Sep 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
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.