Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Part saint, part sinner…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Young Dunstan and his brother are sent off by their father to be educated by the monks in the abbey at Glastonbury. There, Dunstan will become fascinated by the processes involved in construction and smithing, and will decide early on that one day he will replace the current abbey with a great building for the glory of God and, much more importantly, for the glory of Dunstan. To achieve this aim he must become a monk and must cultivate the rich and powerful who will be able to fund his dream. This is the story of Dunstan’s long life, of the seven Kings he served and of the gradual coalescence of all the small kingdoms into one coherent England, ruled by a single monarch.

I’ve seen so much praise for Conn Iggulden over the years, but generally he writes “sword and sandals” stories about early wars, and the periods and subjects rarely appeal to me. So I was delighted to get the opportunity to try his work in this story, which is much more to my taste. You can now sign me up as a fan – he’s a great storyteller, and this is a great story!

I didn’t know much about the real Dunstan and deliberately avoided finding anything out before reading, so that I could accept Iggulden’s version at face value. His historical notes at the end of the book remind us that our knowledge of this early period – the 10th century, AD – is patchy, with many gaps that may never be filled. The main facts of Dunstan’s life are well documented, and Iggulden sticks to them. But that leaves him plenty of room to use his imagination to fill in all the bits that aren’t known and to create a characterisation that could be true, and is certainly believable.

The story is given in Dunstan’s own voice, writing his reminiscences towards the end of his life. This makes it a perfect format for an audiobook, and the narrator, Geoffrey Beevers, does a wonderful job of bringing the man and his story to life.

Dunstan playing his harp as the devil pays a visit…
but Iggulden reveals the “truth” behind the legend

Iggulden’s Dunstan is hardly saintly, especially in his youth and early adulthood. He’s deliciously wicked and does some pretty terrible things during his life, but somehow he keeps the reader on his side. I think it’s because he doesn’t really attempt to explain too much or to justify his actions – he occasionally feels guilt and a twinge of remorse, but he never wallows or gets mawkish about it. Instead he shows us the inherent instability and violence in a society almost perpetually at war, either between internal rival factions or against the Viking raiders who were a constant threat, and the use and abuse of power that was commonplace among those who could wield it. All of this makes Dunstan’s own actions seem far less out of the ordinary than they would be in a less lawless environment.

The stream of Kings all with annoyingly similar names provide the drama that keeps the story moving along at a good pace. Some are Dunstan’s friends, some mistrust him, some are outright enemies. As he ages, some of the later ones, whose fathers and grandfathers Dunstan had known, look on him as a mentor, and in some cases, at a time when primogeniture wasn’t quite as established as it later became, Dunstan is influential in ensuring their accession to the crown. Again, Iggulden appears to stick to the known facts but provides fictional stories to fill the spaces in-between, making each of these monarchs fully rounded humans rather than just names and dates in a history book, and keeping the whole thing firmly rooted in the attitudes of the day.

Conn Iggulden

As a monk and later Abbot of Glastonbury, and finally rising to be Archbishop of Canterbury – the top religious job in England – the early church plays a role in the story too, and again I found Iggulden’s portrayal entirely convincing. This was centuries before the Reformation, of course, but the corruptions in the Roman church already existed, and both real-life and fictional Dunstan were involved in rooting out the worst of these and transforming the Church in England to follow the Benedictine rule. Iggulden’s Dunstan, though, is hardly a devout, pious man, although his relationship with God and his religion deepens as he ages. He recognises his sins, but believes that God will weigh them in the balance with his great works – the buildings he constructed, his role as Royal Treasurer, his influence over the kings and, through them, the realm, and his transformation of the Church.

This is a lengthy book with a huge cast of characters, but Iggulden makes them all individual so that the reader doesn’t feel swamped by them. I felt fully immersed in Dunstan’s world, even though it took me weeks to listen to the whole thing, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about a period of history that was previously a blank to me. I do hope Iggulden writes more on subjects like this, although I’m now tempted to try his sword and sandals books after all…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

43 thoughts on “Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

  1. This sounds really interesting. I’m fascinated by Glastonbury and went regularly when we lived down that way. I might just have to add this my list 😀

    • I stayed for a few weeks down there many years ago when I was on a course and thought it was a very strange place (in a good way), more connected to the past than the present in a lot of ways! But I had no idea about Dunstan and the building of the Abbey. If you do read this sometime, I think you’ll enjoy it. 😀

  2. This sounds fascinating, FictionFan! It’s a period of history that I don’t know enough about, and this sounds like the right blend of what we know and the author’s imagination. You can’t beat that for a good historical novel. And the writing style sounds effective, too. Little wonder you liked this.

    • My knowledge of this early period is pretty non-existent so this was a very enjoyable way of learning a bit about it, and he did a great job of bringing the setting to life. Unfortunately, he’s another prolific author, though, so my list grows ever longer… 😉

  3. What a difference a day makes, review wise! I admire anyone who can pull off a good historical novel. I would love to know more about how he researched and how long the writing process was.

