Monday, September 05, 2011

The Guardians Series Book 1: The Forest Laird - A Tale of William Wallace Review

The last series Jack Whyte worked on was his Templar Trilogy which dealt with the rise, progression, and fall of the Knights Templar. The final novel in that series, "Order in Chaos," may have been about the Templars themselves but one could clearly see that Whyte had already turned his eye towards Scotland and its wars for independence, and while Whyte dabbled with such a setting then, his new trilogy deals with these wars as the central focus.

Entitled The Guardian Series, the first novel is "The Forest Laird: A Tale of William Wallace." Like most, I'm sure you've seen Braveheart by now, and while it's certainly an excellent and well made film, as a Scotish collegue of mine once put it: "Don't look to Braveheart for historical accuracy," and it appears that Jack Whyte agrees.

Going back to a narrative style not used since his superb A Dream of Eagles series, this tale is told by William Wallace's cousin, Father Jamie Wallace. Years after his execution at the hands of the English, the tale of William Wallace as a larger than life hero and legend is growing by leaps and bounds, and Jamie undergoes the effort of writing all about William from his first hand knowledge to keep things grounded in reality. The story begins with Jamie comforting Will in prison while Will awaits his execution, and then goes back far further to the beginning, when young Will and Jamie are fleeing for their lives from English soldiery who have just murdered Will's parents and sister.

Like all his historical fiction, Whyte grounds his superbly entertaining tale in historical fact, focusing strongly on the feudal and religious politics of Scotland, England, and even France, and having his wonderfully developed characters act according to what's really occurring at that time. The manipulation and eventual occupation of Scotland takes years to achieve, and there are those of both nobility and church who oppose and approve of such English intervention. The common folk, of course, have no voice in such matters and must accept the neglect and abuse as it comes.

William and Jamie do grow up safe under the care of Will's uncle, a knight, and they're provided the finest schooling available at the local abbey. Sheltered from the events of the realm at large, Jamie gravitates towards the priesthood due to his love of books and learning, but Wallace gravitates towards archery and forestry, taught to him by his friend and mentor Ewan Scrymgeour. This knowledge proves invaluable in the days ahead when English oppression becomes great and Will is forced to become an outlaw fighting for retribution against English crimes without reprimand.

Do not be mistaken, Whyte's portrayal of William Wallace is _not_ Braveheart. As an outlaw, Will is not able to lead armies against vast numbers of English forces, but instead must resort to leading his merry men from their forest base camp, picking targets selectively and using guile and cunning to outmaneuver a superior foe. Through such tactics William succeeds wonderfully, giving what he steals to the poor and keeping his outlaws safe in Selkirk Forest, including his own wife Mirren and their young son Will.

Whyte does a wonderful job of painting Wallace as a real man, with an array of moods, hopes, and dreams, he avoids the archetype model we've come to expect of the character. As the reader this not only helps with empathy, but helps keep things fresh since we don't know what's going to come next, what will occur to propel Wallace to defy English even further, and what will lead him on the path that will see him ultimately executed in London.

"The Forest Laird" is a strong start for Whyte's new trilogy, and it is a sad and tragic tale filled with ideals and grief. Whyte's historical fiction is always a pleasure to read and his latest offering is certainly no different, and I eagerly await the second novel in the series.

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