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Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Essex Dogs by Dan Jones (Reviewed by Matthew Higgins)

 

Buy Essex Dogs here

OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Dan Jones is the New York Times bestselling author of Powers and Thrones, Crusaders, The Templars, The Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses, and Magna Carta. He wrote and presented the popular Netflix series Secrets of Great British Castles, and has an exclusive deal with Sony Pictures Television to produce and develop historical TV series, including adaptations of his books.


OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB:  July 1346. Ten men land on the beaches of Normandy. They call themselves the Essex Dogs: an unruly platoon of archers and men-at-arms led by a battle-scarred captain whose best days are behind him. The fight for the throne of the largest kingdom in Western Europe has begun.
Heading ever deeper into enemy territory toward Crécy, this band of brothers knows they are off to fight a battle that will forge nations, and shape the very fabric of human lives. But first they must survive a bloody war in which rules are abandoned and chivalry itself is slaughtered.

Rooted in historical accuracy and told through an unforgettable cast, Essex Dogs delivers the stark reality of medieval war on the ground – and shines a light on the fighters and ordinary people caught in the storm.

FORMAT/INFO: Essex Dogs was published on the 15th of September by Head of Zeus in the U.K. and will be published on February 14, 2023 by Viking Books in the U.S. It is published in printed and audio formats and contains 464 pages.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  So, we start off on the beaches of Normandy, an invasion of British forces onto French territory. But this is not the 1940s, no this is 1346, and we are following the Essex Dogs in the Crecy campaign of the hundred years war. This start had me utterly hooked, you could feel the damp, the dankness, the mud, sweat and tears that went into battle. In fact, it may be my favourite battle of the book, and yes there are several. 

Literally thrown into the deep end, we witness the momentous start of this war by way of introduction to our motley crew. What a crew it is! These Essex boys are proudly down and dirty. They’re definitely a colourful bunch with a hefty load of grittiness and trauma, swears like a trooper, but they hold one another close, their bond unbreakable. However this campaign may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Within this crew we have Loveday, the leader of this rogue-ish squad after the departure of their previous commander, the aptly named Captain. Scotsman was one of my favourites, a crotchety and grizzled character, but beneath this prickly surface he really shows a heart to care. Father is their beloved priest, once a man of God, now a man of the bottle; his story is one full of sorrow and heartache, although he does provide some humorous moments along the way, as do many of them. His common companion is a young boy known as Romford, a young squirt of a man who has no business being stuck in this war, yet another story full of tragedy as we see this promising young man sucked into the vagaries of warfare. To round it off we have Pissmire and Millstone, both beloved members of the crew who go to extraordinary lengths to defend their brothers. This is the family. A family torn apart by this literally gut-wrenching war.

Jones constructs these characters in an extremely broad and visceral fashion, so the decision to start the book off with this creeping invasion that builds to a rip-roaring battle is a fantastically clever one. It provides great opportunity for introduction without ever feeling expositional because we are drawn into this visceral battle by visceral characters.

Now I must warn you, if crude humour and coarse language is not your thing, then this book most definitely is not for you. These men are liberal in their kills as well as their swears, the Earl of Northampton having the most fantastically inventive curses that had me roaring with laughter. As a historian who would be very well aware of the perils and atrocities in the middle ages, Jones does not seek to play these aspects down. We see these characters react to significant trauma in very different ways, some more heart-breaking than others. Their struggles are real, the victims of these soldiers who pillaged and assaulted their way through the French towns are real. We meet some very nasty pieces of work within this book, and it is to Dan’s credit that he does not walk away from that.

Now you might have noticed how I’ve started off with character when usually I would discuss a lot about plot initially. Well, this is an extremely character driven work, the plot itself reflecting the monotony of war campaigns. Early on there are a lot of escapades that happen which were frequently entertaining, and really served to build the bond of this group. Honestly, there really wasn’t much overarching story except to progress toward Crecy.

The character driven narrative is its strength at its best, but by the end became its little stumble. These are fantastic characters I happily spent many hours with, and it was indeed necessary that they were. However, the last 30% did feel meandering at times, re-treading some territory until the final battle at Crecy…. which really didn’t live up to my expectations. In fact, it was the prior siege of a castle that had me whooping along in the way I’d expect of a finale. After such an adrenaline rush of a sequence, the finale fell rather short for myself.

CONCLUSION: Overall, this was such a gripping read, full of heart, humour, and of course lots of history! Readers of Bernard Cornwell are absolutely sure to love this incredible fictional debut from Dan Jones. Whilst the ending didn’t quite land for me, the sequel will definitely be on my radar as soon as it’s announced!

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