I was very excited to discover this book that features the Leechbook of Bald, an important Anglo-Saxon medical text. J. R. Russell sets the novel in the time of King Alfred and starts with the interesting premise that Bald was the son of Cild, the compiler of the medical remedies. Unfortunately, the execution of the novel leaves something to be desired. The narrative is generously endowed with excerpts from an awkward 19th century translation of Bald’s Leechbook (and other early English medical and scientific texts that were not necessarily bound with the Leechbook), to the degree that the extracts at times really get in the way of the story. The excerpts are just too long and too numerous in number.
In many ways, Bald is simply not a very nice character. He engages in incest, rape, and other highly questionable behaviors. Nonetheless, we learn things about Bald’s early life that render him a sympathetic character despite his transgressions.
It would have been helpful to have some notes to explain when the action switches from historical reality to historical fiction. In a few cases, additional citations would have been helpful, as when the poem Battle of Brunanburh was quoted without attribution. I also felt that the ending was unnecessarily sad – not so much the very end, but another part close to the end. Great fiction does not always have happy endings, but I also prefer books that are not sad without a good artistic reason. Parts of this book were just sad, without the artistry.
The best feature of the book was the compelling narrative. The story grabs hold of you, and then you won’t want to put the book down until you read just one more chapter, and then another, and so on. Near the beginning of the book, I was ready to set aside due to the balky long quotations from Bald’s Leechbook and other texts, but I kept going and am glad I did. Other readers interested in historical fiction set in the Middle Ages may enjoy the story in The Devil’s Monk.