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.
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