Shipway, George. The Paladin.

NY: Harcourt, 1973.

Shipway is the best historical novelist in English you may never have heard of. I read several of his books back in the ’70s, but they’ve all been out of print for many years. (You’ll probably have to go, as I did, to Inter-Library Loan, or a really good used book store, to find them.)

His first, and probably his best, The Imperial Governor, was set in Roman Britain, but he also did several about early medieval Britain and Normandy, a favorite period of mine. This one focuses on Walter of Poix, called “Tirel” (referring to his skill as an archer), who usually gets the blame for the death of King William II (“Rufus”) in the New Forest in 1100, in what was claimed to be a hunting accident. Not much at all is known about Walter, which gives the author lots of room to develop an absorbing narrative about the Normans on their home ground — life was violent and chancy in Normandy and the French marches — and, after Duke William’s death, in England.

In this telling, Walter was denied by his father and had to make his own way, which he tried to manage by supporting the generally likeable but feckless Robert “Curthose,” Count of Maine and heir to Normandy, and then by transferring his allegiance to William Rufus. He also had ongoing relationships with many of the other major players of the period, including Robert de Belesme (psychopathically cruel and vicious but also a master of strategy and fortification), Aumauri de Montfort (Walter’s friend and the brother of the remarkable and dangerous Isabel de Montfort), Ivo de Grantmesnil, and others. All these are historical figures and a visit to Wikipedia will show you that the author hews pretty closely to the known record. Life was dramatic enough in those days without having to make things up as background to Walter’s many adventures, and only the details of personality are invented.

Shipway is meticulous in his research and very talented at depicting both life in the late 11th century and the complexities of military history and methods. His battle scenes are always lucid and riveting. Nor are his Good Guys all good; his characters feel like real people. The book runs to nearly 500 pages but the narrative can be so dense, so packed with character and events, it might seem twice that long. But that’s a good thing if you have the patience. Note that Walter lived a long time and so there’s a sequel, Wolf Time, that you should have standing by.

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