At an early point in the story, one of the central characters, Connachtach, is left to contemplate the question “What does God want of me?” It’s a deep question, and the central one he and others often find themselves pondering in author Amy Crider’s richly detailed new historical novel, Kells: A Novel of the Eighth Century.
Told through the perspectives of multiple characters, the story begins when Connachtach, a young man in eighth century Scotia, has decided to return to the monastery of his youth upon the death of his father. Wishing to utilize his teachings as a scribe to create a new Gospel, Connachtach’s journey to a monastery on the island of Iona sets off a wide-spanning odyssey that, true to the book’s name, takes readers on an exciting journey through the eighth century.
Told primarily from a first-person perspective, Crider has created a story rich in detail and characterization, with characters frequently expressing their inner thoughts, doubts, and changing perspectives. The point of view of each character we spend time with is fully realized, their motivations and reasoning relatable, making it that much more exciting as we see their journeys progress throughout the course of the story. Even the side characters we spend a scene or two with are given enough genuine nuance and memorable dialogue that their impact and relevance is remembered long after their part in the story has been told.
Much of the book is expressed as though it’s being told in the form of a letter, presented almost as if it’s actual historical documentation and we the reader are being given first-hand access to the lives of these historical figures. Many of the named characters and locations visited throughout are based on real people and places, with obvious storytelling elements added. Even in these imaginary documents, Crider’s confident attention to detail and imagery would have you believe she witnessed it all, and we the readers are the lucky recipients of her travels.
True to the time period, Kells features everything from warfaring vikings, figures like Charlemagne, and locations such as Scotia (modern-day Ireland), Rome, Baghdad, and Jerusalem. Each location visited feels alive, with Crider expressing the sights, smells, and even tastes in the air. For history lovers like myself, it’s a treat and testament to Crider’s skill in crafting each location’s atmosphere that it all feels like a true living and breathing world.
Throughout the narrative, Crider tackles themes such as the power and disillusionment of dreams, fate vs choice, the question of how far to take one’s perceived destiny, and the consequences that follow. As readers, we are never given a definitive answer on the right and wrongs of each character’s decisions and rationale. Rather, Crider encourages taking time to develop your own conclusions on these characters and their choices. This gives the reader a role not just as an observer but as a participant as well.
As a story filled with multiple people and locations, there were moments throughout Kells where it took a minute to jump back in and remember the spotlighted characters at their given parts. Character and location shifts happen sporadically throughout the 400 pages. At times I had to stop and recall what happened before. Taking a few days between reading chapters can momentarily take you out of the story. It’s a minor issue, but it comes up infrequently and does not distract the reader from the strong narrative Crider is relays.
Kells is Crider’s second novel. She is a Chicago-based playwright who previously wrote and directed the play Charlie Johnson Reads All of Proust at the Den Theatre a few years back. Kells serves as further evidence of Crider’s ability to craft epic storylines. For readers of historical fiction and well-developed storytelling, here’s hoping Crider has more in store for us.
Kells: A Novel of the Eighth Century was published by University of New Orleans Press and is now available at your local bookstore or on the publisher’s website. For more by Amy Crider, check out her podcast, Continuous Dream Theatre and her website.