Awen: A Novel of Early Medieval Wales

Written by Susan Mayse
Review by Sarah Johnson

May 4th, 793 AD.  Cynfarch mab Cadeyrn Penllyn, called Brys, appears for trial in the court of his foster father, Brochfael King of Powys. Dispossessed years ago of his birthright by his father’s treason, Brys finds himself given as a hostage into the hands of Offa of Mercia – Powys’ avowed enemy. With this action, the course of his life as envoy, soldier, and spy is set. Also an accomplished poet, Brys uses his skills in diplomacy and song to feel his way through the tangled threads of treachery and secrets that make up the politics between Powys, Mercia, and their neighbors.

Eventually finding his way back to Powys and his lover, the female goldsmith Meirwen, Brys’ overall intention is to forge a lasting peace between the warring kingdoms. His travels take him over the course of three years from Powys to Gwynedd to Charlemagne’s court in Frankia and finally back to his origins. Throughout his journey, he cannot shake himself from old tales of the princess Heledd, another homeless wanderer from two centuries before. In Heledd’s story, he sees parallels with his own life – as well as the life of Powys itself.

The imagery and language in Awen are so intense that it’s best read slowly in order to absorb its full flavor. It took me a good three weeks to finish; it no doubt took the author years to write and research. One can hardly read Awen – “the breath of inspiration” in Welsh – without being caught up in its magic.

Although I finished this novel feeling like I’d accomplished something momentous, it left me wanting more, particularly because the novel concludes with an unexpected twist. The author has made the effort of consulting numerous primary sources: most of the characters, including Brys, are based on historical figures. It’s unfortunate, however, that no actual stanzas from Canu Heledd, a Welsh poetry cycle based on Heledd’s story, are reprinted within the text.

Awen was first published just over two years ago.  Since it does such a remarkable job of recreating a world now lost to us, I felt it still deserved mention within these pages. Although its densely packed prose is not for everyone, it certainly deserves more recognition than it’s received thus far.  Reading Awen is truly a step back in time to experience the passion, poetry, and romance of medieval Wales.