Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book review: Margaret Redfern, Flint

A well-paced, thoughtful novel of brotherly affection, self-discovery, and shifting wartime loyalties, Margaret Redfern's Flint deals not so much with the movers and shakers of history as with the moved and shaken. In the summer of 1277, Edward I of England and his men are trampling over North Wales, building castles to consolidate their domination of the land and people. Their enemy, Prince Llewelyn, remains trapped with his men in the mountains of Snowdonia, and pockets of Welsh resistance still exist.

When Edward's men arrive in the village of Boston Haven in the English fens, recruiting peasants as ditch-diggers, ten-year-old Will accompanies his sixteen-year-old brother Ned when he is conscripted into the makeshift army. Their journey over water and land, a long and exhausting march, will end at Flint, in the sandy marshes of the eastern border of Wales. Here they will do what they do best, "make land out of sea," creating banks and wide trenches to keep Edward's new fortress safe from attack.

The story is narrated by Will, both as a youth and in old age, with an occasional third-person perspective. Small icons denote the alternating sections.

Will has always watched over his older brother, whose garbled speech makes him seem simple-minded to others, although Ned has uncanny abilities to calm restless animals and communicate with music. Ned has further talents besides, some of which Will doesn't yet know. As they make their way westward with their 300-man company, Ned quietly follows his private, more complicated mission: to reunite with his former teacher and friend, the Welsh bard Ieuan ap y Gof.

The landscape along their route becomes a character in itself: the red stone and earth of Chester, the thick mud of the camp at Flint, the damp odor of the marshy riverbanks. The haunting imagery is beautifully rendered, with the sky, sea, and native birds and other animals changing constantly along the way. Redfern writes in the lilting language of myth. In this land where children believe in marsh-devils and elf-lights, and musicians whittle pipes out of the bones of swans' wings, the dark medieval atmosphere becomes infused with its own magic.

As the brothers' personal tale plays out in the wake of the English and Welsh monarchs' actions, Will gradually learns that one's path in life hinges on seemingly minor choices, and that ties of love matter more than politics. Emotionally resonant, and considerably deeper than its short length might suggest, Flint celebrates the power of song and story to help us remember people and places that might otherwise be forgotten. Highly recommended.


Flint was published this June by Honno, an independent cooperative press focused on Welsh women writers (£6.99, 195pp, 1-906-78404-3, free postage to UK addresses). It can also be ordered from Book Depository at $9.95.


  1. Sounds interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is the second good review I have seen of this book today!

  3. Great review, and it sounds well worth reading. Many thanks!

  4. This sounds awesome! I love that time period! Great blog!~

  5. Thanks for your comments, all!

    Has anyone besides me read Susan Mayse's Awen? If you did, I think you'd like this one as well... it's considerably shorter but has the same poetic feel and sense of history.

  6. Thanks for the review. Sounds like a great book. Would it be interesting for a junior high school boy or are the ideas too complex?

  7. This sounds great! Will have to check it out.

  8. Shauna, I don't think the ideas would be too complex. It is more leisurely paced than most YA fiction, however. If he enjoys reading fantasy novels, this one might appeal. The style is reminiscent of early Charles de Lint, though it's definitely historical fiction.

    Susan, I think you would like it! I'm reading Traitor's Wife now (and enjoying it a lot!) and it takes place about a generation beforehand. It's interesting to read one right after the other because it leads in nicely to the political situation in the Welsh Marches in your novel.

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  10. And now for a link that takes you to the right place!