The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

One of the many things I love about reading historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about lesser-known historical figures – the ones who were never mentioned in my school history lessons and of whom I could otherwise have gone through the rest of my life in complete ignorance. One of these is Somerled, whose story is told in Antonia Senior’s beautifully written The Winter Isles. Set in 12th century Scotland, we follow Somerled as he sets out to prove himself as a warrior and claim the right to call himself Lord of the Isles.

We first meet Somerled as a boy in 1122. The son of a minor chieftain from the Western Isles, he is already becoming aware of his father’s weaknesses as a leader – and in this unpredictable, dangerous world, strong leadership is vital. After his father’s hall is burned during a raid, Somerled gets his chance to step forward and take control and, despite his youth, he finds that is able to command the loyalty and respect of his men. But Somerled is an ambitious young man and if he is to achieve his dreams he must build alliances with lords and rulers of neighbouring islands while conquering others – as well as keeping an eye on the movements of Scotland’s king, David, in nearby Alba.

As you can probably tell from what I’ve said so far, The Winter Isles does include quite a lot of battle scenes and descriptions of raids by land and by sea, but there are other layers to the novel too. It isn’t a book packed with non-stop action; there are quiet, reflective sections in which Antonia Senior’s choice of words paint beautiful pictures of the sea and the Scottish islands, their landscapes and their wildlife. She also explores what Somerled is like as a person and how he grows and changes as his power increases.

Not all of the story is told from Somerled’s perspective. There are also chapters narrated by two women, his childhood friend Eimhear (known as ‘the otter’) and the beautiful Ragnhild, both of whom play important but very different roles in Somerled’s life. Eimhear and Ragnhild have strong and distinctive voices and I thought the decision to let them tell their own stories in their own words was a good one, showing what life was like for women during that period and also offering different views of Somerled’s character.

The Winter Isles is a lovely, poignant, intelligent novel which made me think, at times, of King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. However, the comparison is mainly in the setting; the writing style in The Winter Isles is lighter and dreamier and there’s something about it that prevented me from becoming as absorbed in Somerled’s story as I would have liked. This is an impressive book but not one that I particularly loved. Still, I’m now curious about Antonia Senior’s other novels, Treason’s Daughter and The Tyrant’s Shadow, set during the English Civil War and rule of Oliver Cromwell respectively.

As for Somerled, it seems that his portrayal in The Winter Isles is based on a mixture of history, myth and legend; many of the facts regarding the real man have been lost in the mists of time, but the story Antonia Senior has created for Somerled and his children to fill in the gaps feels convincing and realistic. Now that I’ve been introduced to him, I would like to read more. Has anyone read Nigel Tranter’s Lord of the Isles? Are there any other books you can recommend?

More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

The Echo of Twilight by Judith Kinghorn

the-echo-of-twilight It’s 1914 and Pearl Gibson, a young woman in her twenties, is about to take up a new position as lady’s maid. Her new employer, Ottoline Campbell, has estates in Northumberland and Scotland, which means Pearl will have to leave London and move north. She’s prepared to do this, however, because it’s not as if she has much to leave behind – her relationship with her boyfriend, Stanley, already seems to be fizzling out, and she has no other friends or family. Her mother killed herself just after Pearl’s birth and Pearl was raised by a great-aunt who is also now dead.

Spending the summer at Delnasay, the Campbells’ house in the Scottish Highlands, Pearl gradually settles into her new job and her new life. Although the other servants view her as proud and superior at first, she slowly wins them over, and at the same time she starts to form a close friendship with Ottoline. It seems that both Pearl and Ottoline are hiding secrets and as the bond between them strengthens, they begin to confide in each other more and more.

Meanwhile, the trouble which has been brewing in Europe throughout the year has escalated into war and the family return to England, hoping they will be safe at Birling Hall, their other estate in Warkworth, Northumberland. Ottoline’s two sons, Billy and Hugo, both enlist and are soon on their way to France, while Pearl also has someone to pray for: Ralph Stedman, an artist with whom she embarked on a new romance during her time in Scotland and who has also gone to war. All of this takes place just in the first half of the novel; there are plenty of other surprises and revelations to follow as Pearl and Ottoline learn more about each other – and as the war progresses, changing the lives of all of our characters forever.

