The Invaders drones hear everything and miss nothing. England is now a defeated archipelago but somewhere in the higher ground to the far west, insurrection is brewing.
The Prince’s Pen is part of a series published by Seren, that focus on retelling the stories of the Mabinogion in more modern contexts. For the uninitiated, the Mabinogion is a collection of stories drawn from medieval manuscripts that is considered the backbone of Welsh mythology. They recount various heroic deeds and magical events, including tales of King Arthur and the founding of London.
The Prince’s Pen is a re-working of one of the less well known tales, Lludd and Llefelys. In the original story, Lludd, King of Britain, faces three serious threads to his rule and sought the help of his brother Llefelys, King of France, to overcome them. Horatio Clare‘s version brings the story up to date by setting it in an apocalyptic future/alternative reality (it’s not entirely clear which), in which Wales and Pakistan are the only free countries left in the world.
The story is told by Levello, ally and first follower of Ludo, leader of the Welsh resistance. Over 200 pages, we follow through Levello’s eyes the fight against the forces who have conquered England and Ludo’s attempts to strengthen the resistance by marrying Uzma, an Islamic princess from Pakistan.
Good things come in small packages
Don’t be put off by the slimness of the book. It may only be 200 pages long, but it’s not a quick or light read. Each paragraph is heavily packed with meaning and I often found myself re-reading parts to extract their full significance. This isn’t to say that it’s a particularly difficult read, because it’s not. But you can’t help getting the feeling that possibly this began life as a much longer work that’s been relentlessly edited down until there’s barely a superfluous word spare. This actually works well, as despite the fact it’s based on a Welsh legend involving myth and magic, it feels very gritty and realistic through the bareness of the telling.
Brotherhood or Bromance?
One of the things that really piqued my interest in the story was the character of Levello himself. In the original story he is the brother of Lludd/Ludo, and in The Prince’s Pen he still identifies as male, but he has a definite androgynous feel. I had to flick back and check a couple of times because I found myself assuming that he was female. This was helped in no small part by the way the brotherly relationship between Ludo and Levello is expressed.
I was his Nun, a bride of our battles.
At times, their relationship feels more like a Bromance than one of brotherhood, which I found quite intriguing; it added to the dramatic tension for me.
I have to say as well that one of the most enjoyable aspects of the setting for me was how Wales as a nation was portrayed. We’re so used to it being shown as rundown, backward, poor on the news, in media and I suspect in many urbanite opinions. So even though I’m an immigrant to Wales rather than having been born here, there was a big bit of me that wanted to cheer “YESSSS!” when I saw that Wales was the only country remaining independent in the West. It was great to see its strengths, including its people and their indomitable spirit recognised.
Weaker in the second half
Though this is a very strong book and a recommended read, there were a few small issues I found less pleasing, focused mainly on the second half of the story. It feels like it loses pace somewhat, after getting the reader to fever pitch midway in. I wonder if this might be because the story is told in the first person, yet many of the events in the second half happen ‘off-stage’ and so are reported back rather than lived through. There’s a definite sense of detachment, as if Levello is finding it uncomfortable to recount and is pulling away slightly. However, things do pick up again towards the end, as Levello moves back into more of a central focus.
The silent princess
One of the limits of tackling a tale that’s a re-telling, I suppose, is that the writer is forced to an extent to stick to the original. The focus in both the original and in this update is on the relationship between Lludd/Ludo and Llefelys/Levello as protagonists. I can see why that’s the case, but there was a bit of me that felt somewhat disappointed that Uzma, the Islamic princess from Pakistan, vital ally of the Welsh resistance, is only seen through the eyes of those protagonists. As a reader, she doesn’t strike me as a passive character at all – in the glimpses we do see of her she seems proud and vital and quite forceful. So it’s a shame that she doesn’t have much to do here but act as a tool in the hands of Ludo and to a lesser extent Levello.
A sense of melancholy
I do feel unfair listing this as a criticism, because it’s something so subjective, but the ending is rather melancholy and it’s an emotion that really does rub off on you! I found that I got so involved with the characters and their struggle that I was desperately rooting for a triumphant, successful ending of the kind you get in cheesy Hollywood films, where somehow the hero manages to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the most improbable manner. But… credit where credit is due here. It speaks well of Clare that he manages to make us care so much and yet still has the confidence to deliver the ending that the plot demands.
Fans of Celtic myth, but also those who appreciate a bit of gritty realism in their stories.