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Yes, I confess. I was a pounding heartbeat away from committing the unforgivable sin – posting a comment in response to a bad (and grossly inaccurate) characterization of my book. I actually went so far as to type out a lengthy diatribe politely detailing counterpoints (i.e. justifications) for what the reviewer presumed to be historical inaccuracies and omissions, with annotations indicating my historical sources, no less.
Just before I hit “post comment”, my better judgment stepped in (thank the gods) and reminded me of the advice I have always given to other writers. A book review, good or bad, is the reviewer’s legitimate opinion. It is based on their personal experience with your book, and on their individual expectations of the story. If your book doesn’t live up to those expectations, the reviewer has every right to express that dissatisfaction. The reviewer is not wrong.
However, in some cases, a reviewer’s knowledge base is – wrong, that is – which can lead them to make some erroneous presumptions and conclusions about your work that they then publish to the world in well-respected genre publications. This can be frustrating, and even insulting – especially for an author who prides herself on the exhaustive research she did in fact do.
In this case, the reviewer in question admittedly did not finish the book, but still felt entirely comfortable writing a review challenging the historical context of the entire story – based on what could only have been the first 50 or so pages. The review goes on to accuse the author (me) of doing my research at the local renaissance faire. Heh. A bit snarky, wouldn’t you say? Especially since her opinion is based on what appears to be a romanticized (and not very accurate) understanding of the period and place (10th century Wales).
Setting the (Historical) Record Straight
The reviewer in question takes issue with two specific points – Vikings and Druids. Let’s start with the Vikings, of which there are none in my book (at least not the marauding kind) – something the reviewer correctly points out.
Really, you say? No Viking horde in THE WELL OF TEARS? Yes, I know. Crazy talk. Everyone knows the Vikings were raping and pillaging all over the place in 10th century Britain. Right?
Yeah, not so much. By 950 AD, the last of the Viking rulers had essentially been expelled, conquered or killed by Alfred of Wessex and his successors. The remaining Scandinavian invaders had for the most part become settlers, and eventually were subsumed under British rule. The repelling of Viking incursions had been going on for quite some time and by the turn of the first millennium (900-910 AD) the Saxons had handily defeated the Danes in several major battles and regained control of the larger kingdoms. With the exception of Erik Bloodaxe in Northumbria, the days of the Viking marauders overrunning the entirety of Britain were over – especially in Mercia & Wessex. You might want to read THE VIKINGS by Else Rosedahl, dear reviewer. It was very helpful in the researching of this book. I also highly recommend THE LAST APOCALYPSE by by James Reston, Jr. – another insightful resource.
Interestingly enough, THE WELL OF TEARS takes place in the Welsh provinces (circa 905 AD), which were never fully invaded by Vikings or subject to Danish rule. Hywel ap Cadell, who is the king at the center of THE WELL OF TEARS was successful in protecting his borders (which were never even threatened by raiders) by seeking an alliance with the British kings Edward and Athelstan. Edward and Athelstan, and Alfred the Great before them, contained the Danelaw to Northumbria and northeastern Mercia – which essentially protected Wales from the worst of the incursions.
Contrary to popular belief, the North Sea was not teeming with Viking longships at this time, and it is more than possible (even probable) that the crossing of the narrow channel between the Frisian isles and the southeastern shore of Britain undertaken by Aslak and Alwen in the early chapters of THE WELL OF TEARS would have taken place without encountering invading Norse fleets. I will concede that the likelihood of coming face to face with bands of raiding Viking horseman while passing through Mercia was pretty high – however, my travelers were already hiding from other sinister forces and could have easily made their journey without facing the horde.
Now for the Druids. What, no DRUIDS? Yes, I know – absolutely heretical. But it’s true. Aside from a generic reference to a title (Ard Druidh, which is Old Welsh for “first priest/druid”) there are NO DRUIDS in my book. Another historical misstep, you say?
Well, here’s the thing. The druids and most pagan practices were long gone from the British Isles by the 10th century – the Romans did a pretty good job of eradicating them about 500 years earlier. And, what little ACTUAL HISTORY that is documented relies largely on anti-Celtic propaganda written by Roman-era scholars. “One person’s Druid is another person’s fantasy” – well said, Peter Berresford Ellis. Ellis’ book THE DRUIDS is a particularly good source on this subject. I suggest you read it, dear reviewer. And, not for nothing, Druidism was also predominantly an Irish (and possibly Scottish/Gaelic) cultural phenomenon – not so much Welsh. Did I mention my book is set in 10th century Wales?
And while we are on the subject, let me be clear so as not to mislead anyone – there is no depiction of druidism or any specific practice of what is commonly considered Celtic paganism in my book. The spiritualism in THE WELL OF TEARS is an amalgamation of the many agrarian-based beliefs that persisted in the Brythionic (not Gaelic) cultures. The magic system in the book is entirely fabricated, albeit loosely based on general pagan practices, as is the magical order of sorcerers I named the Stewards. That was an intentional (and educated) world-building decision on my part.
THE WELL OF TEARS is an epic fantasy based in historical context – a context, which I have stated before, is largely without documentation. The history of Cornwall and Wales in the 9th and 10th centuries is generally without verifiable record. Very few documents from that era have survived, and those that have are conflicting – as are the prevailing scholarly opinions.
In creating the world of the Stewards, I drew from a compilation of research on the cultural and mythological truths of the time using the best sources available. If you are looking for an in-depth historical account of Wales in the 10th century, you won’t find it in this book. The truth is, you are going to have a tough time finding any definitive record anywhere. And, if you are looking for a historical fantasy recounting tales of Druids as popularized in contemporary Wiccan philosphy, this book is sure to disappoint. Instead, I explore the concept of paganism (which is quite literally a generic term that refers to all polytheistic and/or indigenous religions) in a much broader sense.
Fact or Fiction?
Which brings me to the point that all historical fiction is a blending of fact and fantasy. This is especially true of historical fantasy. Novels in this sub-genre are by definition a re-working of what is known (or widely believed) to fit a particular author’s creative vision. History, like everything else, is subject to interpretation. Whether or not it rings true for you depends upon the sources from which your own knowledge is gleaned – it just might be that your sources are different than mine. That’s ok. Heck, even the scholars agree to disagree.
Naturally I hope what I have written will entertain and enlighten you. However, if it doesn’t, and you feel compelled to complain about it in a review, feel free. You have my sincere gratitude for having given my book a try. But before you get all high-minded and start casting aspersions on the accuracy of the history within, be sure you’ve done your own research. I can help with that – I’ve got a great bibliography, if you’re interested :).
For more about the world of the Stewards and THE WELL OF TEARS, you might enjoy this post: THE HISTORY BEHIND THE FANTASY IN THE WELL OF TEARS