Island of Ghosts: Gillian Bradshaw

★★★★

Hot on the heels of The Beacon at Alexandria, I turned my attention to the other Bradshaw novel I had lined up, and I’m delighted to say that Island of Ghosts proved to be equally enjoyable. Like Beacon it has a classical setting, this time in Roman Britain in 175 AD, and it’s written in the same easy, engaging style. Indeed, its protagonist is thoughtful and self-contained, much like Charis, and there are familiar themes of displacement and the difficulties of finding one’s path as an outsider.

This book reminded me of the importance of a good first line. ‘We mutinied when we reached the ocean‘. Who wouldn’t want to keep reading after that and find out the who, why, where and when?  It turns out that we are on the French shores of the English Channel in the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and our narrator Ariantes is the princely commander of a troop of Sarmatian horsemen. Most have never even seen the sea before. On realising they’ve been posted to Britain, an island so far out of sight that they can’t even believe it exists, they panic. Ariantes and his fellow princes Arshak* and Gatalas find themselves in the first of many awkward situations where they must decide what to trust. Do they rely on their own experience and intuition, which urges them to avoid the apparently endless ocean, or on the word of their Roman ‘hosts’? And there’s the rub. The Sarmatians are ‘auxiliaries’ to the Roman army, but that courteous title fools no one. They are hostages: the flower of Sarmatian youth bargained away by their people as part of a deleritous peace treaty with their Roman enemies. They have seen their families killed, their herds scattered and their wagons burned (largely in retaliation for their own bloody raids upon the Romans). Now they’ve been forced to swear oaths to serve the very men who, until recently, they’d cheerfully have killed and scalped to win glory among their people. They hate their captors but, as they’re perfectly well aware, their captors return the sentiment, none more so than the embittered centurion Facilis.

That culture clash is at the heart of the book and much of its drama comes from the different ways in which Ariantes and Arshak deal with it. Arshak, proudest and noblest of the commanders, chooses to rebel at every turn, swaggering around in his coat of scalps and doing all he can to show the Romans that he’s still a dangerous force. Ariantes is more moderate and sensible, more amenable to the idea of cooperation. While his countrymen sneer at him for Romanisation, he strives to find a way to understand and to be understood. And the more Ariantes watches and listens, as they travel north to their postings along the great Wall, the more he sees that it isn’t a case of Roman against Sarmatian. The very fabric of Roman Britain is a patchwork, with Britons of different tribes living alongside those from other parts of the Empire. And the fabric is fraying. Ariantes’ friends might long for revenge against those who’ve forced them into servitude, but there are even stronger revolutionary movements among the native peoples of the island. When Ariantes and Arshak become aware of a lethal conspiracy to force out the Romans and restablish British kingdoms, they find that it threatens everything they’ve come to value: their friendship, the safety of those they love, and their own identity as Sarmatians. Where should assimilation stop?

For all that political wrangling, this is a personality-driven story. Ariantes is a hugely sympathetic narrator: he’s the kind of intelligent, humane spirit that you’d find in a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. The book’s just as much about his efforts to come to terms with his past and his present as it is about the intrigues. Yet there are a few wonderful set-pieces: the arming of the Sarmatian host in their plumes and golden scale armour was a scene I’d love to see on film, mainly because I find it hard to imagine exactly what they’d look like. I wasn’t at all familiar with the Sarmatians before reading this (I got my wires crossed and spent most of the book thinking they were responsible for that distinctively red Roman-era crockery: turns out that’s Samian ware). Wikipedia tells me they were an Iranian people, which makes sense because their names have linguistic links to Persian and they, like the Persians, were fire-worshippers and formidable cavalry archers. When I read Bradshaw’s descriptions of their charges with lowered spears, I couldn’t help wondering whether there wasn’t some kind of basis here for the legends of Arthur and his knights and, as ever, it seems that someone got there before me. It also turns out that Arthur’s ‘knights’ in that very bad 2004 film (which I watched and promptly forgot) were shown as Sarmatians, albeit from 300 years later than Bradshaw’s story. Intriguing ideas…

Anyway, the summary is that this is another very engaging novel from Bradshaw, and definitely something to recommend if you’ve enjoyed either Beacon or books like Sword at Sunset, of which it kept reminding me. Plus, it’s opened my mind to a new way of thinking about the Arthur legend and a very interesting new ancient culture of which I knew nothing before. Naturally, I’m going to be on the lookout for more Bradshaw, perhaps venturing towards her Byzantine books next…

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* Note for Baroque opera fans: the Latin translation of Arshak is Arsaces, i.e. Arsace, which made me smile.

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