Essex Dogs is the fictional debut of acclaimed historian Dan Jones, whose previous bestselling non-fiction titles like Power and Thrones have gained him countless and diverse admirers and fans. These admirers and fans include Jones’ fellow historians like Simon Sebag Montefiore, as well as legendary Guns n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan. Incidentally, the latter even appeared in a very interesting video about the Middle Ages with Dan Jones, which one can watch on YouTube.
In his debut’s Author’s Note, Jones credits a dinner with the superstar author of A Game Of Thrones, George R.R. Martin – arguably the godfather of Grimdark fantasy fiction – as being the inspiration for him to write this fictional tale. And we are grateful for it. Because apart from being full of grimdark undertones to match the best dark fantasy out there, Essex Dogs is delivered in a confident and compelling voice, one which breathes new life into the Hundred Years’ War.
The titular Essex Dogs are a band of ten men who form part of a company in the English army led by King Edward III. This army is also the invasion force that storms France in 1337, thereby kicking off the bloody Hundred Years’ War. The band contains men from Essex, yet also places as far flung as Scotland and Wales. Jones brings each of these men to life with aplomb, painting a vivid, credible picture of a motley crew with compelling backstories.
The band is led by the sombre Loveday FitzTalbot, a jaded veteran who has spent years on end fighting for his country. He has also suffered a terrible, personal loss in life, which has left his existence almost bereft of meaning. I say ‘almost’, because there is one thing that still drives Loveday: ensuring that he looks out for all of his men and brings them back home safely. In this way, this experienced and dogged leader gains the quiet respect of his colourful, unruly comrades. These include ‘Father’, a priest gone rogue and increasingly bereft of his wits, who is a highly original and engaging creation by Jones. You’d think an elderly priest might provide stability and guidance to the group, yet Father is a wild card who constantly rocks the boat.
The other band members include two intimidating warriors named Scotsman and Millstone, a shrewd soldier of small stature named Pismire, as well as five English and Welsh archers that include the youngest member of the group: a youth named Romford. These ten characters constitute a portrayal of the common English soldier’s life during the invasion, which culminates at the famous battle of Crecy.
All throughout, the descriptions of France are engaging and easy to follow for those who – like me – are largely unfamiliar with this particular chapter of history. Personally, I discovered the medieval France travelled by the Dogs with a sense of wonder, for Jones’ description of the country left me feeling as though I was discovering a mystical world in a fantasy novel for the first time.
As can be surmised, the Dogs fall afoul of their own side as often as they clash with French defenders, while finding themselves subject to the whims of their own English lords. Lords who at best could be described as loveable rogues, yet who are also self-serving, while caring almost nothing for the commoners they command. These scenes bring to light the eternal absurdity and unpredictability of war, in which traitorous, sabre-rattling knights like Sir Godefroi constantly profit, while those obeying orders often face severe or fatal setbacks.
Jones’ storytelling does not glorify those in power. Yet it does not unnecessarily demonise them either. Instead, he strikes a fine balance when describing the likes of King Edward III, the Black Prince, or army commanders like Northampton and Warwick. This approach serves as a useful counterweight against general misconceptions related to the machinations of medieval power and the causes of war. Not that much has changed, if recent history is anything to go by.
Essex Dogs is an impressive, five-star debut. Its pace is just right, the author has excellent knowledge of the period and its leading characters are wonderfully flawed and plausible. The word on the street is that this novel is the first of a trilogy; I cannot wait for future instalments, to learn more about what lies ahead for Loveday and co., as well as the background of enigmatic and engaging characters like Pismire, Scotsman and the woman from Valognes.
As for Jones’ writing style, I think it splendidly combines Bernard Cornwell’s well-structured and pacy plots with the savage and sensual characterisations of Tim Willocks. The dynamics between a fellowship of characters told through the story of an invasion is also highly original, and I doubt it’s been done before in either high fantasy or historical fiction.
In my opinion Jones is an author every bit as good as Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden, if not better. Historical fiction is crying out for a novelist who can revitalise the genre, just as Joe Abercrombie did with grimdark fantasy. And in Jones and Essex Dogs it appears that our prayers may have finally been answered.