Lost Realms: Histories of Britain from the Romans to the Vikings by Thomas Williams (HarperCollins, £17.69)

Lost Realms by Thomas Williams is such a self-consciously ambitious book it is almost impossible to review as a general reader with only a passing interest in the deeper history of the Dark Ages.

The problem is that Williams is a more-than-able writer with a very nuanced view of his project. He goes to very great lengths to admit that patching the history together to create a history of “lost realms” is going to lead to disappointment. “What this means in practice is that the text of this book is beset by legions of qualifiers”, he writes. “[W]ords like ‘probably’, ‘conceivably’, ‘possibly’, ‘might’, ‘could’ and ‘may have’ advance over the page with alarming frequency”. Then, more damningly: “If you prefer certainty in historical writing, ground that doesn’t shift beneath your feet, an unimpeachable record of dry facts and narrative churn, then this is not the book you’re looking for.” It’s both a bold admission but also a warning that looms over every page that follows.

Williams highlights the problem with his project to such an extent that it ends up feeling like a PhD thesis in which the author realised the fallibility of their final product deep into their third year of research. In the case of Lost Realms, what follows are hugely fragmented histories of nine kingdoms that make some heavy demands of the reader. It’s often a case of seeing what might have been there by looking at the negative space, lost towns and kingdoms defined by the boundaries of other towns and kingdoms, and arguments equally abstract about absence, phantoms, and echoes.

The author is best when writing about the things that are well known and it makes one regret that he chose such a difficult task. Unless you are a medievalist, so much on offer here is simply too esoteric to be useful. Thomas Williams has been criticised in the past for his prose style and, in this, it will be a matter of personal taste. The author clearly admires J.R.R. Tolkien and takes plenty of opportunities to create his own fictional fantasy rooted in the history of early England. “This book is for those who understand that the glimmer of gold in torchlight can be worth a thousand sun-drenched spires”, he writes at one point and the reader might wish that he could carry on in a similar vein, whisking us into The Mines of Moria rather than some sheep-pasture in the Calder Valley. These passages are welcome and do sometimes feel like a reminder of how this could be a better book… if it were fiction. His effusive quotation of Ted Hughes’ poetry is perhaps a clue as to where his sympathies lie; he yearns toward the mythic more than the historic. Those passages break up the often-dense history and offer a slightly different take on a world that often proves very hard to imagine.

There’s so much here that’s intelligent, knowledgeable, and praiseworthy but the book is also a bit of a grind when it becomes too granular. Conversely, it’s most enlightening when Williams describes larger problems of history, especially those of a nation such as Britain where identity is so closely associated with landscape. “All too often history – especially national history – becomes a narrative imposed from above, a map-maker’s view, an artificial imposition of order,” he writes and elsewhere: “Modern English nationalism draws much of its strength from narratives that conflate the past and present (white) inhabitants of England to create an illusion of unbroken continuity and racial belonging – a fantasy that supports dreams of a racially ‘pure’ ethno-state with ancient origins”.

This is all well and very good, but the problem remains that there isn’t enough here of the lost realms to properly ground the book. He deviates too often into secondary details and wanders extensively over history, to the point where one begins to lose a sense of where we are. If there’s not enough evidence of what’s happening in Cornwall at some long-forgotten point in time then a page explaining what was happing in Constantinople with the construction of the Hagia Sophia doesn’t disguise the problem.

Ultimately, one wonders which audience this book is pitched towards. Thomas Williams himself contends that “this book is intended for a general readership” but the casual reader (well, this casual reader) interested in history in a non-specialist way might find the constant doubts to be unsettling when they want to learn something hard and specific. The specialist might realise something else; perhaps that the book again proves that the dark ages really were so dark that any attempt to recount their history slides so easily into fiction that it becomes more frustration than fact.