An Imagined History

The Scots of Dalriada: Fergus Mór by Rowena Kinread

Feargus Mòr Mac Earca may have been a 5th century ruler of Dál Riata, the Gaelic kingdom that encompassed parts of modern-day Scotland and Ireland. While there are doubts about his historical authenticity – think of him as somewhat more historical than Arthur and at about the same level as Ragnar Lodbrok—the kings of Scotland from Kenneth MacAlpin onward claim descent. With few contemporary records to go by—most of what is written about Fergus Mòr is from many generations later—author Rowena Kinread is free to imagine and enlarge his story.

The jealousies and conflicts among the rulers and potential heirs to various 5th century kingdoms are believable, a portrait of the complex and shifting loyalties among the boys of one family, when any one of them could be determined to inherit the kingdom: it went to the most worthy, not the oldest, by the decision of a council. Brother could turn against brother—or stand by his side in support. Nor does Kinread shy away from the violence and brutality of the time, whether in war or in casual violence against both men and women—and from both men and women.

The book’s style is unusual, passages of present-tense, omniscient narration interspersed with scenes that are largely dialogue. (I did wonder if Kinread was attempting to echo the way some English translations of the Ulster cycle are presented, the way Dorothy Dunnett echoed first the sagas and then ecclesiastic writings in King Hereafter, her imagined history of Thorfinn, Earl of Orkney.) Within the narration are some lovely descriptions: ‘the leather bridles…polished until they shine like dogs’ noses.’ While most of the book’s action unfolds in a linear timeline, the first eight chapters do not follow this pattern—pay attention to the chapter headings! 

The Scots of Dalriada: Fergus Mór is published by Vanguard Press, one of the imprints of Pegasus, a hybrid publisher in the UK. Their editorial team has done the author no favours. Typographical errors are too frequent – I counted six within seventeen pages. The use of modern or otherwise anachronistic terms—a pregnant character refers to ‘the first trimester’—jolted me out of the story many times, as did inaccuracies in the setting: ‘vultures circling’. (Ravens, yes. Vultures in the northern UK, no.)  

Kinread’s imagined history of Fergus Mòr’s rise to power and the eventual kingship of Dalriada has a good story at its heart, in places effectively told. A better editor could have made it shine.

Myths in the Making: The Winter Knight by Jes Battis

Myths are mutable things, changing, overlapping, blurring—but persistent. They shape tropes and memes, underlie both the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we are told, and may create, at a level we may only barely understand,  our expectations of the world.

But what if you are a myth?

In a Vancouver where not all places (or inhabitants) belong to the world-as-we-know-it, myths live. Valkyries, Norns, the men and women of Arthurian legend. They are college students, translators, administrators, musicians, living, on the surface, apparently normal 21st century lives. But they have not forgotten who they are, their past lives recalled in snatches of memory and dream and stories told, and their power remains.

A series of grisly murders leads Wayne and Hilde deeper into their family stories, the repeating patterns that have shaped each iteration of their lives. Not every recurring story is the familiar one—Vancouver is not Camelot, but something closer to the castles and forest and lakes of medieval poems like Gawain and the Green Knight, with their potent, obscure symbols, multiple interpretations, and characters largely forgotten in recent retellings. And like those medieval stories, The Winter Knight is both a story of a surface quest, a tangible challenge, and a story we’d now call ‘coming of age’, of internal battles and internal change.

There’s always someone who goes after the beast and tries to tame it. Some knight who thinks they’ll turn it into a trophy. But you can’t. It’s as old as shadows, as old as flickers on the cave wall, as old as graves. You can’t bind that. Only live with it.

Battis creates moods and settings with a light touch, using a few words masterfully – and creates both a contemporary and a timeless sense to the story. Battles are fought with both the tools of the past and the tools of the present, and the two are sometimes melded into one. Ultimately, The Winter Knight is a hopeful story, for all its deep understanding of the difficulties and compromises of accepting the expectations of family, the stories that shape us and the pieces of each we keep and discard. Myths are mutable: perhaps, even when we are the myth, fate is not all.

The Winter Knight is published by ECW Press:

The Abdication, by Justin Newland: A Review

Justin Newland’s The Abdication is a complex, layered, philosophical novel. Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it explores the concept of free will against obedience to an authoritarian higher power: the protagonist, Tula, is seeking the guidance of the angels of the town of Unity in her quest for a spiritual life. To reach Unity, across the forbidden Via Angelica bridge, she must first pass through the human town of Topeth, ruled by avarice and corrupt religious leaders.

