Monday, April 30, 2012

The Forest Laird: A Tale of William Wallace by Jack Whyte

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: April 30,2012

In the pre-dawn hours of August 24th, 1305, in London’s Smithfield Prison, the outlaw William Wallace—hero of all the Scots and deadly enemy of King Edward of England—sits awaiting the dawn, when he is to be hanged and then drawn and quartered. This brutal sundering of his body is the revenge of the English. Wallace is visited by a Scottish priest who has come to hear his last confession, a priest who knows Wallace like a brother. Wallace's confession—the tale that follows—is all the more remarkable because it comes from real life. We follow Wallace through his many lives—as outlaw and fugitive, hero and patriot, rebel and kingmaker. His exploits and escapades, desperate struggles and victorious campaigns are all here, as are the high ideals and fierce patriotism that drove him to abandon the people he loved to save his country. William Wallace is the first heroic figure from the Scottish Wars of Independence, a man whose fame has reached far beyond his homeland. Wallace served as a subject for the Academy Award–winning film Braveheart. In The Forest Laird, Jack Whyte’s masterful storytelling breathes life into Wallace's tale, giving readers an amazing character study of the man who helped shape Scotland’s future.

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Those whose knowledge of William Wallace begins and ends with Mel Gibson will be sadly disappointed with Jack Whyte's The Forest Laird. This is not the over dramatized Hollywood hero we all remember from the 1995 blockbuster. Whyte's Wallace has no bells or whistles. His story is that of a man who happened to stand up at a most opportune moment in Scottish history. Nothing more.

I think it is safe to say Whyte's depiction is closer to the truth than Randall Wallace's screenplay, but that's not difficult considering the film implies William, who died in 1305, fathered Edward III, who was born 1312. Did I forget to mention fans of the film would be disappointed? Sorry, I didn't mean to disillusion the masses. My point here is that it is important to remember we actually know very little about the historic William Wallace. Short of his military career and the weeks leading up to his death, the details of his life are really anyone's guess. The Forest Laird is significantly more grounded that the traditional Wallace legends, but it is still very much a work of fiction and shouldn't be taken as anything more.  

Despite having owned a number of Whyte's books for several years, this is actually the first I've taken time to sit down and read. I should be ashamed really, but I don't know that I'll be rushing to my bookshelves anytime soon. I like the story Whyte created but the text was often bogged down by explanations of political events of which I was already very familiar. I wouldn't go so far as to say these passages were boring, wordy is probably more accurate, but they definitely didn't hold my attention. Surprisingly, these overblown political diatribes aren’t what stick out in my mind when reflecting on the novel. Though mildly annoying, they are necessary to the telling. It would be impossible to tell William’s story without explaining the Scottish Wars for Independence and the events that led up to them. No, my three star rating came down the execution, pure and simple. 

Whyte’s narrative is told solely from the perspective of William’s cousin Jamie Wallace. It works beautifully during the prologue and the early chapters of the book, but when the boys transition from awkward teens to young adults, they part company. William taking to the woods with his bow while Jamie dedicates his life to God and quiet study. Obviously this poses a problem as Jamie isn’t witness to many of William’s exploits. I think Whyte would have been better off alternating the narrative between Jamie, Mirren, and Ewan. I’m no author, but I found it difficult to remain interested in a character who was so often removed from the action and the protagonist of the story. 

The execution left something to be desired, but despite its flaws I found I really appreciated Whyte’s attempt at separating the man from the legend. I’m not screaming its praises from the rooftop, but it will be interesting to see what Whyte does with the rest of the Bravehearts Chronicles.

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It pains me to hear people say nowadays the William Wallace died defiant, a heroic patriot, with a shout of "Freedom!" on his lips, because it is a lie. William Wallace died slowly and brutally in silence, to my sure knowledge, for I was there in London's Smithfield Square that morning of August 24th in 1305, and all I heard of defiance was the final, demented scream of a broken, tortured man driven beyond endurance long before he died.
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1 comment:

Daphne said...

I received a copy of this one to review and although I'm looking forward to reading Wallace's story, I agree with you about Whyte's style. I read his Camulod Chronicles - 9 books about the Arthurian legend that could have easily been cut down to 5 or so. He does like to "talk"!