Book review: Saxon: The Book of Dreams by Tim Severin

Only the Devil’s Mark – his eyes of different colours – saves young Saxon prince Sigwulf from certain execution at the hands of ruthless King Offa of Mercia.

Instead, the teenager faces exile and an uncertain future as an outcast, a ‘friendless man’ without protection and prey to danger and exploitation...

Still breathless from his stirring Viking series, author and explorer Tim Severin has moved back 200 years in time to unearth a fresh and fertile patch of history on which to summon up his readers’ blood.

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This is Europe in the eighth century when Offa, now styling himself as ‘King of the English,’ had taken a firm grip on a large swathe of the country, while across the water, the Frankish King Carolus, the future Charlemagne, was also wielding influence and power.

As always, Severin excels in his palpable sense of history and adventure, rich period detail, thrilling battle sequences and fascinating, larger-than-life characters who strut their hour upon his epic stage.

Add to this tumultuous mix, an element of supernatural mystery and it’s ‘game on’ for the new series...

It’s 780AD and when Offa and his terrifying horde of ‘stamping and hallooing’ Mercian warriors attack his father’s minor English kingdom, 16-year-old prince Sigwulf is the only one of his family to survive. The slaughter came as no surprise to Sigwulf because he knew it would happen; he had dreamt it all in vivid detail.

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Offa, bold, ambitious and superstitious, dare not kill the boy because he bears the Devil’s Mark and harming him would invite trouble from the Wicked One.

So Sigwulf, accompanied only by his trusty body slave Osric, is exiled to the court of King Carolus in Aachen, Frankia, ostensibly as a gesture of trust and friendship between the two kingdoms but, in reality, as a hostage.

There he meets Carolus, a striking six foot tall, imposing monarch with a long, blond moustache who insists on wearing the everyday clothes of a Frankish man and runs his court with the very strictest discipline and order.

Sigwulf survives on his wits while at the same time trying to come to terms with his disturbingly prophetic dreams. He gains the friendship of Count Hroudland, Carolus’s powerful and ambitious nephew, but several mysterious attempts are made on Sigwulf’s life.

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When he obtains a Book of Dreams by chance, a rare text which gives meaning to his strange visions, Sigwulf attracts the attention of Carolus himself but the Book proves to be a slippery guide in a court full of treachery and double dealing.

Carolus sends Sigwulf and his slave Osric into Spain to spy on the Moors ahead of a planned Frankish invasion and it is there that Sigwulf becomes caught between loyalties. Either he honours his debt to new friends among the Saracens, or he serves his patron Count Hroudland in his quest for glory, gold and even the Holy Grail itself.

One after another Sigwulf’s predictions come true but often not in the way he had expected, and he finds himself swept forward into a final great battle that reveals who his enemies really are...

The Book of Dreams is an exciting recreation of the turbulent orbit of the charismatic but restless future Charlemagne on his hazardous journey to emperorship of Western Europe. It’s also a gripping start to what promises to be another all-action historical series.

(Macmillan, paperback, £12.99)

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