Readers of historical fiction typically value settings and history as much as drama – and that’s where some historical stories fall short, focusing on events and adding only the faint trappings of the background that would fully explain their progression. And this point is where The Oblate’s Confession departs from many other novels set in England’s Dark Ages, standing apart in its approach and depth to make it a superior, recommended historical story.
The Oblate’s Confession is set in seventh century England and revolves around a warrior’s son who is given to a monastery that resides on the border between two rival Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The chaos affecting the land (from warfare and plague) permeates even the monastery’s relative isolation and reaches into young Winwaed’s life against all efforts of his teachers and a hermit, who lives near the monastery and who serves as his surrogate father.
It’s a holy trinity gone awry when the return of his natural father results in a clash between the child’s monastic superior, the hermit, and the warrior stranger who sired him.
That is the basic overview of a plot replete with politics, conflict, and Middle Ages struggles for survival. Now for the nitty-gritty … The Oblate’s Confession also takes readers on a trip through time. This is not to say it’s a time-slip story; just that its ability (through use of the first-person and powerful descriptions) to capture the sights, sounds, smells and feel of its time will successfully transport readers to the distant past like few others can achieve: “It was not as bright as I had expected but it was bright. I blinked and then looked again. The sun was well up now, mid-morning, and it looked as if it would be a nice day. It had rained during the night and the air was sweet and fragrant. I placed my hands on the windowsill and leaned out. A breeze moved over the surface of the outer wall and the perspiration on my forehead began to dry, the skin there suddenly feeling cool and fresh.”
Few historical novels take the time to create proper atmosphere. Most breeze (or, more likely, charge) through such descriptions in favor of fast-paced action; but it’s this approach that truly immerses readers in the era – and that’s what superior historical fiction is all about.
The Oblate’s Confession goes beyond narration and a fast-paced story line replete with personal and political struggle to snare readers with a series of exquisite descriptions that do more than create a setting: they inject the present-day follower with a vivid sense of the past. All the senses, in fact.
Thus, expect passages of action tempered by the slow winding observational views of a young boy growing up and learning from his three very different fathers: “I had to think about it for a while – seeing the raindrops falling on the footprints, seeing other footprints falling on the raindrops – but when it finally came to me the solution seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before: “You can tell when things happened!” I cried. “You can tell when he passed through here by the raindrops!”
Under William Peak’s hand (and through a child’s eyes) the Dark Ages of England not only begin to make sense – they come alive. Readers hone their sense of time and place as the boy matures into manhood and learns not only about obedience and faith, but about love and revenge.
A good historical work recreates the times and events that drive motive, action and decisions. A superior work tempers these events with solid characterization, psychological insights, and a sharp sense of place that captures the everyday.
From the Benedictine monks and their world to a young oblate’s struggles to live in different realities, The Oblate’s Confession more than succeeds in recreating the Dark Ages in all their facets. Not since Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical prowess has such a strong sense of the times succeeded in drawing this reader into a powerful historical saga.’
—D. Donovan, EBook Reviewer, MBR, October, 2014