exhortation to write more alternate history about ‘peasants, not kings,’ so it is somewhat odd that I review a story whose foremost character, Harold Godwinson, is quite literally a king. Fortunately, Silver does not make the mistake that Curtis Sittenfeld did in Rodham by refusing to interrogate the nature of power; indeed, this is perhaps the major theme of the book, and one compellingly demonstrated. Harold is a king whose rule is questioned by many in his own country, and much of the plot is about his attempts to maintain said rule. The book does not have many literal peasant characters, but there are plenty of priests and other functionaries involved in proceedings, as well as a decent number of female characters.
Although most of the book is compellingly-rendered politicking, there are two battle sequences, one about two-thirds in and one near the end. Silver reveals himself as a very good writer of medieval violence, reminiscent in some ways of Bernard Cornwell at his best. These battlefields are not places of chivalry (if they ever really were); they are muddy, bloody charnel houses where life is nasty, brutish, and short. Silver alternates points of view in these sequences (particularly at the latter one) in a way that puts you right in the melee, and the result is invigorating.
After Hastings, much like Michael Ventrella’s Big Stick, shows us that alternate history fans need to be paying more attention to what is coming out of Ring of Fire Press. It also shows that Silver, a longtime stalwart of the community and founder of the Sidewise Award, is a writer par excellence. I for one cannot wait to read more of his work.
Alex Wallace edited the Sea Lion Press anthology "Alloamericana".