William I of England in the pod--in the years before his mighty 1066 invasion from his native Normandy. The author of romantic, traumatically broody novels (The Sea Scape, 1992; Command of the King, 1991, etc.) tells a lively but tidy tale, simplifying a thicket of warring nobles, besieged castles, ancient names and enmities. And William, a blaze of increasingly grim ambition--not much for the life of the mind--is convincing enough. Poor William--son of a peasant woman, Herleve, and Robert, Duke of Normandy--is orphaned as a child (when the Duke dies pilgrimaging) and labors under the title of ``bastard.'' Not surprisingly, nearby nobles and vaguely related claimants begin to rumble and circle around the shaky heir to the fat kingdom of Normandy. So the wee William and Herleve set off for Paris to seek the protection of his liege lord, Henry I, a weak (and untrustworthy) reed. Along the way, William will have his first kill--fatally stabbing an enemy while being dangled out a window! (there's plenty of action here--clash-by-grunt)--and, barely tolerated in Paris, he will meet a future powerful enemy, Guy of Burgundy, but also his future wife, the bright and sharp-tongued Matilda of Flanders, niece of Henry I. With the help of humble but devoted Normans, William moves from place to place with some spectacular escapes, then plotting, battling, and more plotting. For a time, in the fashion of heroic sagas, he's in hiding before the gathering of loyals. And Lide offers the obligatory Henry V pep talk: ``He who has no liking for that fight, let him leave...but he who rides with me now rides to glory with a conqueror.'' And on to skewer and slice! Lide tells this tale of William (factual, but embroidered with some flattering lies delivered by his undoubtedly nervous contemporaries) with gusto and appreciation of those savage old times of battling lords and long swords.