I had the distinct pleasure of encountering Jack Whyte for the first time in the fall of 2014 at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. He was hosting a seminar on how to write combat scenes. As I’d read most of his books, specifically a nine-book-high monolith called the Arthurian Saga, and had fallen in love with his battle imagery, there was no way I was missing that lecture. He presented one piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since. Paraphrased, “Show the battle from one PoV at a time, because that one person is concerned about one thing and one thing only—his own survival. There’s too much chaos on a true battlefield to show everything.” Armed with that wisdom, I was able to start plotting out a combat-heavy book, Iron Broderick, that a friend of mine, Alan O’Brien, and I had dreamed up 30 years earlier. Alan and I are now polishing it, and I still get goosebumps when I reread the battle scenes at the end.
When the conference ended, an epiphany of face-palm quality hit me…I had sold all of my books to a used book dealer during the summer of 2014 because I could no longer walk into the attic. The Arthurian Saga was amongst them. Had I known how approachable he is, I would have toted my entire collection up to the land of snow and ice and plied him with alcohol in exchange for nine autographs.
The following year, I went back to the conference and actually met him. I bought another of his books, a large chunk of tree called The Forest Laird, and he was gracious enough to autograph it for me. Sadly, and happily, there are two more trees worth of books to read in the series. Sadly, because I have two more books on a list twice the length of my arm, and happily because they’re Jack Whyte books.
But enough hero-worship. The book…
The Forest Laird is roughly 800 pages long and tells the story of William Wallace. It is probably the truest and most complete story of the man told to date based on the research done beforehand. Although I loved Braveheart (who doesn’t love a good action movie with swords and wenches), Jack made sure to let us know that it was not an accurate portrayal of any William Wallace he knew about. It was interesting to note that Jack felt the true story of William Wallace might have been the origin for the Robin Hood myth as well. Forewarned with those thoughts, I delved into the book.
I’ll go over what I didn’t like first. The main point of view is that of Wallace’s cousin, Jamie Wallace, so some of the information is relayed secondhand to the reader. This makes sense, as Jamie and William are not tied at hip throughout the story, but I would like to have spent more time with William or even in his head. I understand why that may not have been possible though. This is a story about William Wallace, not a story told by William Wallace.
The sections on economics and sociology did not appeal to me. I’ll admit to skimming over sections of that and not feeling I missed any of the story.
Now what did I like? Everything else, from the descriptions of the countryside, the weapons of the time, the Scots language throughout, the believable and unique characters, the explanations of the politics (which the economics and sociology that I did read might have helped me to enjoy), and watching the slow pull of Scotland from a nice place to visit to one of turmoil and strife.
The main antagonist, in my opinion, was Edward “Longshanks” Plantagenet. Though we never saw him, his presence was felt everywhere (he stayed in faraway London throughout the book). He was the invisible “bad guy” hiding in all the shadows, ready to jump out and skewer you in the back. I especially liked that.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Forest Laird, and I recommend it.