In this debut fictionalized account of Francia in the 740s, the death of a Dark Age ruler pits religions, and brothers, against each other.
The novel opens in the last year of the life of mayor of the palace Charles Martel, who, although not technically a king, has ruled the Frankish empire for decades. His military prowess has allowed him to take over a good portion of western Europe (including what is now Germany and France), but now he’s dying. He breaks his kingdom into three parts, making each of his three sons a mayor of one. One portion goes to his eldest son, Carloman, a Christian zealot; another goes to his middle child, the great warrior Pippin. The final third, which includes the prized city of Paris, goes to his youngest son, Gripho, the half brother of Pippin and Carloman and the product of Charles’s marriage to the pagan Sunni. Martel also has a strong-willed daughter, Trudi, who defiantly opposes her arranged marriage to a Lombardy prince and subsequently falls in love with a Bavarian—and pagan—lord. Although Gripho does his best to act like a good Christian, Carloman suspects that Gripho follows the pagan religion. What follows is political intrigue straight out of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, except that Gleason’s novel is based on stories of real people, and this historical “game of thrones” is engrossing, with fast-paced, crisp prose and smart dialogue. The tale’s real antagonists are religion and the conflicts it breeds; however, at times, the author’s disdain for Christianity comes close to undermining the story’s credulity, as Christian leaders too often come off as cartoonish villains. For example, at one point, the elder bishop, who has Machiavellian designs for power, nonchalantly has sex with a 20-year-old male “acolyte” as he speaks to another member of the church. Gripho desecrates a Christian church and Carloman turns from a principled if overly religious man into a kind of evil Christian crusader. That said, the story is strong enough for readers to overlook these flaws, which, fortunately, are few indeed.
An enticing read, sure to please lovers of historical fiction and political and religious intrigue.