The Reluctant Berserker by Alex Beecroft
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Genre: Gay Historical Romance
Tags: Lit-Fiction, Historical, Stereotype Role Reversals, Forgiveness, Faith/Religion
Length: 347 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
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.
Wulfstan is a warrior and has been with his lord, Ecgbert, since young. The redheaded Wulfstan is a big, broad, powerful Saxon warrior, prone to moments of anger and physicality. He has several friends, and when one of them makes a joke about Wulfstan liking the new young slave that Lord Ecgbert buys, that he will fuck the same hole, Manna is shown the anger and strength that Wulfstan is known for. But there is another side to Wulfstan, which gives him reason for more offense at Manna’s teasing than he might ordinarily have taken.
When they are back in town and at the local hall about to be entertained by scops – the wandering musicians, poets and songwriters of the time – one of the scops dares push Wulfstan against the wall and kisses him. It is more an act of will than out-and-out passion by the scop.
Wulfstan likes it, but when he looks like being caught, and because of the Scop’s mocking behaviour, Wulfstan takes his anger and frustration out on him. The scop’s master, Anna, pleads his case. Anna explains that his ‘apprentice’ is needed because many are waiting on their music to soothe and entertain. He shall make up for any slight to Wulfstan if he shows mercy to an old man and his charge, and his ability to make a living. Wulfstan agrees after the initial outburst; he is not an unreasonable man. Then he thinks about the kiss, and his tightly held secret to be dominated by, and to be in a relationship with, another man.
Soon after the hall incident, Cenred – one of Wulfstan’s fellow warriors and friends, and a young man of mean-spirit like his father before him – suspects Wulfstan’s secret and acts on it one night. Wulfstan has always been good to Cenred, even though he is not liked by the other warriors. To this end, Cenred makes advances, which Wulfstan needs and hopes will be safe with his good friend. In the morning Cenred decries Wulfstan as a man who enjoys being fucked like a woman, something of great shame and harsh penalties. One thing leads to another, and when push comes to shove Cenred is dead. No one believes what Cenred said about Wulfstan. But Saewyn, Cenred’s mother, demands a trial. At trial it is ruled that Wulfstan did nothing wrong, it was an accident and Cenred found his due. It is easy for everyone to believe Cenred to be the nasty-mouthed troublemaker he was. Wulfstan is favoured by the lord, and he is not only a proven warrior of good breeding but also a person of good attitude. The trouble is, Wulfstan has to lie and can’t admit he was fucked by Cenred. While he feels relief at his desires being covered, he can’t stand the lies. He also hates what he believes is solely his fault, that he is created wrong. If that were not the case, Cenred would still be alive. To Wulfstan it confirms the fault must lie within. He is also gutted on behalf of Saewyn, Cenreds’s mother. His guilt consumes him so Ecgbert grants him time to go on a pilgrimage to find peace. But Wulfstan knows he can never go back. He takes his horse, Fealo, and leaves everyone he knows and cares about behind.
He’d long known he was formed wrong, and so it came as no surprise that these thoughts of being held down and forced, horrifying as they were, when applied to Leofgar, made his own belly seethe with want and his breath come short.
Since leaving the incident with the Saxon warrior at the hall behind, things have become more complex for the scop, Leofgar. His master, Anna, is old and getting more frail, feeling the effects of winter more than any other time. Anna has always had his hands full with Leofgar; he hates being treated as an elven-like beauty with no manly qualities, and is prone to speak his mind. However, Anna loves him as a son and gives him much sage advice as well as teaching him the art of being a good scop. Both of them have a love of music, of travel, and being their own men. As winter bites harder still, one night it becomes life and death for Anna on the open road. Leofgar ends up carrying Anna to the nearest property. The lord, Tatwine, accepts them, giving Anna and Leofgar shelter. Anna is concerned it may not play out well if Leofgar is his usual strong-willed self, but Leofgar is determined to repay his kind master of a decade –
His tears dripped onto the old man’s fingers, making Anna shift over so that he could lay his other hand on Leofgar’s head, either in blessing or comfort. “I swear,” Leofgar said after a time, “this is where we stop for the winter. Everything I can do, anything I can do to make this man take us under his protection, I will do. I will not… I will not…I’m sorry.”
Cold fingers stirred his hair and rubbed his scalp soothingly. When he looked up, Anna’s expression was wry and fond but not hopeful, and Leofgar was shaken with a fierce determination to prove that he could do it. He could be pliant and helpful and courteous and meek, if his master’s comfort depended on it. He could. He would.
Anna dies soon after swearing fealty to Tatwine and, as his master, that means Leofgar is now oath-bound to the lord. The master, who was like his father, leaves a very big hole in Leofgar’s life and now, on top of his loss, he has to think of ways to deflect Tatwine’s advances; Tatwine wants to…comfort Leofgar in a way Leofgar does not want. Leofgar cannot keep the advances at bay any longer and he makes a decision to leave, but breaking Anna’s oath is not something he takes lightly. Making sure he has his harps, Lark (Anna’s legacy to him) and Hierting, he flees from Tatwine when opportunity presents itself.
