By Adam Selby-Martin
I’m always on the lookout for Alternate History titles that decide to buck the trend currently running through the genre of focusing only on the period of history that, at best, begins somewhere around the mid-19th Century. There are an almost infinite array of titles that will give you counter-factual scenarios about the American Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War turning into the Third World War, usually sometime in the late 1980s for minimum levels of creativity. Therefore when I do manage to find an Alternate History book that features another historical period, especially one where we have less historical evidence, and as such more room for authors to manoeuvre and be imaginative, I grab it with both hands and immediately take a look at it. My latest success story is discovering 1066 Turned Upside Down, an anthology published by Matador and containing a number of stories that revolve around counter-factual interpretations of England in 1066, and how many of the crucial historical events during that year could have gone differently, often leading to surprisingly different timelines as a result.
It’s a very interesting choice, because as I discovered from reading through the anthology, while some of the most famous and long-reaching events in English history took place during that fateful 12-month period, there is still relatively little evidence to fill in the gaps around those proceedings. We have a rudimentary chronology of that year: we know that Edward the Confessor died on the 5th January; that Harold succeeded him as King; there was a brief but bloody battle at Stamford Bridge against Harald Hardrada and the renegade English Lord Tostig; and finally there was the forced march by Harold’s victorious forces to Hastings, where he was ultimately killed, and the English defeated, by William of Normandy. But there is still so much that is not known, and will probably never be known, and as many of them are hugely significant, they provide gaps for speculation, imagination and counter-factual scenarios. We do not know, for example, exactly when Harold married Edyth of Mercia, or quite why; nor why William of Normandy lost a number of vessels travelling up the French coast; or even the motivations of Tostig when he returned with Harald Hardrada. Into these gaps in the historical record, therefore, slip the eleven alternate history tales to be found in 1066 Turned Upside Down.
As is now traditional in my reviews, I’ll start with the cover art for the anthology – because, more than anything, that is what drew my attention as a prospective reader. It’s a very good example of what can be done to draw in a reader scrolling through the ever-expanding list of titles on Amazon or other ebook sites: an attention-grabbing background of a helmet, sword and chainmail at the top of the cover, reflected with a puddle-like shimmer at the bottom which acts as a perfect companion to the title, which is itself boldly centered in the middle of the cover, making use of a small selection of complementary fonts. It’s some fantastic work by Cathy Helms (www.avalongraphics.org) and had me clicking on it to find out more. The cover blurb also works well, getting straight to the point and clearly indicating what the reader will find inside:
Ever wondered what might have happened if William the Conqueror had been beaten at Hastings? Or if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge? Or if Edward the Confessor had died with an heir ready to take his place? Then here is the perfect set of stories for you.
Excellent cover art design and a short but succinct cover blurb hooked me, and the price sealed it for me: at a mere £1.98 (at time of writing), this was a small enough amount that, even if the anthology turned out to be terrible, I wasn’t risking a huge amount by making the purchase. Once it had downloaded onto my Kindle I dived right in, and as I progressed through the anthology, I found myself both surprised and deeply impressed by its structure, which hasn’t happened before. The tales in each chapter are set in a different month of 1066, and the chapter title page provides a summary of the real-life events in that month, providing much-needed context for the reader before the counter-factual scenario is played out; and in addition, each story has summary text in italics to give the immediate background to the story itself. Once the story has completed, there is an Author’s Note, which gives some intriguing details about why the author wrote this particular story, and then several suggestions for topics of discussion, which would be very useful for book groups or readers looking to find out more detail about the period. By providing each of these elements, Matador (and the editor, whoever they might be) has supplied additional value that goes above and beyond what other (sparse) examples there are to be found in the alternate history genre.
Turning to the stories themselves, I can say that I generally found them to be of a very high quality indeed, all of them well-written, suitably paced and with some great characterisation and plotting. To Crown A King by Helen Hollick is an excellent opener, being a deftly written and tightly plotted tale about the interesting, and potentially far-reaching effects, of someone other than Harold Godwin being chosen by the Witan to be King after the death of Edward the Confessor. A Matter Of Trust from the pen of Annie Whitehead is another excellent story, this time focusing on the twin brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. Although relatively little is known about them, Whitehead does an excellent job of fleshing out two incredibly important historical figures and trying to explain why they might have supported Harold as King; her story also takes an intriguing turn by asking what might have happened if the brothers had engaged the forces of Harold Hardrada on their own, thereby allowing King Harold to march on William of Normandy with fresh, rested and unbloodied forces. Perhaps my favourite of the stories in the anthology is Joanna Courtney’s Emperor of the North in which she posits a scenario in which Hardara actually triumphs at Stamford Bridge, uniting England under his rule and expanding his empire across northern and central Europe as a result.
Moving towards the end of the anthology, A Roman Intervenes is a short story by Alison Morton that takes place in the same universe as her popular Roma Nova series of books, and which focuses on the actions of a small group of Roma Nova officials trying to prevent a war between Harold and William. It’s a well-written piece of fiction, and offers some important insights into the patriarchial nature of early-medieval society, as well as some great action scenes. If I have time, I look forward to delving into the Roma Nova series properly. The final story in the collection, The Needle Can Mend by Eliza Redgold, is an bold and creative take on that classic symbol of 1066, the Bayeaux Tapestry; although not alternate history in a technical sense, Redgold does a brilliant job of evoking the emotions that would have been brought about by the construction of the Tapestry; not only the underlying tragedy that we will never know what these stories truly were, but the small acts of defiance, resistance and propaganda that must surely have gone into its assembly over the years.
As far as I'm concerned, 1066 Turned Upside Down is the exemplar for how analytical counterfactual history should be done, combining the best elements of fiction and non-fiction to create an immensely impressive achievement. I can only hope that we see more anthologies like this from Matador and that it is used as a template by future authors and publishers.