This novel, set in the same world as the Sarantine Mosaic duology and The Lions of Al-Rassan, takes as its starting point the reign of Alfred the Great and his struggles against the raiding Danes. In Kay’s world, the Danes are the Erlings, the English are the Anglcyn and the Welsh the Cyngael. Despite the length of the book, there’s not a vast amount of plot: Kay is more concerned with portraying character and culture, and particularly the culture contrast and clash between the three peoples.
Bern Thorkellson is a young Erling with limited prospects since his father’s exile for murder and consequent confiscation of his lands. Determining to leave Rabady Isle after the death of the governor who proclaimed Thorkell’s exile (and married his wife), Bern steals a horse and seeks magical aid of Iord, seer of the isle, to get off it unseen and unfollowed.
Alun ap Owyn of Cadyr, prince of one of the three Cyngael provinces, travels with his elder brother Dai, to raid cattle from a farm which only later they realise is owned by Brynn ap Hywll, renowned for defeating the Erlings, and the legendary Siggur Volganson in particular. Luckily prevented from going to almost certain death thanks to the intervention of the Jaddite cleric Ceinion of Llywerth, Dai’s men instead find themselves fighting Erling raiders on Brynn’s behalf. Alun later accompanies Ceinion, along with Thorkell, one of the Erlings, into the land of the Anglcyn, to the court of King Aeldred.
The plot really consists of Bern, Alun and Thorkell getting to Esferth, Aeldred’s capital, and thwarting the plans of the deeply unpleasant Ivarr Ragnarson, grandson of Siggur Volganson. Also wound in amongst this are glimpses of the faery world, since Alun, Brynn and Aeldred can see spirits, and despite the teachings of the Jaddites, even Ceinion is forced to acknowledge their existence, much though he wishes he could not. There are interesting reminders of otherworldly powers mentioned in Sailing to Sarantium (particularly Crispin’s encounters in the Godwood on the Day of the Dead), and the extreme fear of the primeval forest which the Cyngael and the Anglcyn have as home of the faery. Kay doesn’t really explain their presence, though one, nameless, faery becomes important to the plot and to at least two of the characters.
The pleasures of Kay’s writing is the writing itself, and the detail and care which he renders his world. While he takes a great deal from history, his version is nonetheless realistic and well-realised. Since the three cultures he depicts are rather male-dominated, there aren’t so many strong female characters as in some of his other books, but he does give them roles and responsibilities: he’s a bit hard on Rhiannon, I think, who’s Brynn’s daughter, and who knows rather too well how beautiful she is and can’t help but enjoy her power over men, but she is realistic and admirable in other ways. It’s not her fault that Dai falls for her, after all, even if Alun blames her for the consequences. The only truly unpleasant character is Ivarr (Iord does a malicious thing, for example, but she has a reasonable motive for her malice): it’s just a shame he’s described as deformed, and one of the other characters explicitly comments that the deformed in body are deformed in spirit. While this view was probably period-accurate, Kay undermines the point, I think, by making Ivarr such a psychopath, since it seems to endorse the view without comment.
I do like the way Kay contrasts the two daughters of Aeldred, Judit and Kendra. Judit is hot-tempered, rebellious, fond of fighting with her brothers, and shortly to be betrothed to the son of the King of Rhegen (possibly analogous to the Scots). Kendra, quiet and not at all rebellious, makes the wry comment that, after all, where did that rebellion actually get her sister, since it hasn’t achieved anything that she really wanted. Kendra’s a delightful character, and I particularly liked her quiet courage and her developing relationship with Alun.
The ends are rather more neatly and happily tied up than is usual in Kay’s books. Although the book is quite long, and although the plot isn’t involved or sweepingly epic, it’s very readable, and the main characters are portrayed very sympathetically. The world-building is excellent, and the cultures of the three main countries are interestingly contrasted.
Published by: HarperCollins (epub 2010, originally published 2004)