REVIEWS OF BOOK 1: EXILE
“Iona is not a place one visits on a whim,” says a burly Scottish warlord to the Irish abbot who plans to colonize the isle. “Beset by vile storms” and surrounded by even viler barbarian Picts, the rocky, windswept land—continues the warrior to the holy man—“must be wooed.”
Such is the central location where medieval historian Paula de Fougerolles has set The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, her sixth-century tale of faith and fighting. The author’s credentials as a scholar, linguist, and writer of academic articles and nonfiction works assure the reader that the historical details in this novel are accurate. However, it is de Fougerolles’s brilliant and vibrant prose along with her ability to tell a story that make this book a real joy.
Prolific and popular author Bernard Cornwell’s Excalibur trilogy is set in the same period and his ongoing Saxon Tales quintet covers similar themes set a few centuries later. But de Fougerolles is every bit the action writer he is and her prose is perhaps even more elegant. Her two main characters, a warrior and a saint, would fit well in any “buddy” film; they are colorful, authentic, and engaging, especially when they play off one another. To create and infuse such energy into the exciting and engrossing pairing of an Irish saint and a Scottish warlord requires more than just a writer’s skill or a historian’s appreciation; it takes a talented storyteller.
The first of de Fougerolles’s main characters, Columba, an Irish abbot who would later be sainted for his work in converting the heathens, is like no saint the nuns ever taught about in parochial school. Áedán mac nGabráin—the warrior whom some call the founder of Scotland— is the military alter-ego to the man of God. Both characters are so well written that they could carry the story on their own, but in putting them together, de Fougerolles makes the plot even stronger.
There is—simply put—a lot going on in this book. The battles are bloody and thrilling, the romance tasteful but not tepid, and the politics intricate yet understandable. Likewise, the religious themes are similar to waves that swell and crash upon the rocks of that tiny isle for which the novel is named, yet they never drown the reader or wash away the rest of the story.
Any reader with an interest in the history of Ireland, Scotland, the church, or the military of the so-called Dark Ages will love this book. That said, anyone who likes a good, solid story will find it difficult to stop at the chapter breaks. That is because The Chronicles of Iona: Exileis about more than a saint bringing civilization and the word of God to pagan barbarians; it is a tale of war and struggle, of honor and treachery, of faith and comradeship. More than a chronicle, it is a saga.
Mark G. McLaughlin
(Starred review) This historical novel set in sixth-centuryScotland 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 forIona. 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.
REVIEWS OF BOOK 2: PROPHET
This historical fantasy novel, the second in a series, continues the adventures of warrior Aedan mac Gabran and monk St. Columba in sixth-century western Scotland.
In her debut novel, 2012’s The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, (one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2012), de Fougerolles recounted how Columba founded his famous monastery and helped set the stage for warrior Aedan’s rise to power. This second volume picks up some four years after the first, in the year 567. Aedan has been living among the Picts, his former enemies and now his in-laws; he’s learned their language and customs, and while he may not deeply love his Pict wife, he adores his small son. But now his brother, Eogan, needs his help. Saxon invaders threaten many small kingdoms, prophecies thicken the air, and Aedan and Columba work to restore a strong, wise kingship amid political, ethnic and religious strife. As she did in Exile, de Fougerolles, a medieval historian, reveals sixth-century Europe in vivid, brutal and beautiful detail—a place where myth, legend and history mingle. Her characters are fully rounded and psychologically complex, not just hack-and-slash warriors. The political intrigue is made more complicated by the tangle of unfamiliar people and places; for example, the names Elmet, Gwallawg, King Yffi, Catraeth, Kynfarch, Cair Ebrauc, the Oenaches and Din Guoaroy, among others, can all be found on a single page. (The author helpfully provides a glossary, maps and a timeline.) The appealing Columba has less to do in this installment, and Aedan sometimes seems to have little agency as circumstances back him into corners. That said, this book provides a rich feast, and fans will likely look forward to the series’ third book, forthcoming later this year.
This historical fantasy series’ latest installment once again brings myth, history, magic and religion to warm and vivid life.
REVIEWS OF BOOK 3: ISLAND-PILGRIM
“The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim is a swift, mesmeric historical tale about the men who shape a nascent nation.
