Nigel Tranter,
(Hodder & Stoughton, 1990;
Coronet, 1997)

Fans of historical fiction set in Scotland can find few writers to rival Nigel Tranter. Kenneth, set in the 9th century, is an excellent slice of Scotland's early days as a nation.

Kenneth mac Alpin, the son of a minor king in Galloway, has a dream of a united Scotland. His vision is opposed by other Celtic leaders, including his own father, Alpin mac Eochaidh -- none wishes to reduce their own sovereignty or see their lands superceded by other Celtic realms, nor does the threat of Anglo-Saxons to the south and roving bands of Norse marauders cause them to seek anything beyond a temporary alliance.

But Kenneth rises in prominence through his battle ken on land and sea, as well as his quest for a saint's fingerbone to help install Andrew, the first apostle, as Scotland's patron after his seeming intervention in a battle with the Saxons. As political circumstances shift around him, his own aim in uniting the Celtic nations comes into tighter focus.

Kenneth's story is riveting stuff; action-packed sequences in various land battles and brutal encounters at sea punctuate the calmer sections relating to Kenneth's quest. Before it's done, there will be a lot of political maneuvering, a bit of romance, family tensions and other elements to keep the pace flowing.

Tranter's historical fiction is not quite as exciting or action-packed as, for instance, Morgan Llywelyn's interpretation of Irish history. At the same time, however, Tranter imparts a sense of greater historical detail and accuracy, which I suspect Llywelyn sometimes sacrifices for the sake of good storytelling. The novel is likewise packed with cultural and geographical tidbits which make it heady stuff for any true lover of the land and its people.

If Scottish historical fiction grabs your interest, Tranter is the man to provide it. Kenneth is an excellent starting point in the nation's vivid past.

[ by Tom Knapp ]