To my mind The Druid is everything historical fiction should be and more. The reader is served with a lesser known (and therefore original and highly interesting) setting which serves as the backdrop to a desperate hunt for an abducted princess. The characters are engaging and easy to follow, with their backstories and motivations being steadily and satisfactorily revealed with each page turned.
McKay is an exciting and inspiring historical novelist and what I love about his writing is that he clearly understands the strengths and the pitfalls of the ‘historical fiction’ genre. Which makes for a highly engaging story which constantly shifts between riveting action or scenes possessed of a simmering, underlying tension. So that there’s no sagging and boring ‘history lesson’ bits and the historical detail is seamlessly melded into a plot bursting with adrenaline and suspense.
That said, it would be superficial to label this book as just another ‘boys own’ action-filled, sword-waving romp. I think that the female characters are plausible and satisfying, without the author ever resorting to any fawning ‘mansplaining’ (an approach that’s unfortunately often used by certain historical novelists to try and loop in a female readership) in the way they’re crafted. In fact, McKay doesn’t baulk from describing intimate scenes as intricately as those scenes which include a raging battle.
The novelist makes no secret of Tolkien’s influence on him as a writer and it’s a relief to finally find an author who’s confident enough to also include a song or two in his story. That said McKay’s style is unique and all his own: there are some original and humorously grim scenes like the one in which the queen of Alt Clota urges her husband King Coroticus to remove a severed Pictish head from their dining table before asking him to bring her a beer.
McKay also casts the figure of a druid in a whole new light. For his druidic protagonist Bellicus is no bumbling, asexual and feeble Getafix from the Asterix comics but a physically imposing and formidable combatant who’s wise beyond his years. Despite these impressive qualities, Bellicus is not superhuman and struggles with moments of confusion and doubt. The enemy he hunts is also not to be trifled with and this is satisfactorily set out in the narrative.
Fans of high fantasy who want to take a break from their usual genre might want to give The Druid a try, since it also contains a strong and well-crafted mystic element which borders on and at times spills over into the realm of magic.
Buy The Druid by Steven A. McKay