There are nine stories in Edward Rutherfurd's The Forest. The preface takes us on a plane ride over the whole terrain, noting places of interest, which we know we'll soon recognize with an old familiarity.
The final tale takes us from the moment that plane touches down in 2000. By then, we certainly do know all about it.
There's a quiet sense of superiority, as we now know more than the lady flying in it. We could practically be her tour guide; which is a bit of a shame in context. Seven wonderful novellas in the middle have brought us to this place.
The Hunt: A generation after the Norman Conquest, it really does matter whether you are Celtic, Saxon or Norman in the New Forest. Adela de la Roche is the French speaking noblewoman learning this the hard way.
She has to find a husband and fast, in order to have any influence at all over her future. While the Celts can be disdained (they could be hanged, or lose a limb in retributive amputation, at a word from her), the dispossessed son of a Saxon earl looks very attractive. But then so does that powerful, land-owning (and married) Norman baron. The latter is the favored prospect.
It sounds like a romance, and it could be read as such, but personally I was gripped more by the issues of ethnicity in the Forest.
Beaulieu: Cisterian monks have formed an Order in the southern part of the Forest. It's now 1294 and parts of the ancient woodland, river banks and plains have been transformed into granges. Local people can find work there, tending the sheep, fishing, working in the fields or chopping down timber.
But there are temptations beyond the monastic serenity and routine for certain monks; and that can only lead to trouble.
Lymington: Apparently a dragon has been seen, and quite recently, out in the village of Burley. It's enough to have two young Lymington boys set out on the expedition of a life-time. Meanwhile their fathers are at the center of a village wide gambling frenzy. Who is right about the speed of ships across to the Isle of Wight? Calculating, rational Totton or Seagull, the best sailor on those shores?
It's like Stand by Me set in 1480; with a beautiful option on the relationship between fathers and sons.