The Castilians by V.E.H Masters
This is a vivid and impressive debut which succeeds in making a significant event in Scottish history come alive, as a family is divided by forces that they do not truly understand. Historical novels are probably at their best when they concentrate on the story of one or two characters, what happened to them and why, and during the reign of Henry VIII those characters are usually royal. This book looks at events in far off St. Andrews in Scotland, the clash between the interpretations of faith, a siege of a strategically important castle. The events that follow from a single death in 1546 are seen through the experiences of two young people, bright and thoughtful Bethia, so much more than a compassionate girl, and her brother Will, determined to argue and fight for the new way of following God. Loyalty, trust and love dictates their actions, and makes them doubt their motives. The daughter and eldest son of a prosperous merchant, they are not an influential or titled family, but all strong willed enough to make a difference. The life on the streets of the town, the activities of a port, the shadow of a castle is beautifully realised. This is a book which shows evidence of a huge amount of research into the elements of life from the most basic through to the theological arguments on both sides, but it never interrupts or upsets the narrative. It creates an atmosphere of real life how it would have been lived in the houses, ale houses and the Castle itself. It does not shy away from the dirt and basics of life, but describes them in detail to forward the story. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book which kept me enthralled throughout.
The book opens with Bethia sitting and reading, translating from a huge book. She is an unusual girl, keen to learn, unwilling to enter into the usual domestic or fashionable life of the town, willing to get involved in the family business rather than follow her mother’s obsessions. Her first action is to try and find her much loved younger brother in a crowd which could quickly become dangerous. The crowd is there to witness the execution by burning of George Wishart who has spoken against the established church, of which the grasping, ambitious Cardinal Beaton is the corrupt embodiment. When certain factions decide that something must be done, it involves many young people of the town and area. What Will witnesses from inside the castle where there is brutality and jockeying for position, and what Bethia has to face as she tries to preserve all manner of secrets and safety makes for a gripping story as people are caught up in a siege and a fight which has vast political implications as well as personal consequences for all those involved.
This is a personal book of the strength and resilience of individuals when faced with difficult circumstances. It is also about the love and loyalty between members of a family and friends which overcomes divisions and class. The character of Bethia is a strong and well drawn one, as she tries to cope with pressures to fulfil her parents’ wishes as well as her own wishes. Will grows from an argumentative boy to someone who must make decisions. I found this book very engaging and would recommend it to all those who enjoy discovering the personal and social implications of history.