REVIEW: The Scottish Boy by Alex de Campi

I suppose that knights’ tales are mostly laughed off by the general reading public as something archaic nowadays. Largely seen as relics from a far-off time when your grandpa, when still a stripling, delighted in the likes of Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’, Ronald Welch’s ‘Knight Crusader’ or Howard Pyle’s ‘Men Of Iron’. Eventually it became fashionable to deconstruct the chivalric myth in Cervantes-like fashion, as your teenage dad discovered when he picked up GRR Martin’s ‘A Game Of Thrones’. Yet even that approach slowly petered out, so that in time I was certain that there was no literary angle left through which knight errantry might provoke a strong reaction from readers. Boy was I wrong.

50169793. sx318 sy475 Arise Lady Alex de Campi, a heralded Queen of Grimdark. And not idly do I bestow such a lofty title upon this fine debut novelist, for de Campi has to date painstakingly carved out a critically acclaimed career from penning grim and gritty graphic novels. If only there were more risk-taking writers around like her who had half her talent – and it’s not just me saying it. Legendary bestselling author Chuck Wendig probably described her work best: “I have adopted the rule that I will read anything that Alex de Campi writes, and this rule has served me well.” This, coming from him, is no mean endorsement.

And it looks like de Campi is set to carry her stellar ability from comic book writing into novels, for her debut ‘The Scottish Boy’ oscillates splendidly between savagery and sophistication, filled as it is with moral ambiguity and a pervasive sense of real danger. It’s a knight’s tale set in medieval times, with as perilous a war-torn setting as our Grimdark hearts could hope for. This is not to mention a fresh romantic angle that is intimately (heh, you can say that again) explored and which is wholly unprecedented in fiction.

This novel is so unbelievably brave in the insane amount of risk it takes, that I doubt that it would ever have been touched with a ten-foot bargepole by the ailing, risk averse big end of town in the publishing industry, battered around as it has been for over a decade by sheer dominance. Let’s just say that I can’t see too many midwestern housewives picking this one up at their book club or while baking Bundt cakes for the bible-bashing, God-fearing hubby. So it’s hardly surprising that it was instead snapped up by the celebrated UK publisher Unbound, known to publish various grim and gritty trope-breaking titles in historical fiction like Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘The Wake’.

This plucky London-based publisher has used online means to successfully revive subscription publishing of yore, which was the method used to publish works by Voltaire, Samuel Johnson and Charles Dickens. Unbound bucks the aggressive discounting trend in modern bookselling by charging readers a premium to fund fiction that can’t break into the mainstream in exchange for having their names listed in the book they support as well as a copy of the same title. Yet despite this added cost, a whopping 834 patrons dived in to fund the production of de Campi’s debut, making it a huge success by crowdfunding standards before it even went into print.

The book’s protagonist, nineteen-year-old Harry de Lyon, is a stout fellow and the son of an impoverished English knight Sir Owen de Lyon who perished at the Battle of Bannockburn, scene of Scotland’s greatest triumph. Despite his mother’s misgivings, our Harry yearns to become a knight, so that he is soon taken into the service of one Sir Simon de Attwood. Unfortunately for Harry, he proceeds to lose both mother and Simon when the former dies of something or other and the latter perishes during the battle on Halidon Hill between the English and the Scots. Harry is late for Sir Simon’s last battle but is still knighted by the English King after a certain Baron Montagu puts in a good word for him. The newly knighted Harry feels somewhat embarrassed by his dream coming true since he thinks that it is undeserved. So that he quickly jumps at the chance to join the ruthless Baron Montagu’s hastily assembled warband in an undercover mission past the border with Scotland. Montagu’s target is a distant keep, where to Harry’s horror there ensues a heartless slaughter of the fastness’ starving and unarmed inhabitants, which include women and children. None are spared, save for a fierce boy, who is bound hand and foot after being dragged away from his home by Montagu’s men, before being hurled into a cage.

The Scottish Boy by Alex de Campi: UnboundTo his English captors, this boy is Scottish and therefore nothing short of a wild beast whose life is not worth the steam of their piss. It is only Harry (too shocked to wield his blade in the keep) who offers the rabid prisoner any kindness on the band’s return journey south. Harry feels utterly revolted by every bit of his first knightly venture yet matters further worsen when Montagu orders him to take the Scottish boy into his household and train him up to be his squire. De Lyon is reluctant to do this, yet finally relents when he is informed by the heartless Montagu that the Baron has purchased the debts burdening Harry’s estates, which in turn means that Harry will be rendered landless if he doesn’t take in his Scottish ward and secure his captivity.

