BOOK REVIEW: Song Castle

by Luke Waterson

Wales announcing its rise from the Dark Ages onto the world stage of poetry, and music, and song.”

Song Castle CoverI chose to read this novel specifically because of its subject matter: Wales’ first ever eisteddfod (a great festival of poetry and music for which our small country is justifiably celebrated), but I’m glad for so many other reasons that I did.

Song Castle is an exuberant caper through 12th-century Wales in the company of poets and musicians from all corners of the known world as they gather to compete for a permanent place at a Welsh Prince’s table. They are heading for Cardigan Castle, which overlooks the River Teifiat in Ceredigion, at the invitation of one Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth in South Wales. He hopes to distance himself from his hitherto savage reputation and put himself and his nation at the heart of medieval culture. It is crucial, therefore, that his festival is a success.

The Lord Rhys (as he is more commonly known) has issued a proclamation giving twelve months notice of a ‘Grand festival’ of vocal and instrumental song honouring the poetry of The Bards, due to take place over Christmas 1176. But to reach their destination the competitors must first travel through a wild, rain-sodden land during a period of great barbarity, when Wales is split into several warring factions. The weather is bitterly cold and the route perilous, but the promise of good food, wine and song keep them coming.

We are introduced to charismatic, historically factual characters like Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, the foremost bard of his day; Gwalchmai ap Meilyr, one of the earliest Welsh court poets at the court of Owain Gwynedd at Aberffraw, Anglesey; and Marie de France, a gifted 12th-century writer who lived in Wales for a time (she was exceptional in that she excelled in a man’s world). The performers become embroiled in feuds, brawls and considerable skulduggery, though not always intentionally, and there is bloodshed on the battlements before the competition reaches its bravura climax.

To this day, the eisteddfod is Europe’s greatest competitive festival of song and poetry.

Luke Waterson is a travel writer, and this his second novel – his first, Roebuck – Tales of an Admirable Adventurer, was set in 16th-century South America. He has deftly used all available facts concerning Celtic bardic traditions and constructed a compelling, richly lyrical novel about an historic event.

I would thoroughly recommend this beguiling new title to anyone with a passion for Welsh culture; those desiring to more fully understand the ritualistic traditions of Wales; or readers who simply enjoy a cracking tale of medieval mischief and music.

It is not that I object to sleeping alongside bards, certainly not men of Gwynedd. But books are one’s friends and so much more interesting than most people one meets.” Gerald of Wales to Gwalchmai ap Meilyr (according to Luke Waterson)

Many thanks to Urbane Publications for providing an advance review copy of this title.


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16 replies

  1. Sounds like a great read! 🙂

  2. Great review, Paula! I love the subject matter, as well. You totally sold me with the phrase “exuberant caper”. Well written! Is this book part of a series or a stand alone novel?

    • Thank you so much, Jackie. No, there’s certainly no indication that it’s going to be part of a series. So pleased you enjoyed the review.

      • It always makes me happy to find stand-alone fantasy. Or, uh, mythology? Either way, I’ll certainly check this out.

      • I suppose it’s more historic fiction than anything because the event really did take place in 1176 and most of the main characters are historic figures. The novelist obviously used some licence when it came to the finer details (although, he certainly did his research well) – but the basics are all factual. I can see why you might think it was fantasy or mythology, though. 😊

  3. Ooh, that one is going on the list right now!

  4. I have been thinking about how to participate in the Dewithon: where to begin? A country which has true resonance for me and a rich literary heritage about which I am shamefully ignorant. I am thinking that this book may be a good place to start. It sounds wonderful 🙂

    • It is certainly a novel that can be read by absolutely everyone. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did. There are, of course, links between Wales and Cornwall, not least when it came to mining. In my home town of Llandudno, it is possible to visit the Great Orme Copper Mines, which date back to the Bronze-Age. I remember being told that much trade took place between the Cornish and North Walians during this period – our copper for your tin, sort of thing. I’m aware that there are many similar myths and traditions. Well, I suppose they were all part of the same ancient Briton/Celtic gene pool. There are lots of links between both our lands and Brittany, for instance. The language is similar, too. Anyhow, there must be lots of other Welsh/Cornish links, I’m sure. I find it all really fascinating.

      • We spent a marvellous afternoon recently, visiting an old tin mine near St Just. The tour was wonderful and I learned all about the Welsh/Cornish mining links. And as you say, there are many Celtic connections which encompass literature and much more. The more I learn, the more there is to know 🙂

  5. This could be a good one for the Wales readalong!

  6. This sounds right up my alley. I admit my ability to pronounce Welsh names in my head is poor at best, but this book seems like a good excuse to wrap my head around the naming conventions a bit better. Great review!

    • Thank you, Ashley. I’m not a Welsh speaker, even though I had Welsh lessons in school until I was aged about 10, but my pronunciation isn’t too bad. It helps if you know that an f in Welsh is pronounced like a v and dd is pronounced like the English th. But it really doesn’t matter how you pronounce the names in your mind, so long as you enjoy the book! 😉


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