The Swan Maiden
by Jules Watson
Review by Mel Jacob
Bantam Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553384642
Date: 24 February 2009 List Price $12.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Jules Watson's latest novel, The Swan Maiden, retells the Irish legend of Deidre of the Sorrows. Set in Ireland, the novel follows King Conor, the beautiful Deidre, the Red Branch warrior Naisi, and the political upheaval that follows Deidre's flight with Naisi to Scotland and Conor's pursuit aided by his warriors. At Deidre's birth, the chief Druid prophesied her beauty would bewitch a king and destroy a kingdom, but King Conor cannot bring himself to kill or banish the babe. Instead, he hides her in a remote lodge and visits the child as she grows. He arranges for an old Druid priestess to tutor her. Watson uses the spelling Deirdre for Deidre's name and Conor for Conchobor.
Richly detailed, the novel humanizes the legendary figures and places them against a real historical background. The early Irish lived in clans and owed loyalty to chieftains who in turn supported a king. Primitive in many ways, the people focused on clan feuds and cattle rustling. Plural marriages were common. King Conor of Ulead (Ulster) wed Maeve of Connacht in an attempt to forge an alliance through marriage. However, Maeve has other ideas and flees to her homeland.
Meanwhile, Deirdre approaches womanhood and inflames Conor with desire. Before he can claim her, she encounters the three Usnech sons, renowned young warriors of the Red Branch, and flees with them. Furious, Connor orders pursuit.
After skirmishes with Connor's men, Naisi kills his former friend and fellow Red Branch warrior Leary. Hounded by Conor with those who aid them punished, the four flee to Alba (Scotland). There, they survive, and Deirdre pledges herself to Naisi.
Slow moving at first, the novel gradually gains speed with plenty of battles and love scenes. The novel reaches its inevitable conclusion. Mystical elements abound with the warriors and with Deirdre and the Druids.
Watson adds in bits of the legends and stories of the Swan Maiden that provides a beautiful cover, but was not integral to Deirdre's story. Deirdre's bonds with nature and the natural world allow her to share the views of the animals including ravens and eagles.
Ireland, Scotland, and the Druids have fascinated many writers. Irish historian and scholar Peter Tremayne (pseudonym) has explored this territory, but a bit later in time with his Sister Fidelma of Cashel series. Even romance writer Nora Roberts used Ireland in her fantasy series the Circle trilogy featuring the goddess Morrigan.
Watson's series of successful books set in Scotland began with The White Mare. Her Irish Legend series will continue with The Raven Queen following the story of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connacht.