"The Spider and the Stone: A Novel of Scotland's Black Douglas" by Glen Craney is an engaging novel drawing on real characters from a key period in Scottish history. The First War of Scottish Independence resulted from the untimely death of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1286 and the death of his infant niece and successor four years later. The result was a power vacuum in Scotland. This was ably and ruthlessly exploited by King Edward I of England, also often called "Edward Longshanks", due to his height; and "the Hammer of the Scots" due to, well, reasons that become pretty obvious to anyone reading Glen Craney's novel.
The book's two central characters are James Douglas, who would later become known to history as "Good Sir James" and "the Black Douglas", and Isabelle MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, who placed the crown on the head of King Robert the Bruce. The long-lasting but repeatedly star-crossed relationship between James and Isabelle forms a central theme of a book in which we first meet the characters in their youth, and follow them through into adulthood, via a series of increasingly momentous events. Robert the Bruce is the third main character in the book, and his efforts to gain and retain power in Scotland, and repel the English, forms the second central theme.
The result is both engaging, as we said at the head of this review, and enjoyable. The characters are nicely drawn. Perhaps too nicely, at times: King Edward I was never going to be one of history's good guys, but William Wallace, amongst others, demonstrated that England did not have exclusive rights to atrocity as a weapon in this particular war. The story draws the reader along with a pace that is perfectly calculated to keep you turning the page and "The Spider and the Stone" is a great way into this period of Scottish history for the "Game of Thrones" generation.
Because the book is based on real history, there is a sense that those who know what actually happened are at a disadvantage when it comes to enjoying the twists and turns in the background framework to the novel form. But most people won't know the history in anything like enough detail to undermine the suspense that at times accompanies the narrative. We also found we stumbled in a couple of places because of geographical oddities, for example when a character heads north from Berwick to reach Lanark (it should have been west): and the reference to a balsa wood model at one point interrupted the flow for us (as the tree is indigenous to southern/central America it would have been unknown in 14th Century Europe). None of this is enough to stop us recommending this book as a fun way into an important moment in Scotland's history, and a really good read.