Gerry B's Book Reviews

The Great Pagan Army, by Vaughn Heppner

Recommended for those who enjoy a well-written historical action

Story blurb: This is the year 885 A.D., when a thundering army of hardened cutthroats, berserks and axmen trample its way across Western Europe, raping and pillaging at will. They are the Great Pagan Army—the largest array of Vikings ever assembled into one host. No army or city can resist them; no one dares… until a crippled young count finds an old Roman book on tactics.
With a handful of desperate knights, Count Odo fortifies the river fortress of Paris and awaits the savage host. Neither he nor the Vikings realize that this will be young Paris’s most brutal siege and of incredibly fateful importance.

Available in Kindle format – 1007 KB

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Review by Gerry Burnie

Note: Although this novel was found on Amazon.com’s “gay historical fiction” list, it is not a GLBT story. I don’t believe this is in any way the fault of the author, it is nontheless sloppy shopkeeping on the part of Amazon, and misleading as well.

Author Vaughan Heppner has chosen a most interesting period in history as the setting for his novel, “The Great Pagan Army” [Amazon Digital Services, 2010]. Beginning in the 830s AD, the Vikings did indeed exploit internal divisions within Charlemagne’s empire, and several times attacked Paris—the last taking place during 885 – 886 AD.

The main chronicle of this siege is the “Bella Parisiacæ Urbis” (“Wars of the City of Paris”), the eye-witness account by Abbo Cernuus, (“the Crooked”), poet of the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. Heppner refers to this account in his Historical Notes, and so the events of this occupation are as accurate as Cernuus made them.[1]

At the opening of the story we get to meet Peter the Monk, a bookish fellow devoid of any knowledge or understanding of life beyond the cloister, and charmingly naïve because of it. It is for this reason we are ready to forgive him the fact that he is on his way to rob the Abbot—to pay off a blackmailer (Lupus) armed with knowledge that, in a moment of weakness, Peter gained carnal knowledge of swine herder’s daughter (Willelda). However, his scheme is rudely interrupted when a gang of marauding Northmen attacks the Abbot’s house and Peter is captured.

One of the attackers, Hemming, the son of the brutish Norse leader, Ivor Hammerhand, is roughly Peter’s age and comparatively naïve as well, and so it is a clever bit of business to cast these two similar but different neophytes on a parallel plane.

After witnessing the destruction of the abbey, and the slaughter of his fellow monks, Peter makes a penitential vow to the Abbot that he will find another holy relic (for which the abbey was known) and replace the abbey, itself. He then manages to escape, and when he finds that Willelda  has been captured by the Vikings, he and Lupus set out for Rome—and, coincidentally (on Peter’s part), to rescue Willelda.

Meanwhile, after witnessing the slaughter of his fellows, Hemming is captured—along with his father—by a vengeful group of Berserkers. And when his father is brutally murdered, Hemming sets out on a journey of destiny—a journey inspired by the revenge of his father’s death.

We next get to meet Odo, Count of Paris and later (888-898) king of West Franca. Once again there is a similarity between the Count and Peter inasmuch as the Count is in love with a woman, Judith, the illegitimate daughter of a bishop, but since she has been sent to a convent, Odo cannot openly marry her without alienating the powerful Bishop of Paris.

These two therefore team up to obtain a rare treatise on war, De Re Militari, written by Flavius Vegetius (390 AD). Odo is convinced that with this knowledge he can defend Paris against ‘The Great Pagan Army,’ and perhaps win Judith. For his part Peter agrees to copy the book if the Count will aid in the rescue of Willelda.

And finally we meet the woman Judith, a headstrong girl who is forced to use her wits and guile to circumvent the highly patriarchal society that prevails all around her.

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As I have already mentioned, this is an interesting period of history that has not been exploited in the past. Pity, for it is full to the brim with the sort of politics and power-plays that make intriguing reading, so I was delighted to see that the author had captured the essence of this very well.

I also thought the characters were well developed, particularly in distinguishing between the classes. Peter was to Lupus what Odo was to Peter, and yet they needed one another in a practical way. The same might be said of Hemming and the Beserks, for Hemming was one step above the others on the evolutionary scale.

There are also some great battle scenes, featuring both period weapons and tactics, and the author has done a fine job of bringing these to life with the written word.

Historically, I think it is as accurate as it could be—although some medieval scholar might challenge me on that. I suppose one could quibble the fact that Count Odo’s wife, Théodrate of Troyes, was not the illegitimate daughter of a bishop, but to me such is part of an author’s license.

However, at times I thought the author stretched my credibility factor a bit beyond limits—Peter and Lupus’ finding the bones in Rome, for example. My biggest quibble, however, was with the lack-luster ending. After all the great battle scenes and individual combat, I thought the ending—however historically accurate—was less than heroic. Nonetheless, I can recommend this story for those who enjoy well-written historical action. Four Gerry Bees.


[1] Some historians dismiss Cernuus’s account as being a somewhat fanciful version commissioned and written for Count Odo.

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Thanks  for dropping by!!

November 20, 2011 - Posted by | Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical period, Military history, non-GLBT, Uncategorized

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