The Well of Tears: Taking the history out of historical fantasy

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Well of Tears by Roberta Trahan fantasy book reviewsThe Well of Tears by Roberta Trahan

From the back cover description of The Well of Tears by Roberta Trahan:

More than five centuries after Camelot, a new king heralded by prophecy has appeared. As one of the last sorceresses of a dying order sworn to protect the new ruler at all costs, Alwen must answer a summons she thought she might never receive. Bound by oath, Alwen returns to Fane Gramarye, the ancient bastion of magic standing against the rise of evil. For alongside the prophecy of the benevolent king, a darker foretelling envisions the land overrun by a demonic army and cast into ruin. Alwen has barely set foot in her homeland when she realizes traitors lurk within the Stewardry, threatening to destroy it. To thwart the corruption and preserve her order, Alwen must draw upon power she never knew she possessed and prepare to sacrifice everything she holds dear—even herself. If she fails, the prophecy of peace will be banished, and darkness will rule.

When I quote a book description, it’s usually a sign that I did not finish the book, and lo, that is correct here as well. I would like to start this review by saying that I never had a problem with the basic premise of Patricia Kennealy-Morrison’s KELTIAD series — otherwise known as Celts in Space. I say this to demonstrate that I am not a purist when it comes to Celtic retellings. However.

Historical fiction/fantasy that purports to sell itself as based in the actual historical record needs to maintain an air of believability when it comes to the history of the story. As in, I need to believe that you did more than go to your local Renaissance fair for research. (Especially because that would be the wrong era.) Also a little off-putting is when the author’s mystical woo-woo autobiographical note shows up as dialog by one of the main characters.

The Well of Tears purports be set in 10th century Wales. Interestingly enough, we never see a Viking, even though characters cross the North Sea in a boat. Twice. We don’t even hear any fear of a Viking attack. If you are running around the British Isles in the early 10th century, you should hear about some Vikings at some point. What you shouldn’t hear is characters discussing empiricism as a way of knowing or searching for truth. Especially if that character purports to be a druid. A druid that surprisingly lacks the enchanted worldview common among all peoples in the isles and Europe at this point in history. I’m saying he purports to be a druid because there is very little druidic behavior going on. In fact, there’s not much paganism at all going on. We’ve got some generic magic using, but the religious system here — especially for a story based on Prophetic Fulfillment — is, like most other things in The Well of Tears, not very detailed.

Roberta Trahan is not a bad writer, and the basic premise of her story is okay, but if you are selling the novel as based on your own family history, then you need to do actual research. I know my professor hat is showing, but really, the intriguing idea here is that The Well of Tears is an actual historical novel. Take that away, and you’re left with a mediocre quasi-medieval setting with little to distinguish it from so many other hackneyed stories.

I would like to commend Brilliance Audio for another lovely production, and especially the reader, Simon Vance, for dealing with a difficult dialect that made character name pronunciation a challenge.

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RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  1. Thanks for the warning! There is a lot of good historical fantasy out there, we don’t need to accept substitutes.

  2. I read the author’s bio and I find it surprising that someone so interested in her own family history in Cornwall and Wales and who loves ancient mythology would not do a better job with this.

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