Monday, September 5, 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down by Joanna Courtney, Helen Hollick, Annie Whitehead, Anna Belfrage, Alison Morton, Carol McGrath, Eliza Redgold, G.K. Holloway & Richard Dee

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 5, 2016

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. ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’ explores a variety of ways in which the momentous year of 1066 could have played out differently. Written by nine well-known authors to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the stories will take you on a journey through the wonderful ‘what ifs’ of England’s most famous year in history.

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Harold's death as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
It’s unusual for me to spend a month reading a book, but that’s how long I spent working my way through 1066 Turned Upside Down. I’d looked forward to the book, I’d even pre-ordered a copy ahead of the release, but I have to admit that the reality of the volume left me with mixed feelings.

To be fair, most of the month I spent with 1066 Turned Upside Down was dedicated to not reading it. I devoured the first story the day the book arrived on my kindle, but my mind swam when I realized the second submission was wholly unrelated to the chapter that preceded it. The second author utilized an entirely different twist and the strain of keeping everything straight quickly threatened to overwhelm my imagination. Was Harold King in this version? Was he alive? Was he dead? Did the Vikings invade? There was simply no way I could keep the actual history and twelve alternate realities straight so I resolved to tackle the book a chapter at time and consider each submission as a standalone piece which accounts for the long gaps in my completion of the volume.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this approach actually worked well as it complimented the structure of the book. Each chapter starts in a specific month and opens with a brief description of historical events. This factual refresher is followed by an intro to the story, the alternative fiction, an author’s note, and a set of discussion questions. Most reviewers have omitted any comment on this, but I personally felt the format made it difficult to enjoy the stories back to back as each author bounced between fiction and non before asking me to pause and critically consider their work. The breaks seemed natural to me and I had no trouble losing myself in other books between chapters.

That said, the actual fiction had it's own set of challenges and while I’ve no trouble recommending the volume to other readers, I don’t hesitate to caution that I found the stories unequally balanced. I've very genuine appreciation for much of the material, but I was disappointed that so few ventured into wholly original content. Playing it safe by revisiting familiar ideas and characters was their choice, but as a reader I was disappointed that so many failed to capitalize on the creative opportunity this project afforded. I might have felt differently if the authors had limited themselves to subtly nodding at their independent titles or used an existing supporting character to explore new themes and ideas, but as it stand I feel there was too much repetition within these pages and found myself distracted by the creative decisions behind several chapters.

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To Crown a King & In the Wake of the Dolphin by Helen Hollick
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Helen Hollick is an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, but 1066 Turned Upside Down marks my first experience with her work. She’s one of two authors to have contributed two stories to the anthology and I while I quite enjoyed both for their content and prose, I was curious at her decision to submit adapted content from Harold the King/I Am the Chosen King. I enjoyed her take on Edgar and William and will be seeking out her work again in the future, but her submissions definitely left me wondering what she'd have done with a blank slate.

Uncle Edward was not the stuff of being a kind when he returned from exile in Normandy. My father, when Harold, here, escorted him - us - home to England would not have made a suitable king either, yet, had he still lived, would we be having this discussion? He would have been king by right of birth. I am his son. I am the last in the blood-line of Cerdic of Wessex, why then, should I not be your king?

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A Matter of Trust by Annie Whitehead
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Annie Whitehead is another author I’d never read, but she put herself on my radar with her take on Edwin and Morcar. I found an added bonus in a light moment of humor involved an aged Godiva and I appreciated how complete her submission felt despite its modest length. There was obviously room to take it further, but I liked how she developed her twist and didn’t leave her readers with a simple ‘what if’ scenario. Her character felt developed and distinct and one could easily imagine what might have been once the story ended. So far as I can tell, her submission was not based on her prior work and I thought the risk spoke well of her range and imagination.

This has naught to do with kingship, or loyalty. The bastard is on our lands, and he need to be shoved off them.

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Emperor of the North & Hold England Firm by Joanna Courtney
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Joanna Courtney was new to me, but I was so impressed with her prose that I ordered a copy of The Chosen Queen on completing Emperor of the North. This fact wouldn’t mean much under other circumstances, but in looking at her work I realized that her stories tend to feature female protagonists. I found that very interesting as it was her male leads that captivated me in 1066 and, contrary to some close-minded individuals might preach, female readers have no trouble appreciating well-written male protagonists. Courtney’s world-building is also worth mentioning and I was quite impressed by the ‘what ifs’ she speculated over.

