White Ravens. Owen Sheers.
Reviewed by Alana Joli Abbott
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:12 (#341) in December 2010.]
The second novel in the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series, White Ravens is a reinterpretation of the second branch, the tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr. But where The Ninth Wave recast the original story, structure and characters intact, though recast, White Ravens takes a much different approach. Framed by a contemporary narrative, the main story takes place during World War II, when Irishman Matthew O’Connell is sent on a mission to restock the Tower of London with ravens. Matthew has been a soldier, and because Ireland is neutral during the war, he works for the British, Ireland’s all too recent enemy. His dedication to fighting against the rise of Nazi Europe is unappreciated by his family and his friends, who seem to recognize only that he is fighting on the side of the British, whom they despise. Injured in Italy, Matthew is sent to recover in Kent, and later finds a job with the propaganda spinning branch of the British war effort. It’s while working at that office that he is sent on a mission, from Churchill himself, to bring ravens back to the Tower of London. The legend of the day says that so long as the Tower has its ravens, British soil will not be invaded, and the British leaders are concerned that the recent disappearance of some of the Tower ravens will cause a panic if the enemy gets a hold of the knowledge.
Matthew’s quest takes him to Wales, where he meets and falls in love with Branwen, the sister of Ben Llewellyn, a giant of a man. The brother of Bran and Ben, Evan, is still at war — Evan returns on the eve of Matthew and Bran’s hasty wedding, irrationally insulted that he was not consulted in matter. To revenge his pride, he tortures Matthew’s horse, and things continue into the tragic from there. In Ireland, Branwen is greeted with suspicion, and Matthew is also treated warily, now that he has gone to work for the enemy. A wedge drives between the two lovers, and further tragedy is inevitable — all, Ben might say, because Matthew has not read the old stories and learned not to repeat them.
Sheers creates a compelling tale from the opening, in which Rhian has betrayed her brothers by running away from a crime she has helped them commit, to Matthew’s narrative, told to Rhian by an old man in the shadow of the tower. Despite the contemporary and historical settings, and the fact that no actual magic is present in the story, the narrative feels mythic, imbued with those qualities that so deeply resound from the original tale. Matthew and Bran are more than just an Irish and a Welsh Romeo and Juliet; their tragedy stems from what happens when lovers who have found happiness are chipped away at over time, who allow their relationship to be destroyed by their family and their peers. The inspiration for the tale is acknowledged inside the story: Ben urges Matthew to read The Mabinogion, and it isn’t until Matthew actually reads it that he realizes his mistakes. The power of story is invoked, even as the lack of listening to the old tales brings about a repeated tragedy.
Some styles of storytelling simply work better for some readers than others. White Ravens, far moreso than The Ninth Wave, resonated with me as a reader. Is it the love story? The strong female narrative at the beginning, told in the first person, in the voice of a confused young woman unsure how to heal her family? Perhaps it is in the old man telling a story aloud — a story I guessed early on was his own — to a girl who is lost. It could be something in the shifting of myth to folklore: in the second branch of the Mabinogion, the head of a giant, whose name translates to “Magnificent Crow,” is buried in London, and so long as he remains there, the shores will be safe from invasion. Later, that same hill is the home to the Tower of London, where the presence of ravens is also a national defense. The myth resonates deeply, both in the tale and in the historical reality behind the story being told.
Sheers offers a wonderful afterword, discussing his choice of using veterans — and the senseless violence that sometimes accompanies the PTSD soldiers suffer — as a reflection of the brutality in the original tale, as well as presenting some of his research on the Tower ravens. But while there is plenty of insight there, it’s the conclusion of the tale that offers a “wow” factor, a feeling of just-rightness in the way the story is told, the way the threads have come together, and the way that the story — this one or its inspiration — could be told to prevent later generations from repeating the mistakes of their elders. It wowed me, and the reading of the novel gave more weight, on reflection, to the original tale. That is a great mark of success for this type of project, and a remarkable accomplishment.
White Ravens. Owen Sheers.