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REVIEWS OF BOOK 1: EXILE

Five Stars (out of Five)

“Iona is not a place one visits on a whim,” says a burly Scottish warlord to the Irish abbot who plans to colonize the isle. “Beset by vile storms” and surrounded by even viler barbarian Picts, the rocky, windswept land—continues the warrior to the holy man—“must be wooed.”

Such is the central location where medieval historian Paula de Fougerolles has set The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, her sixth-century tale of faith and fighting. The author’s credentials as a scholar, linguist, and writer of academic articles and nonfiction works assure the reader that the historical details in this novel are accurate. However, it is de Fougerolles’s brilliant and vibrant prose along with her ability to tell a story that make this book a real joy.

Prolific and popular author Bernard Cornwell’s Excalibur trilogy is set in the same period and his ongoing Saxon Tales quintet covers similar themes set a few centuries later. But de Fougerolles is every bit the action writer he is and her prose is perhaps even more elegant. Her two main characters, a warrior and a saint, would fit well in any “buddy” film; they are colorful, authentic, and engaging, especially when they play off one another. To create and infuse such energy into the exciting and engrossing pairing of an Irish saint and a Scottish warlord requires more than just a writer’s skill or a historian’s appreciation; it takes a talented storyteller.

The first of de Fougerolles’s main characters, Columba, an Irish abbot who would later be sainted for his work in converting the heathens, is like no saint the nuns ever taught about in parochial school. Áedán mac nGabráin—the warrior whom some call the founder of Scotland— is the military alter-ego to the man of God. Both characters are so well written that they could carry the story on their own, but in putting them together, de Fougerolles makes the plot even stronger.

There is—simply put—a lot going on in this book. The battles are bloody and thrilling, the romance tasteful but not tepid, and the politics intricate yet understandable. Likewise, the religious themes are similar to waves that swell and crash upon the rocks of that tiny isle for which the novel is named, yet they never drown the reader or wash away the rest of the story.

Any reader with an interest in the history of Ireland, Scotland, the church, or the military of the so-called Dark Ages will love this book. That said, anyone who likes a good, solid story will find it difficult to stop at the chapter breaks. That is because The Chronicles of Iona: Exileis about more than a saint bringing civilization and the word of God to pagan barbarians; it is a tale of war and struggle, of honor and treachery, of faith and comradeship. More than a chronicle, it is a saga.

Mark G. McLaughlin

 

 Kirkus Reviews

 

(Starred review)  This historical novel set in sixth-centuryScotland relates the struggles of St. Columba to establish his monastery and of Aedan mac Gabran to gain a kingship.

In 563, Columba, an exiled abbot (and future saint), arrives with his monks on the west coast of Scotland, hoping to establish a monastery. The pagan King Conall agrees to give them the isle of Iona, if they can wrest it somehow from the Picts—a seemingly impossible task. Aedan mac Gabran, a dispossessed cousin of the king, befriends Columba; as a prince of Ireland, the abbot could make a good ally. When the woman Aedan loves marries someone else, he sinks into a meaningless life dedicated to taking on all comers: “They could devise no feat to best him.” Meanwhile, Columba struggles with spiritual darkness, and the monks’ temporary home is invaded in a bloody raid. Columba devises a bold scheme: exchange an important Pictish hostage forIona. Aedan—feeling he has little to lose—agrees to help. On the long, dangerous journey, Aedan proves to be an expert warrior and Columba, having regained his hopeful sense of wonder, directs them through several tight spots through miracles he performs. As a medieval historian, de Fougerolles is deeply informed: Her novel includes historical notes, a glossary and a chronology, as well as hand-drawn maps. Throughout, the reader learns of the Dark Ages’ complicated cultural scene, as when, for instance, Columba wonders about Aedan’s status: “Were the young man a high lord, his clothing would have been far more gaudy: back home, in Hibernia [Ireland], a slave was permitted to wear only one color, and a farmer two, but a king could sport as many as six colors at once.” But this is no textbook: The characters come alive with complex inner lives, and Columba’s spiritual struggles take on a fully rendered significance that matches Aedan’s love affair. The hazardous journey sparks with rescues, magic, monsters, escapes and miracles. Through it all, de Fougerolles writes well: “Could Aedan tame Draig, stallion of the Visigoths, killer of men…unridden because of his ferocity? (Not hard: Aedan whispered it words of comfort and love and, head bowed, the grateful, terrified beast came to his hand.)” The first in a planned series, this historical novel will leave readers eager for more.

