Though I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about British history I must admit that the period between the Romans leaving and Edward the Confessor is a bit of a blank for me. Consider it one of those areas in history that I just hadn’t got around to learning about yet.
Martin Jensen’s novel, The King’s Hounds, has convinced me that I need to rectify that. The story is set in the early days of King Cnut’s rule as he awaits the receipt of his Danegeld and prepares to unite the whole of England under his rule. The politics of this period is complicated and yet Jensen explains it very clearly to those (like me), making the setting very accessible.
Halfdan, a dispossessed half-Saxon, half-Danish noble, encounters Winston, an illuminator, while on the road and the pair of them head to Oxford. The mood in the city is tense as Saxon and Danish representatives gather for a great meeting and local merchants are feeling resentful about the Danegeld, a tax being levied to pay off the Viking raiders. Before the meeting has even begun, the body of one of Cnut’s adversaries is discovered and his widow accuses Cnut of having him murdered.
When Cnut meets Halfdan and Winston he sees an opportunity to defuse the political tension and commissions them to investigate the murder. He hopes that because they have different backgrounds neither the Danes or the Saxons will feel that he has taken sides or sought a particular outcome. He does however set them a very clear target that they must have the case wrapped up in a matter of days or else they will risk losing his favor.
Structurally the novel opens with a short third person prologue introducing the character of Winston and then the remainder of the book is narrated by Halfdan. The selection of Halfdan is an interesting one and, based on comments I have read on Goodreads it seems to be a choice readers either love or hate.
I found myself wincing a few times at the character’s objectification of women which I think falls into the category of something that is absolutely credible and fitting for the period but which is likely to turn some readers off. Certainly his grasping and groping behavior really stood out when being read in a month where we have seen allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct from different media and political personalities splashed all over the news. In spite of this though I did feel that Halfdan was an intriguing character in other respects and, given he is less perceptive than Winston I understood why he would make a better narrator structurally. I will admit to liking Winston far more though and being more interested in his back story.
Turning to the mystery, I think Jensen has a solid concept that is elevated by the story’s setting. Cnut frequently interferes in the investigation, demanding updates on its progress and showing signs of frustration when Halfdan and Winston are unable to announce any significant developments. The approach is quite interview heavy but I enjoyed that Jensen makes getting the interviews half the struggle and when a solution is given I felt satisfied that it fit what had come before.
Where I felt that the story was most successful was when it touches on how the Saxon (and Danish) legal systems of the time differ from our own. To give an example, one factor that Halfdan and Winston have to consider is whether the person they will accuse of murder can afford to pay the wergeld, a sum of compensation, to the victim’s family. There are a number of intriguing details such as these woven quite naturally into the body of the text which give the book a strong sense of time and place. This also serves to give their investigation a slightly different texture from those usually found in historical mysteries.
On the other hand, I cannot say that this translation’s use of language always perfectly meshes with the setting though the blame for this may land with the original text. There are occasional phrases or words used that feel decidedly too modern for the period and which stood out a little awkwardly from the body of the story. It wasn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story and I felt that most of the instances were intended to give a sense of a character’s tone and manner of expression but if this is the sort of thing that pulls you out of a story, be warned!
While Halfdan occasionally annoyed when on his own, I did enjoy the way he is paired with the more thoughtful Winston and way the latter would sometimes mock him. I particularly appreciated that the story makes it clear that they are learning just how to do an investigation which felt realistic. Their different styles complemented each other well, making them a solid pairing, and I was interested to see where Jensen took the pairing next.
Though I think some readers might not care for its narrator, I felt that the story worked well and was a good introduction to these characters and the world it recreates. Perhaps the best thing I can say about The King’s Hounds though is that it not only has a strong sense of place, it left me wanting to go and learn more about the period and the figures mentioned in the novel.