Sons of the Wolf, by Paula Lofting, is one of several books which have come out over the last few years exploring the period shortly before or shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Paula has chosen the earlier time, and so the modern reader is aware of the encroaching invasion from the time markings which annotate each chapter. The protagonists are of course ignorant of this, though they are aware of the rising tensions in society at large. Readers should also be aware that Sons of the Wolf is only the first half of the full story which Paula has in mind, so the ending comes rather abruptly, with many plot threads still unresolved.
The book oozes with details collected from very extensive research into the period. As reader, I was left with a sense of thorough immersion in the age and the culture. Unfortunately, this also left me with a sense that I did not like either the culture or the age! To my own astonishment, knowing a little about the cruelty and harshness of the invading Normans in parts of the country (particularly the north), I found myself wanting to get to 1066 so that William and his army could sweep the lot away. I found none of the Saxon characters to be likeable. Whilst I am all in favour of characters being portrayed with flaws, I found myself unable to sympathise or empathise with any of these ones. I hope, and suspect, that Saxon men and women had more to commend them than this, even recognising the fact that the virtues Saxon society held in highest regard are very different from those of today, or indeed those of the ancient world which is my own favourite era.
The subject matter of the book switches between the family difficulties of a moderately important Saxon family head in Sussex, and the bigger political and military events of the early 11th century. Although the central character would say that family was important to him, his actions frequently undermine the possibility of a close-knit harmonious group. On the wider national stage, just as on the personal one, betrayal and rivalry often lead to unexpected difficulties or defeats. I imagine that most issues in both of these arenas are resolved in the second half of the story.
For me, this was a four star book. Paula’s research and attention to detail is beyond doubt, and the book was carefully and attractively presented. The plotline worked well, though as mentioned above some issues are raised and never resolved within these pages. The characters who are the main focus are drawn convincingly, and interact in what seem to me to be credible ways for their relative station and gender. However, I could not feel warm to any of them, and the writing style did not evoke for me anything appealing or beautiful about the age. I think other readers who do feel more at home in pre-Norman England might well enjoy the book more than I, and I would certainly recommend Sons of the Wolf as a thorough exploration of middle-rank Saxon culture on the threshold of the Norman invasion.