3 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
I approached A King Empowered, the fourth in J. R. Tomlin’s series of historical novels, with no prior knowledge of the turmoil that plagued the reign of King James II of Scotland. It turned out to be a fascinating journey through time, a gripping read that I’d happily rate 3 out of 4 stars.
Tomlin takes us back to 1449. James Stewart has just come of age, his rule threatened from within by the growing power of the Douglases. We see events unfold through the eyes of Sir Patrick Gray, captain of the king’s guard, who is both an observer and actor in many of the turning points in James’ life. Even as the narrative flits from political conspiracies to castle sieges to the king’s marital life, the Earl of Douglas lurks in the background, constantly scheming to bring about the fall of the King of Scots.
Tomlin paints a visceral picture of 15th-century Scotland, with rich imageries that place readers right in the heart of the moment. We are transported to the quay of Leith Harbor, where James first met Mary of Guelders, his future wife and queen. We are swept alongside Patrick’s harrowing escape back to Edinburgh, following a mission that ended in tragedy. We follow James’ army at each siege and battle, and we celebrate each victory and commiserate with each betrayal and loss. While my unfamiliarity with Scottish history led to some confusion with the characters, it also made two historical events — the death of Patrick Maclellan and the murder of the Earl of Douglas — significantly more shocking and impactful.
Tomlin’s writing laces the novel with a sense of uncertainty and danger, as befitting the context in which the story takes place. The dialogues capture the idiosyncrasies of the Scottish dialect (e.g., use of “cannae” for “cannot” or “to ken” for “to know”), a quirky feature that might not be to every reader’s taste. The narrative comes alive at the vividness of the prose. You can see the castles and moors in your mind’s eye. The food makes your mouth water. The fight scenes are dynamic. But in equal measure, descriptions of death and gore tend to be bluntly graphic. Sensitive readers should beware.
A King Empowered can be read as a standalone. While some background in Scottish history is desirable, it’s not strictly necessary for readers to enjoy the story. I was particularly intrigued by an incident called the Black Dinner that was mentioned several times in the book; I learned later that it partly inspired George R. R. Martin’s infamous Red Wedding in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mentions of other people and events led me to do some extra reading just for the fun of it. Although the appearance of several historical figures can be a bit overwhelming, Tomlin provides a glossary at the end for the reader’s reference.
Unfortunately, A King Empowered loses one star due to the lack of professional editing. Throughout the text, there were problems in punctuation, word usage, verb tense, and even the spelling of some characters’ names. Regardless, A King Empowered is a great entry point for readers interested in the medieval period. History buffs everywhere should definitely not miss this.
A King Empowered
View: on Bookshelves | on Amazon