A verray parfit gentil knyght

Sep 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

A Kingdom's CostA Kingdom’s Cost – J.R. Tomlin
Paperback $12.99
Pub Createspace ISBN 9781463526795
Kindle £2.14 ($2.99)

We are lectured daily about this, that or the other freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. Freedom to consume ridiculously-priced coffees with silly names. Sometimes historical fiction provides a reminder that our liberties are only words, and that they can be whisked away in a moment at the whim of the powerful.

A Kingdom’s Cost is set at the beginning of the 14th Century, during the long-drawn-out wars of Scottish independence. It follows the exploits of the squire James Douglas. Homeless and landless at the beginning of the novel, his father dead at the hands of Edward Longshanks, he makes his way back from hiding in France to throw in his lot with Robert the Bruce. By the end of the story he has become a battle-hardened veteran, Black Douglas to his English enemies, brutal and ruthless in the service of his king.

J.R. Tomlin shows us a harder time, one in which winter brings starvation and wounds turn bad. No freedoms here, only obligations, to one’s family and to one’s lord. Her picture is of a society clinging to the landscape. Violence and cruelty are routine. She does not shy away from bloodshed – men and horses are remorselessly gutted and we learn more than we really want to know about the reality of hanging, drawing and quartering.

The landscapes themselves, meanwhile, are beautifully drawn. As in John Buchan’s adventures, the action seems to grow out of the Scottish settings. Mountains and glens, furze and heather provide a counterpoint to the dangers the hero faces, emphasising them and at the same time putting them in their place.

Tomlin’s characters are romanticised and perhaps a little self-consciously “historical”, but this does not matter because she has real flair for dramatic story-telling. The narrative plunges on in a series of episodes reflecting the progress – or lack of it – in the Bruce’s campaign. There is a vivid evocation of personal experience – sweat and the smell of horse shit, the weight of chain mail, a herald shouting to the assembled army with nobody able to hear his words.

One judgement which every writer of historical fiction has to make concerns the language. How authentic need it be to provide a flavour of the time? Tomlin has opted for a scattering of antique expressions, apparently intended to give a patina to the story. Not a wise choice. Most of them are out of place historically, serving to highlight the romanticised aspect of the book rather than its authenticity.

She seems particularly fond of the word “mayhap”, which occurs over and over again, sometimes in dialogue where it might pass muster but more often in narrative passages. The first time I came across this, the effect was like a poke in the eye. A sadder pedant than I am might have looked up “mayhap” and found that the earliest recorded usage (OED) was in 1536 – more than two hundred years later. An even sadder case might have started looking up other expressions Tomlin uses and found “merlon” (1704), good-brother (1513), “retiral” (1611), “gallowglass” (1515), “garron” (16th Century). The truth is that the Scottish wars took place a full generation before Chaucer was born. Even in the south spoken English would have been barely recognisable to us; in Scotland they would probably have used Norman French or Mediaeval Gaelic (Robert the Bruce’s ancestors were Norman).

In my Kindle edition I also found a number of proofing and formatting errors which even a casual check should have picked up. Typographical errors included the usual missing spaces between words, “fair” instead of “fare”, “censor” instead of “censer”, “your” instead of “you’re” and so on. More serious were the sudden changes of font which appeared in half a dozen paragraphs throughout the book. Things like this are very disappointing in an otherwise well-crafted work. Disappointing too was the failure to provide either a cover or a table of contents – the latter would have been particularly welcome as there were several appendices and a list of characters which I would have liked to refer to while reading.

Tomlin shares with the authors of Kidnapped and The 39 Steps an ability to draw a vivid story out of the landscape. Sad that she does not pay as much attention to the detail.

A Kingdom’s Cost Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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§ One Response to A verray parfit gentil knyght

  • JR Tomlin says:

    Malachi, I have thought for months about replying to your review. First, thank you for reading and reviewing. I appreciate the serious thought you put into the review. And I realize that reviews are meant for other readers rather than the author, but I think you brought up an issue worth examining.

    What language should an author use in writing historical fiction?

    I will start out by mentioning that most of the characters would have principally spoke Scots rather than French or Gaelic as you suggest, although those were secondary languages they would have spoken. For an example of the language, you can pick up Johne Barbour’s The Brus written some forty years after the period of the novel. I’m sure you’ll agree that writing in Scots would have baffled most of my readers (although I could have because I am quite fluent in medieval Scots). Another choice would have been to write completely in modern language. Neither choice seemed right to me. So I chose what I consider a middle ground, using quite a lot of what some would consider archaic English, heraldic terms and modern Scots with a small sprinkling of modern Gaelic and modern French.

    Was that the best choice? For many of my readers, it seems to work but not for all. Obviously. It is a choice that all historical authors find ourselves making and I am not sure there is any perfect solution.

    By the way, contrary to common myth, Robert the Bruce was as much Gaelic as he was Norman. His family had been in Scotland intermarrying with the Gaelic nobility for several generations. It was why he had a very valid claim to the throne of Scotland. 🙂

    Thanks again for your very considered review.

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