Warrior King by Sue Purkiss
|Warrior King by Sue Purkiss|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: A robust piece of junior historical fiction about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aetheflaed. It suffers from a distracting condensed first section, but is otherwise both interesting and evocative of time and place.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 272||Date: April 2008|
|Publisher: Walker Books|
England in the 9th century. Alfred is the King of Wessex and Wessex is beset by Danes. After they attack his very court, Alfred finds himself on the run, hiding out in an ancient marshland in which he hunted as a child. His beloved daughter Aetheflaed has followed him into hiding, and it's through her eyes we see his preparations for a comeback. Alfred needs to unite the Saxon forces and create a fighting force, all under the noses of the Danes, but without being discovered. Aetheflaed, a bright and thoughtful child, is determined to help where she can. She worships her father and we see the king through her eyes - kind, generous and thoughtful, but capable of the hardest of decisions when there is need.
I really did enjoy Warrior King - once I'd got past its first section. The book largely concerns itself with the time Alfred spent defeated and alone, hiding out in Somerset, desperately trying to regroup enough forces to take on the horde of Danes led by Guthrum. It's a tremendously romantic - and true - tale. But Purkiss is so keen to set the overall scene for her young readers that she spends too many chapters and pages condensing Alfred's early life. He was the youngest of several sons, originally destined for priesthood, not kinghood. He'd even travelled to Rome. It's all interesting, of course, but from a narrative point of view, too much is squashed into too little, ironically leaving far too long an introduction until the real dramatic conflict and tension gets going. The first fifth of the book felt more like a school biography made interesting than it did a vivid historical novel.
Once the story gets going with its main thrust - Alfred holed up in the marshlands of Athelney, seemingly down and out - then things pick up immensely. We don't know if Aetheflaed was with Alfred at this time, much as we don't know whether or not the king truly burned any cakes - but her presence supplies a child-centred dynamic to the narrative, and in later life Aetheflaed's history does tell us that she became a vital and powerful woman - it doesn't seem outside the bounds of possibility that she followed her father into this damp hidey hole.
What happens once they're there is both dramatic and fascinating. As Alfred plans for his eventual David and Goliath victory over the Danes at Edington, a Britain finally readying itself to emerge from the Dark Ages reveals itself through the eyes of a child. Its politics, its social structures, its religion and its daily life are written seamlessly into the storyline and Alfred appears just as he was; a man of unusual vision and high intelligence. Purkiss allows herself a tiny detour or two into the semi-supernatural. This isn't so much a fantasy element as an explication of the spiritual beliefs at a time when not all of Britain was yet Christian. And of course, today's children love a touch of magic as much as ever.
Alfred seems to be regaining popularity - we've seen Bernard Cornwell's recent trilogy take the book charts by storm - and deservedly so. King Arthur, so popular with storytellers, failed to beat back Britain's invaders, but Alfred, a real, documented hero, did not. He united his nation, he won great victories, made peace with the vanquished and promoted learning. He's a wonderful and heroic figure from our history and I think, despite my criticisms of its first section, Sue Purkiss has done a grand job of bringing Alfred and his daughter to life to her young readers. He, and her book, are certainly worth more than a few burnt cakes.
My thanks to the nice people at Walker for sending the book.
You can read more book reviews or buy Warrior King by Sue Purkiss at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Warrior King by Sue Purkiss at Amazon.com.
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