Pearl, the novel’s narrator, is an interesting and complex character. I was intrigued by her habit of pretending to be other people, introducing herself to strangers as Tess Durbeyfield, Mrs Gaskell and even Ottoline Campbell herself…anybody but Pearl Gibson. I was happy, though, that by the end of the novel we’d had a chance to get to know the real Pearl. Ottoline was also a fascinating character, but I felt that she remained more of an enigma.

The Echo of Twilight is Judith Kinghorn’s fourth novel. I loved her first, The Last Summer, was slightly less impressed by the second, The Memory of Lost Senses, and haven’t yet read her third, The Snow Globe. This one sounded appealing to me as it is set during the same time period as The Last Summer – and although the stories are quite different, the two books do share some similar themes. The impact of war, not just on those who are fighting in it, but also on the people left behind, is an important part of both novels. We see how, with so many young men lost from the British workforce, women had to take on what would previously have been considered ‘jobs for men’, and how, once the war was over, the social structure had changed so much that the running of large estates like Delnasay and Birling tended not to be sustainable.

The Echo of Twilight is an easy read – the sort where the pages seem to fly by effortlessly – and a beautifully written one. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced by the romance at the heart of the novel and didn’t sense a lot of chemistry there, there were enough other aspects that I did like to make up for that. It’s not just a romance; it’s also a lovely, moving story about a young woman trying to find her place in the world.

Thanks to the publisher Canelo for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project This novel by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet attracted a lot of attention after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.  Of all the books on the list, I remember thinking that this sounded like the one I would be most likely to enjoy, so I had a lovely surprise when I received a nice hardback copy from my sister for Christmas.

His Bloody Project is fiction but presented so convincingly as non-fiction that there were times when I wondered if I’d misunderstood and I was actually reading a true story after all!  Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, the case in question is that of a triple murder committed in August 1869 in Culduie, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands.  In his preface, the author explains that he came across the documents contained in this book while researching his own family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. 

Following a collection of statements given by the residents of Culduie, we proceed to the longest section of the book: Roderick Macrae’s memoir which he was instructed to write by his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, during his imprisonment at Inverness Castle awaiting his trial.  Roderick, only seventeen at the time of his arrest, never tries to deny that he killed his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and two other members of the Mackenzie family – we know this right from the beginning of the book – but what we don’t know is what caused him to do such a thing.  Roderick’s memoir provides some insights, giving some background information on what life was like in Culduie and describing the events leading up to the murders.

Next, we have the opportunity to read the medical reports on each of the three murder victims – and this is the first real indication we get that maybe Roderick has not been entirely honest with us.  A study by a doctor who visited Roderick in prison follows, raising and answering questions about the prisoner’s state of mind, and finally we arrive at the trial itself.  As judge, jury and spectators try to understand the motive behind the crime, witnesses are called who give statements both to confirm Roderick’s own account and to contradict it.  A verdict is finally reached, but whether it is the right one or not is up to each individual reader to decide. 

While I was reading Roderick’s own story, I had a lot of sympathy for him and I was so angry with Lachlan Mackenzie (or Lachlan Broad, as he is usually known) that I could understand why Roderick felt driven to take revenge.  However, when I read the rest of the documents, particularly the report of the court proceedings, I began to wonder how much Roderick had omitted from his memoir and whether Lachlan Broad’s actions were really as provocative as they had at first seemed.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of life in a tiny Scottish community in the middle of the 19th century.  Roderick Macrae’s mother dies in childbirth just before the events described in the novel, leaving Roderick and his siblings alone with their father, a crofter trying to earn his living from the land.  Culduie (a settlement of only nine houses) and the surrounding villages are the property of the Laird, who rules through his factor and a network of local constables.  Lachlan Broad is elected the constable for Culduie and this is what brings him into conflict with the Macraes.

The writing style and the language used throughout the novel feels appropriate for the time period and increases the sense of authenticity; as I’ve said, at times I could almost have believed I was reading genuine historical documents.  Dialect is used sparingly and a glossary is provided if you need to look up any unfamiliar Scots words (there were a few that were new to me, but these were mainly the names of farming implements such as croman and cas chrom).  Maybe Roderick’s narrative voice isn’t entirely convincing given his age, but we are told that he is an exceptionally bright, intelligent boy – and the author does address this issue in the preface too.

I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.  I think a re-read might be necessary at some point!    

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott

redgauntlet Redgauntlet, one of Scott’s Waverley novels, is set in Scotland and the north of England in 1765, twenty years after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745. Although the rising was unsuccessful and ended in disaster for Charles Edward Stuart and his supporters, there were still those who dreamed of restoring the exiled Stuarts to the throne. Redgauntlet centres around a fictional third Jacobite Rebellion and the lives of two innocent young men who accidentally become caught up in the plot.

