Tony Hays has pulled off a trick of alchemy with his Arthurian murder mystery, The Stolen Bride. It’s a very decent mystery–lots of clues, a few red herrings, plot convolutions, a fair amount at stake. Murder in Camelot–no fairytale here but the whole thing works. It’s set in the middle of power struggles in Arthur’s Wild West Britain in which lords and kings and leiges and usurpers and every manner of ambitious armed warrior is set on treachery. Into this rough and dirty world marches Malgwyn, Arthur’s one-armed counselor, an honest and perceptive soldier and advisor who is frequently at odds with his boss and wants nothing more than to be home with his daughter and very pregnant wife.
Home is a long way away when Malgwyn and his companions, riding to meet Arthur, stumble across the savage butchery of an entire village, women and children mercilessly slaughtered and the place in flames. One survivor, a young woman, could not place the invaders who spoke a strange language. Malgwyn takes her with them, vowing to avenge the massacre of her family and village. And, when he arrives at the castle of King Doged to help negotiate a truce among several warring tribes, Doged is murdered in his chambers, his young wife widowed and every power-hungry noble sets out with an army to try to seize the spoils.
The regicide is complicated and Arthur tasks Malgwyn with solving it. Doged’s widow is determined to hold onto his kingdom and she may be carrying the old king’s child. Mordred, Malgwyn’s bitter enemy, is arrested for the crime but Malgwyn senses a larger and more ominous conspiracy and villains afoot. Vast mineral treasure is discovered on Doged’s land and control of the rich seaports and the mines is too tempting a prize for anything less than a score of deadly plots. Daron, the lone survivor of the massacre, is a tougher, more central player than she first seems. Malgwyn is playing a dangerous game and his own life could be forfeit.
Merlin and Igraine have major roles in the plot resolution. Arthur’s relentless work to hold his kingdom together and secure a just and lasting peace is threatened at every turn. Hays creates a real world with tremendous attention to details of arms, terrain, food, battle strategies, court protocols and ancient law. His characters are the best part–these are flawed, sweaty, smart, exhausted, furious, funny people. Betrayal is a byword. Trickery is commonplace, and some of it is wickedly clever. A few times the narrative felt a bit modern but the lapses weren’t so jarring that I lost the story or the sense of place. Even though the epilogue-like ending was just slightly cute, I’d have to say pretty good book overall. I’d read another one, although not right away. The events and the battles are bloody and desperate and, while I was satisfied at the main plot resolution, I wouldn’t want to live in that messy world. Occasional escape to it would be fine.
The Stolen Bride Tony Hays | Forge 2012