Congleton author Claire Williams has managed to achieve almost the impossible — write a modern book that reads like a classic.
Smailholm is set in Medieval times (Smailholm Tower is a real place, on the Scottish borders). The hero is Wynn Hoppringle, the daughter of the laird who, some time before the book starts, has discovered a village hidden close to her family home. All the inhabitants of the village have been shrunken by a curse and must hide from the big people, Wynn being the only big person they trust.
Wynn herself has her own problems — it’s an era of enforced political marriages — and when the villagers are under threat from raiders, she realises that their rescue and her own salvation follow the same path.
When I started reading, the old fashioned language — Williams is pretending to write in Medieval-speak — made it a little hard going and after chapter one you might be unsure about whether to proceed. But you should, because once you get over the language barrier it’s a delightful book, curiously out of time and with an ambience of its own. It’s obviously modern — it comes with a fancy app — yet at the same time it feels at least Victorian, with a Water Babies vibe about it. This is perhaps also because it lacks the cloying sentimentality of modern Disney-influenced books; the characters can be cruel and people die.
It also reminded me of Leon Garfield’s Smith.
In between the regular chapters are short (one page) chapters — interludes — written in an even more archaic style, presumably meant to convey to the reader that they happened before the main narrative.
I skipped over these until I realised their significance but they are in fact central to the book’s creation.
Williams’s father lost a leg due to complications with diabetes, which robbed him of his sight and mental capacity. He spent 12 months in hospital before a place in a care home could be found, and he died soon after he was moved to the home. Williams channelled her grief by writing Smailholm, and the interludes portray a character — crucial to the story — lying in bed with dementia. Williams says she feels guilt over placing her father in a care home and perhaps atones for this in the book — the character ends the book with mental clarity and living in the present, and moves onto a better place willingly and happily.
The dramatic end of the book echoes HG Wells’s Time Machine, where strange a race labours underground. Wells lived in the Potteries for a while and I always assume the Potteries at its peak must have inspired the cave-dwelling Morlocks, and Williams is similarly inspired by Stoke: her Quogs are based on Stoke’s miners. (“Morlock“ might be a play on mullock, the waste from mining).
Aside from telling a good story, looking nice and coming with a raft of extras that suggest a true labour of love, the book is also well written.
It’s published by Matador, the self-publishing imprint of Troubador Publishing, but Williams has proofed the book impeccably; no mean feat in itself. There are no grammatical errors or even badly constructed sentences and for that alone she deserves praise.
All in all, it’s a graceful fantasy for older teenagers but young at heart adults should enjoy it.
Smailholm comes with goodies including a reader of magic enamel pin, Believer bookmark, three character illustrations and a free game app. Hardback and with 232 pages, it costs £12.99 and is available from clwilliamsauthor.com We’ll see if the Chronicle can get some copies to sell, too.
Illustrations are by David Rolls. An audiobook narrated by actress Rosie Jones is also available.