Journeys: The Archers of Saint Sebastian
It’s 1347 in Ardennes, a Belgian principality, where archery is a military skill and a popular all-male sport. Every other year, the prestigious Guild of Saint Sebastian selects the principality’s twelve best young archers as journeymen. The future of these Journeys (as they are called) is assured—if they emerge among the top six in three public longbow trials. Into this competitive, hyper-masculine Guild stumbles Marieke Verbeke, the disfigured daughter of a legendary archer known to have suffered a mysterious accident during his third Journey trial. Forced by a disaster to flee her home in her dead brother’s clothes, Marieke is found by some current Journeys who, seeing she is wearing her father’s St. Sebastian medal, accuse her of theft. Another Journey, Tristan, shames the others’ bullying—and, not realizing she is a girl, makes her his squire.
Marieke thus becomes a de facto member of a Guild that excludes all women. At first frightened by the prospect of discovery, she gradually settles in, her first-person narration offering a sardonic portrait of teenaged masculine dynamics based simultaneously on competition and support. Her relationship with Tristan becomes a two-way friendship as she encourages his superior performance in the three longbow trials. She loyally supports him against his arch-rival, Taran, the son of the local lord. The rivalry is physically dangerous, and not only to Tristan; Taran’s constant observation of Marieke threatens to expose her. Her greatest challenge, however, becomes love that she must disguise.
Journeys is less an historical novel than an adventure-romance. Roland’s Author’s Note admits that Ardennes and the Guild are fictional. Behind the fiction, however, is impressive knowledge of longbow shooting, displayed at its best in the three competitions that structure the plot. The prose is excellent, the characters clearly dear to their creator’s heart, and despite its excessive length, the book is a good read.