The novel is made up of a mixture of letters, journal entries and first person narrative written from the perspectives of Darsie Latimer and his friend, Alan Fairford. Darsie, an orphan, has grown up in Scotland knowing very little about his family background, aware only that he has been forbidden to cross the border into England until he turns twenty-five, which is also when he will come into his inheritance. The reason for this unusual condition is unknown to Darsie but eventually becomes clear as the story unfolds and the truth about his past is revealed.

Kidnapped on a fishing expedition to the Solway Firth, Darsie discovers that he has fallen into the clutches of the mysterious Hugh Redgauntlet, a former Jacobite who seems to know more about Darsie than Darsie does himself. Help is on its way, however – when Alan Fairford, who is completing his legal studies in Edinburgh, receives a message from a beautiful young lady known only as Green Mantle, warning him that Darsie is in danger, he sets off at once in search of his friend.

Redgauntlet is the third Scott novel I’ve read (the others were Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian) and my favourite so far. In fact, I was ready to name it one of my books of the year until the plot began to fizzle out towards the end, which meant it lost its place on my list. Up to that point, though, I was completely engrossed in the adventures of Darsie and Alan. No, it’s not a particularly easy book to read, and yes, there are some long, dry passages where Scott discusses the politics of the period or describes obscure points of Scottish law, but otherwise I loved it. I loved the setting, the characters, the air of mystery and foreboding, the exciting plot and the way the novel was structured to incorporate different forms of writing and different viewpoints. I particularly enjoyed reading the letters sent between Darsie and Alan in which the personality of each man – the practical, unimaginative Alan and the romantic, adventurous Darsie – come through strongly.

The problem I had with this novel was with the storyline surrounding the third Jacobite Rising. Knowing that it never happened historically took away some of the suspense and Scott didn’t manage to convince me that Redgauntlet’s schemes would ever come to anything. I enjoyed the build-up, but when the rebellion started to come to the forefront of the novel near the end of the book, this was when I lost interest. It all seemed such an anti-climax after sticking with the story through so many pages. Still, the good bits of Redgauntlet are very, very good – my favourite part was Wandering Willie’s Tale, a wonderful ghost story which appears in the middle of the book. It’s worth reading Redgauntlet for this story alone.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Scott’s novels. Having only read three so far, I certainly have plenty left to choose from. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know which you think I should read next. And I would love to hear other readers’ thoughts on Redgauntlet. Brilliant but flawed is my verdict!

Kingdom by Robyn Young

Kingdom After reading Renegade earlier this year (the second of Robyn Young’s three novels on Robert the Bruce), I decided to move quickly on to the third and final volume, Kingdom. Having had my interest piqued in this period of Scottish history, I wanted to read The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter and possibly Nigel Tranter’s Bruce trilogy – but it made sense to finish with this trilogy first to avoid confusion!

Kingdom continues Robert’s story, picking up where Renegade left off. It’s 1306 and Robert Bruce has been crowned King of Scots at last, the other claimants to the throne now either dead or in exile. His dream has finally been achieved – and yet he is still unable to rule in peace. King Edward I of England, who feels he has been betrayed by Robert once too often, is unwilling to give up control of Scotland and sends Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, north at the head of an army. Just a few months after his coronation, Robert is defeated by Valence at Methven Wood and is forced to flee. Eight years of conflict will follow, ending in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn – and if you don’t know what happens at Bannockburn, then I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

I enjoyed Kingdom more than Renegade, but not as much as the first book, Insurrection. This one is a bit too heavy on the battle scenes for my taste, although that’s understandable as the period covered – 1306 to 1314 – was, as I’ve mentioned above, a time of constant conflict, with Robert and his men caught up in a long series of sieges, raids, battles and skirmishes. It’s also quite a sad book, as Robert’s friends and family pay a heavy price to enable Robert to fulfil his destiny. Some face execution, some are imprisoned and others suffer the indignity of being caged like animals. There’s cruelty on both sides, but also compassion and that’s one of the things I’ve noted throughout this trilogy: that the situation is not just portrayed as a case of Scotland good and England bad or vice versa. In fact, Robert faces not just opposition from Edward and the English but also from Scottish rivals and rebels, all of whom ensure that his path to the throne will not be an easy one.

