Jen Black,
The Banners of Alba
(NovelBooks, 2004)

The powerful writing of Jen Black reaches through the centuries and makes the history of the Dark Ages of Scotland come alive. A talented writer with a true vision, she quickly draws the reader into her absorbing tale of power, greed, betrayal and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom.

Malcolm, King of Alba, had no heir, and in keeping with ancient Pictish traditions, the rule could pass to any male on the distaff side. An heir would be chosen by the council from the four contenders for the kingship -- Thorfinn of Orkney; his half brother, Daveth mac Finlay; Duncan mac Crinan, the grandson of the king; and Doman mac Boedhe, grandson of King Kenneth.

Finlay had been promised Boedhe's sister Kilda in marriage. With the combining of Finlay's line and Kilda's line, everyone believes he will be made tanist, heir to the throne of Alba (old Scotland). After Finlay is sent to Canute, king of England and Demark, he is told Boedhe has been killed in a brawl. The king carries these bad tidings to Finlay, both of them believing this accidental death is a little too convenient, but worse, Canute announces the sister Kilda has been married to another.

Malcolm has taken advantage of Finlay being away from Scotland and at English court, to marry Kilda to Gille mac Malbride, Finlay's cousin. With Finlay away and Boedhe conveniently dead, Kilda is without a protector, so she is unable to resist the forced marriage. Malcolm, now 70, wants his grandson, Duncan mac Crinan, to be tanist. By blocking Finlay's marriage to Kilda, he hopes to ensure this. Thus, Malcolm has set forces into play that shall shape the future of Alba.

When Finlay returns north, he makes a half-hearted effort to get Kilda to run away with him to England. However, he is caught and tossed into the dungeon for a week. When his half-brother Thorfinn claims lands in Alba, Malcolm sees a way to claim the Orkneys: send Finlay north to kill Thorfinn, marry Thorfinn's half-sister, Ratagan, and install Finlay in Thorfinn's place. Finlay goes along with the plan asking only that Gille be sent along in his party. Everyone believes this is so Finlay can kill his cousin and claim Kilda, but Finlay is wiser. Duncan's wife just died in childbirth, and marriage to Kilda would ensure the crown for Duncan. By taking Gille northward with him, Finlay keeps him from the reach of Malcolm and Duncan. When his half-brother lays out the realities of the situation -- Duncan has Malcolm, and Finlay and he have each other -- the lines are drawn.

It's marvelous storytelling at its best. Black is a powerful talent, with a clear vision and a strong voice. Anyone looking for true historical fiction about Scotland would do well to pick up a copy and revel in the excellent writing from this new writer. The story held me spellbound from beginning to end.

- Rambles
written by DeborahAnne MacGillivray
published 13 November 2004

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