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. 

Unique, detailed settings galore: Real super secret trick of the trade # 3

This tip is obvious on first inspection but using it to its full potential is an art form

How long do you spend drawing maps and sketching out buildings? Most writers either spend a lot of time on this or their settings are sorely lacking in detail. I've drawn my share of maps and sketched quite a few buildings, but there is a shortcut that will get you there a lot faster. It will do a few other things besides. And you already know what it is and have probably used it many times for other purposes. 

GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth

Here's a short list of the things I use either GoogleMaps or GoogleEarth for while writing and the reasons why one or both is almost always open on my desktop:

Imabe by  Simon Ledingham of the Geographic Project Collection

Imabe by Simon Ledingham of the Geographic Project Collection

1. Real settings: If you are writing about a setting in the real world, it's pretty obvious that you're going to want to have a map and pictures of it handy while you write out your first draft and when you edit. You've got to get distances right and check for street names, but you also want to include details of the landscape and buildings. If you're writing about a real location, even if you have been there, open up GoogleMaps and refresh your memory. You'd be surprised how many more details reemerge when you see the landscape around your location. You know the key to getting your reader engrossed in the story is often in the use of sensory details. Take a look at the pictures and if you've been in a place with similar plants and climate, remember how it smelled. What would that city street feel and sound like? I write a lot of scenes in real places because even though my books are fantasy, they're set in the contemporary world and the realism of the settings adds to the plausibility and suspense of the story.

2. Fantasy settings: But I've written fantasy locations as well and GoogleMaps is just as good for that. There is no need to draw a map from scratch and fill in every detail even if your world is complete fantasy. Use GoogleMaps like a template. Is your world desert? Fine. Find a large desert and use the distances, types of rock formations, water sources and habitations to make a realistic map of your world. Change a few things and voila, you've got a fantasy desert with a lot more detail than you could generate on your own. As you describe your character's movements, use the close views on GoogleEarth to grab details of the landscape. Need a cityscape? The same can be done. Look at the street view and imagine how the city of your fantasy world would be different. But choose a part of a city that is at least close and that way you'll have the basic layout already.

3. Planning action scenes: At one point I knew I needed a bridge. It had to be a two-lane freeway with not much in terms of railings, so that one of my characters could leap off in desperation. And it had to be high enough for that to be dangerous but not high enough to make survival impossible. And it had to have at least a low wall in the center for my other characters to take cover behind in a gun battle. I assumed I was going to have to choose a river and invent my  own bridge, but I actually found the perfect real-world bridge in Portland, Oregon on GoogleMaps and once I had a real bridge coordinating the scene realistically and plotting the aftermath was relatively easy. Even if the building, street, mountain, bay or bridge that you choose for your scene isn't in the location you say it is or is really pure fantasy, choose a look-alike location on GoogleEarth, get into the detail mode and imagine your scene on location. The details and the physical movement of action scenes will go much more smoothly.

4. Coordinating distance, time and plot:  If your plot requires characters moving from one location to another and arriving at a particular time, let alone if more than one group must move and arrive at the same time, you need to plot the movements and time on a map. (I know you may think your scene is simple enough to avoid this step, but please take it from someone who tried that a lot of times and had to backtrack every time due to a need for details. If you plot the movements on a map, you will have a much easier time keeping details accurate and evocative.) You can do this by hand but is is grueling. Better, grab an area with enough similarity to your fictional setting on GoogleMaps and plot the movements there. Are your fantasy heroes on foot through the Great Kierlap Mountains and the villains racing on horses across the plains of Umthrak both heading for the city of Fallem? There are plenty of mountains and plains that intersect with a city in the real world. And you can get distance and time estimates for travel on foot as well as by bicycle and car. (Google, would you please add horses!) Note that distances and time on foot will still be calculated based on roads. But this actually helps a great deal. Even in a world of wilderness, your characters won't be going in a straight line. They'll be following winding trails or at least the bottoms of canyons. Use the time and distance calculations as a guide and adjust appropriately. This helps to keep estimates of time and distance realistic and to keep directions consistent over long plot sequences.

5. Easy variety and detail in dwellings and other buildings: When you're using GoogleEarth and GoogleMaps, don't forget that most buildings can be transferred to another location in your imagination. If you need a medieval castle in your landscape, go find one. A real one. If it is partly in ruins or you simple don't like part of it, change it, and sketch a new one. But having a real one to look at from the air before hand will be immensely helpful in making your castle realistic. You may also not need anything out of the ordinary. Maybe you just need a suburban house but you want to describe it well. You could use your house, if you live in the right neighborhood, but what about the next book? You could also make up all those details, but you're going to start repeating yourself eventually. GoogleMaps provides you with endless possibilities of buildings to describe. And when you're writing about imaginary locations, you can use any building and keep a 3D picture of it handy on your desktop for evoking detail and planning scenes.

Note 1: You'll notice that I use GoogleMaps and GoogleEarth almost interchangeably. They aren't exactly the same. GoogleMaps.com is  a website and you can use from any kind of internet connect. GoogleEarth is a program that you can download onto your computer. The basic version is free. I find it easier to find locations and get directions and estimate distance and time on GoogleMaps. I find GoogleEarth has better access to street view and more photographs of specific places. Obviously they are really the same thing but I use both. You could probably get by with on or the other depending on how complex your setting isl

Note 2:  Just in case anyone misunderstands this, I am not suggesting that you should copy Google's maps to make your own map. Don't plagiarize. This is not about making a map to put in your book. This is about using a working and interactive map to plan out the details of your scenes and plot. If you need to draw a map to put in your book, that's another process entirely. You can draw a map, hire someone or buy software that will help you draw realistic maps.