“Essex Dogs,” a first novel by the best-selling historian Dan Jones, opens with a group of soldiers pressed together inside a landing craft approaching the coast of Normandy at dawn. They disembark on the beach, where they meet a barrage of enemy missiles and must scramble to safety as soldiers from other boats drop dead all around them.
To anyone with a basic knowledge of 20th-century European history, or has seen “Saving Private Ryan,” at least, this may sound like a familiar opening. But “Essex Dogs” is set not in June 1944, close to the end of World War II, but in July 1346, toward the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, and the enemy in the novel, French not German, is armed with crossbows and catapults rather than machine guns or mortars. By implicitly connecting these two very different events, nearly 600 years apart, and, in effect, turning the earlier invasion into a medieval version of D-Day, Jones adds extra drama and interest to the novel’s beginning but at the expense of historical accuracy, since chronicles of the time make clear that in 1346, unlike in 1944, the English troops took the beach unopposed.
In that sense, “Essex Dogs” starts very much as it means to go on. Despite its author’s professional background, the novel’s relationship to history is notably loose and irreverent. It is set amid well-known historical events and peopled in part by actual historical figures. Yet readers coming to the novel hoping for new perspectives on the Hundred Years’ War or on the experience of soldiering in 14th-century Europe are likely to come away disappointed or perplexed, since this is a book that, for better or worse, consistently prioritizes excitement and action over probability or fact.
The Essex Dogs of the title are a 10-strong band of mercenaries hired by the nobleman Sir Robert Le Straunge to take part in King Edward III’s invasion of France. The group is led by “Loveday” FitzTalbot, a grizzled and increasingly disillusioned veteran of many previous campaigns, and includes among its number a shy 16-year-old archer named Romford. Loveday and Romford, because they are given back stories and possess as a result a certain emotional complexity, are by far the most interesting and fully realized characters in the group, and, indeed, in the novel as a whole.
The other eight Dogs remain, by contrast, one-dimensional, each defined by a few simple and unchanging characteristics. There is Gilbert “Millstone” Attecliffe, who used to be a stonemason and now kills people with a large hammer; “Scotsman,” who is ginger-haired and permanently angry; “Father,” the wayward and drunken priest; “Pismire,” who is small and talkative; and so on. The Dogs are bound together by a love of fighting and a simple code of loyalty: “Bury your dead. Leave no living man behind.” In between the bloodshed, of which there is plenty, they drink a lot, loot, insult one another and complain about the incompetence of their leaders: “[Expletive] Lords. All they do is talk and send men like us to do their [expletive] work and risk our skins.”
Given that soldiers do most of the talking in this book, the dialogue’s relentless profanity feels plausible enough, but this plausibility is weakened by Jones’s unfortunate attempts to add comedy to the mix. The flamboyant oaths, for example, which quickly become a running joke — “By St. Peter’s gray-plumed ballsack, what do you think happened?”; “What in the name of St. Beatrice’s [expletive] nipple rings has been going on here?” — may prompt a chuckle now and then, but only at the cost of making the characters who speak like this seem unreal and faintly absurd.
Having successfully established a Normandy beachhead, the Dogs join the rest of Edward’s army and are deployed like an antique Delta Force on a series of dangerous missions. They enter a French town before the rest of the troops in order to clear out the remaining defenders and are later required to lead a spurious peace delegation and retrieve a batch of stolen horses. Woven between these risky and violent escapades are several subplots, including Loveday’s repeated encounters with a mysterious Frenchwoman, a long-running feud with another group of soldiers from East Anglia and, most implausibly, Romford’s continuing attempts to feed his addiction to “powder,” a cocaine-like substance that he has turned to in order to assuage the pain of childhood trauma.
In the second half of the novel, Romford, in an equally unlikely turn of events, is made, against his wishes, a squire to Edward III’s teenage son the Prince of Wales (Edward of Woodstock, who later became known as the Black Prince) and quickly gets his master hooked on powder too. There is a playful revisionism at work in Jones’s portrait of the prince, who has traditionally been seen as a military hero but here is imagined as a spoiled and brattish teen, self-absorbed and boastful. The novel is at its most interesting in these later chapters, when it begins to consider larger questions about warfare and national mythology and becomes as a consequence a little less concerned with action and entertainment and a little more self-aware. Such thoughtful passages remain, however, only occasional in a work that expends most of its energy reconceiving medieval military history as a swashbuckling Hollywood movie.
“Essex Dogs,” the first novel in a projected trilogy, is on the whole a violent and bloody affair, often implausible, sometimes familiar to the point of cliché, but rarely dull. Whether readers find Jones’s freewheeling approach to the past refreshing or troubling will largely depend, I suspect, on their sense of what fiction in general, and historical fiction in particular, is capable of. In her magisterial Reith Lectures of 2017, Hilary Mantel argued that historical fiction should be an imaginative complement to the historical record. She insisted that the novelist’s role is to bring the dead back to life by filling in gaps and subjectively reinterpreting evidence, but never by altering what is already well known. This strict and deeply serious approach is not the one Dan Jones adopts in “Essex Dogs.”
In an author’s note, he calls the book “self-evidently” a “fictional portrayal.” He mentions that an early conversation with George R.R. Martin was an important factor in his decision to write the novel, and “Essex Dogs” is indeed closer in feel and substance to “A Game of Thrones” than it is to the extraordinarily detailed and convincing reconstruction of Tudor England one encounters in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. Readers who find Martin’s historical mash-ups exciting, and are relaxed about writers taking plentiful liberties with the past, might enjoy “Essex Dogs” and look forward to its promised sequels. But those who, like me, prefer a form of historical fiction that takes a little more care with the facts are advised to look elsewhere.
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