Crowded Bookshelf: One for the history books

Book cover
Book cover

A recommendation for the ā€˜Guardians Trilogyā€™

By Duncan Fingarson, Contributor


Historical fiction occupies an unusual space in literature. It’s not quite fantasy, but it’s not really history, either. In history, a lot of the small details tend to get lost, leaving gaps that the author needs to fill with imagination. Unless a conversation was transcribed, we’ll never be able to know what was actually said, and when you hit a past that’s distant enough, many of the major players end up in the situation where the only thing we really know about them is their names.

This situation, of many unknowns, is certainly the case for 14th century Scotland. William Wallace existed, but the details of his upbringingā€”and for that matter much of the rest of his lifeā€”are lost. Yet Wallace is the subject of the first book of the Guardians Trilogy, The Forest Laird (2010), and so those gaps in history must be filled.

Filled they are, by author Jack Whyte. The story begins with Jamie Wallace witnessing the execution of his cousin, William, in Smithfield Square. From there they jump backwards, to when Will and Jamie were younger, growing up together in Scotland. The first book is narrated entirely by Jamie, though William is the clear protagonist. It follows William, from boy to man to legend, but this isn’t Braveheart. These books are filled with detail and character, with far more emphasis on the quiet side of life than the battles.

The second book (The Renegade, 2012) is the only one not told from the perspective of Jamie, being instead a third-person narrative. Instead of William Wallace, it follows Robert the Bruce, future king of Scotland. Parts of this novel run concurrently with the first one, offering a second perspective on the actions of Wallaceā€”this time, from the English side of things. This is the story of a man who inherits much, and is trying to live up to the legacy of his grandfather. Robert’s life is more luxurious than William’s, and for much of the book he seems an unlikely hero, though still a very likeable one. The path he takes to end up on the same side as William is quite interesting.

The third book, The Guardian (2014) brings back Jamie as the narrator, and is ostensibly a tale of Andrew Murray (not the tennis player). Murray was introduced in the first book, and has the misfortune of stacking up against William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in an interesting protagonist contest. Wallace and Bruce handily take the win, though Murray is no slouch himself. Overall, though, the third book is perhaps the weakest of the three, and suffers from what seems a common ailment in historical fiction.

History, by its nature, goes on. Books do not. They must end, and the task of picking a good end point is not an easy one. Unfortunately, the Guardians Trilogy ends too soon, and left me wishing there was more of it. This might seem like a compliment in disguise, and to some extent it is, but fair warning: The ending does not tie everything up in a neat bow. The path of the characters is dictated by history, and the timeline continues after the books have ended.

With that said, the books are still good, and a slightly weak third act does little to dampen an otherwise excellent tale. Some of the dialogue can be a challenge to get through, but that similarly does little to detract from the story. All in all, these are books worth reading.