Exciting, immersive and authentic.

REVIEWS OF BOOK 2: PROPHET

(5 Stars)

As wonderful and elegant a saga as Chronicles of Iona: Exile was, Paula de Fougerolle’s sequel is even better. The first volume in the series took its twin protagonists from boyhood to early manhood; the second brings them to their full adulthood standing as holy man and warlord. While the term “epic” is often too casually bandied about, there is no doubt that this series is deserving of that epithet.

While Chronicles of Iona: Prophet is enjoyed best after the previous volume is devoured, this second installment is hearty enough to stand on its own. It is a thoroughly researched and historically sound novelization of the story of the two founding pillars of the Scottish nation: St. Columba and Aedan mac Gabran. With elegant and lyrical writing, de Fougerolles has composed a thrilling and fast-paced journey that cuts through the mists of legend without losing the magic and wonder of myth.

Set thirty years after the death of King Arthur, de Fougerolles’s book is nonetheless Arthurian in scope and feel. The author, a noted linguist and scholar of the era, has packed in everything fans of the genre could want. There are raids and rapes, seductions and sodomies, battles and ball games, drownings and decapitations, rituals and races, storms and stolen kisses, and even some religious debates. The Loch Ness Monster (whom St. Columba is said to have bested) is thrown in for good measure. All of these make for grand fun, but the story is hardly lighthearted, for as Columba warns a young novice monk, “There are horrors here of which you have never heard.”

The narrative is an adventure with heroes great and small, villains evil and mean (both in character and in stature), princesses wild and demure, and many other characters fair and foul. Except for recounting events of the first book, very little is told here—in fact, most of the action is shown in great, bloody splendor. As such, it will appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Tales, readers of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and any who enjoy stories of King Arthur or the Dark Ages.

Readers unfamiliar with the crazy and confusing patchwork of clans and kinglets sprinkled about Ireland, Scotland, and the remnants of Roman Briton may have some initial difficulty figuring out who is who, let alone on which team they are playing in this royal game. The author does her mightiest, however, to make that as clear as possible. There are extensive notes and guides in the back of the text, although most readers will, unfortunately, not notice these aids until they finish the novel. Additional notice up front (beyond the listing in the table of contents) that these resources exist would have been helpful, and some of the explanatory material could have been relegated to footnotes.

These small complaints aside, de Fougerolles’s book is a thoroughly engrossing tale that provides entertainment and insight into the legends and history of the Irish, Scottish, and British people.

Mark McLaughlin
March 7, 2013

Kirkus Reviews

This historical fantasy novel, the second in a series, continues the adventures of warrior Aedan mac Gabran and monk St. Columba in sixth-century western Scotland.

In her debut novel, 2012’s The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, (one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2012), de Fougerolles recounted how Columba founded his famous monastery and helped set the stage for warrior Aedan’s rise to power. This second volume picks up some four years after the first, in the year 567. Aedan has been living among the Picts, his former enemies and now his in-laws; he’s learned their language and customs, and while he may not deeply love his Pict wife, he adores his small son. But now his brother, Eogan, needs his help. Saxon invaders threaten many small kingdoms, prophecies thicken the air, and Aedan and Columba work to restore a strong, wise kingship amid political, ethnic and religious strife. As she did in Exile, de Fougerolles, a medieval historian, reveals sixth-century Europe in vivid, brutal and beautiful detail—a place where myth, legend and history mingle. Her characters are fully rounded and psychologically complex, not just hack-and-slash warriors. The political intrigue is made more complicated by the tangle of unfamiliar people and places; for example, the names Elmet, Gwallawg, King Yffi, Catraeth, Kynfarch, Cair Ebrauc, the Oenaches and Din Guoaroy, among others, can all be found on a single page. (The author helpfully provides a glossary, maps and a timeline.) The appealing Columba has less to do in this installment, and Aedan sometimes seems to have little agency as circumstances back him into corners. That said, this book provides a rich feast, and fans will likely look forward to the series’ third book, forthcoming later this year.

This historical fantasy series’ latest installment once again brings myth, history, magic and religion to warm and vivid life.

 

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