Title: The Reluctant Berserker
Author: Alex Beecroft
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Pages/Word Count: 248 Pages
At a Glance: A dense, intricately plotted, and meticulously written book
Blurb: Manhood is about more than who’s on top.
Wulfstan, a noble and fearsome Saxon warrior, has spent most of his life hiding the fact that he would love to be cherished by someone stronger than himself. Not some slight, beautiful nobody of a harper who pushes him up against a wall and kisses him.
In the aftermath, Wulfstan isn’t sure what he regrets most – that he only punched the churl in the face, or that he really wanted to give in.
Leofgar is determined to prove he’s as much of a man as any Saxon. But now he s got a bigger problem than a bloody nose. The lord who’s given him shelter from the killing cold is eyeing him like a wolf eyes a wounded hare.
When Wulfstan accidentally kills a friend who is about to blurt his secret, he flees in panic and meets Leofgar, who is on the run from his lord’s lust. Together, pursued by a mother’s curse, they battle guilt, outlaws, and the powers of the underworld, armed only with music…and love that must overcome murderous shame to survive.
Review: Alex Beecroft’s The Reluctant Berserker is a dense, intricately plotted, and meticulously written book that may test some readers’ patience in some ways but also rewards them with a lovely story that doesn’t once shy away from difficult questions. I’m not very conversant of the Anglo-Saxon world, but I’m familiar with Alex Beecroft’s work, and I know I’m assured a pretty authentic view of the book’s time period.
Because of the time period, in fact, the novel has about it a very dreamy quality. Religion and superstition are strong forces that drive character movements forward from start to finish. Religion and superstition also help bring about full understanding in Wulfstan and Leofgar. The world-building is impeccable, and the readers are walked through scene after scene with a great deal of care and patience on the writer’s part. We get to see how dirty, dingy, wild, and dangerous Wulfstan and Leofgar’s world is; in fact, the descriptions are so detailed and dense that I found myself grimacing a little whenever the heroes kiss or get intimate in some way or another, since I can’t get the image of filth and bad hygiene out of my head.
That said, because of Beecroft’s amazing attention to detail in the way she shapes each scene and allows it to melt gradually into the next, readers who’re used to fast-paced and less intricately written fiction might find their patience tested somewhat. The payoff is well worth the time and effort plowing through such dense text, though. In the end, when enemies come together and face off, we’re treated to some of the most heart-rending moments exploring the complexities of human nature. The Tatwine-Leofgar moment is compelling, to be sure, but it pales in comparison to the Saewyn-Wulfstan scene, which left me in tears. Both moments raise a lot of painful questions that are also resolved in somewhat more diverging ways. I felt that Wulfstan’s situation was a lot more satisfying than Leofgar’s, but that, again, is the beauty of The Reluctant Berserker – that is, nothing’s cut-and-dry, even in the end. Not everyone walks away fully satisfied with the way things are sorted out.
I also found the dichotomy involving the genders to be a pretty fascinating approach to the narrative. I don’t know if Beecroft meant it to be so, but Wulfstan’s dilemma hinges a great deal on the feminine, while Leofgar’s is on the masculine. Their pursuers also reflect that gender dichotomy, i.e., Saewyn and Tatwine. But perhaps the most intriguing element about all this is the uncomfortable issue of misogyny that, unfortunately, is something that we should expect from people who lived in that time. A gay man being the bottom means a man taking on a woman’s trait, which is deplorable in Leofgar’s eyes – as well as other people’s. It’s even more significant since the tropes are inverted in terms of physicality – Leofgar’s the dominant of the two, and he’s the slender, artistic “pretty boy”, while Wulfstan’s the beefy warrior with the temper, and he’s the submissive.
At the same time, though, women are also firmly and easily compartmentalized in this culture: as mothers, wives, and saints. Every female character – even the venerated St. Aethelthryth, from whom Wulfstan finds strength and peace – is firmly locked in her role, for which she’s alternately worshipped, feared, and, of course, treated as chattel. That Wulfstan (the “woman” of the pair) would turn to a female saint and a mother for forgiveness and redemption – while Leofgar (the “man” of the pair) would learn his lesson from a monk and Jesus Christ – only highlights this stark and conflicting views of women. It’s a plot point that caught me off-guard in the best way because it gave me a lot of food for thought throughout my reading of the book. It’s also sadly a rather timely issue, considering the advances society has made where women’s rights are concerned; if anything, it’s almost an uncomfortable reminder of just how much farther we need to go.
I suppose the only issue I had with the book involved Leofgar. While it’s gratifying to see romance tropes turned on their heads, I found him to be a difficult character to sympathize with. He’s too proud, and his distaste for the way he’s treated because of his appearance exacerbates that problem as well as his own views of all things feminine. I think I’d have felt much better about him had he learned his lesson a little sooner, but as it happened, not only did his epiphany take place very late in the game, it also came across to me as one of those “too little, too late” kind of deals. His change of heart toward Wulfstan in the end – especially his romantic feelings for him – suffers from what I felt was a certain hollowness despite his sincere expressions of love. Much of the time the two spent together, after all, involved his rejection of poor Wulfstan for the reasons I gave, and the end seemed too quickly and tidily sorted out.
That said, it’s still a beautifully written book that’s well worth the time and effort walking through a dark dreamscape of sorts. It can be a challenging read to some, but I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for something outside your comfort zone.
You can buy The Reluctant Berserker here: