Fantasist & Futurist
- Nov 23, 2002
According to David Gilman’s notes after the text, Master of War and Defiant Unto Death were originally submitted as a single novel, but then broken up into what is effectively a duology - which makes them ideal to review together:
1. Master of War
Master of War follows the fortunes - and misfortunes - of Thomas Blackstone, a stone-mason long-trained in the use of the longbow, who is commanded to fight for Edward III against the French - at the start of a campaign that would eventually become known as The Hundred Years War.
What immediately stands out are the details of living history that he seemlessly inserts into the text, which makes for a rich and immersive mediaeval experience. Additionally, the story always moves at a strong pace, with something new always happening on the next page.
And although the viewpoint can drift a little between characters, Blackstone’s experience of the Battle of Crecy is one of the most intense battle experiences I’ve read - with bonus points for the imagery that ends that sequence.
It’s also gratifying that Gilman knows when to stop with the description in fight scenes - too often other authors over-write the stage directions and I end up skipping. I didn’t find that happen with Masters of War, which was a relief.
Additionally, it was good to see easy tropes and cliches avoided. Oh, there are some predictable and unavoidable ones in there, but Gilman seems eager to drop them as soon as possible. Just because someone disrespects Blackstone at the start of the story doesn’t mean to say they become a personal nemesis for the rest of the novel - an easy route I’ve seen other writers take.
Master of War is therefore a powerful debut to a series which I can only hope holds to its early promise.
2. Defiant Unto Death
The first quarter of this book is pretty disappointing and I nearly put it aside.
By the time we start, 10 years have passed since the end of Master of War - but rather than simply state that, we end up with a load of backfill and exposition as the events of the first book are covered. Some of the head-hopping here seems quite unnecessary - though I suspect that much of it occurs from trying to join a story that had already been broken up into two separate novels.
After that, though, the storytelling gets back on form, and again, Gilman moves away from easy and predictable outcomes (okay, while the setting is historical, the characters are fictional, but he shies from making them simple).
We move through multiple set-pieces involving Blackstone - now leading a mercenary group - and new story elements work together through an overall arc. Ultimately it’s satisfying on so many levels - historically, emotionally, dramatically.
In the end, Defiant Unto Death manages to come together in a very satisfying - if nail-biting - conclusion.
Overall, though, Masters of War and Defiant Unto Death are a cracking pair of books, strong on pace, rich in historical detail and surprising for their emotional depth. The beginning of the second book I found to be a rough patch, but it’s well worth pushing through that.
Historically speaking, what’s especially interesting is that this series provides potential glimpses into the lives of very real and historical figures such as William Marshal and John Hawkwood. While we’re a century late for the former, the circumstances remain similar - and as Defiant Unto Death ends we are almost certainly about to see the world of Hawkwood’s condottierre, which I’m definitely excited to see.
Anyway, well worth a look if you want to get closer to mediaeval warfare in one of the most anarchic periods of European history.
Masters of War is available on Amazon UK and Amazon.com.
Defiant Unto Death is available on Amazon UK and Amazon.com.