I am happy to admit that I am a history nerd. I love reading about it, seeing it, learning about it, and if I spot something that is set in Wales, I'll happily pounce on it. Especially if it is about the medieval (c. 500-1500 BCE) period of Welsh history.
The Fool's Tale is set in the late twelfth century, when Wales was still independent of English rule, but was divided into a collection of small realms. And all of them are squabbling with each other, ready to murder each other instead of trying to resolve their differences and present a united front. One of those rulers is Maelgwn ap Cadwallon, ruler of the tiny realm of Maelienydd.
Maelgwn -- nicknamed Noble for his attitude and bearing -- is getting married, to a young woman, Isabel Mortimer. Unfortunately for Isabel she's the daughter of a powerful Norman family that were responsible for the murder of Noble's father in an ambush. Noble's closest friend -- if he can be called that -- is Gwirion, who risked his own life to save Noble's when his father was murdered. Gwirion, an orphan without family or fortune of his own, has made his living at Noble's court by being a jester of sorts. His jokes are bawdy, and frankly, obscene for the most part.
Isabel, accompanied by her servant, Adele, comes into this very alien world. She is not just very pretty, but also clever, and unknown to the people around her is quiet fluent in Welsh. Indeed her education is for the most part better than the king's (Noble, surpassing all understanding why, is referred to as a king in this book; more on this later). Regarded as a nonentity by her husband's courtiers and advisors, Isabel quietly fumes; Gwirion for his part, starts off his relationship with Isabel by insulting her at every turn.
As for Noble, well, we discover quickly that he's anything but. In one fit of temper he kicks Isabel's companion to death. He plays a ghastly trick on Gwirion that is about as funny as dropping an anvil on your foot. And in one very repellent scene, he forces Isabel and a would be lover into a sado-masochistic display.
And Gwirion and Isabel fall in love, setting up a love triangle that is not just ludicrous, but silly. Of course, in grand Tristan-und-Isolde fashion, it plays out as a big tragic finish...
I had such high hopes for this one. There's some actual history of the times in here, a few historical characters, and even a Welsh custom or two. But the bad points overwhelm what is good about this one.
First, there's the impossibility of Maelgwn/Noble calling himself a king. In the time and place, none of the Welsh lords would have dared to call himself that, and while Maelgwn ap Cadwallon did live, in the scheme of things, he was a very small, politically unimportant character. Somehow Ms. Galland got the idea that he was a king from one very obscure reference in an English chronicle, and I suspect that she got him mixed up with an Maelgwn ap Cadwallon who was a Welsh king but lived about seven hundred years earlier. To make things even more laughable, she has everyone addressing Noble and Isabel as 'Your Majesty,' a title that wasn't used until the sixteenth century. Even Henry II of England was quite satisfied to use the title 'Your Grace,' and he was the big power player in the twelfth century European politics.
Second, it is a distressing tendency in historical romance novels these days to make the sex as profane, kinky, and obscene as possible. The language in use by the characters is ribald and rude enough to make a rapper blush. The sex is over the top, and really isn't that exciting, especially when it starts to appear, oh every five pages or so.
And the little inaccuracies that kept cropping up were jarring as well. I know I am being nitpicky here, but if the author makes a grand show of how much research she's done in her book, then she had better get it right. Why? Well, out there in the book world, you''re bound to find someone who does know the details, and you can bet that they'll be vocal about it.
Finally, the writing isn't that good. The author constantly tells us all about what is going on, but doesn't do much to show us. And another thing that bothered me was that the author made both Isabel and Gwirion fictional -- they never existed, and while Maelgwn/Noble did live, she has him dying childless, while the real one sired quite a few heirs to succeed him.
It took me a real effort to wade through this mass of treacle, and I fully intend to never buy another book by this author. She is evidently a screenwriter, but if this is an example of her work, I have to wonder about her future. As for myself, I intend to stay with the writing of Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman for any historicals set in the medieval period -- at least they do know what they're talking about.
Two stars and not recommended.
For the longer review, please go here: