Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: The Forest Laird - Jack Whyte

 In the pre-dawn hours of August 24, 1305 a.d., in London's Smithfield Prison, the outlaw William Wallace, who is to be executed at dawn, is visited by a Scottish priest who has come to hear his last Confession. So begins The Forest Laird, the first book in Jack Whyte’s masterful new trilogy. Wallace's story leads us through his many lives—as an outlaw and a fugitive, a hero and a patriot, a rebel and a kingmaker. He is the first heroic figure from the Scottish Wars of Independence brought blazingly to life in Jack Whyte's new trilogy, the Guardians, and will be followed by his two compatriots Robert the Bruce, King of Scots; and Sir James Douglas, known as The Black Douglas. Their exploits and escapades, desperate struggles and medieval savagery, high ideals and fierce patriotism are the stuff of legends, and the soul and substance of these epic novels. 

Why do we read historical fiction?

Well, at the basest level we read it for the same reason we read other genres. Entertainment. But why specifically historical fiction then? I have to surmise that it is because we are intrigued by an event, an era, or a historical personage enough that we wish to know about it/them. We want a fictional account of it/them where the characters are embellished a bit, and events are tweaked slightly to take on an exciting air. We don’t, however, want to read a textbook on the subject, nor have to stray too far from the excitement of a good story in favour of boredom and undressed facts.

I think where THE FOREST LAIRD fails first and foremost is in the language department. Whyte himself is a Scottish ex-pat living in B.C., and something started to creep into his writing a few books ago. When he was writing his second volume of his Templar Series, STANDARD OF HONOR, he started to add a little something that at first was just curiously odd, and then later on became annoying. Any Scottish character that shows up in his books will flip back and forth between their native Scottish dialect (Scots) and a modern English (which stands to represent whatever other language is spoken by the characters, ie. French or Latin). So the modern English is representative of those other languages reads easily and perfectly, while the Scots dialect reads phonetically with sentences comprised of words like “Dinna”, Cannae”, H’ae” and “Ken”. This makes any character speaking in Scots virtually unintelligible without having to concentrate hard on each sentence and work out what the character is saying. This was okay in that second Templar book where one or two characters were Scottish, and by the third where there were more Scots it got a bit trying. Now he’s written this book.....which is ABOUT Scotland, takes place in Scotland and contains...Scottish characters, and huge chunks of the book are written like this.  WE GET IT. You’re Scottish. If this is such a needed mechanic aspect of your books then why don't you spell out French accented words too, or Latin? In fact, I’ll go you one better, every time a character switches from Latin to Scots he tells us “So and So switched to Scots”, why tell us then? It’s pretty clear that they switched as one sentence is normal and the next isn’t. Seems redundant to me, by Whyte tells you...every...single...time. None of the Celts in his Arthurian books ever had phonetic speech, even though they had a different language to the Latin Romans. I want to tell you it’s tolerable, but it really isn’t and definitely hampers the enjoyment you might have.

Now, you might say that “We deal with Jordan’s long-windedness, Erikson’s complexity and cacophony of plot-threads, and even Martin’s descriptions of every food eaten in Westeros”, but that is because the story kicks so much ass.

I truly wish I could tell you that the case here. Sadly, it isn’t. But this is the tale of William Wallace, Patriot, Guardian of Scotland, scourge of English Kings....his is the story of war, vengeance, bravery, betrayal and blood-soaked valour...of a country resisting oppression isn’t it?

Not in this book I am afraid.

Whyte has a storytelling trick he’s always used. When a large amount of exposition is needed to propel the story along, he has characters sit by a brazier with a mug of mulled wine and explain things to one another. It was okay in the Arthur books cause there was a great deal of action and intrigue that came along with them. Here what we get is one fireside chat linked to the next by a spate of traveling.  There is very little action to speak of. Characters TALK about doing stuff, or stuff they did, but never really are seen to do it. In fact, this could have easily been a textbook about the politics of the era and nothing more. Wallace and his cousin James (our narrator) do many things, but none of it is all that interesting. While events in the book DO make for a cohesive argument for the Scottish to hate the English king and the beginning of his oppression of their country, nothing ever REALLY happens in that regard. I’m not kidding. I wish I was. Mirren (Wallace’s love interest) is there, and so is that incident with the Sherriff of Lanark who Wallace kills, thus making him an outlaw by the English, and the start of his meteoric rise to nationwide hero...but it the end. Yup, 500 pages to get us from Wallace is 8 and untrained to Wallace is like 30-something and is pissed off by this Sherriff guy. The in-between is just not interesting in the slightest.  Imagine someone tells you the story of William Wallace and STOPS telling it right before they talk about the battle of Stirling Bridge, his first decisive victory and a wakeup call for the English, or any of those battles that followed. Seriously?!

