The Sunday Review
Three years ago, Indie stalwart Mary Ann Bernal, an ex-Pat New Yorker living in Nebraska, sat down in her garret and began to write The Briton and the Dane.
This is a trilogy of historical fiction books focusing on the reign of King Alfred the Great in Ninth Century England, known as the "Dark Ages". Not because it was darker then than now, but because it is an era about which we know so little.
What little we do know, Mary Ann corraled, span, tinkered, added a cornucopia of characters and turned it all into a well respected historical yarn.
The fourth book, The Briton and the Dane: Concordia, was released at the turn of the year.
This, by common consent is considered to be the apogee of her progression from humble first timer, chiselling, digging and sculpting each word as if it would be her last, to smooth and accomplished historical fictionist.
Whereas the first of her books could be rusty and clunky, the second less so, and the third, even less, Concordia is noticeable for how smooth it is. That's the first thing you notice. It is seamless and honed, like stainless steel worked on a lathe. A writer can do nothing but progress and Mary Ann sails ahead at a rate of knots.
In olden times, they used to call stories like this a romp. It is a ripping yarn which covers some serious ground in its sixty thousand words.
England, the High Seas, Muslim Hispania, the action never seems to end.
At the centre is Concordia; the type of young girl who could cause a fight in an empty room.
Beautiful and intelligent, men are generally smitten by her within seconds. Naturally, she knows this, is fully aware of her power over the men around her and is determined not to sell her future cheaply. She has plans.
While betrothed to her guardian and protector, the much older knight, Brantson, a brave and lauded warrior, she has wanderlust in her heart and her eyes firmly fixed on someone far more dangerous, Thayer, the sultry and exotic ambassador of Muslim Hispania sent to Court on peaceful terms.
Naturally, were this union to be consummated, a bloody war would soon follow - something the wily Thayer attests when Concordia virtually throws herself at him one night after a court and social.
Brantson, every inch the noble Knight, the hardy soul, the chaste and wondrous fool, knows this, can see it in her eyes, and after Thayer rejects his foolish young suitor, steps in and offers Concordia marriage and respectability.
Concordia accepts for very clever reasons*.
Manipulative as ever, she extracts bargain after bargain from Brantson (a couple of which I found hard to believe) and the two are married and subsequently set off on a symbolic honeymoon; a pilgrimage to Rome.
Then, the romp begins. Their ship is attacked by Saracen pirates. Everyone bar Concordia butchered, or presumed dead. Our heroine is captured and taken by Chad, the handsome, dashing Saracen pirate captain, to Muslim Hispania as tribute.
There, she is once again reunited with Thayer...this time facing a very different fate
It is comfortably the author's best book so far. Concordia is shorter, sharper and better written than the other three and is an ideal entry point for readers. Without the academic speculations and expositions which slowed down the first three books, readers can enter Mary Ann's dark age world of avaricious Kings, scheming Queens, lusty Vikings, impish Britons, shadow-cowled monks, cunning Saracens, marbled Courts, byzantine intrigue, unbridled passion and - always - death by blood-dipped sword.
The characters are lovingly drawn, the plot rattles along like a runaway train, with little time to think, there is very little exposition in the text (despite this being the book which turns a trilogy into a quartet) and there is a complete absence of waste in the text. Mary Ann takes a very skeletal approach to her writing, almost YA, a Weightwatchers regime creating something as slim as the abs on a celebrity.
There is dramatic tension on every page too and some strong dialogue, cleverly updated to a modern idiom - Mary Ann clearly learning from the critical lessons of her first book.
What I enjoyed was the way that Concordia's antics can be seen in 2013 in a suburban Mall near you.
There is a modernity in her thinking, which draws close to the quayside of allegory; the dilemmas facing Concordia, Brantson and the Court of Kings are identical to the issues faced by modern families and new millennial couples.
The author delves into Concordia's psychology and finds a teenage girl unwilling to be tied down despite culture and protocol; a Thoroughly Modern Milly, a girl blindsided by an older man, seduced by someone exotic, to whom her rather staid and normal boyfriend can be nothing but unfavourably compared.
Court life in England and Spain are well described, the environment is sometimes lovingly drawn and the mores of the times are accurately recounted. At times, you can almost taste the fruit from the orange groves of Corunna.
There is intrigue at every turn and you really root for Concordia when she finds herself trapped between the vicious egos of two Saracen brothers vying for her virginal affections.
Surprises galore explode across the page toward the end of the book and there is an unexpected ending which has caused some controversy. Me? I quite liked it, but it took me a couple of weeks to get over (it is very powerful and strongly written), and I half wonder whether Mary Ann , had she read the critical reaction, might have had a rethink.
Still, a controversial ending is better than an ending which resembles a saucer of warm milk.
Oye! Oye! Oh hear this! This book is fiction at its most robust and thrilling. As I said at the beginning, I would rather read a manual on fixing toasters than historical fiction and I read this out of courtesy with a half smile on my face.
I didn't put it down. Couldn't put it down.
This is a page turner.
I'd buy this book if I were you and I cannot wait to have the paperback on my shelf.
* You can hear Mary Ann read the chapter containing Brantson's proposal of marriage by clicking this link to Phil Naessen's Writers Showcase radio show.
US Readers can buy The Briton and the Dane: Concordia HERE!!
UK Readers can buy The Briton and the Dane: Concordia HERE