by Karen Gray
‘History’ – it’s not what you think!
This novel came to my attention through a recommendation by Anne on WordPress. I don’t usually read high fantasy these days but the book’s description – swords and castles, mythological beasts and twenty-seventh century Scotland – was irresistible, so I bought it and promised to read it.
Karen Gray has created a world that mixes an historical past with a future post-apocalyptic century inhabited by people and strange beasts with telepathic powers. The feel is mediaeval, and we can almost imagine we are in the Scotland of the Stewart kings, or maybe Robert Bruce, but with technology that is at once advanced for then and primitive for now.
” ‘When the Albannach princess was taken south as a hostage to control the nobility of Alba, there was widespread outrage. The highland clans conspired to steal her away home, but their plan was discovered. The Sassanach punishment was swift and severe ….’ “
The main protagonist in For King and Country is Morag who, though brought up in humble surroundings, is actually heir to the throne. As a teenager she is taken for training in the military, when she begins to develop and extend the strange powers she has nourished from childhood. These include the ability to communicate with animals and to tap into the mind of other humans, even to influence their actions.
‘The major … chuckled, then attached a thick chain round her legs and let it drop from his hand. Agony engulfed her and she wailed despite herself. She could feel the terrifying slow shredding of her muscle fibres, and moaned in response. The evil, satisfied laugh behind her made her skin crawl ….’
The tough endurance training Morag experiences is made even tougher by the harsh, brutal treatment of some of her instructors. Watched over by her ‘familiar’, the nemeocorn Rannoch, and aided by her friend, the much abused and reviled Brax (Andrew), Morag sees it through.
Like all good heroes, Morag enjoys breaking the rules and she makes enemies as well as friends. Despised for her apparently lowly origins and her friendship with Brax, she attracts the attention of the dastardly General Raine who sets his cohorts on her team during a training exercise, and the young people have to fight for their lives. However, Morag has more friends than she realises, including Colonels Randall and Rossen. The former not only knows her true background but owes to her psychic abilities his escape from the mental hold of the usurper king.
‘Randall froze, foot hovering over the first step. The girl’s mindcast had force and strength behind it. It rose up from the depths and drowned his soul with authority. He found himself standing in a dark room, dressed in bloody overalls, chain in hand. In front of him Morag’s familiar, showing his true form ……’
Randall and Brax both have their own links to Morag’s mother, the dead Albannach princess Catriona, but we learn only a little about them in this novel. By the end of For King and Country, Morag is aware of her heritage but seems a long, long way from claiming her rights.
Although the setting of the book is clearly THIS Earth rather than the imaginary worlds of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Martin’s Westeros or even McCaffrey’s Acorna, the plot and action of For King and Country tugged at my memory strings from long ago as well as from the recent past. Besides, having grown up in Scotland, I was more than adequately immersed in her history and could see the clear parallels between the fierce Anglo-Scottish wars of olden times and the futuristic struggle between Albanach and Sassanach portrayed by Karen Gray.
As a rule, I prefer my history unadorned by make-believe [*** see note]. For this reason I found the beginning of the novel disorienting as I fought to separate in my mind the apparently real background from the unfamiliar fantasy. I had to put it down until I was in the right mood to try again. When I re-read the first two chapters, I began to enjoy it. Highly imaginative and well-written, For King and Country is an easy read and the sort of story that’s hard to put down. I liked the cover too! The only real negative is that it’s incomplete and part of a series – (a subject on which I’ve often expressed negative opinions in the past).
*** note: as I have many times discovered, a great deal of the history I learned at school was make-believe anyhow, or at least (euphemistically) unbalanced.