How far must writers go to infuse their fiction with that invaluable ring of authenticity? A fiction writer gives meat to her story and makes it credible by describing events, settings, practices of the time and place, and—of course—speech use and patterns. I intend to write about this topic for my author site, but here I present my review of a historical novel for which the writer clearly did his homework.
Cædmon the Lord;s poet by John Deaconson
Cædmon was an Old English (Welsh, most likely) monk/minstrel (bard, in the language of the book) about whom little is known beyond an account by Bede (in the story, I think he appears as the character Bieda, another bard,). Bede, author of several volumes of Ecclesiastical History of Britain, only covers Cædmon’s later years when he became a minstrel monk in an abbey. In comparison, after a prologue, this book has him relating his earlier years as a lad called Cadfan, his training as a bard; his adventures as translator/bard to kings and princes, his life as the cowherd Cædda, and his final metamorphosis into Cædmon, the monk. As such, the book is fiction, but fiction with some basis in fact: The real Cædmon might indeed have claimed that someone came to him in a dream and implored him to sing.
I found this book set in Scotland and written by a Scotsman (the author attribution is a pen name) a hard read. It took me longer than work this length normally does. Set in the early Middle Ages (mid -7th century), it uses many Old Anglo Saxon words (and names) I’m not familiar with—probably most people aren’t, either—some of which you will not find in an ordinary dictionary. This can be a handicap. It slowed me down, for example, and might intimidate others casually picking up the book to see whether they would want to read it.
The book does have more than ten pages of an appendix containing translations/explanations, in itself a gauge of how much of this 180-page book would seem alien to contemporary readers of English (particularly American English) who are not acquainted with Welsh and Old Anglo Saxon lore. On the other hand, those words and names give the story a ring of authenticity and show that the author spent time researching the content of the book—certainly a good thing.
The story has the feel of an epic. The narration many times packs so much in a paragraph that it’s difficult to retain a lot, particularly when battles are being described. The parade of characters and places that come and go quickly makes this problem of keeping things straight even more difficult. I felt I had to struggle to maintain my interest.
I did perk up at the well-written dialogue scenes, of which I wished there were more. I was also intrigued by how the author takes Bede’s account and adapts dream sequences as a device to show how the main character gains insight and finds a way out of his predicament (in effect, a plot resolution). Dreams have, in fact, been shown to do so.
I’m not a great believer in the mantra “show, don’t tell” because I think that holding a reader’s interest depends more on an author’s energetic, efficient use of language. But here is a case where I would have preferred to be “shown” more, realizing that in doing so, this book could grow three to four times longer (or it could be chopped up into a series).
Peeking through—but just peeking through—the current narrative is a multilayered book that also wants to address, in fiction form, issues of language, religion, culture, and values which underlie the historic conflicts between England and the rest of the UK.
I wanted to give this book a higher rating, but I feel that its potential as a fascinating—if not entertaining—story is not quite realized.