Review: The Forgotten Princess of Mona
A Captivating Read
Prepare yourself for a total immersion into 5th century Britain. I have read a fair few novels which are set in the Dark Ages but none which have transported me there as wholly as Guy Donovan’s The Forgotten Princess of Mona.
‘I like the landscape’ was one of the first things I noted down. Even though it is not meant to be extraordinary beautiful according to its inhabitants it is wild and windswept. Much as I remember these sort of places to be, the wilder ruggedness of the western Celtic fringe of contemporary Britain.
Donovan captures the setting well and ensures there is interaction with it – something I often find missing in the broader Fantasy genre where it is all too often reduced to quick ‘wish-you-were-here’ postcard descriptions.
Donovan transcends that. Much as folk would have lived back then there is far more use for land than just making picturesque postcards. We get a sense of the topographical layout not because we’re given a guide-book description but because the characters use the various elements in a functional practical manner.
I dare say I sense an ‘I-wish-I-was-there’ motivation on behalf of the author which he crafts into enticing descriptions. I smelled the wild flowers in the meadow, felt that breeze in the valley, heard the waves crash against the sea wall, so to speak. Interwoven with the less than flattering observations of those who live there – the Queen’s impressions brought a smile to my face – this approach makes the setting strikingly realistic and nitty-gritty.
Nitty-gritty has become a new favourite word of mine. With a bit of luck it might turn into a sub-genre of its own. For SF fans; this is Millennium Falcon and Firefly-Class Serenity stuff versus the brightly shining depersonalized sterile corridors and doors which smoothly swoosh to and fro. Fantasy fans; the difference between those magical moments when Morgaine did or did not manage the strenuous feat of opening the misty curtain shrouding Avalon versus the ‘she applied her magic powers and all this amazing stuff just happened’ approach.
Donovan’s setting is nitty-gritty and the whole little sermon above serves to emphasize that I am paying him a high compliment. It’s not just the setting that is so flavoured. The characterization is strong. Donovan takes a risk in immediately making clear we will be experiencing part of the story from the perception of a protagonist who is, in the words of her guardian: “A captive of her own mind.”
His Cerys, however, manages to capture the reader’s heart almost instantly and in turn that leads to a great deal of sympathy for the characters who mind her well-being on different levels. These too are real humans; one snores audibly and the other’s face needs a good washing for it is filthy, just to name some of the telling details which pass in the narrative. None of these people are perfect and in that all of them appear realistic – as do their interactions and motivational drive. I was much taken by the theme of surrogate family as the pagan priest Domelch, the lady-in-waiting Owena and Cerys form something resembling a family unit of their own – with the characters Marcus and Bran as satellites orbiting the three in the dour court of Queen Lucia. This court too is realistic, a far cry from the palatial elegance one so often encounters and the various political machinations which are revealed in the plot serve to remind us just how little freedom there was in post-Roman Britain and how careful one had to tread to avoid falling out of favour.
Donovan adapts his dialogues to circumstances, with stylised formal speech patterns for the educated courtiers in ‘public’ settings which become more personal behind closed doors and ‘normal’ within the family unit whilst interaction with the common folk reflects the courser dialect they would have spoken. Sometimes the stylised speech seemed too contrived to me to be convincing but Queen Lucia, in particular, hints that the loss of personal touch in such speech is an integral part of such communication when she arranges for more personal moments with her child-hood friend and household priest Marcus.
Anybody who has read my own work will not be surprised by my appreciation for the manner in which Donovan first grounds the story in reality and then inserts the fantastical – hinted at already – in a somewhat casual manner deep down in a dark cave explored by Cerys. Nor the fact that the main antagonists are not formed by the fantastical element of the book but by base human ambition and lust for power and by the end of this first book of the series I was ready to strangle those antagonists barehanded, truth be told. I hate them with a passion which demonstrates just how skilfully Donovan has pulled me into his Mona and made me sympathise, laugh, cry and shudder with the main protagonists. I look forward to reading the second book of The Dragon’s Treasure trilogy; A Cold, White Home (hopefully in October or November 2015).