Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Book Review: Pull of the Yew Tree

Title: Pull of the Yew Tree (The Chronicles of Crom Abu #1)
Author: Pauline Toohey
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Historical fiction, Drama, Romance

Set in 15th century Ireland, Pull of the Yew Tree tells the story of three rival clans: the Fitzgeralds, the O’Byrnes and the O’Tooles. Brought together in an uneasy alliance, they must deal with local Irish rebels, the English conflict between the Houses of York and Lancaster, each other and themselves. Amidst this political minefield, there’s also a love story: Jarlath Fitzgerald and Ainnir O’Byrne fall swiftly and deeply in love, but events conspire to keep the two apart.

There’s so much happening during period of history that it’d be easy to lose track of what’s going on and who everyone is, especially if you (like me) know next to nothing about the War of the Roses. However, the author narrows the focus down to a couple of conflicts – some political, some personal – so by and large it’s easy to follow. One thing I liked was how the author included a character list at the beginning to indicate which characters were fictional. The blurb sort of makes Pull of the Yew Tree sound like a dramatic retelling of historical fact, but it’s more historical fiction than anything else. At any rate, the book is mostly about Jarlath and Ainnir (both fictional), so if you’re after a young, passionate and aching sort of romance in a historical setting, this could be the book for you.

The characters and their relationships with one another are easily the best part of the novel. They all have distinct, vibrant personalities and it’s hard to not sympathise with them. The Jarlath/Ainnir romance felt really fresh to me; I normally dislike “love at first sight” kind of set-ups, but in this case, it felt natural. Both characters can be somewhat stereotyped – Jarlath as the loveable rogue turned brooding hero, Ainnir as the feisty young princess – but they make a very lively pair and it’s hard not to like them. I will mention that I think their main problem could have easily been resolved with a few conversations, but I’ll give it a pass for now. You want them to find their happy ending and I found myself reading the book for the romance rather than the political intrigue.

On that note, if you’re after some juicy political intrigue, you might be somewhat disappointed. Since the focus is on the Fitzgeralds and the O’Byrnes, there’s not much on the other Irish clans, and the Yorkist/Lancastrian conflict remains largely distanced and strangely separated from the smaller scale conflicts at hand. Personally, I would have liked more intrigue. As it is, there’s only enough to show that conflicts exist, but not enough to give them meat. The politics feel superficial even when they come to the fore – for example, (spoiler) when Jarlath goes to England, I didn’t really get what he was actually doing there and why, other than some vague sense of fighting for York (/spoiler). Similarly, some of the characters’ reasons for doing things don’t quite feel fleshed out. We have some characters change their minds or make decisions all in the space of a few paragraphs, where the change seems to have come about because the plot required it, rather than because of any deeper sort of motivation.

The broad-strokes approach to historical fact allows you to fill in the gaps as you please, which may or may not be a good thing for lovers of historical fiction. I’m no history buff myself, so I can’t say how accurate the book is. The only thing that caught my eye was the presence of “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” in Earl Thomas’ library – “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, I’m assuming, being a translated version of the 14th century classical Chinese text of the same name. I mean, I guess it’s not physically impossible for such a thing to exist in the library of a 15th century Irish Earl, but it is highly implausible, so, if you’re a history pedant, you might want to take note.

Most of the narration is written in neutral prose, with the occasional foray into lyricism. The best examples of this come in the rich descriptions of the setting, with its rolling hills and green forests, and the various literary and mythical references to figures like Tristan and Isolde. While I appreciated a pretty turn of phrase here and there, I wasn’t sure if they were always used to best effect. Sometimes they added to the atmosphere, other times they felt like dead weight cluttering up the story. Overall, however, I thought the descriptions were done nicely, and that the author evoked a sense of place very well.

For me, the main problem with the writing occurs in some of the dialogue, which sometimes gives the impression of Ye Olde Englishe – and not in the Shakespearean way, but the way where it feels like someone is trying to give an impression of Ye Olde Englishe. At other times, the dialogue was a bit more modern or neutral, which I preferred, and which was more consistent in tone with the rest of the book. At other times still, there was a bit of “show your research” going on, and gratuitous facts were added, sometimes in an almost textbook tone. The narration, in third person, also jumps from character to character, sometimes between paragraphs, and this confused me more than once. There were a few times where we get inside a character’s head and the next paragraph begins with “Eyes looked to the sky” or something similar, where it turns out that said eyes belong to the narrating character. I’m not sure if I just got used to it or whether it evened out, but I noticed these things less as I got towards the end.

I’d be lying if I said I never judge a book by its cover, and I totally judged this book for its use of Papyrus (though I’ll hasten to add that my dislike of Papyrus has no bearing on my rating). A word of warning: the cover image may give you the impression that the book is Young Adult, but I wouldn’t quite say it falls into that category, given the loose references to sex. The book also has a nice velvety feel and is without a doubt the nicest feeling book I own. My other cover-related complaint concerns the publisher’s logo on the back, which looks suspiciously like it was created using Microsoft WordArt, the likes of which you may remember from PowerPoint presentations circa 1998. Now, I understand that it’s an independent publisher, that there may be budget constraints, and that it’s not related to the actual content of the book itself, but this sort of thing projects a lazy and unprofessional sort of image, which is not a good look for either the publisher or its authors.

Pull of the Yew Tree is Pauline Toohey’s debut novel, and I get the sense she’ll only improve over time. Parts of the book fell a bit flat for me – namely, the “nakedness” of the plot and the occasional changes of heart or events that didn’t quite convince. Another problem for me was the patchy writing, though as this is a debut novel, it seems like the sort of thing that will even out in future. For these reasons, there were times I didn’t want to pick the book up again after having put it down. The strength in this book lies in its characters, as well as the atmosphere the author is able to evoke; hopefully the next book in the series will demonstrate stronger writing and delve further into the politics underlying the setting.

Alex’s Rating: 2.5/5

(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Goodreads’ First Reads.)

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