23 July, 2010

The Hounds of Sunset, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1976. Edition reviewed: The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet, Sourcebooks 2010, ISBN 978-1402237607. This edition includes all four of the Brothers of Gwynedd novels in one binding. The Hounds of Sunset, 196 pages. Complete quartet, 782 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet covers the following four novels:

  • Sunrise in the West

  • The Dragon at Noonday

  • The Hounds of Sunset

  • Afterglow and Nightfall

The Hounds of Sunset is the third in Edith Pargeter’s quartet of novels telling the dramatic story of Llewelyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales, and his turbulent younger brother David. The first two books, Sunrise in the West and The Dragon at Noonday have been reviewed here earlier. The key characters are historical figures, notably Llewelyn and David, Llewelyn’s bride Eleanor de Montfort, and King Edward I of England. The narrator Samson, Llewelyn’s friend and confidential clerk, is fictional, as is his beloved Cristin and her husband Godred.

The Hounds of Sunset covers the period from 1269 to 1278. Llewelyn is now the prince of (more or less) the whole of Wales, recognised as such and now at peace with England after the Treaty of Montgomery. His brother David, who has betrayed him twice and twice been forgiven, is apparently content with his lands and a pretty young wife. The future looks bright, and Llewelyn seeks to marry his long-affianced bride Eleanor de Montfort, who was betrothed to him by her father Earl Simon de Montfort just before his fatal defeat at the hands of the future Edward I at the battle of Evesham (told in The Dragon at Noonday). But Edward, who has never forgiven the de Montforts, has other ideas. When David turns to betrayal again, this time blacker than ever before, Llewelyn stands in danger of losing his bride, his patrimony and even his life.

Like the other volumes of the quartet, The Hounds of Sunset is beautifully written in intelligent, glowing prose. It isn’t a quick read, and at first glance it may even seem on the dry side, but the writing has a deceptive skill that drew me into the world of medieval Wales. The heroic, steadfast Llewellyn and his passionate, tormented, inconstant brother David are brilliantly illuminated, fiercely opposed and yet bound together by ties that cannot be broken. They dominate the novel and will remain long in the reader’s memory. David in particular is a powerful and compelling character. In Sunrise in the West I compared him to a fallen angel, and that analogy holds even more true now that he has grown in stature.

The third point of the triangle, Edward I of England, is equally strongly drawn. I am afraid he does not appear in a very flattering light, though Samson strives to understand him and Llewelyn seems almost unduly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Edward’s ability is matched only by his duplicity, both of which were demonstrated in his war against Earl Simon and both of which have grown in the intervening years. He makes use of the interminable petty squabbles between the Welsh lords with ruthless skill, and when he has provoked an excuse for war he promulgates it with an iron resolve and all the vast resources at his disposal. The princes of Wales have historically relied on the geography of Wales – deep rivers, dense forests, high mountains – to protect them from enemy invasion, and no-one has bargained for a king who is prepared to force geography to bend to his will. Edward’s implacable military engineering reminded me of the way the Roman Empire used roads and forts to subdue southern Britain a thousand years earlier.

As might be guessed from the title, the whole novel is shot through with a sense of vast foreboding. As the narrator says, “It is a strange thing that Welshmen should undo Wales, but so it was.” That might make it sound gloomy, but it is not, because it is never dull. Sad though it may be to watch Llewelyn’s years of patient hard work destroyed by enmity, fraternal rivalry, ambition and greed, it is never less than absorbing. Furthermore, none of the characters is given to self-pity. Llewelyn retains the hope of making a new beginning and of rebuilding what has been lost, and his love for the beautiful and heroic Eleanor de Montfort shines like a shaft of sunlight through the gathering storm clouds. And David, as always, is unpredictable and capable of dealing out great joy as well as great hurt.

The value of using Samson as a narrator is shown again in The Hounds of Sunset. Being fictional, Samson can be placed wherever the dramatic conflict is at its height, and his intelligence and detached observation make even the most complex political and legal wrangles clear.

A family tree at the beginning helps to keep the characters straight, though I found the text sufficiently clear that I never needed to refer to it, and a glossary of Welsh terms at the back may be helpful to readers unfamiliar with the period. Readers who like to trace the campaigns and journeys on a map may like to have an atlas to hand, as there is no map in the book (at least, not in the advance reading copy).

Third in a powerful and evocative quartet telling the story of Llewelyn ap Griffith, last prince of independent Wales.


Passages to the Past said...

Great review! I have read and loved the first two books and am trying to get to this one as soon as I can and now am even more excited after reading your review.

I also find her writing prose-like!

Rick said...

A story told from Welsh perspective could hardly put Edward I in a very flattering light!

Carla said...

Amy - thanks. I like this quartet very much.

Rick - True, and it's considerably to the credit of the quartet that it doesn't just chalk Edward up as a black-hatted, moustache-twirling Villain. He gets a somewhat better press in Sharon Penman's take on the same story, The Reckoning, as I remember.

Kathryn Warner said...

The Brothers of Gwynedd quartet has been on my TBR pile as long as I can remember - I really must get round to reading them sometime! :-)

Carla said...

Kathryn - they are well worth a read.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I really should move that up my TBR pile, but somehow that one keeps growing and burying books. ;)

Carla said...

Gabriele - I think we all have that problem :-)