In the latest book from Harry E. Gilleland, Jr. the prolific novelist and poet revisits the genre of historical fiction, this time with a tale set in twelfth-century England. It’s a tough world of ruffians, duels, and political machinations, and A Wandering Warrior leads readers through a rich tour of the period’s intrigues.
The novel’s hero, Thomas Beaumont, begins the book as a humble commoner, having lost his parents at a young age and spent his teenage years fighting alongside his uncle and older brother as an itinerant soldier in any army that would have them. Despite his low birth, Thomas is an unbeatable swordsman and ferocious fighter—skills that suddenly become even more important when both his brother and uncle are killed, leaving him without any personal ties or sense of home.
Badly injured himself in the series of frays that led to his family’s death, Thomas is taken in by a family of “Travelers” who roam the countryside in covered wagons, searching for adventure and the chance to earn a few pounds.
As Thomas heals, he grows close to Emalda, a beautiful Traveler girl who hopes to marry him. But Thomas remains preoccupied with vengeance; although he wishes to remain with Emalda, he feels strongly that he must find and kill the sheriff who brutally murdered his brother. And so Thomas becomes entangled in his two central—and conflicting—quests: to avenge the deaths of those he loved, and to find new love with a worthy woman.
It’s been said that all literature is really about sex and death, and to some extent, A Wandering Warrior reflects that principle: when Thomas isn’t fighting to the death with some bad guy or other, he’s searching relentlessly to find an elusive lover. Along the way, though, he also manages to pull off heroic rescues, make loyal friends, and explore the vast expanse of England. True to the book’s title, Thomas does indeed wander, focusing on one epic task after another in an effort to find a place for himself in an often-hostile world. Interestingly, the missions that initially seem central to the plot do not continue throughout the whole book; it’s an unusual decision, but given the nature of the protagonist, the plot’s discontinuity makes an odd sort of sense. Gilleland flips around the conventions of linear narration that often dictate such tales of chivalry, and instead allows Thomas to wander where he will, taking up new quests and acquaintances as he goes.
It’s entertaining to watch and see where Thomas’s wanderings will lead him next, but what makes the A Wandering Warrior especially engaging is the level of detail with which the author draws its long-ago setting. Maps detailing each of Thomas’s journeys are inserted into the text, and information about how nobility functions, what it takes to be a knight errant, and how to survive while camping in a forest—to name just a few subjects—makes our hero’s world feel vivid and alive. The many fight scenes are especially intricate, and readers interested in the ins and outs of combat will find the book particularly fascinating.
Against this intricate backdrop, one thing that sometimes falls by the wayside is emotional intensity. Thomas undergoes considerable traumas and hardships, but the story consistently zips right through them, keeping the pacing snappy while giving the reader little time to get emotionally invested in his travails. As a result, Thomas himself remains something of a cipher. When, for example, he learns of the death of a beloved steed, Thomas simply says: “Too bad. I feared as much…Now, down to business.” With such a lack of sentiment persisting throughout A WanderingWarrior, it’s hard to get a sense of how Thomas really feels about his experiences, and thus who he really is as a person.
Gilleland also tends to rely on telling instead of showing when it comes to characterization; often, he states an individual’s characteristics instead of demonstrating them to the reader through that person’s words and actions. Of one character, he writes that she “acted and talked at all times like a childish young woman insufficiently trained in the manners expected from nobility,” but offers very few examples of that behavior. Accordingly, the characters sometimes lack the depth accorded to their surroundings.
Ultimately, though, this book successfully immerses readers in twelfth-century England and all its nuance. Fast-paced and full of historical detail, A Wandering Warrior will satisfy readers looking for the daring and excitement of a classic adventure story.
What do you think of A Wandering Warrior? Which of Thomas’s adventures were your favorites?