I very much enjoyed reading this book, to the extent that it really did brighten my outlook on the world and even make me look at it differently. Harry Nicholson performs a rare feat in being able to bring his early 16th Century world alive not only with physical detail, but by convincingly portraying the mindset of the ordinary people of the time: in many ways not so different from us, with similar concerns and drives, and with a sometimes rowdy sense of humour, but also closer to nature ( I know that sounds corny but there’s really no other phrase) than most of us could ever be, because they literally live in it. Nicholson’s hero Tom knows the ways of animals and the uses of plants with a vivid, earthed awareness that is simply out of reach of most 21st Century Westerners. Along with that goes a naturally pagan outlook that might seem equally baffling to us in our Monotheistic, post-Monotheistic or Materialist world, but makes total sense for characters who almost literally sleep on the earth and for whom the pronouncements of priests are more or less irrelevant. As I read, I was totally convinced by such a viewpoint and whatever I saw of the natural world in my own daily round came to life a little bit more for me. I have to say it felt a lot healthier and more expansive than my usual boxed-in awareness.
In general, as with all the best historical novels, I was right there in the period of the story, and the author has obviously deployed wide-ranging knowledge and detailed research with great skill. The tale is a fairly simple but very engaging one, with a brilliantly described (from the soldier’s-eye view) Battle of Flodden as its centrepiece. The characters are vivid, if not over-complex, and the author’s love of them is endearingly evident.
In fact, there’s a beautifully old-fashioned feel about this novel all round, which I don’t mean as a back-handed compliment. There’s something refreshing about reading a novel in which the author obviously wants the best for his characters; in which many of them behave towards each other with dignity and decency; in which even the worst is redeemable; and in which history, ancestry and nature are honoured. All that makes Tom Fleck a much more challenging book than might first appear. Because, again like the best historical fiction, it makes us ask the deepest questions about our own world.