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Carpe Librum

Bookish conversation with author Samantha Wilcoxson.


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Historical Novel Society

The Half-Hanged Man by David Pilling

The Half-Hanged Man - David Pilling

This book, which appears to have originally been released as a series of three novellas, covers the story of the Wolf of Burgundy from three different perspectives. As always with Pilling's work, the story is not for the weak of heart. All the violence, betrayal, and hardship that often is given the veneer of chivalry is front and center in this story that takes the reader from England to Castile and many places in between at the turn of the 15th century.


The title character is Thomas Page, who is the first narrator and was literally hanged until almost dead to earn his nickname. He tells his story of becoming an outlaw and winding up in France being trained as a soldier to a chronicler that he happens upon in an English pub long after his supposed death.


The second section takes up the story of Eleanor Menezes de Alonchel, who made a future for herself completely at odds with the one her father had planned for her. Caught up in the war between Pedro the Cruel and his half brothers for the prize of Castile, Eleanor chooses the life of a spy and worse rather than that of a bored housewife. Her path intersects with Page's and they become devoted to one another, fighting for others but loyal only to each other.


Both of these stories are taken up years later by one who had vowed to take his vengeance on Page for past wrongs, of which many occurred during these bloody years in France and Spain. The Bull of Najera feeds his growing obsession with catching Page and his Company of Wolves with failures to capture him, until it becomes a hatred that drives him to unexpected cruelty that bordered on insanity.


As with each of Pilling's works, the historical background of this novel is rich and captivating. Characters are far from romantic knights and ladies, but rather are rough, selfish, and violent. The gritty realism of the prose is something frequently missing from historical fiction. Battles are not a pretty place, and the picture painted here is realistic enough to make the reader cringe at times. But that's what makes it worth reading. Though many of these are fictional characters, their story is one that was lived by far too many real people whose names we will never know.