The Amber Treasure
The Amber Treasure is the story of Cerdic, a young Angle living in the Dark Ages kingdom of Deira at the end of the sixth century AD/CE. During his lifetime Cerdic is fated to find himself in the midst of the last Celtic attempt to drive the descendants of the Germanic invaders from what was once their land. Starting in childhood, Cerdic is as much subject to the legends and songs of the great Northumbrian warlords told by the bards as any other boy. It is how he learns what warfare really means to him as a person that makes The Amber Treasure the gripping and satisfying tale it is.
Cerdic is the son of a farmer of higher rank, the nephew of a warrior lord whose heroic death is the impossible standard for a young man's plans. He lives a secure life in the Villa, the old Roman farmhouse now crumbling but nevertheless symbolic of a time he cannot quite understand. He has every reason to believe his placid life will continue as it is, that is, until Celtic raiders come and steal a precious treasure from the Villa, amber jewelry presented by the king as reward to the great hero's wife and now the possession of Cerdic's mother. The Celts, which Denning calls "Welsh" from the old English word for foreigner, take more than the jewelry. They take other precious things, his older brother's life, his sister as a slave, his innocence and youth and his trust in both a Welsh slave and his own half brother, his father's unacknowledged and bitter bastard. As part of a small force he travels to Welsh Elmet to get his sister and the treasure back and to avenge the violation of his home and trust. His heroism in freeing all the captives leads to his involvement in a larger effort to prevent a huge Celtic force from overthrowing Deira. The constant impact of disappointment, disillusionment and compromise not only constitutes Cerdic's own growing maturity and leadership but sets the stage for his future adventures.
The Amber Treasure is the story of three swords, the image that is the spine of this novel. Cerdic's warrior uncle's sword stands for the heroic heritage the young man longs to live up to. The second is a fine newly forged sword that is too rare and dear for anyone to wield until it is won by an unworthy man. The third is the sword of a long dead Roman that Cerdic takes from the hand of the first man he kills in battle, the sword that is the reality of war to both the young man and to us, the readers. The symbolism here is also emblematic of one of the things about this novel I most appreciated. Unlike so many depictions of the Middle Ages of late, Dennning provides us with a credible disillusion with battle and glory that is untouched by false modern sensibilities. Cerdic's falling out of love with his uncle's legacy is the natural outgrowth of real experience, coming from an intelligent and reflective mind. It is a grim recognition of the consequences, not a lecture from a distant post-modern future.
Denning presents us with an interpreted early England that does not much stray from what is known but rather offers a flavor of it enhanced with engrossing descriptions, such as the King's hall, the nature of shield wall battle, the stink and fascination of the city of Eoforwic.
The author has a knack with characterization as well, constructing distinct and consistent main and secondary characters, Cerdic's family and friends, the leaders he watches for how to inspire and also not to inspire men and how to make decisions, the enemies who become clearly human to him, and the two young men who challenge his prejudices. Along with the imagery of the swords, the common binding of the novel is a bard, Lilla, an almost unworldly figure who represents the illusion of glory. You know Cerdic has fully matured when he turns to Lilla at a critical moment and tells him to tell his tale another time, for something more important must come first.
This novel is intended to be part of a continuing story and as such is told by Cerdic from the perspective of many years later in his life. I look forward to what Denning does with this.
All in all, The Amber Treasure is a strong and engaging tale told with skill and eloquence, satisfying and yet thought-provoking by an able storyteller.
(reviewed 6 days after purchase)