Friday, 29 June 2012

Hawk Quest - Robert Lyndon

(Sphere, 2012, 672 Pages)

Given that I like to allow time for a wide range of reviews to accumulate, it’s pretty rare for me these days to get hold of a book almost straight after its publication. But when Hawk Quest came on the scene I really sat up and took notice. Released in January 2012, it was greeted from the start by a flurry of highly positive reviews. The storytelling sounded first rate. The premise was one I loved the look of. I couldn’t resist – and I wasn’t disappointed.
The novel, which is Lyndon’s first, takes place just six years after the Norman Conquest. The dust jacket, in fact, calls the tale an ‘epic…of the Norman Conquests’, but although Normans feature quite significantly, the main thrust of the novel is succinctly summed up in the title. The Turks are holding captive a Norman knight. The price of his release: four incredibly rare, pure white gyrfalcons. The Frankish mercenary Vallon, talked into delivering the ransom terms by a young Sicilian scholar, soon finds himself embarking with a motley company on a journey of epic proportions, bound not only to capture the birds in their northern homeland, but to deliver them to their final destination of Anatolia. The question is: can they do it?
Deceit; love; skirmishes; ships; feisty women; Vikings; and, of course, hawks – you name them, this novel has them. Lyndon’s knowledge of both the history and the practical matters – such as the construction of ships and the handling of falcons – is evident throughout the novel, but it’s always worn lightly, never becoming onerous; although I admit I often had to resort to the dictionary for various ship-related terms! At over 650 pages, this novel is a heavyweight, but the pace never slackens. I often found myself reading it compulsively: it’s a book that’s hard to put down. Lyndon writes well – his style can be spare or lyrical, as the situation demands, and he sprinkles unusual and dialect terms throughout, adding to the evocative effect of his prose. Nor is he afraid to use dialect and slang in his dialogue, which makes a refreshing change and is often just plain fun.
The main characters in the novel are strongly drawn, memorable and complex. I especially liked Vallon, the sometimes enigmatic major protagonist, with whom Lyndon has achieved something that’s not always easy: the creation of a character who is very much of his time and may exhibit traits and attitudes unsettling and distasteful to the modern reader, yet is also very human – someone struggling to come to terms with his past and remake himself in the present, with whom we can empathise.
I’m particularly fond of novels that feature an ensemble cast thrown together in often less than ideal circumstances, and Lyndon pulls this off with panache, showing us both the tensions and the bonds that form on this huge and frequently difficult journey. If occasionally some of the characters of the original company seemed a little underdeveloped, I can appreciate that the massive scale of the novel made this unavoidable. And, of course, the journey itself becomes a kind of character, often taking centre stage as the environments the group pass through, even down to their weather, are detailed in vivid description.
An absolutely cracking read; powerful, truthful and compelling. Apparently there’s a sequel in the making – you can be certain that’s one book I’ll definitely be buying!