Despite his initial misgivings, the recently orphaned Harry has no idea of the nightmare he is soon to suffer at the hands of the Scottish boy named Iain. Iain proves to be as easy to subdue as a wildcat being given a warm bath on a Sunday morning. For a while Sir Harry patiently takes it all on the chin, extending great kindnesses to his fellow orphan Iain. As a result, he endures all manner of threats, insults, jibes as well as wounds while desperately and hopelessly trying to turn Iain into a reliable squire. Yet it all proves in vain, with Harry finally reaching breaking point when Iain mortally injures his favourite horse and then flees Harry’s estate. The escaped Scottish boy is picked up by the local Sheriff who grievously wounds him, before a remorseful Harry steps in to take Iain back into his home. In time Harry’s renewed efforts with Iain bear fruit at the cost of an unexpected and enticing turn of events, when Harry finds himself not only a debt slave to Montagu but also Iain’s slave to love. For as they say, the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.

I found ‘The Scottish Boy’ an engaging read on several levels. The characters are well-crafted to the point that they are each vivid enough to make them easily recognisable to the reader. This avoids the common pitfall of most historical novelists, who tend to bog down their narratives with a cast of thousands. De Campi is also a specialist on the particular period of history which forms the historical backdrop, so that her references to the paraphernalia, customs and calendar of the period are subtly blended into a brisk writing style in the third person present which also contains some fantastic metaphors.

Although easy to read, her writing is at times also as deep and reflective enough as required to reveal the torment endured by the novel’s protagonist who finds himself increasingly drawn into a highly dangerous relationship with a boy who poses highly dangerous political consequences. De Campi is also careful to leave enough mystery simmering throughout her tale, with the McGuffin being Iain’s true background since his French is flawless for a Scot and it slowly becomes apparent that he is no mere Scottish lordling and a whole lot more than what first met the eye. It would be remiss of me not to add that the warmth and cheer of Harry’s household is well-realised and provides a good backdrop for the grittier events which ensue when Harry and Iain venture onto the jousting grounds as well as the grim wars of the Continent.

ImageThe combat scenes throughout the book are a testament to de Campi’s deep knowledge of jousting and fighting techniques, as well as the warfare of the period. These scenes in novels often descend into sword-waving triumphs achieved through sheer will, yet de Campi keeps it all technical and plausible so that it’s pulled off really well. Probably the hardest task she set herself in this literary venture was converting Iain’s blind hatred for all things English into a raging passion for the English knight Harry. The debut author pulls it off magnificently and even makes it look easy, yet this feat requires deft, patient plotting and a deep understanding of her characters’ emotional journeys which are inch perfect and achieved spectacularly well.

What chiefly sets this novel apart from other knightly tales is a homosexual attraction that is kindled between Iain and Harry and which blossoms into a series of full-frontal and graphic sexual encounters. De Campi is uncompromising in her description of these scenes, which are akin to an unexpected burst of roaring power chords ripping through a neatly accomplished orchestral piece. It’s not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea and I learned this first hand when reading this book in serial format on The Pigeonhole, an online book club in which readers can post their comments on the right hand side of the book’s pages.

The extent of de Campi’s bravery was evidenced by the protests and expressions of outrage by a number of readers following these sex scenes. It made me feel privileged, for I felt that I was bearing witness to a historic moment in literature: the birth of a great and timeless classic which had broken literary boundaries to great public outrage, like Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude The Obscure’ or DH Lawrence’s ‘Sons And Lovers’. Some readers on The Pigeonhole claimed that the scenes were too graphic. I’ll reserve my judgement on this, except to say that I found this reaction from readers to be both awe-inspiring and exciting, in a time in which I thought that there were no taboos left to be broken. Here is a novel which seeks to break new ground in fiction while also exploring a feature of life in martial circles that was probably a lot more common than people dare to admit, and which has largely been swept under the carpet.

So it’s a five on five rating for this daring, accomplished debut. It’s another absolute gem published by Unbound and an impressive first step into the literary world by Alex de Campi, hopefully the first of a few more to come.

Buy The Scottish Boy by Alex de Campi

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James Vella-Bardon

James lives in Sydney with his young family and a maniacal cavoodle. Recipient of a few international literary awards and nominations, he enjoys reading gritty thrillers filled with moral dilemmas and a real sense of danger.