THE GOOD KNIGHT by Sarah Woodbury (Review)

Gwynedd (North Wales), August, 1143 AD

Something a little different here, not so much in the plot as in the characters and setting. The plot is typical medieval murder mystery which, for those of us who can’t get enough of it, is good news not bad (as long as it is well written, which this is).

However, the setting in 12th-century North Wales – Gwynedd – is so convincing that it’s as if you have left 12th-century Paris and London and York (the world of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who in 1143 was already married to The King of France; of King Stephen and Empress Maud, who were still waging civil war over the throne of England; of Henry II, Maud’s son and Eleanor’s future husband, who was then just ten years old; and of Brother Cadfael!) and travelled to another country where everything is strange and – as I say, different. Different customs and conventions, a whole different way of life. And the names are mostly unprounceable, which gives us some idea of the foreigness of the language being spoken all around us and thus adds to the atmosphere.

Owain Gwynedd, King of Gwynedd, is the most powerful, or any rate most feared, of the petty kings who between them rule the roost in North Wales at the time. When the story opens, he is awaiting the arrival of Anarawd, another local king, who is to marry Owain’s daughter. Accompanying Anarawd on his journey are the ageing minstrel Meilyr, his daughter Gwen and his son Gwalchmai. Meilyr had once been Owain’s minstrel but left Gwynedd after a falling-out with the king. (This King Owain is so dictatorial and bad-tempered and – yes, spoilt – that he reminds me of our own dear, sweet Henry VIII!) Now Meilyr is returning to play at the wedding, swallowing his pride only so as to be able to present to the king the very talented twelve-year-old Gwalchmai.

Anarawd’s party is ambushed on the road and they are all killed.

No, wait! (I hope I’m not spoiling this!) Meilyr, Gwen and Gwalchmai were delayed at the inn because Meilyr’s horse had gone lame and Anarawd would not wait until they had found a replacement.

Hours later, hurrying to catch up, they came upon the dead bodies.

And now Meilyr’s daughter, Gwen, comes to the fore. Gwen, who keeps house for her ungrateful father and is a mother to her little brother, and who is still unmarried because her father has consistently turned down all suitors.

And you weren’t about to give up your housekeeper, maidservant, cook, and child-minder to just anyone, were you, Gwen thinks, but does not say. In fact she had said told him something like that once, and got a slap on her face.

But there is more to Gwen than meets the eye.

At this point I am going to stop spoiling it for you.

The “good knight” of the title? Ah, that is Gareth, one of Gwen’s suitors (yes, the only one she ever loved – and still loves) who was turned away by her father some six years earlier and now reappears in her life. Soon after they meet again, she tells him her father was once accused of murder and that it was her who had to ferret out the truth of the matter “because nobody else would”. (Is there an earlier story here I have missed?) Gareth says he hopes she will be there to do the same for him if he is ever accused of murder. She is and she does, when King Owain accuses him of organising the ambush of King Anarawd.

Three further points that make this book special for me. One is the character of King Owain’s younger son, Hywel, and the manner in which he lives his life as the son who is not the heir to the throne – the heir being Prince Rhun, Hywel’s half-brother and the apple of his father’s eye. Another is King Owain’s latest love interest, the exotic – and very mysterious – Cristina, who is widely held to be a witch. And finally, the switch of scene from Gwynedd to Dublin and the Viking Dubliners. It seems that they were involved in the fatal ambush, if only as mercenaries; and Prince Hywel’s mother was a princess from Dublin …

An enthralling story, sympathetic characters and a visit to another time, another culture. What more can you ask of an author?