Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle: Manda Scott

★★★★★

Boudica: Book I

Three years ago, just after finishing the last novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolò series, I asked for recommendations of similar books to fill the gap. Although Manda Scott’s Boudica novels were mentioned several times, I didn’t follow them up. I think I shamefully leapt to the conclusion, without any evidence whatsoever, that Boudica was just another identikit sword-and-shield historical series. How wrong I was. When I recently found the first book in a second-hand sale, I decided to see what I made of it. And it’s stunning.

Epic in both size and scope, it recreates not only the physical world of the remote British past, but also its customs and its ritual world. For the past week I’ve been drawn deep into a world of mist and forests, warriors, dreamers and fragile tribal alliances. Two days ago, when I still had two hundred pages left to read, I ordered the next two books, eager to find out how the story would unfold. Scott’s vision is authoritative, rich and never slackens its dramatic grip. Quite simply, Boudica is magnificent.

If we are to win, we must fight under one dream, not many.
If we are to die, I would as soon die under your mark as mine.

My knowledge of Boudica is slim. I’m familiar with Thomas Thornycroft’s statue at Westminster, of course, where the warrior queen stands aloft in a chariot drawn by rearing horses, a spear in her hand and a crown on her head. It doesn’t pretend to be historically accurate: the flowing classical tunic, unfitted for battle, and the triumphant gestures say more about mid-19th century fantasies of the British past than they do about the real leader of the Eceni. As a child, I knew of her as the plucky leader who roused her people against the nasty Roman invaders. But, until seven days ago, I’d have been hard pressed to give her a historical context.

Dreaming the Eagle does not give us the mature warrior queen. It introduces us to life in the stronghold of the Eceni, a tribe living roughly in the area of modern Norfolk in the early 1st century AD. We meet flame-haired Breaca who, at twelve years old, spears the warrior who has killed her mother and so inherits the leadership of the Eceni, and Breaca’s little half-brother Bán, whose visions point to him becoming a powerful dreamer for the tribe. From the very first pages it becomes clear that this is a very different world from those we usually find in historical fiction, but Scott simply throws her readers in at the deep end and allows us to find our own way, marvelling through the traditions and social mores which are so alien to our own. Here, for example, is a society where the leadership passes through women in many of the tribes; it’s a world where the gods and the beloved dead are close at hand, bringing omens, dreams and messages that must be interpreted by dreamers. The coming-of-age ceremonies bring trials for the young, who wait anxiously for god-given dreams which will define and shape their futures.

The tribes have a long history of struggle, one against the other, which has given way in recent years to a grudging, wary peace. The man responsible for this is Cunobelin, the Sun Hound, chieftain of the Trinovantes, who has also created a delicate balance between the peoples of Britain and the Roman empire, which flexes its muscles across the channel in Gaul. But Cunobelin cannot live for ever, and his legacy of peace promises to be short-lived. Of his three sons, only Togodubnos has the spirit to be a solid, dependable tribal leader. Amminios, duplicitous and dangerous, has been seduced by the splendour of Rome, while Caradoc (also known as Caratacos) is brilliant, handsome and ambitious, a legend from boyhood and the kind of glittering figurehead who will either unite or destroy the tribes of Britain. Known for his sun-gold hair, Caradoc is matched in skill and reputation by only one other: red-haired, fierce Breaca, who grows to womanhood in a world poised on the edge of something: dry straw, awaiting only the touch of a flame.

I’ve outlined the plot here, but the wonderful thing about this novel is that you don’t get the feeling of an underlying purpose driving the narrative. The story develops naturally, organically, and Scott spends as much time world-building as she does driving her heroine along the path laid out for her. Breaca’s destiny plays out amid a tapestry of other threads and other lives. You grow to care for Airmid, the dreamer who hopes to study at the famous school on the sacred isle of Mona; for Hail, the young whelp who grows into a loyal fighting hound; for the horses so deeply treasured by the Eceni; and, of course, for sensitive, determined Bán. Throughout, Scott’s characterisation is subtle and many-layered, and yet there are still heroes and villains to be had. There are moments of grief when the righteous fall, and flashes of celebration when the wicked get their just deserts. And the writing is beautiful. I’ve removed the name from the following paragraph, so hopefully it’s not too bad a spoiler; here Breaca has a vision of the departing soul of one she loves:

[He] stood on the bank of a river. Water the colour of moonlight hushed past his feet. Hazels, nine-stemmed for Nemain, dipped their leaves to brush the surface. An otter swam midstream. A salmon rose, bearing an acorn in its mouth. The far bank was hidden in mist although [he] stepped out as if it were only a stride away. He turned and waved to her, his face alight with memory and the promise of home. Weeping, she lost her sight and when she found it again he was gone.