That brings me to my third and final point in this unfortunate review. Whyte’s skills (as is evident by his Camulod Arthurian series) is the long game. That took like 6-7 books to tell the story of Arthur’s parents, birth and rise as he grows up to become the first High King of Britain. And it worked, bigtime. One of my fave series of all time. Well, it seems that with the previous Templar series, and this new series he is trying to tell the same sort of generational story in a much shorter span of books, thus leaving each book to have completely different characters in different timeframes. This does not work. The Templar series was marred by disjointedness, and none of it really connected. The same will unfortunately be true here, the first book was about Wallace, yes, but the second will be about Robert The Bruce and the third about James “Black” where it might have been good to make a 3 book series about Wallace and company’s full story (including the win at Stirling, and failure at Falkirk ect.) instead we get another disjointed story with snippets of each Scottish patriots life...and boring snippets at that.

Whyte is Scotsman, raised on stories of this man. This should have been all win. He should have owned the hell out of this book, and sadly he doesn’t at all. To say it was boring was an understatement. This book was the first ten minutes or so of Braveheart (storywise). Sadly, this is also the last chance I am giving to this author. I LOVE his Arthur series bigtime. I liked the first Templar book, and hated the other two. I gave him this one last chance to impress me. I think he’s lost what he used to have, and is floundering now. His historical fiction crown has been stolen forever by the likes of Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, and Robyn Young. 

I can't even recommend this book. I can't do it. No one should suffer needlessly.

Since I hate ending a review on such a bad note....

....speaking of Robyn Young (who so completely bested Whyte with her far more engaging Templar series ,Brethren), it turns out coincidentally that her new series is actually about the same Scottish wars of Independence, and will feature Robert The Bruce as a hero. Quite frankly, I have a feeling this one will be way more worth my time as her previous three novels were amazing.


  1. I agree with this review 100%. This book is a convuluted, plodding tease. Just when you think Whyte is about to pick up the pace (or introduce some real conflict, action... anything), two priests will sit down and talk about the historic rise of towns in Europe.

  2. Glad to hear I wasn't the only one with said opinion. I'm also quite serious about how awesome Robyn Young is, you should check her out if you like Historical Fiction!

  3. I disagree, the book was well done. Just looking at the sales and other reviews it seems that your opinions are minority.

    Go read a V.C Andrews if you dislike a great historical fiction.

  4. Yes indeed Derek. Which is why it is my "opinion". Any review is that persons opinion. You disagree, which is totally fine as you are entitled to your opinion.

    The V.C. Andrews comment is laughable sir. Just because I liked Whyte's earlier work and not his more recent fare doesn't mean that I dislike "great historical fiction" simply means that I don't like what has happened to his writing in the last few years....and his sales have slumped because of it.

    Also, there are two reviews at 1 star.

    There are 4 reviews at GoodReads...two of which are negative 2 star reviews...

    So in the grand scheme of things your comment about good reviews seems a tad overzealous. The other ting that points out (with two reviews at, one at, and 4 at GoodReads) is that Whytes sales on this book are low, or if they are high then no one is being compelled to say good things, let alone bad things.

    His Templar series, on the other hand, had scads of reviews mere weeks after release. Go through those reviews at Good Reads....even for the first Templar book (where his writing started to go downhill for me) there are A LOT of 1 star reviews.

    Basically Derek, it's like this. If you liked THE FOREST LAIRD, then great! I am pleased that Whyte still continues to impress you. As I said in my review I have personally given up on him and won't spend another dime on his work.



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