Will and his brother Ned are on the long march from the Fens to North Wales, commandeered into the army of ditch-diggers heading west towards Flint, to prepare the foundations of Edward I’s new castle.
The lads are nervous, and rightly so, for not only is Ned a mute, whose abilities as a horse-whisperer and herbalist make him suspicious in the eyes of their English overseers, but they have been close to the enemy. Ned had been secretly taking lessons in music from Ieuan ap y Gof, an exiled bard, not long before the ‘recruiters’ came. The boys find themselves besieged on all sides – unsure of their own allegiances and in danger of being thought traitors.
Finding Ieuan and saving Ned tests Will to his limits. Finally, when all appears lost, he learns that love is sometimes harder to understand than death itself.
First, I think it’s worth noting that this book is narrated by Will but in three different time periods, denoted by a little symbol. The first is when he is a boy, marked by a shovel, and in third person. The second is the book’s main story, marked by a swan, and the third is narrated by an older Will and marked by a cross, and often this last is directed straight at the reader as if Will’s talking to us. For the most part I liked this, it allows flashback without too much confusion, but it did take me a couple of chapters to realize which symbol was which. After that, I enjoyed the multiple perspectives and almost instantly learning how the characters got to be where they are in the main story. It’s a short book, so the plot isn’t terribly complex, and the multiple viewpoints flesh out the story more.
I also really liked that this book feels medieval. A lot of historical fiction romanticizes everything, and generally I’m okay with that, but on occasion I like a book that is properly grim, violent, and stinky. There’s more to medieval life than that here, but it exudes the atmosphere I can definitely imagine existing around a medieval building site, especially for a castle when they are digging the moat. There is also some violence, people are murdered, but I wouldn’t say that it is too gruesome. Just realistic in a culture where people eagerly stood around to watch men be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and then saw various body parts gradually rotting away on their city walls every day.
Will is probably the only character worth mentioning in terms of likeability, since the other main character, Ned, is mute, but luckily he is likeable. This is something of a coming-of-age for him as he learns a lot about his family and himself over the course of the narrative. He often refers to himself as a skinny, mouthy brat, but I felt like he went beyond that limited definition and came to embrace more of his potential as the book went on.
I really liked Flint. It was a welcome break from more romantic historical fiction and a great, quick coming-of-age story with an endearing main character. I would definitely recommend it to others who enjoy historical fiction or are perhaps looking for something a little bit different than their normal read.