Book Review: I found one of the hidden jewels! Circle of Ceridwen

I am a reasonably easy reader to please... and a very hard reader to enthrall. I like  a lot of books, but I passionately love only a few. My favorite authors can be counted on one hand. And if Octavia Randolph keeps it up I may need another finger.

The world of digital books is like a great mountain of ash. You step into it and you're instantly up to your waist in dust. You know there are jewels of incredible power hidden in the grime and fluff, but finding them is a mammoth task. After more than a year of searching, I have finally found one of the jewels in The Circle of Ceridwen, the first book in Randolf's historical series.

Oddly enough, I never would have bought this book in a million years based on the cover and the description. I like a good historical novel and I'm not adverse to violent stories but I have never found a book with big swords on the front to be very emotionally powerful and a description that immediately touts the presence of "vikings with tatoos" is unlikely to have the emotional caliber I'm looking for. But I downloaded the book because of one of those free deals and I was very pleasantly surprised. I'd be willing to pay plenty for books like this.

Here's the real deal on this book:

  • Its style is accessible and conversational, yet historically evocative. All the semi-literate reviewers confused about the grammar are simply wrong. There are few if any errors in this book. There is a refreshing absence of flamboyance and pompous writing. The prose is easy, flowing and without distraction, a rare treat and the very first necessity for me to love a book.
  • The book has the emotional impact that so few have these days. That's hard to prove without reading it. It's a mix of good characters and realism. 
  • The story is told in first person. Always a plus in my opinion. You experience ninth century England through the eyes of a young woman named Ceridwin.
  • The characters are likable, believable and relatable, including the supposed "bad guys." I am one of those readers who demands a likable main characters. I simply won't suffer through a book, no matter how good the story is, if the heroine or hero bores me or ticks me off. Here is a young heroine who is so different from the modern vision of a "strong female heroine." She is strong and courageous without being divorced from real women. She is emotionally real and does not try to be "everywoman" so that all readers can see themselves in her. She is a distinct character but one you can love with her flaws. The other characters are also well developed and fascinating.
  • The plot is riveting from the first few pages. It takes some very unexpected turns and yet it is never confusing. The tension is held throughout with a fierce desire to see Ceridwen survive and thrive.
  • There is warfare, suspense, incredible tension and yet there is no classic villain. It is the real world. The invaders and those who threaten the heroine are people, in fact at least moderately understandable people. You may not agree with all of their decisions or motivations but they are understandable and even honorable in many instances. It is the sheer believability of the characters and world that make the story so emotionally gripping. 
  • The details of the historical world are breathtaking. I've read enough historical fiction and nonfiction to know extensive research when I see it. While it's hard to say exactly what life was like in the ninth century, this feels both true and consistent. The level of detail is wonderful with none of the vagueness that results from historical uncertainty and no facts clearly manipulated to suit the needs of fiction. It fulfills that thirst for something beautifully historical and effortless to read at the same time. 
  • The pace is just right. This is a subjective matter as far as I can tell. Some people may call this pace "slow." I call many books that have little emotion and character-develop to them "chaotic and rushed."  It isn't constant action. It is instead ever-present story, plot and emotional tension. At no point does the story slow down in order to show off the author's excellent grasp of the history. There are no wasted words or long descriptive scenes for the sake of showing off.
  • The book's only flaws may be its cover and description, which hint at a rollicking ride of battle, "weapons porn" and macho atmosphere. The reader only gets to see one "fight" in real time in this first book of the series and that one doesn't even result in anyone dying and is a minor incident in the overall plot. There is plenty of battle going on around but the main character is a girl, who isn't unrealistically placed in the middle of battles. Some readers I know who are into constant battle might be taken in by the cover and description and may be very disappointed. While other readers, who are interested in more character-based stories with flavor and conversational tone, may miss out on this one due to the cover and description. 
  • It is fashionable today to comment on the ending in a review. This is the first book in a series and while the ending appears to wrap up the major plot lines, it is clear that peace is unlikely to last long. There is plenty of room for more story and yet the ending doesn't feel contrived or episodic. I appreciate this. The fact that much of the plot is sort of wrapped up makes it easier to resist spending my kids' lunch money on the next book right away but I am eager to get my hands on the next book.