Friday, 18 March 2011

Brethren, by Robyn Young

This past week or so has been a particularly gruelling one for news junkies like me. We wake up to reports of impending nuclear disaster, we surf news websites full of protests and simmering revolt and we got to bed with the sounds of sabre rattling at the UN in our ears. The world is an unhappy place.

It has been a relief therefore to indulge in a little bookish escapism. Brethren by Robyn Young is one of those huge successes many literary fiction readers won't even be aware of, because it didn't get reviewed in the pages of the Guardian or mentioned for the Booker longlist. Yet Young has sold over 500,000 copies of her books to date, in Britain alone - Brethren was her 2006 debut, the first instalment of a Crusades trilogy. She's already onto her second trilogy, starting with Insurrection, a Scottish Robert the Bruce yarn.

Young indulges in the sort of gripping storytelling that makes Bernard Cornwell an international star, but there is something fresher about Young's prose. Still in her thirties, she writes with a romantic flourish but also with remarkable economy. Perfect fodder, in other words, for the commercial market. Apparently Brethren took seven years to write, but the reward was there for her: she got a handsome advance (after being turned down by over ten publishers) and is now repaying the faith placed in her by her agent and Hodder Headline.

What struck me as I settled into the story about a young Templar knight, was how the Crusade period speaks to our own. This is a highly political time - England is ruled by Henry III, a spendthrift, rather weak king who needs the Templars and their money more than they seem to need him. You can't help but think of our own banking crisis and the former New Labour administration. In these books it is the middle east, the Holy Land, which is the focus of the conflict where, as today, rival religions and nationalities jostle for power. Europeans indulging in regime change? Fancy that. I can't help wonder how many reading this book think of 9/11 and the war against "Islamicist extremists" when they read about blood thirsty Moslem Mamluks slaughtering Christian priests. Does it play up to an anti-Islam attitude? Ask me when I've finished it, but not so far.

A friend of mine, a writer with three books published, recently lamented to me via Facebook that publishers and agents weren't interested in literary fiction any more - all they wanted were best sellers. I hate these arguments, it suggests that genre fiction is, by definition, no good and that just isn't the case. Perhaps if more literary novels were as gripping and as thrilling as the best genre works they would find it easier to find a publishing deal - and an audience.

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