Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Song of Awakening by Roby James

A Song of Awakening by Roby James
Review by Tracy Falbe

Set in the 13th century, A Song of Awakening by Roby James opens during an uneasy peace between the Welsh and the English, who are determined to subjugate the tenaciously independent Welsh. Three Celtic bards, two old men and their apprentice Ine, journey to the Welsh village of Flint to witness the birth of Briana. The older bards prophesize that Briana will bring freedom to Wales. Because bards are highly revered within Welsh society, Briana becomes entrenched among her people as their hope for their future.

As little Briana grows up, the prophecy about her seems completely impossible. She is just a girl in a dangerous world increasingly threatened by Welsh tempers and English ambition. But for a time, she enjoys a decent life in Flint. She shows an aptitude for music, and Ine gives her lessons when he can.

Another major character in the novel is Rees a nephew of King Edward of England. While Rees is maturing, one of the old Celtic bards also stops by this young man's house and encourages him to maintain his love of music. Rees is mindful of the advice but knows that it is his role to be a knight. He grows into an excellent knight and is hardened by the Crusades into a phenomenal fighter. His intellect is also stimulated in foreign lands where he learns formal reason and logic from a scholar. The novel emphasizes that Rees is set apart from the vast majority of medieval society because of his intellect and his ability to apply it to problems.

Of course King Edward has a dangerously sharp mind as well. Cunning, cruel, cold, Edward Plantagenet is a man who gets his way, which includes brutally conquering the Welsh and securing that land with new castles. Edward projects indomitable authority. Many people dread his presence, but the author still imbues him with a recognizable humanity. 

Edward easily recognizes the many talents of Rees and constantly takes advantage of them. He forces Rees to perform some ugly tasks when subduing the Welsh, and he makes Rees rule in Flint.

As the gripping dramas between the characters develop and play out, A Song of Awakening presents a marvelous depiction of the medieval world. Every scene is lush with detail, and you can really feel yourself at the banquet table listening to Ine play and sing or imagine the fiery stallion beneath Rees as he rides in his armor to battle. Rees beautifully embodies the concept of knighthood. He is skilled, powerful, and inspiring, but harsh deeds not of his choosing tarnish his honor.

Many tragedies and travails shape Briana as she matures. She is a bold woman but knows how to hide her true feelings in order to protect herself and others. The hope her people place in her is a great burden because she does not know what to do for them, but her loyalty to Wales is unswerving.

A Song of Awakening is written with beautiful, complex, and unhurried prose, and every word contributes to its engaging and heartfelt story. As the title implies, music is the soul of this novel. The mystical energy of music mortars together the story elements with the strength of a castle wall. Roby James has succeeded wonderfully in summoning the drama, culture, and challenges of medieval life. The author shows both male and female perspectives with thoughtful care. Everything is there from the whoring and ale-swilling of lower ranking knights to the intrigues of Queen Eleanor's household. Although this is a long novel, the story never drags. A strong current of conflict, expectation, and hope carried me from page to page. I highly recommend A Song of Awakening to anyone who appreciates finely crafted historical fiction and genuine characters.