"The Gryphon at Bay" by Louise Turner is a finely crafted piece of writing that transports the reader back to the Scotland of the mid 1400s and examines the power struggles between the dominant families in Central and Lowland Scotland at the time. But this is first and foremost a story of friendship - the forging of friendship, the establishment of friendship and the testing of friendship. At a time when to show emotion would have been seen as a sign of weakness, the reader is invited to share in the thoughts, feelings and insecurities of two men, each powerful in their own right, and each fighting to secure the lives of their wives and families in a time a great instability.
Hugh is Earl of Eglinton and 3rd Lord Montgomerie. He is a headstrong and violent man with a fearsome reputation. He is also a King's Man, acting as Justiciar of Arran and the West, who has pledged to keep the peace in the Westlands. His wife, Helen, is his rock and insights given into their relationship allow us to see a very much softer side of this formidable man. Sir John Semprill of Ellerstoun is Sheriff of Renfrew. He is a much younger man, and newly married to Margaret Colville who is pregnant with their first child. Their marriage did not have the best of starts and the couple endure much soul searching over how to move their relationship forward. Lord Hugh and Sir John are brought together over clashes with a rival family, The Cunninghames of Kilmaurs, and their friendship is forged when John first supports and then saves the life of Hugh following a skirmish which ends in the death of Lord Kilmaurs and the near fatal wounding of Lord Hugh.
As the story unfolds the key characters are laid bare and there is much angst as each faces their fears over their future. And whilst that process in itself would make for an interesting story and an insight into life at a different time, "The Gryphon at Bay" gives so much more. The story is woven into a very realistic tapestry, where the reader is transported to a land that would be hard to recognise today. The action shifts between a series of castles and fortified houses, whose names and physical form might still be familiar, but whose sole purpose at the time was to repel the enemy and protect the inhabitants, even under siege conditions. This is not a world of great comfort, even for those whose lives we would consider privileged. We experience the tensions as they build between rival groups, endure the conditions experienced on the road and in battle, and see men tested to the extreme. In a series of cameos, some short, others longer, we move between the groups of people whose actions will shape the outcomes for the two key characters. We see inside their heads as they test the very foundations on which all friendships are built - trust and honesty.
"The Gryphon at Bay" is a beautifully written and poignant novel that deserves to be read. In exploring the emotional connection we all have with ourselves and with others, the story could just as easily fit into a modern context, because the battles that rage within both Hugh and John in their time are the same battles that rage within all of us today.