    • Haha – I know, the rollercoaster of reading! 😉 I think he’s written around this early period before so he probably had a good feel for it already, but his notes showed he’d clearly done a lot of research on the lives of Dunstan and all the kings. He’s incredibly prolific, though, so he must be a fast worker!

    • Generally speaking, I’m not good with long audiobooks, so it’s a tribute to the combination of a great author and a great narrator that I never once felt like giving up on this one. On paper I’d imagine it’s a much quicker read despite the length, because it flows and has a good pace…

    • Thank you! 😀 He’s an author I’ve often been tempted by too, but the subject matter of this one made it irresistible! A great place to start with him, I think – unfortunately, now I want to read all his other books… 😉

  4. Great review FF. I have my beady eye on this book as am a bit of a nut for both Iggulden and Anglo-Saxon history. I’d vouch for the quality of his series about Genghis Khan and his descendants – great page-turning storytelling, dynastic jostling and backstabbing, and an an era and culture that was totally alien to me before, fascinating to learn about!

    • Thank you! This sounds like it would be perfect for you then – hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Oh, I didn’t know he had a series about Genghis Khan – I thought he was all Romans, Vikings and early England. That sounds very appealing – thanks for the recommendation! 😀

  5. I find Glastonbury seriously eerie so I’m not sure I want to read a book about it, but I am all ways looking for a good storyteller so maybe I will try something else by him.

    • Haha – it is a strange place, isn’t it? But it actually sounded more normal in the book – before all the legends and mysteries grew up around the place. I’d like to read more by him, and Grass and Vanilla has just recommended his Genghis Khan series which sounds appealing…

  6. This is definitely my kind of book, so it’s going right on the wish list, if not directly to the TBR pile! (it reminds me I really need to read the second Helen Hollick book which takes place shortly after this)

    • Wish list it will have to be. I just checked and it’s not available on Kindle yet here and any other format is way too pricy.

    • Ha – I saw how you sneakily snuck that recommendation in there! I shall investigate! 😀 What a pity it’s not out on Kindle yet – just checked and it’s out here, so hopefully it won’t be too long. I wish they’d publish books at the same time on both sides of the pond…

      • Since I couldn’t get this one yet, I went ahead and moved I Am the Chosen King by Helen Hollick from my wish list to my TBR. I’ve already read The Forever Queen (Emma of Normandy). They might have different titles in the UK versions. Don’t you hate when then do that!? As for different publishing dates, I’m still waiting to read the latest Shardlake book. I love that series!!

        • Gosh, she’s written quite a few, hasn’t she? Yep, The Forever Queen seems to be called The Hollow Crown over here – drives me crazy! I’m ashamed to say I’ve never heard of Emma of Normandy, but her story sounds very intriguing. I feel temptation coming on… 😉

  7. ‘sword and sandal’ type of thing-I know exactly what you mean, because I’m not typically interested in these either. Nice to know you’ve discovered a new (to you) author you like! And that author photo is pretty hilarious, he looks like Stephen Colbert!

    • Haha – I knew he reminded me of someone but couldn’t think who! You’ve nailed it! 😂 Yeah, I’m not enthusiastic about the books that concentrate too much on early warfare – I much prefer this type of thing. I’ll need to check his back catalogue to see what else appeals… 😀

  8. This sounds great! I have only read one of Conn Iggulden’s books – Stormbird, the first in his Wars of the Roses series – and I wasn’t very impressed, even though it’s a period I love. There was too much action and not enough depth. If I do decide to give him another try I would consider this one.

    • That’s the impression I’ve always had of his books, that they’re mainly action. But this one is much more into the politics and shenanigans of the monarchy, with a side dish of the church, and it felt very well researched to me. If you do decide to go for it sometime, I hope you enjoy it!

    • Thank you! 😀 I love learning about a period I don’t know through a well written historical fiction – so much easier to digest than an actual history book! And this one felt very well researched to me.

  9. I have never had the urge to read a Conn Iggulden book, until now. I studied Medieval History a bit in university and still harbour a secret love for it but find a lot of the fiction written about that time not very good.

    • The early medieval period is a blank for me, though I know a little more about the late stages. I usually avoid books from this period too because they tend to be all battles and gore, so it was a delight to read one that was actually about church and state rather than war, especially since it felt very well researched.

    • It’s before the point of history that I’m usually interested in too, but the Dunstan angle made it really interesting. Ha! I often think that if I’d lived in those horrible times, I wouldn’t have *wanted* to survive for very long… 😉

  10. FF, I am really pleased to hear you enjoyed this, as I have a copy of it languishing on my Kindle. I have had some trepidation about picking it up because I have never read anything by this author and feared it might be all swords and fighting, but you’ve put my mind at rest. 🙂

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