This is a special critique I’m doing for my friend Caron Guillo, using an excerpt from her book An Uncommon Crusade, which will be released Tuesday, Jan. 4! If this scene piques your interest, you may want to get yourself a copy. Obviously, this scene is already in print, so any suggested changes I have are going to be academic, but any chance to learn something is a good thing indeed.
Battle Scene 1—An Uncommon Crusade by Caron Guillo (Crusader Hugo during the 5th Crusade, Egypt)
Though the heart of the conflict had shifted eastward, pockets of fighting continued close at hand. A dozen heathens surrounded four knights—on foot and back-to-back—tightening their circle like a noose. Hugo sighed and loped toward another lone horse. The animal shied away, but he snatched the reins and leapt upon its back. He dug his heels into the beast’s flanks and charged the band of Muslims. [I like how you create this setting in so few sentences. It’s like a movie the way it begins with a sweeping vista and pulls in upon the hero.]
They scattered when the destrier plowed into their midst. He turned the animal and took after them again, brandishing his blade while the crusaders made their escape. The horse responded easily to Hugo’s handling, and shivers of exhilaration tingled his scalp.
But an arming sword wasn’t meant for fighting from atop a stallion. He aimed the beast toward the main battle. The animal crashed into the fray. Hugo slid from its back. His feet barely touched the earth before an infidel flew at him and knocked him to the ground, sending his sword careening into the mêlée. The panicked stallion trampled it, snapping the blade. [Excellent, tight action here.]
The two men rolled through the dirt, snarling, grunting, Muslim breath hot upon Hugo’s face. He threw a punch to the man’s ribs, felt spittle hit his cheek. The heathen’s hands found Hugo’s neck. His vision darkened before he pried the enemy’s fingers away, but at last he took a great gulp of air through a raw throat and rolled atop the infidel to slam his fist into the adversary’s face. Twice, thrice, four times it took before the man lay unconscious. [From a writing standpoint, this is well-done. From a realistic combat standpoint, I’m questioning how a supine Hugo pried the Muslim’s fingers away when the other man was in a clearly superior position. It seems to me that an interim stunt is needed here – something to cause the Muslim’s grip to slacken. Maybe it’s something Hugo does – a knee to the cojones or a fistful of dirt flung into his opponent’s eyes – or something that happens as part of the larger battle – the Muslim is jostled by another soldier or gets kicked by the panicking horse.]
For a moment, Hugo heard nothing but his own labored breathing. Blood covered his hands and arms. [Was Hugo injured earlier? Cut when he and the Muslim rolled across the ground? Or did he pummel the Muslim into a bloody pulp? Any of those are acceptable, but I’m a little unclear on the blood’s origin (and if it’s Hugo’s).]
A pair of dueling swordsmen lurched by.
Hugo dove for a mace dropped by some ill-fated soldier and sprang to his feet, smiting the chest of an attacking Muslim. [I might have broken up this sentence into two, putting more emphasis on the smiting by isolating it. BTW, I love the word “smiting”!] The weapon stuck fast for a moment, but Hugo pulled it free and turned to swing it at a passing foe. Unaccustomed to it, he scanned the area for something better.
Men began to yell. “Retreat!”
The handle of a battleaxe rose from the chest of a dead Mohammedan. Hugo salvaged the weapon, swung it high in the air, and brought it down to split a man’s skull. [This is the second time you’ve used the same pattern of Hugo obtaining a weapon, taking an interim action, and then smiting an opponent. In the paragraph above where I commented “Excellent, tight action”, you split the potentially lengthy sentences into shorter ones that each pack a punch. That’s something to consider from a pacing perspective.]
Another stabbed at him. The thrust went wild. The tip of the sword arced across Hugo’s cheek. A sharp sting. He tackled the fellow. [Did his battleaxe stick into the other guy’s skull? I know that was always a risk with heavy, bladed weapons. Just curious here. Also, and again I’m approaching this from a combat standpoint, if the Muslim thrust the sword instead of swung it, and the tip creased Hugo’s cheek, the sword is still essentially between Hugo and the Muslim, making a tackle a risky combat decision. From a writing choice, if the Muslim had swung in a wide circle instead of thrusting, the blade would be off to one side, giving Hugo a better window in which to tackle without impaling himself. Yes, I’m nitpicking. 🙂 ] Wrestled the sword from his grasp. Impaled the dog with his own blade.
A foot soldier grabbed Hugo by the arm. “Get going, man.” [It’s The Dude!]
Hugo growled, but jogged toward the Christian rear.
Blood slicked the ground. The odor of vomit and waste soured the air. A pikeman drove his sword into the heart of a dying comrade. [Strong imagery here. Good stuff.]
A downed man groaned and rolled to his back. Hugo bent to survey his injuries. Probably wouldn’t survive the trip back to Damietta. The fellow cried out when Hugo hoisted him to his shoulders. He pivoted and scanned the enemy line.
The Muslims paced back and forth on their ponies or looted the dead for weapons and equipment, but allowed the Christians to retreat unmolested.
Hugo turned and limped back to Damietta with the others.
[This is overall a very strong scene with an excellent balance of action and description. The stunts are clearly defined and realistic. Things you might want to pay special attention to in future works is sentence length and pacing of an action scene. Remember, longer sentences read faster because we don’t have the tendency to “stop” at a comma like we do at a period. All in all, you’ve got a great sense of writing action.
Now everyone go out and buy Caron’s book!]