The Abdication is deceptively simple, seen through the eyes of a young woman on a journey to understand the visions she has and the voices she hears. The town – Topeth – she believes a haven is instead a place of terror and corruption, turned away from its founder’s vision of a community where human free will can be allowed to grow and develop. The proper expression of free will, she learns, is hard; it is easier to obey a set of rules, even when they are the rules of a vindictive, false religion in league with a destructive, profit-driven elite.

Newland has created a world that feels both familiar and strange. Tula inhabits a world that seems to be ours: there are references to ancient Earth cultures; the flora and fauna are real. The mythology of Unity and Topeth is based, in my limited recognition and understanding, on Abrahamic teachings – pre-Christian interpretations of both gods and angels and the powers of both.

Aspects of The Abdication reminded me of two books from my childhood: a youth’s version of The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies: the former for the allegorical obstacles the protagonist must overcome on the journey to the city of their desire and enlightenment; the latter for the motif of the shedding of skins on the way to becoming the purest self.  Throughout the book, the image of winged beings, both helpful and threatening, repeats, reinforcing and reflecting the idea of angels as many people imagine them, and perhaps also suggesting the revelations of the ending.

If I have one niggle with The Abdication, it is the almost non-stop action of the last chapters. For a book asking hard questions about the balance – in a world where gods and angels are real and powerful – between blind obedience and the exercise of free will, there was little time for the reader to contemplate what Tula has learned and the choices she makes. It felt a little like the last chapters of a thriller, where, as the protagonists reach the climax of the plot, rapid reversals leave the reader barely able to draw breath.

Overall, The Abdication is an intriguing book, leaving me with the feeling that if my understanding of the religious underpinnings of its world-and-mythology building was better, I would have found it even more captivating. Even without that, its questions about what free will means and the choices made in its pursuit made it both challenging and compelling.

Justin Newland was born in Essex, England, three days before the end of 1953. He lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.
Justin gives author talks in libraries and does books signings in Waterstones, WH Smiths and indie bookshops. He has appeared at literary festivals and regularly gives media interviews.
He writes secret histories in which real events and historical personages are guided and motivated by numinous and supernatural forces – that’s history with a supernatural twist.

Water and Blood, by Rik Lonsdale

A Review

When disaster strikes, you want your family around you—don’t you?

When the collapse of an Antarctic ice sheet causes catastrophic, world-wide flooding and the disintegration of society, Lucy Marchand thinks she’s safe on her family’s smallholding in the west of England. But family tensions that could be ignored when they were buffered by a larger society begin to become evident when her older brother Ben flexes his way to a position of power within the family.

Set against a dystopic world all too easy to imagine—and already real in parts of the globe—Water and Blood is a psychological study of narcissism, manipulation, and the responses of a family trying to survive, and trying too to believe that one of their own has their best interests in heart.

The choices made by each individual in on the smallholding are distinct, and the reasons behind their decisions believable and layered. Each person has a point at which they either say ‘no more’ or embrace the philosophy of the leader. Many things influence that choice, especially when it becomes a question of your own life or death. As winter deepens and starvation threatens, does morality matter at all?  

I read Water and Blood in two days, and found it hard to put down. Well-paced, it asks some probing questions about how societies, even in microcosm, work. A solid debut novel, Water and Blood is out March 22. My thanks to the author for an advance review copy.

All purchase links at

Time, Vision, Reality: Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker

Alan Garner’s books are understood not intellectually, but in gut and bone and perhaps in a long collective memory. Deeply seeded in and emerging from a specific landscape, Treacle Walker tells us a tale of a boy with a lazy eye who one day meets a rag-and-bone man offering a trade: for rags and bones he gives a pot and a stone. The boy invites the man into his strangely adult-less house, where time is measured by the whistle and clack of the train that passes by at noon every day. And from there the boy–and the reader–learn that time and place may be fluid; that the past and the present may intertwine; that vision and sight are not the same thing; that objects are more than they seem and dreaming and being are inseparable.

Treacle Walker is a brief book, without a superfluous word. Language matters, has power; words can invite something in or keep something out, summon or banish. As brief and spare as Treacle Walker is, it is not simple. Its imagery is that of reflection: of the real and the virtual (as defined in the science of optics) and the place at which they diverge – or converge. The mirror, the train that divides the day in two; the boy’s two eyes that each see different worlds, if he frees one from its obscuring patch.

There are echoes of the surreality of Alice through The Looking Glass; there are echoes of earth magic and childhood games passed down for generations; there are echoes of others of Garner’s books. There is no definitive way to put Treacle Walker neatly into a genre, or even to say what it’s about, except that it is something both rich and strange.

Cloud Cover, by Jeffrey Sotto: A Review.

