The year is 1072, as William the Conqueror proceeds with his grim subjugation of northern England. Further south, Sir Walter, a Norman magnate’s son fighting for the Byzantine emperor, has been taken prisoner in Anatolia after the Battle of Manzikert. With his family unable to afford Emir Suleyman's other ransom terms, their only hope lies in finding four white gyrfalcons, to be captured from their eyries in the frozen North... and time is of the essence.
A diverse group of men sets out on a mission to catch and bring back the hawks. Each has his own reasons for signing on, though not all are revealed to their comrades.
Vallon, a Frankish soldier of fortune with a mysterious past, becomes the party's de facto leader. His fellows include idealistic Hero, a Sicilian Greek medical student; Wayland, a peasant and master falconer who was rendered mute after his family's murder; Richard, Walter's intelligent yet browbeaten stepbrother; and Raul, an expert crossbowman from Germany. Wayland’s huge nameless dog, a great character in his own right, proves to be an equally valuable member of their band.
The journey, which reaches to the far corners of the known world and back again, is the very definition of arduous. Imagine making your way from a hut in the Alps to the fens of East Anglia, thence to the rough, undeveloped Orkney Islands and to the wilds of distant Iceland and Greenland, on foot and by sea – the latter, by means of a creaky vessel held together by skill and luck, under the oversight of a disfigured, uncouth, possibly double-crossing shipbuilder. And from the moment they leave his family's castle, Walter’s jealous stepbrother Drogo pursues them, as eager to halt their quest as they are to finish it.
That’s only half the story. On the route back, Vallon and company contend with Vikings, Lapps, difficult waterways, treacherous guides, and other obstacles from the natural and human realms. Two women join the party at different stops, which adds romantic tension, but they're still interlopers in what's clearly a male domain. During this harsh age, strength is no guarantee of survival.
In this whopping 658-page novel, the final goal remains in view throughout, but the danger of the moment is frequently more pressing. Fortunately for the adventuresome reader, there’s plenty of it to keep the plot moving ahead, and the ties between the men strengthen as their trek continues. The ever-changing environment is presented with a fierce immediacy that makes you feel like you’re braving the elements (and the enemy) right along with them.
Such is the dilemma offered by this thrilling yet lyrical epic. Though you may be tempted to speed on through, many scenes are worth lingering over and savoring. Hawk Quest demands commitment but is worth the time invested. Billed as “the ultimate historical adventure,” it does a good job fulfilling that promise.
Hawk Quest was published by Sphere, an imprint of Little Brown UK, in January at £12.99 in hardcover and trade paperback (same price; take your pick). And yep, this is another chunkster for that challenge.