By Andy Winter, Daniel Bell, Aljosa Tomic
In 991AD, 93 Viking Longships with 3000 men sailed up the river Pant in Essex to raid the Royal Mint in Maldon. Against them was Brithnoth, Earl Of Essex and a small army of Anglo-Saxons. That’s pretty much the plot of Defiant. And that and the cover should give you all the idea you need of this one.
I actually read this after an episode of Game Of Thrones, the one from season five, the one with the really heart-stopping battle. Yes, that one. And it’s about the same thing here. Like Game Of Thrones, Defiant can take a while to get to the pulse-pounding action, but the slow start is actually so neatly done that you don’t mind. And just like that Game Of Thrones episode, when the action does happen, it’s a thrilling thing.
Defiant is based on the legend of the Battle Of Maldon, both the actual battle and the poem written in praise of the valiant Englishmen who failed to hold off the Vikings. Well, that’s one theory at least, as much regarding the Battle of Maldon is up for discussion, but hasn’t that always been much of the fun with historical retellings?
What we do know is that the events in Defiant occur during the reign of Aethelred the Unready, when Brithnoth, Earl of Essex, assembled a small army of his valiant thegns against a massive Viking invasion led by the King of Denmark, Sweyn Forkbeard. The Vikings sailed inland to plunder the Maldon Mint, Brithnoth met them with force, refused parley, ignored all talk of tribute for truce. Historical record says it was a Viking victory, and following this Aethelred capitulated, choosing to pay the money rather than risk more men. It’s the first example of Danegeld in England, a taxation to change history… as Kipling said..
“That if once you have paid him the Danegeld,
You never get rid of the Dane.”
In Defiant, our first sighting of the ships comes at the coast, which usually means battle is imminent if we were doing this at Hollywood speed, but not here in Defiant. Here we have time to wait, those longships might have been fast, but they weren’t so fast that the distance between coast and Maldon along the river Panta / Blackwater didn’t matter. The delay gives us chance to sketch out the Vikings, brutal, nasty… but with a rather inappropriate touch of humour at the same time…
Yes, fair enough, that’s a funny scene, but it also points to the one major problem of Defiant. It’s a very one-sided thing, all the characterisation, all the depth, all the background, is on the side of the good and true Anglo-Saxons. The Norsemen are cyphers, nastiness and violence and little else. But that’s the only big problem.
The delay also gives Brithnoth time to gather men together, long enough for us to get an idea of the character of the man, an old man, wise and fair, smart enough to know all the posturing and bravado in the world matters not one whit in the face of the Vikings. Smart enough to realise he needs all the men he can get, all the way down to the lowliest and nastiest of villains. And he’s not one to mince words either…
“I won’t lie to you. The Norsemen outnumber us three-to-one and many of us won’t live to see another dawn.”
Alongside him, there are loyal men, scared men, criminals, nobles, and Godric, his face ripped apart by Norsemen three years ago, his life changed. All of them are explored here, those character moments, the flashbacks, the idle chat, the gossip… all of it gives us a sense of the import of what is to come, a sense of a collective pause, all the better to raise the tension.
And then the Vikings appear. Talk of tribute and parley fall on deaf ears. Let battle commence.
And dear lord, once we get at it, we really do get at it, the bloodiest, nastiest of battles, no spoilers in this at all… there’s a LOT of death. That’s actually rather the point of all this, and the reason for the heated discussion over the outcome. And it’s all set off by Brithnoth, taking a brave, some would say foolhardy decision to take on the Vikings rather than wait, rather than parlay. But because he did the legend of the Battle of Maldon lives on, Brithnoth immortalised to this day in the poem and in bronze on Maldon’s promenade, still looking towards the site of the battle.
Defiant isn’t historically accurate. It never promised to be. But then again, when talking of the events of 991AD, history isn’t all that historically accurate. Once we go back so far the lines between fiction, historical fact and legend get ever so blurred. This is merely one particularly good artistic representation of what happened at Maldon, when Anglo-Saxon men and Viking men fought and died in their thousands.
It’s a damn fine book, the pacing the thing that really stuck with me, the slow burn of the early pages establishing character, place, tone, but most especially slowly escalating the tension, up and up and up, until the forces meet on Northey Island and battle commences, all of that tension released in an explosion of violence. Yet the violence is particularly well choreographed here, page after page of it, never slipping into the overdone cartoon violence so beloved of these things, artists Daniel Bell and Aljosa Tomic delivering all the muck and the dirt, the blood and the shit, the guts, the eyeballs, the innards…. vibrant and impressive.
And just as importantly, during the bloodiest moments of battle, Andy Winter resists the temptation to wax lyrical, instead allowing the action to occur, the only words at times simple reminders of Brithnoth’s earlier words, describing with pride the men we watch fall one by one.
Defiant presents a very one-sided view of history, but presents it damn well. This is a thrilling tale, well told, writer and artists really getting over the legendary nature of the history here.
You can get your copies of Defiant from the FPI webstore.