© 2023 Dan Jones
In 1066 Normandy invaded England: in 1346, England returned the favor. His majesty Edward III has come to make good his claim to the French throne, and in advance of England’s troops arriving, a small company of mercenaries known as the Essex Dogs have landed on a Norman beach to deal with any potential welcoming committees. This band of brothers (and one errant priest called Father) have known combat before, but once the French begin to rally to the defense of their liege, the company will be sorely tested and blooded. Essex Dogs is Dan Jones’ first foray into historical fiction, and those who like gritty medieval adventures will find it a solid contribution.
Essex Dogs follows the English advance from its initial landings near La Hougue (not far from the Allied beachheads five centuries hence) to the Battle of Crecy, in which French haste spoiled a probable victory and created instead a resounding defeat for the fleur-de-lis. Crecy isn’t the subject of the novel, though; there’s no huge buildup to it. Instead this is a story of constant momentum, following the English as they push further into France and sow havoc to keep the pretender Phillipe’s forces off balance. The most detailed siege in the story, and the most important given its effect on the Dogs, is the siege of Caen. Although the Dogs have no say in the campaigning – they’re paid to do or die, not to reason why – one of their number is unexpectedly attached to the Black Prince, readers do get to witness some of the strategizing.
Given his reputation as an historian, I was curious as to how Jones would stack up against someone of Bernard Cornwell’s caliber – and I have to say, he comes off fairly well despite this being his first work of fiction. In terms of historical detail, they’re a dead match, and Jones scores points for integrating medieval chronicles, like Froissart’s record and English campaign letters, into the story. Characterization was strong enough, though it took me a while to warm to the leads: unfortunately, the most memorable character is a young teenager with a substance problem who has, the text hints, been sexually abused numerous times. As a rule I don’t like reading about sexual violence, and would prefer that we stay instead on more wholesome topics like slaughtering armies, looting towns, and singing and feasting thereafter. Essex Dogs is altogether more serious and grim than a Cornwell novel, where we may witness harrowing warfare and desperate conditions, but be nonetheless entertained by Cornwell’s winsome dialogue or his characters’ eccentricities.
In short, Essex Dogs was a solid hit, and a promising introduction. I hope Jones continues! As a bit of trivia: The left half of this picture shows the area of Barfleur and La Hougue where Edward landed: the right half shows some Allied activity around that same area in June 1944.
The Blooding, David Gilman. The story of an archer at the Battle of Crecy. ‘A romance with the odd bit of mayhem,’ I called it.
1356, Bernard Cornwell. An archer at the battle of Poitiers. Excellent!
On my radar… Haven’t bought it though…..
I did pick up a pile of books for my birthday though. You might be interested in at least two of them. List will be on Sarah’s blog on Saturday.
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