Cloud Cover balances the specific with the universal with ease and elegance, a tribute to the author Jeffrey Sotto’s skill. The protagonist of the book is a 30-something, gay, Filipino man living in Toronto, which could have made some readers feel the story is beyond their experience. The character of Tony is drawn with precision: he is not an everyman. He is himself, flawed and damaged, from external and internal causes, and relatable to anyone who has dealt with personal loss or rejection.

This isn’t to say Cloud Cover is an easy read. Tony’s bulimia is described in some detail, and he is likely to exasperate the reader as much as he does his friends. On the other hand, parts of Cloud Cover are laugh-out-loud funny, a nice balancing act from the author.

I found myself really caring what happened to Tony, both in his new, hopeful relationship and in his work towards healing. Sotto moves Tony past his ‘identity’ to find commonalities of the human experience: the devastation of grief; the joy of true acceptance; the pressure to conform. Nor is Tony’s life always bleak: he finds contentment, sometimes happiness, in parts of his life; a compromise, but one that will be well understood by many readers.

Sotto develops the story with compassion tempered by a clear look at the realities of a mental health disorder. Ultimately Cloud Cover is a hopeful book, but in a realistic way. There is no easy fix, no person but Tony who can turn his life onto a track less damaging, and not without significant, difficult work. But he can, by the end, see at least a hint of the sun behind the clouds, and the reader is left believing in a better future for Tony. Strongly recommended for readers of contemporary novels with believable, realistic protagonists.

Reviewed for Coffee and Thorn Tours.

Author Jeffrey Sotto

Jeffrey Sotto graduated from The University of Toronto, majoring in Film Studies and English Literature. He was the screenwriter and script consultant of the Canadian short films The Tragedy of Henry J. Bellini (2010) and Sara and Jim (2009), respectively.
Cloud Cover, his first novel, published in 2019, won a Best Indie Book Award (BIBA) for LGBTQ Fiction, an Independent Publisher Bronze Medal Book Award (IPPY), and a Literary Titan Book Award. It also briefly topped the Amazon bestseller list in LGBTQ fiction upon release. He published his second novel, The Moonballers: A Novel about The Invasion of a LGBTQ2+ Tennis League … by Straight People (GAY GASP!) in Spring 2022.

Jeffrey is also an advocate for mental health and eating disorder awareness and recovery, having shared his story on CBC Radio, Global News, and Sheena’s Place. He is currently a peer mentor at Eating Disorders Nova Scotia (EDNS). He will be contributing to the anthology Queering Nutrition and Dietetics: LGBTQ+ Reflections on Food Through Art, to be released in December 2022. Finally, in 2023, he will be appearing in the docuseries Wicked Bodies by Truefaux Films, which focuses on fostering positive culturally competent engagement in treatment and support centres, universities, and non-profit programs working with LGBTQ+ groups with disordered eating and body dysmorphia.

He is a self-proclaimed “cubicle dreamer,” tennis addict, and compulsive social media duckfacer.

Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places

Robert MacFarlane is among my top five favourite writers, fiction or non-fiction. The two pieces collected in Ghostways are very different: Ness, not-quite-a-play, not-quite-poetry, but to my mind meant to be read aloud, explores the depths and layers and secrets of Orford Ness, a shingle spit in Suffolk-a place I know as a birding site and nature reserve, but one that has another history. It is both haunting and disturbing, in the way T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets are. Its imagery will stay with me a long time.

Holloway, a prose exploration of a deep-worn, sometimes hidden path of Dorset is both a personal journey, a memoriam for fellow author Roger Deakin, and a wider discourse on landscape and meaning. ”Stretches of a path might carry memories of a person just as a person might of a path.” MacFarlane writes, and “paths run through people as surely as they run through places….” As a writer exploring the meaning of memory and place as filtered through grief in my current book, and as a person with a deep interest in how landscapes shape both individual and collective consciousness, MacFarlane (and his co-authors) as always, challenges and inspires me.

Storytellers: New Cover!

Like interior decoration and wardrobes, book covers can need updating. Bjørn Larssen has a new cover for his haunting novel Storytellers, and I’m pleased to show it to you today.

If you don’t tell your story, they will.

Iceland, 1920. Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith, dwells with his animals, darkness, and moonshine. The last thing he wants is an injured lodger, but his money may change Gunnar’s life. So might the stranger’s story – by ending it. That is, unless an unwanted marriage, God’s messengers’ sudden interest, an obnoxious elf, or his doctor’s guilt derail the narrative. Or will the demons from Gunnar’s past cut all the stories short?

Side effects of too much truth include death, but one man’s true story is another’s game of lies. With so many eager to write his final chapter, can Gunnar find his own happy ending?