We were wild enough to earn for battle and arrogant enough to believe we could seize England, the jewel in Europe's crown - a land so sure of itself that all man longed to hold it.

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The Dragon-Tailed Star by Carol McGrath
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Carol McGrath incorporated a lot of personal detail into her story of Thea. I liked the portrait her submission drew of Harold’s domestic life and complex personal affairs and I thought the detailing of Halley’s Comet fun, but here again I found myself at a loss. I enjoyed McGrath's prose, but like Hollick, McGrath seemed to be revisiting her own work and I was caught up in questioning why she didn’t venture out of her comfort zone and tackle people and concepts she hadn’t played with before. I've not read the Daughters of Hastings series, but the themes of The Dragon-Tailed Star appear to emulate the ideas on her standalone titles and I was distracted by the similarity.

She shuddered and hurriedly crossed herself. Surely better for Uncle Edward that he was a star in the night sky, than facing the terrors that lay between Heaven and Hell?

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If You Changed One Thing by Richard Dee
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Richard Dee was another new author for me, but his submission stood out for a couple of reasons. Unlike his fellows, Dee put a bit of a sci-fi twist on 1066 and wrote a story that is set largely in the modern world. It was a dramatic shift and it threw me at first, but looking back I think the submission one of the strongest pieces in the anthology. I thought it was fun, I thought it was creative, and I liked how it allowed the reader a unique vantage point and perspective.

He looked at me and said nothing, but his eyes were full of tears. He was shaking his head as if the weight of the world was on him. I didn't understand why, perhaps he would tell me later. After all: I still had to hear how he had escaped without changing history.

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A Roman Intervenes by Alison Morton
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Alison Morton is one of the four authors I was familiar with on picking up 1066 and while I quite enjoyed seeing the Roma Novans once again, my enthusiasm was tempered by having considered so much of the thematic material on my own. Morton’s Roma Nova series centers on the world where Roman Culture never died and as before, I recognized a certain degree of repetition in her submission. The story was new and I liked it for what it was, but conceptually the material felt safe.

'Sometimes we must do dreadful act to prevent greater disasters, but at least history will record that the Galilean year of 1066 was not the one in which Northman William invaded Saxon England.

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The Danish Crutch by Anna Belfrage
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Anna Belfrage made a name for herself with time slip fiction and is currently working on a series set against the Despenser War which made her submission for 1066 interesting as it was not a time she’d written about before. Her submission features a strong female heroine and I liked how the story was driven by action and theme without incorporation of a heavy romantic relationship. I’ve never had an issue with Belfrage’s presentation of love and affection, but I expected to see a couple headlining this story and was pleasantly surprised to see Belfrage challenge herself by placing emphasis elsewhere.

She clutched at the amulet round her neck depicting Thor's hammer while mumbling a few lines of the Pater Noster - she did that a lot, hedging her bets by invoking both the gods of old and the new god - and begged them to spare her from ever becoming this man's wife.

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The Battle of London Bridge by G.K. Holloway
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The Battle of London Bridge marks my second encounter with author G.K. Holloway. I read 1066: What Fates Impose back in 2014 and remember being impressed with Holloway's command of the political landscape. The Battle of London Bridge plays on that same strength, but in the opposite direction and causes the reader to really question the long term implications of a failed Norman invasion. All the stories made me think, but I really liked how this one paired the alternative reality with the strength England's roots.

The English are celebrating their victory against this foreign foe. Now they think, with relief, that they have a leader in whom they can have faith.

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The Needle Can Mend by Eliza Redgold
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Last, but not least is Eliza Redgold's The Needle Can Mend. The story explores the origins of the Bayeux Tapestry and stands as my favorite in terms of subject matter. I've a deep appreciation for the relic and grinned when I realized it made it into 1066, but here again I found myself in a familiar seat. Redgold's heroine is a older version of her own Lady Godiva and while I was entranced by the ideas explored in this fiction, I couldn't help feeling Redgold had short-changed herself by opting to work within an established comfort zone.

Some women, widows, mothers of lost sons, gave pieces of wool. Some send needles, sharp as knives. My own beloved daughter, Nest, made for her part a read dragon, the creature of Wales. Harold's older sister Edythe worked with skill and speed, often by my side at the convent. She joined together the pieces as it grew, like a banner unfurled.

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