review published on September 6, 2013. Reviewed by Jon Owens
Master of War is a debut novel and the first of what is doubtless to become a series. Gilman takes his first steps into the world of historical fiction not on the well-trodden roads of Rome, but in the less well represented period of the Hundred Years War. Specifically focused around the Battle of Crecy, and the events immediately before and after.
Gilman’s first novel starts well enough, with our introduction to the protagonist living a peasant’s life in an English village. Though whilst this sounds like the start of every piece of historical fiction ever written, Gilman, immediately manages to set his work apart. Thomas Blackstone, the central character, is the elder of two brothers. Their parents are dead, and Thomas is left responsible for his brother who is both deaf and dumb. So in an unsympathetic period of history we immediately see the struggles of Thomas and his disabled brother, which gives more depth to the character than many authors manage in the opening pages. Which makes the trials to follow seem more manageable, when Thomas has already demonstrated strength and resolution.
And what Gilman does very well is give Thomas plenty of trials to overcome. His portrayal of this young peasant archer is one that draws the reader to him. His impertinence in the face of authority, his natural talents that come to the fore when pressed, and his strong sense of loyalty. These are often traits used when creating a character on an upward journey (Sharpe anyone?), but Gilman achieves it in such a way that we never feel like we’re being set up. Each evolution of Thomas’ life seems natural, if somewhat traumatic in cases, and it is only when you look back from the last page that you realise how far he has a character has come.
So Gilman achieves that which many authors have failed to – a character arc that doesn’t jar and never feels utterly farcical. Which leads us to another matter which is somewhat crucial to a novel set during the Hundred Years War – his portrayal of battle and violence. From Thomas’ first blood the fighting in Master of War is immediate and visceral. The Battle of Crecy itself is well described, the brutality of the age and the bloodletting of the battlefield superbly constructed. We are dropped into the midst of the mad struggle amongst the mud and bodies, with arrows flitting across the skyline and the mewing cries of the dying. There is little doubt that Gilman manages to communicate just how brutal the time was, and for this he must be congratulated.
The aftermath of the violence is also something that I felt was done better than most. Too often there is an almost Hollywood tendency for a hero to shrug off his wounds and continue regardless of the half-severed arm or the arterial bleed in the leg. When Gilman’s characters are wounded, they stay wounded. Days, weeks, months of healing and rehabilitation are needed. And old injuries are always there with a twinge or dull ache. This really drew me into his characters more effectively than the usual ‘and he took the third arrow but continued’ approach to heroes. You take a sword slash to the leg you’re going to know about it. For some time to come.
It is difficult to discuss Master of War without at least a nod to Cornwell’s Grail series, set around the same period. And the old master has himself added a new novel to cover the Battle of Crecy too. Yet however many arrows arc across the sky from the bows of the English in Cornwell’s latest, Gilman’s have already firmly struck home. I eagerly await the sequel, and further cries for England. And St George.