Judith Tarr,
Rite of Conquest
(Roc, 2004)

To most Anglophiles, William the Bastard is the enemy. Descended from Vikings in Gallic lands, he invaded England, killed its king and seized its crown in 1066. He and those who followed him imposed strict Norman rule on the Saxon survivors, building large stone castles throughout the land and levying high taxes to fund them. His laws would fuel the romantic legends of Robin Hood, a Saxon outlaw who tweaked the noses of his Norman overlords in the name of justice.

Judith Tarr imagines a very different William. In Rite of Conquest, William is the magical offspring of royal and druidic lines -- he is Arthur reincarnate, the once and future king who is destined to restore the magic of Britain.

In Tarr's version of the story, the Saxons who stole the land from the Britons five centuries earlier also stifled its native magic, erecting monotheistic walls of iron and prayer around the fey otherworld. Harold, heir to the pious King Edward, is a strong and noble Saxon leader whose beliefs only strengthen those walls. William, with an older claim to Edward's throne, must batter them down even as he leads his invading armies across the channel.

Central to Tarr's story is William's lovematch with the French noblewoman Mathilda, here recast as a powerful mystic in the old traditions. Her powers, linked with William's own, are a force to be reckoned with.

As historic fantasy, Rite of Conquest is a powerful, sweeping saga of a young man's ascension from bastard to duke to king. The book smacks of meticulous research into the facts of the day, with keen insights into the many larger-than-life characters involved.

It is, however, hard to reconcile the historic image as a steel-and-fury conqueror with Tarr's portrayal of a powerful sorceror -- much less Arthur reborn. And, while Saxons were the villains in 6th-century Britain, they are more easily seen as the victims in 11th-century England.

Rite of Conquest is an interesting twist on history. Tarr, in this well-written tale, provides considerable food for thought with this creative change in perspective.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 20 August 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.