Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Earl perfectly embodies Cecelia Holland's greatest gift. If you wish to be transported fully into the world, both physical and mental, of another age, Holland is the writer you want. In this case that world is England in the middle of the twelfth century, near the end of the long civil war between the kingdom's designated heir Matilda the Empress and her cousin Stephen of Blois, who adroitly snatched the throne.
By 1153, the struggle for Matilda's English rights have passed to her son Henry, already Duke of Normandy and Anjou and, by marriage right, ruler of Aquitaine. Henry has come to England to succor a town besieged by King Stephen. His arrival offers both promise and challenges to the novel's protagonist, the fictional Earl Fulke of Stafford, a long-time supporter of the Empress. Fulke's own claim to the earldom is challenged by his dispossessed uncle Thierry, who also vies for the loyalty of Fulke's son Rannulf. While they assault strongholds and maneuver their forces, an assortment of great lords jockey fiercely for position and vie for the support of Henry, the young heir who may just be the next king of England. Fulke must find his place in a fragile web of alliances.
The Earl is a riveting read because it drops the reader into a complex situation and makes the array of quick, tough decisions Fulke must make feel like exactly the ones a medieval lord would really face. Natural as well seems the violence and brutality of the age, which always lurks nearby. Holland's mastery of concrete detail makes especially vivid a succession of crucial adventures on horseback, where life and death hang on mastery of the rider's art. The roster of people and titles includes a few minor divergences from history, but there's no disputing the skill with which Holland captures the spirit of an age when a nation ravaged and demoralized was groping back toward unity and peace. (1971; 301 pages)More about The Earl at Amazon.com