The year 1198. All of Wales is in turmoil.
King Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon, known to his people as Noble, is struggling to protect his small kingdom from treacherous Welsh princes and Roger Mortimer, an ambitious English baron who murdered Noble's father years earlier. Desperate to secure a peace treaty, the king grimly agrees to a political marriage with Isabel Mortimer, Roger's niece.
Isabel, not yet twenty, is confounded by the intimacy and informality of the Welsh court which to her foreign eyes looks barbaric and backward. As determined and wilful as she is naive, she eventually earns the respect and affection of her husband and his subjects - with the notable exception of Gwirion, the king's oldest and oddesst friend, who has a particular, private reason to hate Mortimers.
Gwirion's rascally tricks and diversion are expected - and relished - by all at Cymaron Castle. But a disastrous prank played during the royal wedding ignites a volatile competition between queen and confidant for the king's affection, with unexpected consequences.
As Mortimer makes it apparent that he has no intention of honouring the peace treaty, the bond between Noble and Isabel grows strained. And when Gwirion and Isabel's mutual animosity is abruptly transformed, Noble finds himself as threatened by those he loves best as by the enemies who menace his crown.
A masterful debut novel by a gifted storyteller, The Fool's Tale combines vivid historical fiction, compelling political intrigue, and passionate romance to create an intimate drama of three individuals bound - and undone - by love and loyalty.
A brief look at my archives will tell you a few things. One is that I love Historical Fiction. Doesn't really matter what the setting is, although British history is one of my favourites. Ever since reading Sharon Kay Penman's excellent Welsh trilogy, the idea of reading more about Welsh history has been very attractive to me. I also am partial to a good Historical romance, so this book should have worked for me on a number of levels.
Did you notice I said should? Unfortunately it didn't work for me at all. At over half way through I have given up, and have my first DNF for the year. Given that I have only had one book that I couldn't finish reading since I began blogging over 3 years ago, you would be right in thinking that this is something that I don't normally do, but I just couldn't go on!
The first thing that didn't work for me was the fact that this is supposedly Welsh history, but then a quick look at the author's note reveals that King Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon really died the year before this book was set, Isabel Mortimer and her brother never existed, which means that all the dramatic points that I read (war councils and battles) cannot have happened. Oh, and that "Gwirion is not only fictional, but historically improbably, as the Welsh court had no known position corresponding to the concept of a European fool or jester." Yes, the laws and rituals described were based on historical fact, so it's not completely without basis but there's not much there.
The second thing that didn't work for me is the characters. Noble, who very much does not live up to his name, Gwirion and Isabel are all unlikeable.In the first half of the book, what we had is a King who had wed in a strategic alliance, but who continued to bed anyone that he wanted to, whenever he wanted to, with little consideration for his wife. Gwirion's pranks were not only not funny, they were downright dangerous, and when Noble pranks back it is almost to the point of killing the man who is supposed to be his best friend. Isabel is cool and distant, and when she does lose the heir that is so needed, it is in such a way that is just not likely to occur.
At the point where I have given up, Gwirion, who has hated Isabel vehemently since she has arrived, has just seen her with her hair down, and suddenly there is a strong attraction between them. Because I always take a peak at the end of the book, I have a fair idea of what happenes next and I know how it ends, and again, just don't see how it is likely that that could possibly happen when you have a king and queen involved. By the way, there are only a couple of times over the years where reading the ending of a book did really, really spoil for the reader, and this is one of those times.
The author is a screenwriter, and I don't know if part of the idea was to try and sex up historical fiction, and to make the plot as dramatic as possible, but it didn't work for me. I have in the past borrowed other books by this author and never managed to read them. I am still interested in reading The Fourth Crusade for example, but it will be a while before I will be ready to give her another go.
The books opens up with the party of the Welsh king returning home. They are attacked by their enemy Roger Mortimer and the king is killed while his heir escapes thanks in part to strength of will of his friend who refuses to reveal his whereabouts even under torture. Thus is cemented the friendship between the future king and the friend who would be his fool.
A few years later in an attempt to gain peace the king weds Isabel Mortimer, a young lady of Roger Mortimer's family thus expecting to solve his problems on the border. From the beginning is clear that the king, Noble, and his fool, Guirion, share an unusual and absorbing friendship in which Isabel will not be able to interfere. When asked to choose between the two Noble always chooses Guirion and the latter delights in telling crude jokes to embarrass and humiliate Isabel. At the same time Noble refuses to stop having lovers and engaging in extra marital affair, he finds Isabel not to his taste and she can't accept that for him she is merely a convenience, so she spends a big part of her time making scenes and screaming at him and hating Guirion who helps him set up his trysts.
When the castle is invaded in Noble's absence and Isabel and Guirion have to spend time together they realise that they are in fact attracted to each other and become lovers thus leading a tense situation and ultimately a confrontation of sorts.
I found it very interesting the tidbits we learn of welsh culture and law. They are mainly due to Isabel's desire to know more about the place she lives in and she discovers things are very different from the Norman society she is used to.
However I found the story depended too much of the physical relationships of the main characters and I would have preferred a more psychological approach. Isabel is always mad at Noble for his affairs, her relationship with him is based solely on sex, her relationship with Guirion is once again physical, I couldn't decide what attracted them to each other and they seemed incapable of keeping their hands of each other. The most complex one seemed to be between Noble and Guirion, their bond forged the day the fool saved the future king, however Guirion is unable to control his impulses to be with Isabel and Noble is unable to share. In the end there could be no other solution I suppose but I felt it fell short of my expectations.