There was a moment early in Saxon’s Bane, as the protagonist hurtles down a dark road in the English countryside on Samhain, when I thought, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Geoffrey Gudgion maintains that propulsive energy throughout much of his debut novel.
Saxon’s Bane is a story of intersecting fates. Fergus, the main character and the author’s proxy, suffers a debilitating car accident in the opening chapter. (Not a spoiler.) Clare, an archaeologist, begins a dig near the scene of the accident. Fergus, trapped in his car’s wreckage and in shock, perceives a visit from a stranger who, the reader learns, resembles the male remains Clare is excavating. Clare and Fergus encounter one another, of course, as the titular Saxon’s presence is felt in the small English village that is the novel’s setting.
There is much going on in Saxon’s Bane, and in a good way. I regret that I’ve never been to England, and Gudgion’s descriptions of the English countryside and village life made me feel that regret more keenly. Gudgion lovingly describes what I assume is an accurate depiction of English village life, replete with homey cottages, local’s and tourist’s pubs, and a (sometimes overbearing) familiarity among neighbors. I’d like to spend a day roaming Allingley’s streets.
Gudgion strikes a fine balance between character and plot. Experienced readers will know from the book’s beginning that certain things are bound to happen, foreordained not only by Gudgion’s storytelling, but also by certain genre conventions. It should surprise no one that there is a romance between Fergus and Clare. Still, Gudgion does a fine job of fleshing out characters who are recognizable. Fergus seems real enough, his troubles and motivations well-depicted and comprehensible. Clare is likewise sympathetic. Even minor characters, such as the village pastor, John Webster, have an air of reality about them.
The plot moves forward in a way that is not unpredictable. Gudgion follows an arc typical for this sort of novel. The good news is, he succeeds: I would call this a legitimate “page turner,” and Gudgion managed to surprise me in spots. Gudgion is successful in part because of his willingness to permit, rather than resolve, certain tensions. Fergus remains attracted to Eadlin, a village woman, despite his involvement with Clare. In Saxon’s Bane, such ambivalence is accepted as natural, even if readers know the story will progress in a specific direction. Still, Gudgion’s characters are complicated, and, thus, more “real.”
The jacket copy bills Saxon’s Bane as horror, but I’m not sure it best fits that genre. There is some minor gore, but no tides of plasma. Saxon’s Bane is horror in the sense that is a ghost story, and ghosts are, one supposes, loosely part of the horror canon. Blessedly, there are no zombies, and, although the story definitely points readers in a certain direction in regards to the supernatural, Gudgion kindly (and wisely) permits readers enough leeway to come to their own conclusions.
Saxon’s Bane is an entertaining debut novel with strong characterization and setting. The plotting, if not surprising, is satisfying; I appreciated the momentum Gudgion maintained throughout the book. I recommend Saxon’s Bane to readers of ghost stories and historical fiction.