A strange triangle of relationships exhaustively analyzed in a debut historical set in late-12th-century Wales.
In the time when that small country is divided into four “kingdoms,” young monarch Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon (a.k.a. “Noble”) contends with external threats (from English barons whose lands abut his own northwest border) and quarrels with rival Welsh princes. A prologue recounts the preadolescent prince’s escape during the Norman attack that brought his father Cadwallon’s death, the escape accomplished through the courage and guile of Noble’s boyhood friend, lowborn foundling Gwirion. Years later, the adult Noble weds aristocrat Isabel Mortimer (daughter of his father’s mortal enemies), hoping to cement truces and strengthen his kingdom’s preeminence. But Isabel “fails” to bear him an heir and haughtily endures her unwelcome marriage (to a sovereign who prefers to bed comely kitchen wenches) and the impudent wit of Gwirion. The latter, now ensconced as Noble’s court jester (or “fool”), is an inveterate prankster whose brazen disrespect for all authorities sometimes amuses the indulgent king, and sometimes puts Gwirion’s very life in real peril. Things change when, after Noble goes off to battle, his castle is captured by Welsh invaders and his queen and fool are imprisoned together—and, to their mutual amusement and horror, start to fall in love. The long aftermath of these developments forces Noble (having recaptured his castle and his power—and eventually having realized how grievously he’s been betrayed) to consider ridding himself of the one betrayer he considers expendable (for “Gwirion was nearly the only constant in the king’s life since infancy. He could not be so rudely dispatched”). Galland’s impressively researched potboiler suffers from random anachronisms and tends toward the underplotted. But the characters of Isabel, Noble, and especially Gwirion are deftly drawn, and racy depictions of their fateful interactions become quite compulsively readable.
Not a major historical novel, but a highly entertaining one.