Between Two Fires
by Mark Noce
Publisher: Thomas Dunne
Page Count: 336
Release Date: August 25, 2016
Format: Kindle ARC
How got: ARC copy from NetGalley
First attention getter: setting
Saxon barbarians threaten to destroy medieval Wales. Lady Branwen becomes Wales' last hope to unite their divided kingdoms when her father betroths her to a powerful Welsh warlord, the Hammer King. But the fledgling alliance is fraught with enemies from within and without as Branwen becomes the target of assassination attempts and courtly intrigue. A young woman in a world of fierce warriors, she seeks to assert her own authority and preserve Wales against the barbarians. But when she falls for a young hedge knight named Artagan, her world threatens to tear itself apart.
Caught between her duty to her people and her love of a man she cannot have, Branwen must choose whether to preserve her royal marriage or to follow her heart. Somehow she must save her people and remain true to herself, before Saxon invaders and a mysterious traitor try to destroy her.
Reminiscent of classics like The Mists of Avalon and A Game of Thrones, and newer popular titles like Hild, Branwen's story combines elements of mystery and romance with Noce's gift for storytelling.
Star Rating - 3
My attention was first drawn by the setting; Dark Ages Wales stands out as unique. I’ve been reading a large number of historical fictions set in this era, just across the border in Saxon Britain, lately. So a book set in Wales caught my attention. Yet, this one turned out just mediocre with an intriguing story but a lackluster romance and setting attempt.
Fractured Welsh kingdoms against a united Saxon army makes for gripping reading. The politics between the various factions as seen through Branwen’s eyes kept me engaged. The Welsh division into tribes and smaller kingdoms would plague them throughout history in other situations as well, always to their detriment. To see it in the Dark Ages when Rome had left and chaos descended was like a window in an ever going saga of division and strife. I’m not sure if the actual history behind this tale is sound or not, but if so, it’s a fascinating look at a time when Wales was strong as one for once.
I felt Branwen’s character was an interesting choice to view the whole situation through as a woman’s place in the Dark Ages was such a precarious one. It sounds like some hold out of the Celtic respect for women and their roles held over, but the strict patriarchal hold of Christianity was starting to develop.
Yet, Branwen as a person herself, I was lukewarm to. She and Artagan came off as too perfect, a flaw I seem to see on the rise in fiction (at least the titles I’m coming across lately). Their perfect personalities got on my nerves. Their relationship lacked any fire for me, probably because I didn’t care for them as individuals in the slightest. The misunderstanding/assumption trope also reared its ugly head in their relationship. Some simple conversations would have smoothed out some of the drama easily.
I can see where the author strives to incorporate bits of history into his story. Some of the names like one of the Saxon kings mentioned and marriage alliances with the Picts ring true; I’ve actually come across Penda in other books I’ve read this year, taking place in this era. Some of the societal norms ring true as well.
Yet, the author seems to incorporate terminology and phrasing way out of touch with the times. Using terms more comfortable in the Middle Ages rather than the Dark was rattling. There were also turns of phrase or wording more at home in the modern era than Celtic Wales. The setting became very vague, reading medieval than Dark Ages and vice versa.
Flat characterizations and vague historical details drag this book down. The story of a group of nation states coming together to face a common enemy make this book readable, but it’s kept from true stardom. I couldn’t get behind our main heroine or her relationship. All in all, this is a middle of the road book; a good one to kill time with but not one to seek out specifically.
Note: Book received for free from publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.