The Well of Tears by Roberta Trahan is one of those books that is difficult to rate. It is billed as a historical novel which begins in 905 CE. But here is a strange thing: by page 73 of the 400-page novel, history is little in evidence. The storyline involves a gathering of four sorceresses to act as an advisory council to the Welsh king Hywel ap Cadell. The protagonist, Alwen, is living at the time in Jorvik, in Frisia. In order to answer the summons, she must cross the North Sea to Northumbria and travel overland from there to Wales to the secret bastion ruled by the wise old Ardh Druidh (First Wizard), Fane Gramayre.
Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against sorceressees in the Middle Ages. The people themselves believed magic was real and I like a little fantasy mixed with my history. But as I will show below, the history has gone missing.
Alwen makes the journey across the North Sea without even a mention of Vikings or longships, even though this was a time of war as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes clear, not only between Dane and Saxon but between Alfred's successor, Edward, and his uncle's son, Ethelwald. Nor is there any mention of Alfred the Great, who had just died four years previous, or of any Vikings to speak of or even Saxons, on the road to Wales. It brought to mind the New Testament accounts of Jesus' travels, also oddly detached from history in that Galilee was full of bandits who never seemed to find Jesus or his disciples as they wandered about. At least make the setting plausible, please, if you're going to write this type of story.
I think if I were writing a historical novel set in these times, I would have at least found some way to provide this historical context. You might make a comparison between Trahan's book and those of Bernard Cornwall, set during Alfred's reign. Obviously they are different types of books but you would not know that they inhabit the same universe from the way Britain is portrayed in each.
I do like that Paganism is presented in a positive light but beyond an acknowledgement that the Ardh Druidh and his people are Pagans there is really very little of Paganism in the story. The gods get some mention without being named but there is no manner of worship, no ritual. The Old Ways are mentioned but no details are given. It is as if not only the religion but the history of Britain and Wales in the early 10th century have been sanitized, which is an odd thing for a historical novel. It might as well be a fantasy set in an alternate Britain, a al Guy Gavriel Kay though his The Last Light of the Sun is far more compelling.
In every comparison I can make, The Well of Tears comes in second best. Yet it is not a bad read. Though Trahan's prose wants for detail, the plot is not a bad one for speculative fiction. The dialogue is not bad and Alwen is a sympathetic character. It just leaves me feeling it could have been so much more. It is not one of those books you can't put down or having done so, can't wait to pick up, neither is it one of those books that you are reluctant to pick up. Reading it was neither a great pleasure nor a chore.
Perhaps I am being too hard on it but I like my historical novels to at least make an attempt to include a historical setting and context. I am assuming the Ard Druidh is supposed to be the chief druid but this chief druid lives in a stone fortress rather than a grove of oaks. Certainly Trahan is free to do what she will with her druids since we know next to nothing about what they were or did historically but turning them into fantasy-type wizards seems a stretch. The English used the term druid to refer to wizards but the native meaning was priest, and for the Welsh it meant seer (this at least the Ardh Druidh is though she calls him a wizard) which is a different thing altogether.
In some ways, the story seems to embrace a sort of Wiccan substitution of magic for sacrifice and though magic coexisting with Paganism it was not what Paganism was about.
The end result is that this is a hard sell for me. I can offer 3 stars for the writing skill of the author but I cannot give it five because it is not really a historical novel at all, divorced from history as it is. The author would have done better to do as Guy Gavriel Kay does, and contrive a pseudo-European setting for her tale.