In the sixth century, Aedan mac Gabran is a Scottish warlord turned king ruling over a restless, divided land. He has many lives and lovers, leading to additional woes. His friend, Saint Columba, is an Irish monk who has been forbidden to return to his homeland. In an attempt to bring the people together and on threat of Columba’s death, the two journey back to Ireland anyway, hoping to rescue a captive prince, Fiachna Lurgan, who, it is said, is destined to unite the troubled territories. The pair is prepared to sacrifice all for the greater good.
The setting—an island inhabited by the sea god, Lord Manannan, and his kin—is integral to the story. The gods are believed to embody and control the landscape and weather, and serve both metaphorical and literal purposes in the story. The presence of the gods gives the book a mythical slant. All aspects of the scenery are drawn with startling clarity: the earth is nearly personified, the contours of the country are outlined, and bodies of water are lovingly detailed. Not only thwarted by waves of angry Picts, Irish, and Britons, Aedan and Columba also struggle with the land and its spirits in their work to create what will become known as Scotland. The luminous locale makes it clear what the heroes are fighting for.
The three parts of the story race along like a well-structured play, with transitions between sections that are smooth and coherent. Enjoyable and comprehensible as a standalone work thanks to the cleverly-woven-in backstory, the book’s handy references aren’t required to understand the tale.
Gritty, realistic details capture sixth-century Ireland and Scotland. Battle scenes teem with action, as does the race to find Fiachna before those who seek to kill him do. Vivid verbs speed the story’s Odyssean scenes of peril and consequence as the story rushes to a satisfying conclusion.
Romance, while present, takes a back seat to the story’s pressing political concerns. Aedan’s numerous loves consist of multiple, powerful women: Afrella, his chief wife; Ama, his consort; Eithne, his first love who is now his cousin’s wife; and Domelch, his first wife. The women produce the expected plethora of sons, a further source of distraction for Aedan as he sends his children separately to safety.
While there is predictable rancor, betrayal, and arguing about and among the women, such relationships are set aside for more immediate concerns. At the story’s end, questions remain about the state of Aedan’s various romantic relationships, which spur unsatisfied curiosity. Romance remains secondary to the quest.
The book brims with polished prose and well-characterized main characters, although more complete physical descriptions of the main characters would be welcome. The young prince Fiachna, destined to be the ruler of all, arrives late in the story, though he is drawn with appeal.
The Chronicles of Iona: Island-Pilgrim is a swift, mesmeric historical tale about the men who shape a nascent nation.”
Reviewed by Drema Drudge
“This latest series entry continues the tale of how a medieval king and an abbot helped to found Scotland.
In two previous books, Exile (2012) and Prophet (2013), de Fougerolles told the twin stories of future saint Columba and warrior Aedan mac Gabran, two friends and allies in a strife-torn world. As Columba worked to found a monastery on the island of Iona, Aedan forged new political and personal relationships that helped him rise to power. Now, in the spring of 574, Aedan has just been acclaimed king of Dal Riata, a region that roughly encompasses western Scotland and eastern Ireland. But to keep the throne, he must keep the peace, and because the two Dal Riatas haven’t been combined for more than 70 years, Aedan’s control of them is more nominal than actual. Nor can Columba rest easy, as he has a knack for making enemies. A crisis ensues when Baetan mac Cairell—the overking of Ulaid, the Scots’ ancestral homeland in Ireland—demands that Aedan acknowledge him as his leader. The kingdom as a whole must be unified, and soon, everything depends upon finding the Irish heir-apparent Fiachna Lurgan, who was sold into slavery as a boy. Aedan and Columba must mount a dangerous expedition to Ireland where, as an exile, Columba faces mortal danger. If they succeed, they’ll have a chance to bring stability to their benighted world. De Fougerolles, a medieval historian, again brings this complicated, rich world to vivid life. With its scenes of battle and conflict, the main story is stirringly intense, and the many levels of sixth-century culture are often surprising, such as the roving gangs of bards who threaten their hosts with vicious satires if they don’t provide fine food and lodging. Although the pages are thick with daunting, unfamiliar names and titles, de Fougerolles does provide a helpful list of characters, maps, and a glossary with pronunciations, among other supporting material. Several links to Arthurian legend add further interest to the story—most importantly, a growing social awareness that laws should protect the innocent. (A further volume is planned.)
A thoughtful, well-written, and exciting historical novel in an excellent series.”