An Involuntary King

Nan Hawthorne

Booksurge, 2008. ISBN 978-1419656699. 614 pages. Edition reviewed: PDF kindly supplied by the author.

Disclaimer: I'm acquainted with Nan Hawthorne by email, and we have exchanged a considerable number of messages about the history and culture of Anglo-Saxon England - indeed, I find myself flatteringly described as "….inspiration and ever-patient mentor" in the acknowledgements section. I read large parts of An Involuntary King in draft form before publication, and have also read a lot of the original scenes and stories that underlie the final novel.

An Involuntary King is set in two fictional kingdoms in eighth-century England, Crislicland (corresponding approximately to modern Lincolnshire) and its neighbour to the west Affynshire (corresponding approximately to Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and South Yorkshire). The historical King Offa of Mercia is an offstage presence. All the main characters are fictional.

Lawrence is the younger son of the King of Crislicland, a sensitive and rather dreamy adolescent with no thoughts of becoming king. When his father and elder brother are both tragically killed by a treacherous family rival, Lawrence finds greatness unexpectedly thrust upon him. Having avenged their deaths on the battlefield, he has to overcome not only the scepticism of some of his nobles but also his own self-doubt, as he strives to prove himself a powerful and benevolent king, worthy of his father's crown. In this he is greatly helped by his beautiful wife Josephine, a princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Affynshire, and her brother Lorin, who voluntarily cedes the rule of Affynshire to Lawrence and serves as his chief minister (high reeve). But the security of Lawrence's reign is threatened by his evil cousin Gadfrid, who wants to usurp the crown for himself, and by a handsome Breton mercenary knight, Elerde, who has fallen in love with Josephine.

An Involuntary King is an unusual novel, reflecting its unusual origins. As the author explains in her introduction, the story began life as a series of letters and scenes that she wrote as a teenager in collaboration with a pen-friend she met at a summer camp. Many years later, she started rewriting some of the stories for an online group called Ghostletters, and then decided to turn them into a novel. An Involuntary King is the result.

This origin explains the names of the main characters. Lawrence, Josephine and Elerde were the names of the central characters in the original stories, based on films or people the author and her co-writer were fans of at the time. Lawrence, for example, takes his name from the hero of the film Lawrence of Arabia, Josephine from a novel about Napoleon's empress. Having written about these characters on and off for a lifetime, their names were so much a part of them that they were retained in the rewrite. Together with the invented names for the two kingdoms at the centre of the action, this gives the novel a strong sense of being set in a world of its own. It reminds me a little of some of the medieval tales of Arthur and his knights - a timeless world of desperate battles, sudden reverses, villainy, treachery, courage and undying love, where anything might happen. The archaic tone of the prose and the dialogue reinforces this flavour of a legendary world. A helpful glossary at the back of the book explains some of the archaic terms and foreign words, for readers who may be unfamiliar with them.

An Involuntary King is a long book (600+ pages), told at a leisurely pace and with a sprawling plot that switches back and forth between sub-plots and different groups of characters. Treachery, double-dealing and misunderstandings abound, and the novel benefits from long stretches of uninterrupted reading time. I found that if I had to stop reading for a long period (which happened several times, life being like that), I would usually have to backtrack several chapters to remind myself of who everyone was and what was going on. The character list at the end of the book is invaluable for keeping track of the different characters (though it's fair to say that it was probably more difficult for me than most readers to keep the characters straight, because I had met many of them in earlier drafts under their old names).

The strongest characters are the three at the centre of the love triangle, Lawrence, Josephine and Elerde, together with the two Irish bards, Shannon O'Neill and Rory McGuinness. Rory is gentle, kind, talented and boyishly in love with the queen from afar. Shannon is witty, irreverent, usually cheerful, frequently drunk (though not always as drunk as he appears), and with a talent for intrigue when occasion demands. I found these two the most enjoyable characters, especially Shannon with his irrepressible humour. Lawrence is tormented by self-doubt and jealousy, doing his best to fulfil a role he would not have chosen. Josephine is an exceptional beauty, though apparently naïve enough to be unaware of the effect she has on men. Practically every man in the novel seems to be in love with her (at one point, she says to Shannon, "Is [X] in love with me?" and Shannon thinks wryly, "Who isn't?"), and these romantic entanglements drive a good deal of the plot.

For me, the handsome Breton mercenary knight Elerde was the most interesting character. He is in love with Josephine - nothing unusual in that - but as he is charming, cultured and aristocratic, he is sufficiently eligible for his presence at court to provoke Lawrence to violent jealousy. Elerde soon has good reason to hate Lawrence and to ally with his enemies, but his motivation remains ambiguous as his love for Josephine and the nobler aspects of his own character pull him in different directions. I wonder if it was inspiration or coincidence to place Elerde's crucial scene at Bamburgh, one of the traditional locations for Sir Lancelot's Joyous Gard?

Lawrence and Josephine's story is clearly resolved by the end of the book, but Elerde's story seems far from over. I would have liked to know what happened to him in the end.

The author also has a blog, with more stories and scenes featuring Rory and Shannon, together with other characters from the novel.

An Involuntary King is available as an e-book on Smashwords, on Kindle and in print.