Review of "The Lion Wakes" by Robert Low

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For most people who did not grow up in Scotland, Mel Gibson’s movie “Braveheart” is their first introduction to the events of the Scottish Wars of Independence. That, or hearing “Flower of Scotland” bellowed out around Murryfield, never more louder than when the opponents are from south of the border. For anyone who is aware of the actual complexities, brutality, contradictions and real-life heroics and very real villainy of those violent decades around the turn of the Fourteenth Century, Gibson’s portrayal of events is enjoyable, but ultimately an over simplified version of events that somehow leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Sort of like the steaks you get in the cheaper restaurant chains in America: they are large and juicy but full of artificial sweeteners, tenderisers and growth hormones and ultimately bland. In real life, heroes can sometimes be villains, and sometimes even villains can act bravely.
So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Robert Low’s “The Lion Wakes”, which deals with the same events. Low’s “Oathsworn” series of Viking books were fantastic and something I thoroughly enjoyed, but what would he do with the Anglo-Scottish wars?
I need not have worried. If “Braveheart” was USDA steak, pre-tenderised for easy digestion, this is pure Aberdeen Angus beef, cooked rare and still bloody, with plenty of gristle to chew on and bursting with flavour.
The style of the narrative is episodic, showing vignettes of action and characters across the years, sometime landing right in the middle of the action when the fighting has already begun, but when trying to cover such a vast sweep of history it is an effective device and manages to keep the narrative moving at a fast pace.
A host of memorable individuals, both historical and fictional, populate this book from the nameless Dog Boy to Robert Bruce himself. There are no cardboard cut-outs or “stock” characters here. Throughout the novel, Robert Low manages to bring these medieval people back to life and shows how they change and grow with the events around them (well the ones who survive anyway). For me the most interesting character was Bruce himself, who transforms from a medieval equivalent of a feckless rich playboy to someone who led his country to freedom. This seems to be a theme in the book: What really is the nature of heroism? What makes “heroes” and what motivates them. Are any of our heroes as clear cut as we think? William Wallace appears here too, but in a big, violent, frightening and ultimately more recognisable guise than Gibson’s simplistic messianic portrayal.
Robert Low does a great job of portraying the reality of life in late Thirteenth Century Scotland. Castles are cold, drafty stone and wood tower houses rather than Disney-style Camelots, armour rusts in the rain, boils itch in the sweaty heat and the freezing cold of the Scottish winter almost leaks from the pages.
There is no doubt the language used in the dialogue can at times be challenging. Robert Low chooses to use authentic Scots and there is no easily accessible glossary (at least in the Kindle edition). However, it is still English, and like arriving in any new country once you become accustomed to it, not only is it perfectly intelligible but it undoubtedly adds to the authentic flavour of the book.
So in short a great read. Its not an easy read, but then any challenging piece of writing that seeks to both tell a story and explore the underlying themes and motivations of the people involved in real events never is. If you want your history fed to you half chewed on a plastic spoon, this is not the book for you. If you want something more satisfying then this is it. I can’t wait to read the next in the series.


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