This historical novel, set in sixth-century Scotland, 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 for Iona. 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.