In the meantime ... it's time for Charley's first book review!
"The Good Knight", by Sarah Woodbury.
I was gifted a selection of Sarah Woodbury's books by the lovely Mark Williams to tide me over during the trials of my Lower Sixth year. However, I only got to reading them two weeks ago during a long stretch of study leave between my penultimate and last exam. Four days is a long time to spend loitering, and where better to disappear into than Mediaeval Wales, on the trail of a murderous mystery!
The story kicks off in media res, and we are given quick, easy introductions to most of our main characters right from the off - even if we don't see them at the scene of the events directly. Though I'm not normally a fan of abrupt starts, I enjoyed this, as the characters were clear-cut and easy to recognise, and the mystery was quickly introduced without the need for an over-long buildup. Our two narrators take the story from there, with each character narrating a chapter one after the other, keeping the pace just as quick and clean as it started. The ancient setting is described in a smiliar fashion; brief, with little elaborative or descriptive language, but with enough detail to give us the right sense, and allowing our imagination to fill in the rest.
The characters themselves are well-crafted and engaging right from the off. Gwen, our heroine, manages to be competent and likeable without falling prey to Rebellious Princess Syndrome, while her male counterpart Gareth keeps a distinctly different, but no less interesting, narrative tone. The elements of the mystery are brought together relatively quickly, but rather than abandoning the characters' own stories for the sake of a purely plot-driven construction, the author has made excellent use of the third person narrative style to meld the characters' intrepid sleuthing with their own thoughts. My brain cells positively purred at the ease with which the old relationship between Gareth and Gwen was brought to light piece by piece, with no brain-battering info-dump, remaining relevant to their actions in the story, rather than being a hastily shoehorned attempt at attaining sympathy.
The secondary characters, too, are lovely. From the whining, sneaking Cadwaladr (about whom I entertain pitchfork-and-entrail-related daydreams); snarky, dangerous Cadfael; Owain's adorably labrador-like heir Rhun and - my personal favourite - his cunning, understated brother, Hywel. The inter-familial links, and everyone's somewhat confounding names, take a bit of time to wrap your head around, but once one gets the hang of it there is a fantastic sense of political inter-relationship. Even Gwen's role as Hywel's spy - something which I, admittedly, found out of place for the period - becomes more clear as we learn about the motives and personalities of each of our key players.
On the other hand, I did find one small component of the narrative to be slightly off. After an interesting start, and the amalgamation of the evidence regarding the painful end of the murder victim Anarawd, the lead suspect seems to catch on a little too quickly to Gwen and Gareth's snooping. The story shifts rather abruptly from a covert mystery into a more thriller-esque style of story involving sea-crossing, kidnapping, sieges and Vikings (not quite in that order). Thought the narrative remains taut and interesting, I found the jump a little hard to get round at first, and felt that our supposedly dastardly suspect could have taken a little more care.
However, the novel ends on a magnificent high - a plot twist that made me wriggle with glee. We know from the story that our narrators are far from thick, but when, at the end, a seemingly inconsequential item leads to quite the eye-opener, and I at least was left snorting with glee at the thought of how little of the political backstabbery and sneaking we had really seen - even though there is plenty of exciting double-dealing and tongue-twisting to keep us on our toes.
Although I found some of the motive-related revelations to be a little tenuous - especially those regarding the murder with which the story begins, with regard to the personality of the revealed killer - I liked the twist itself as a game changer. Rather than simply letting the story crawl into the expected box for catalouging, it turns around and makes a vicious attack on our toes before sprinting into another box, on its own terms.
You can find links to "The Good Knight" in all its available formats on Sarah Woodbury's website, as well as a link to its sequel, "The Uninvited Guest".
All in all, a fast-paced entertaining read, especially for afficionados of plot twists, murky politics and mediaeval settings.