The bloody struggle to be king has begun for Finlay of Moray. Cheated by his grandfather, the girl he expected to marry wed to another, he rebels and faces an ultimatum from the old king - face execution or persusade Thorfinn of Orkney to join them.
His half-brother Thorfinn rules a sea-based empire from Orkney and he too wants something of Finlay - marriage to his sister and a war against kith and kin that will cost him dear.
Two women vie for his love and in the turbulent world of 1034 AD the threat of death is as close as a cold shiver down the spine. Set in present day Scotland, then known as Alba, this is an absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom. A hero worth fighting for and an exhilarating historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.
Being an author of 11thc stories myself, I offered to read and review for the author after a copy was received in return for an honest review. The story starts swiftly, beginning with the hero, Finlay, who I might add is fictional as are most of the characters in this book, incarcerated for daring to attempt an elopement with the girl he loves. She was married to someone else, at the bequest of his grandfather, the old King Malcolm and Finlay is unable to accept this. The king gives him the options of execution, or travelling to Thorfinn's stronghold, to get him onside and join the king in his fight against his enemies who want his crown. But whilst there, Finlay is convinced that he should have the throne for himself, and goes against his grandfather's plans and joins in with Thorfinn's plans. Add an undesirable marriage plan and having the indignity of being accompanied by the man who is now wed to his girl into the plot and this makes for a very interesting historical romp, not to mention fierce battles, unrequited and romantic love, and betrayal.
What I like best about this book were the characters and the fact that the focus wasn't always on the hero. When I read a book, I enjoy investing my time and emotion into more than one character. I like to know and feel the secondary players reasoning and angst, it gives me a deeper, meaningful reading experience. Jen Black's skills in character development are high up there with some of the best authors. She entranced me with Finlay's sometimes flawed characteristics, but honourable nature; irritate me with his intended's (Ratagan) superior attitude and annoying habit of not knowing when she's on to a good thing, and devastate me with the death of a character I had a soft spot for.
The battle scenes were exciting, and there were some interesting, and bloody, fights. The plot itself was solid, though totally fictional, which sometimes makes for a better read, because the author can invent the scenes as she wishes.
One thing I would have liked, that was missing, an explanation in the historical note that the main characters were fictional. I found myself perplexed as I was trying to look them up on the net, and found they didn't exist. I admit to preferring my historical fiction to be backed by fact and set in an environment that is true to the period and events of the time, but I can accept, and enjoy, a fictionalised version, even mixed with historical accuracy as long as I am aware and that the author has made these points openly. A few things jarred, some phrases and expressions were not, imho necessarily right for the period, and although I could see that the author had made a great effort to create the historical milieu, it didn't always feel right.
Events in Scotland, or Alba, as the author correctly refers to it in the book, is not always very well recorded in these early medieval periods, so there was a lot of leeway in regards to the story. Viking invasions started in the 8th century and like their English counterparts, the Scots and the Picts were forced to unite against them.The Kingdom of Scotland was eventually united under the descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin, who was the first king of a united Scotland. The descendants of his House of Alpin, fought among each other during frequent disputed successions. The last Alpin king, Malcolm II, who has a part to play in the beginning of the book, died without issue in the early 11th century and the kingdom passed through his daughter's son, Duncan I, who started a new line of kings known to modern historians as the House of Dunkeld or Canmore. It is this Duncan whom Finlay challenges for the crown. This is where the story becomes wholly fiction, perhaps it could even be referred to as alternative history, however it makes for an interesting, exciting read, with larger than life characters and a plot that will keep you wondering what will happen next.
Thorfinn is one of my favourite Characters and I would have loved to have seen him play a bigger part in the story than he did. He is Finlay's fictional half-brother, having had the same mother. Ms Black uses one of the quirks of the time: there were lots of half brothers, half sisters etc, as a device to create certain aspects of the plot. This probably also contributed to the eventual downfall of the House of Alpin in real life, because the many half brothers and sisters ended up having many cousins and half cousins, and many contenders for the throne. So when Finlay arrives at Thorfinn's stronghold, he has a plan to marry his half brother to his own half sister who is not related to Finlay, but in real life, this arrangement may have been frowned upon because of the blood relations between the two brothers and Thorfinn and his sister. Confused? I must admit, it took me a little while to get my head round it.
Thorfinn was also known as The Mighty, and was half Scottish and half Scandinavian. He once appeared as MacBeth in a book by Dorothy Dunnett, but there is no basis in him being MacBeth, at all. His father was the Viking Jarl, Sigurd Hlodvirsson and his mother, a daughter of the king, Malcolm the II, who would have been his grandfather. This means that he was also a contender for the throne, but he is not interested in taking the throne in the book, and is supportive of Finlay's claim. Thorfinn was the only child of the union between his father and the Scottish princess, so he had a lot of half brothers and sisters.
The Orkneyinga Saga says this of him:
He was unusually tall and strong, an ugly-looking man with a black head of hair, sharp features, a big nose and bushy eyebrows, a forceful man, greedy for fame and fortune. He did well in battle, for he was both a good tactician and full of courage."Ms Black's description of his was very accurate. I enjoyed reading about him in the book, he was an interesting character I would love to have seen more of.
The book is well written and wholly enjoyable. And Ms Black is very good at descriptive writing. Here is a small example of how well the author wrote her prose, describing the state of the armour in the aftermath of a battle:
"The linden wooden shields had lost their bold, bright colours. They were sword weary, chipped and hacked, but the byrnies, hard and hand linked, shone in the sunlight. Ash and hazel spears came to the hand like long lost friends."There would be much more I could add to this review but it would go on forever. All in all, the book is filled with enchanting characters who drive the plot which is well thought out and beautifully performed. I have asked the author, because I would love to know what happens further with the characters and I think that this is not all we have heard from Finlay, at least, which is a happy thought indeed!
ABOUT JEN BLACK
Jen's home town is Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east of England. She lived within sound of Durham Cathedral bells until she was seven, then moved to Stockton where she attended Grangefield Grammar School, and later went to Newcastle University as a mature student and gained an Honours degree in English Language & Literature. Work in various industrial, public and academic libraries in the north east followed, including a stint as library manager at Gateshead College for a number of years.
She updates her blog three times a week: http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com
and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook as well as Goodreads.