The Fool’s Tale

Written by Nicole Galland
Review by Sarah Johnson

It is 1179, in the minor Welsh kingdom of Maelienydd. Its king, Cadwallon, is killed in an ambush by English border lord Roger Mortimer. Gwirion, a foundling of unknown background, saves the life of young Prince Maelgwyn, earning him the new king’s lifelong gratitude and friendship.

Twenty years later, Maelgwyn, nicknamed “Noble,” marries Mortimer’s niece Isabel in a political alliance. Gwirion, now the king’s loyal confidant and “fool,” makes Isabel the butt of his bawdy jokes. Though Noble behaves dutifully towards Isabel, he shows her no affection, flaunting his mistresses and encouraging Gwirion’s naughty behavior. But Isabel isn’t as fragile as she appears. Over time, as war threatens with the English, she gains the people’s trust and admiration. And in a dramatic reversal, loathing becomes wary acceptance and finally passionate romance, as Isabel and Gwirion discover their powerlessness at court—and their mutual attraction. Their love story is beautiful, poignant, and suspenseful: will the king find them out?

This emotional rollercoaster of a novel began with high optimism, as publicity blurbs promised a captivating epic of love, politics, and betrayal, based partly on history. I found this to be true—in parts. The author’s theatrical background comes through clearly, as I could easily picture the action taking place onstage. On the other hand, readers expecting a large-scale epic may be disappointed, as sometimes the setting feels too confining for the plot. I enjoyed reading of medieval Welsh politics and law, though Maelgwyn’s silly nickname annoyed me, and some of Gwirion’s antics were ridiculous. And although I was continually drawn into the story, the melodramatic ending – while fitting, I suppose – nearly ruined it for me. Was it worth it? Probably, but I can picture the characters asking themselves the same thing.