Robert himself is a more sympathetic character in this novel than in the previous two. I found him difficult to warm to before – although that was partly a result of all the treachery and betrayal he was involved in, as well as the lack of time he had to spend with his wife and daughter – but it seems that with his coronation has come a new maturity and sense of responsibility. He is still a slightly bland character, though; I prefer my heroes to be more charismatic! I actually thought some of the other characters were far more interesting than Robert – Alexander Seton, for example, a nobleman from East Lothian who finds his loyalties torn between his country and his family.

I was sorry to see the last of Edward I, who had been the driving force behind much of what happened in the first two and a half books. He is succeeded by his son, Edward II, who lacks his father’s military and leadership skills and is a less worthy opponent for Robert. But while I can’t say that I liked either of the Edwards, the real villain in Kingdom is Aymer de Valence. Apparently, though, the historical Valence was not exactly as he is portrayed in this trilogy; Robyn Young admits in her author’s note that she hasn’t been very fair to him and that he probably doesn’t deserve to be seen as villainous at all. I would like to give a word of praise to Robyn Young for her author’s notes, by the way – they are much more comprehensive than most.

I have enjoyed reading this trilogy, especially as I previously had only a very basic idea of the history involved, which meant that most of Robert Bruce’s story was new and unfamiliar to me. Now I’m looking forward to exploring the period further!

Renegade by Robyn Young

Renegade One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about historical people and events that I might otherwise have gone through life knowing little or nothing about. I would probably never have thought of picking up a non-fiction book on Robert the Bruce, so I’m pleased to have been introduced to him in fictional form in this trilogy of novels by Robyn Young.

The first book, Insurrection, which I read in 2014 and loved, took us through Robert’s early years, explaining the origins of his claim to the Scottish throne, his family’s rivalries with the other contenders, the Balliols and the Comyns, and how he entered the service of Edward I of England after John Balliol was made King of Scotland. I immediately bought a copy of the second book, Renegade, so that I could find out how Robert’s story would continue, but I struggled to get into it and put the book aside until a few weeks ago, when I felt ready to have another attempt.

Renegade begins in the year 1300 with Robert Bruce in exile in Ireland, having betrayed the English and set his sights on taking the throne of Scotland. He intends to search for the Staff of St Malachy, one of four legendary relics, and use it to bargain with King Edward, but things don’t go according to plan and Robert is forced to take a different approach. Swearing loyalty to Edward again, Robert must convince the English that he has turned his back on Scotland once and for all…while secretly biding his time and waiting for a chance to launch his campaign for the Scottish crown.

I think my initial problem with this book was due to the fact that it opens with the search for the Staff of St Malachy and I tend to find ‘hunting for hidden relics’ stories quite tedious and over-used in historical fiction. However, once I got past the first few chapters this storyline was pushed into the background and I started to find the book much more enjoyable (although I still think Insurrection was the better of the two).

Robert himself is still not a character I particularly care for, which is maybe not surprising as his path to the throne is built around treachery and betrayal, but I did have sympathy for the position he found himself in and the difficult choices he had to make. I felt sorry for his friend, Humphrey de Bohun – one of the few characters in the trilogy that I do like – when it became obvious that he too was going to be deceived by Robert for a second time. As in the previous novel, the women in Robert’s life have only small roles to play, but I enjoyed the brief glimpses we are given of his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and daughter, Marjorie, and I was sorry that Robert seems to have so little time for them both. Isabel Comyn, Countess of Buchan, is another intriguing female character and I’m hoping we’ll find out what happens to her in the final novel – although I suspect it won’t be good.

Also in this book we learn the fate of William Wallace, who has been lying low since the Battle of Falkirk, trying to avoid being captured. Meanwhile, in England, the ageing King Edward is looking to his son – Edward, Prince of Wales – to carry on his work once he is gone, but the prince seems more interested in his friendship with Piers Gaveston and it is already obvious that he is not going to be the ruler or the military leader his father is. The period in which Renegade is set is a time of conflict and conquest, which means Robyn Young devotes a lot of pages to battles, sieges and ambushes. I’m not really a lover of battle scenes but these were easy enough to follow and understand, as well as being detailed and, as far as I could tell, quite accurate. I was interested to find that the trebuchet Warwolf which Edward is having built during the novel really existed and was used in the Siege of Stirling Castle just as Young describes in the book.

I’m now looking forward to reading the final part of the trilogy, Kingdom, and would like to do so as soon as possible, because Robyn Young has a new novel set in Renaissance Europe coming out later this year.