Now both men are on the road alone – Wulfstan on his pilgrimage to help him gain inner peace. Running from the constant turmoil of his sexual desires and Cenred’s death. Feeling dogged by wiccecraft curses that Cenred’s mother has brought down upon him – land spirits and spite stakes included.
Leofgar needing to get far away from a lord who wants to possess and fuck him. Who has a legal ownership now and really wants Leofgar, irrespective of Leofgar’s feelings. Who pays no heed to his strength of character and abilities – a good scop, a strong man in his own right, as well as being a skilled archer.
Not only are they both on the road, with individual matters pressing in on them, they think about each other. That submissive (boor of a) Saxon warrior, that dominant (annoying) and beautiful scop. They think about the kiss and the meaning of same-sex attraction and the reversal of dominance/roles. It’s a big deal for both men. If they are to have sex, Wulfstan should be the one who dominates. Leofgar should be the one who submits… if you work on the hierarchy of the times and stereotypical notions of it being considered womanly/unmanly. But they are not stereotypical men. Yes, they have to deal with the social mores of the Dark Ages where a lord can take a boy or mistress on the side, he can fuck someone, but to be fucked is a great dishonour and a punishable disgrace. This is something that transcends time. Many concepts in The Reluctant Berserker do.
Wulfstan and Leofgar cross paths on the road, Leofgar rescues Wulstan after outlaws fell him. Wulfstan does a good job, but there are many and Leofgar is an excellent archer. He takes out those Wulfstan has missed, and the ones who capitulate he sends on their way, telling them to never come back. He gets Wulfstan onto his horse and takes him to a nunnery where he will be helped to recover fully. When Leofgar rescues Wulfstan some real bonding begins, and Wulfstan is glad of injury, if it allows him to lean on Leofgar and be looked after and comforted by him.
Not too long after being at the nunnery, Tatwine and his men turn up to reclaim Leofgar, but Wulfstan is still injured. Wulfstan may be injured and bewildered, but he can’t just leave Leofgar to this lord and his warriors. He also owes him his life, as well as his affections.
Hunlaf delivered Leofgar to the door of Tatwine’s dwelling, and his grey-green eyes had never looked more like amused stones as he pushed him inside. “He’s been a fucking bear ever since you took off. What you face is of your own making. Hope it’s good and hard, boy. Hope you make it worth our while, having to chase you down like an errant bride.”
There is a lot to cover in this book, action, the tales a scop can spin, religion – the intertwining of pagan and Catholic faiths. I thought it was handled very well. That belief in a particular saint, St. Aethelthryth, a woman, helps Wulfstan understand that yielding is different to not having strength. Women are allowed to ‘yield,’ and women are incredibly strong. Yielding can be a strength in and of itself. On top of this, Gerwis, who was Anna’s best friend and now a Benedictine monk, lets Leofgar know the same thing from a different perspective. Who is he to judge another? It is beautifully done. The religious/faith aspects of this book are mostly gentle, wiccan spells aside. I liked that in 900 AD there were people who were kind in their attitude, and it wasn’t out of left field either. Both men had a connection in some way to the people/entities who helped them at different stages. The aspect of forgiveness was superb – to hold such a grudge, to go out of your way to inflict suffering, consumes you. The way Saewyn and Wulfstan deal with this, their pain over losing someone they both held dear and both knew was lacking, gave me more reason to love this book.
Tears trickled down his wrists as he lowered his head further. “I am sorry. I am so sorry.”
Unnatural mother as she was, she felt suddenly a great pity for him. She was a healer after all and did not like to see a wound left untended. “I forgive you.”
Hard words, but they shed the rest of the burden from her back…
The Reluctant Berserker is not only beautifully crafted, it is beautifully named. I see it two ways – Wulfstan has such fear of being who he is, being caught and pilloried, that he acts in an angry manner at times. Like a Berserker. Leofgar is an artist, seen as a man of beauty and one to be possessed. However, he is an excellent archer, capable, but because he is not seen as such, he behaves in a manner that can be deemed passive-aggressive to aggressive. In ways that do not fit his station in 900 AD A-S Britain. He even rebukes the man he knows to be a good man, until he lets go and understands Wulfstan is perfect for him. Another reluctant berserker. Clever writing. All characters were given time to develop, secondary characters included. Overall, the writing is glorious – lyrical, intelligent without being arrogant, thought-provoking, nuanced perfectly for the setting with licence taken where it should be in fiction. It sets a realistic tone for the period and the characters, and stands up to any literary fiction written in any genre by any author. I loved Wulfstan and Leofgar, both independently and as a couple. Their romance was hard won, as would be the case, with much soul-searching finally bearing fruit. It made it even sweeter for me because of that. The action and religious aspects came together in such a believable way, and I thoroughly enjoyed that too. Perfect. 5 Stars!