My 2019 Review:

Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

Bjørn Larssen is an award-winning author of historical fiction and fantasy, dark and funny in varying proportions. His writing has been described as ‘dark,’ ‘literary,’ ‘cinematic,’ ‘hilarious,’ and ‘there were points where I was almost having to read through a small gap between my fingers.’

Bjørn has a Master of Science degree in mathematics, and has previously worked as a graphic designer, a model, a bartender, and a blacksmith (not all at the same time). He currently lives with his husband in Almere, which is unfortunately located in The Netherlands, rather than Iceland.

He has only met an elf once. So far.

Purchase links on Bjørn’s website.

The Silver Crystal, by Ryan Lanz

The Silver Crystal
is the first of The Red Kingdom trilogy, introducing the three major characters of the series: Rhael, a bounty hunter; Phessipi, the leader of a hated and persecuted minority, and Levas, a high-ranking officer of The Order. In a medieval world, the ‘Corrupted’ – men and women with abilities that go beyond those common to all people—are hunted down and mutilated in a way that destroys their extra powers. Hunting ‘Corrupted’ for The Order is Rhael’s job, when we meet him at the beginning of the story.

The Silver Crystal is more character-focused than action-focused, although it has its share of action too. In this first book, the usual hero’s journey of fantasy is given a twist, and the other main characters grapple with the decisions and consequences of leadership and rebellion – costs both personal and professional. Heavy on dialogue, including some passages of banter that are meant to lighten the mood but to this reader stood out as devices designed to do exactly that, not integral to the story – the story still moves along at a good pace, the point of view alternating between Rhael and Phessipi, until fairly far into the book, when Levas is introduced.

This late introduction of the third main character felt a little off-balance, but as this is the first book of a trilogy, in the context of the full story it makes sense. The world-building is sketched lightly but sufficiently, and characters fit their roles. Rhael’s sidekick, Gobo, might provide light relief for some readers, but I found him annoying, like an Ewok in Star Wars. (But then, other people love Ewoks.) Overall, an intriguing fantasy suitable in my judgement for readers twelve and above, with themes of discovery, acceptance, and understanding of differences running through the story.

Dead Winner, by Kevin G. Chapman

Rory McEntyre is a New York estate lawyer in a reputable firm: competent, hard-working, and single. One afternoon, his new clients turn out to be his old university friends Tom and Monica Williams, with an unusual request. They’ve won a share of one of New York’s mega-lotteries, and need his help to set up a trust to smokescreen their good fortune. Rory, who still pines for Monica but thinks that the better man won her heart and hand, obliges. But then Tom dies, apparently by his own hand, and the grieving and confused widow needs Rory’s help and support in every step of negotiating the labyrinth of complex investigations and revelations resulting from Tom’s suicide.

Dead Winner is a pacy, twisty comedy-thriller. At least, I hope it was supposed to be a comedy-thriller. That’s how I read it, and that’s how I’m reviewing it. Without spoilers, let me say I read it that way because the plot was obvious to me from the first chapters, and my enjoyment was in watching Rory getting deeper and deeper into something that wasn’t going to end well for him.

Side characters added to my chuckles. The executive assistant who was an Olympic judo contestant uses those skills in a scene reminiscent of Emma Peel in her leathers. The head of security who has ‘muscle envy’ on seeing the build of the (of course) probably-Russian hitman. Each character fit their role – harried and overworked detectives, ex-cop security, cold and efficient head of the investment firm for which Tom had worked – perfectly, instantly recognizable, taking their places in the unfolding events like the stock characters of a Christmas pantomime. As in a pantomime, there were many places when I wanted to figuratively shout ‘look behind you!’ at Rory – but then again, that would have spoiled the fun.

Recommended, but not – at least for me – to be taken seriously.

Reviewed for Coffee and Thorn Book Tours.


Kevin Chapman is an attorney specializing in labor and employment law.  His passion (aside from playing tournament poker and rooting for his beloved New York Mets) is writing fiction. He recently completed the first five books in his multi-award winning Mike Stoneman Thriller series.

Kevin writes: “The process of writing crime thrillers involves hours of thinking about and talking about how to kill people. And how to get away with it. It also involves figuring out how my protagonist detectives might solve the case. But mostly it’s about planning out ingenious ways to murder people. My wife is a willing participant in this process (so she must trust me). My current book is more of a mystery, and a little bit of a tragic romance. But all the stories are about the characters. If you don’t care about them, then I’m not doing my job.”


Kevin G Chapman welcomes communication from his readers – including comments, ideas, disagreements and critiques. He can be contacted via any of the links below:

Author website:

The Mike Stoneman Thriller Group on Facebook

Email him at kevin[at]kevingchapman[dot]com

He is also on Twitter (@KGChapman)