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The Firedrake    by Cecelia Holland order for
by Cecelia Holland
Order:  USA  Can
Writers Club Press, 2001 (1965)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Firedrake is the first (and in my opinion one of the best) of Cecelia Holland's large output of excellent historical novels. They are usually set in lesser known periods of history. For example Rakossy is about a Magyar prince in a Hungary under relentless attack by the Moors. The protagonists tend to be strong individualists of both sexes. Unlike many authors in the genre, Holland does not encumber her novels with reams of description of the historical period, but sketches in just enough to give the reader a strong sense of place and period.

Though Firedrake is set in the time of William the Conqueror and its action includes the Battle of Hastings, the story is not centered on William himself. In fact most of the tale takes place in France before the Norman conquest of England. The story's hero is a wandering Irish mercenary knight from Tralee - Laeghaire of the Long Road (the author informs us that Laeghaire is the Gaelic spelling of Lear). We first meet him fleeing Thuringians through Germany, departing the service of Duke Heinrich, who tried to defraud Laeghaire of his wages.

Along the way he encounters both outlaws and a young woman called Hilde. Laeghaire deals efficiently with both, trouncing the outlaws (in an encounter that clearly illustrates the power of a horsed knight against attackers on foot) and purchasing yellow haired Hilde from the father who is beating her. He buys her for her black eyes and treats her fairly kindly. Laeghaire is not a sentimental hero, but rather a product of a brutal time. His early education in a monastery has given him a different perspective to that of his peers and he appears to have some poetry in his soul, along with a great deal of touchy pride.

A renowned fighter, Laeghaire takes service as captain with Count Baldwin of Flanders, the father-in-law of William of Normandy. Baldwin has promised a force of knights to William, and Laeghaire is to command them. William finds Laeghaire insolent and difficult to understand and watches him carefully, though they develop a mutual respect as the campaign progresses. Laeghaire and Hilde have a baby son, and the knight loses his heart to the child. However he feels hemmed in as a hanger-on in Baldwin's castle. That and a personal tragedy drive him to leave the Count's service and join William, then poised to invade England.

This wild knight is a complex character, a lone Irish wolf who helps William the Conqueror to make history. In fact, wolves run through the book and haunt the Irishman's dreams, associated in his mind with William. Laeghaire even participates in a wolf hunt but ends up feeding them, perhaps through a sense of kinship. This novel was out of print for some time but has just been re-issued in paperback. If you enjoy historical fiction, The Firedrake is a must read. I highly recommend it.

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