Author: J. Boyce Gleason
Genre: historical fiction
Series: The Carolingian Chronicles #1
Published: July 2013
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
It is 741. After subduing the pagan religions in the east, halting the march of Islam in the west, and conquering the continent for the Merovingian kings, mayor of the palace Charles the Hammer has one final ambition-the throne. Only one thing stands in his way-he is dying.
Charles cobbles together a plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, betroth his daughter to a Lombard prince to secure his southern border, and keep the Church unified behind them through his friend Bishop Boniface. Despite his best efforts, the only thing to reign after Charles's death is chaos. His daughter has no intention of marrying anyone, let alone a Lombard prince. His two eldest sons question the rights of their younger pagan stepbrother, and the Church demands a steep price for their support. Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism, and Charles's daughter flees his court for an enemy's love.
Based on a true story, Anvil of God is a whirlwind of love, honor, sacrifice, and betrayal that follows a bereaved family's relentless quest for power and destiny.
"I am the consequence. My oath is the consequence. If he insists [...], he breaks my oath. If I stand before him, either he comes to his senses and compromises, or faces a lifetime of war with me."
Though it is Charlemagne who garners most of the attention given to the Carolingian family, it was his grandfather Charles "The Hammer of the Franks" Martel that fought to bring his dynasty to prominence and power. Through his sheer will and impressive intelligence, Charles forged an empire in the vacuum of power that had existed since the collapse of the Roman Empire, hundreds of years earlier. Though his main impact in Anvil of God is the resulting chaos from his death, both in life and after he was larger-than-life figure. Though he and his lived about 1,200 years ago, Gleason re-imagines a wide and varied, engaging and complex story built around the historical records of Charles, Carloman, Pippin, Sunni, Gripho, Trudi, and Bertrada. With this first in a series, J. Boyce Gleason has introduced historical fiction readers to a whole new era, filled with interesting and dynamic characters.
The Carolingian Empire, despite the many wars that surrounded its creation and endurance, despite the magnetism and charm of the people involved, just isn't one that gets a lot of attention or press. There aren't too many novels focused on Martel or his son Pippin or Pippin's lover Betrada of Laon, and when you read Anvil of God it becomes clear what a shame that dearth really is. Under this author's pen, these historical figures have never felt more alive to me. Even those who could be viewed as the villains of the story are well-drawn and complex characters, able to evoke emotion and sympathy, if not outright admiration. Mired in the mess of politics and war, as nearly as the character are, it's hard not to find a morally grey character in the novel. Everyone is shown with both bad sides and good sides. Gleason is evenhanded with the cast, no matter what side they belong to.
I was a history major with a minor in French so this story is familiar to me, though with this author, it was far from a predictable read. Gleason has obviously done his research and due diligence --- that is obvious from the detail and accurate descriptions peppered through the novel -- and the novel is a cohesive reflection of that. He freely admits he has created people and events, adjusted the timelines or made educated guesses to make his narrative work, but it all feels right and wholly natural. It helps that his inventions have purpose and agency, instead of just clustering up the narrative with an unneeded and unwanted addition.
When it comes to an empire and war, politics and maneuvering are to be expected. They were bread and butter for those involved and they are still to those who read about events hundreds and thousands of years into the past. 8th century political scheming might not sound exciting or easily understood (so many ambitions! So many with different goals and reasons for wanting them!), but J. Boyce Gleason explains without condescension or infodump. He strikes a nice balance of imparting enough information to the reader for them to come to the important conclusions themselves, but he also doesn't halt the pace or progress when doing so. And when you're trying to figure out what Boniface and the Church want against what Theodoald and his supporters want, when Sunni and Gripho have their own aims.. It can all be very daunting but this author keeps it from becoming overwhelming.
This is a novel that begins with a battle and ends with a war incipient. At the end, nothing is as it was. Brother has turned against brother, Christians armies are contemplating attacking pagan counties, other counties have openly seceded from the Martel hegemony, others are in revolt, Saxons are pillaging in the east.... all is in flux. Historically, it is easy to see where the story ends. But I think the fun in this series will be seeing how Gleason gets his characters to that final scene. With tight writing, an able grasp on politics, intriguing characters, engaging storyline, and authenticity, Anvil of God was an engrossing, satisfying historical fiction read.