For fans of early medieval history, a book about a major tenth century figure is an exciting prospect. Conn Iggulden’s Dunstan – a leading churchman and statesman of his time – is in the form of an autobiography. This is a tale of the struggle for power in insecure times and the inevitable interaction with human weaknesses. Dunstan, in his old age, places himself under scrutiny.
This adventure opens with Dunstan facing imminent death at the hands of the monks of Glastonbury. He is hanging by his fingers over a cliff. He considers how he got himself into this situation:
Some years previously, his influential father takes Dunstan and his younger brother, Wulfric, to the school at Glastonbury Monastery, to be moulded into leading churchmen, like their uncle. Dunstan does not see it that way.
The rough and ready teenager is headstrong, clever and ambitious, while the rule of the Benedictine monks is harsh with extreme physical punishments. However, Dunstan becomes fascinated by the building works taking place at Glastonbury.
In this novel Conn Iggulden credibly proposes what could have been the reality behind the miracles attributed to Dunstan. He envisions Dunstan’s character through these acts and the pressures and expectations of the times. The result is convincing.
Dunstan quickly learns the harsh realities of his situation and becomes infatuated by a Courtly lady who visits Glastonbury. By this time, he has become influential and knowledgeable in herbalism and metallurgy, learnt at the monastery. It is his ability at all types of invention which gets him out of, and into trouble: hence hanging off a cliff!
He is drawn to the life of the court and steers events to get himself into that world. His ambition is to be a man who crowns kings. This is by no means an easy ambition, thwarted first by his love of a woman and, in later years, by his own arrogance, and his sometimes unsuccessful attempts to manipulate events.
But this is more than the story of one man. Dunstan sees seven kings during his long life and this is their story too: kings of Wessex, England, one of whom becomes the High King of Britain. There are also other important people in Dunstan’s life including his influential family and his loyal brother, Wulfric, who is, perhaps, a real hero. The reader sees these people through Dunstan’s eyes and there are enlightening glimpses of how his family and the Kings see him.
This novel was an exciting read. The pace and construction worked well, carrying the diverse storylines from a period of complex history. It is well written in a pleasing easily read style with names adjusted for clarity and readability. Conn Iggulden has woven a rich and intriguing tale from the limited, but great, stories provided by history, with all the action expected of a book about Kings reliant on the vote of the Witan for the throne and Vikings raiding British shores.