The emotional punch is only really appreciable in context, but hopefully you can see the poetic simplicity that makes this so lovely to read. Scott has great sensitivity to natural detail, as her characters would have done, and this anchors them thoroughly in their world and their time. There is utter conviction here and not a single word is wasted or misjudged. I can think of no higher praise than to say that the elegant, elegiac sections often reminded me of Mary Renault, and also of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, but Scott is also capable of writing grippingly brutal battle scenes that never shy away from the gory reality of hand-to-hand combat in the field.

I would add that it’s a delight to read a book with such a strong heroine, but the whole point of Scott’s world is that gender is almost irrelevant among her tribespeople. A talent for hearing the gods makes one a dreamer; a quick wit and a keen blade make one a warrior; and women are frequently war leaders. It is a refreshing vision of complete parity, without any hint of a hidden agenda on the writer’s part. It simply is. 

As I don’t often give five-star reviews, I hope that alone is enough to convince you this is worth reading. Nobility, honour, love and the clash of iron: what more can one ask for in a book? Once more, my thanks to those who recommended this series and my apologies that I’ve taken so long to find out that you were absolutely right. I desperately hope that the other books in the series live up to the high quality of this first instalment, and that the finely-judged pacing continues. Needless to say, you will be kept informed…

Buy the book

Next in this series – Dreaming the Bull

I’m delighted to announce that, due to the number of different cover designs for the Boudica novels, I’m going to introduce a Cover Feature for these as well. See below for a range of different editions. 

23 thoughts on “Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle: Manda Scott

  1. Joanna says:

    Lovely review, and the book sounds amazing. Funnily enough, I read ‘Skin’ by Ilka Tampke last weekend, which has a similar setting (Britain at the very beginning of Roman occupation, and Caradoc is mentioned) but with more overt fantasy aspects. Before reading that I was also ignorant of the historical context! Anyway, I thought it was really good — if you’re interested in books set at the same time you might like it. Longer review here: https://strangecharmbooks.co.uk/2016/05/30/skin-by-ilka-tampke/

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Joanna! I haven’t heard of ‘Skin’ at all. I’ll be sure to read your review and see whether it might be something I’d enjoy. I should add that there are some very slight otherworldly / fantasy aspects here, in the sense that Scott adopts her characters’ mindset that the world of gods, omens and ghosts is entirely real. It never jars though!

  2. Debs Voorhees says:

    I loved this book years ago, had forgotten it and the next in the series. It really is set apart from others in its depth and breadth. Now must find the next one. And, have Dorothy Dunnett’s Pawn in Frankincense by my side! Good indicators!🇬🇧📚📖🗡🛡

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Debs, you star, it worked! Thank you 🙂 As I said before, it’s a great relief to find others who enjoyed the book as much as I did. And if you mean that you’ve read the second book as well, and loved that too, then it looks like I’m in for a treat.

      Enjoy Pawn in Frankincense! Nothing else comes close to that book… 😉

  3. Helen says:

    This sounds wonderful and I’m very impressed that it got five stars from you! I’ve heard of Manda Scott’s books but I think I made the same assumption about them as you and have never considered reading them. It sounds as though I definitely need to try this one! By the way, I love your new blog. 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thank you Helen! It’s taking a bit of time to get it all straight, and make sure the links all work properly… but I’ll get there 😉

      It’s always dangerous to guess what someone else would like, but I think you’d enjoy this. There are King Hereafter elements too, alongside the Renault and Griffith parts I mentioned. I’ll keep an eye on your blog to see if you get round to it!

  4. elainethomp says:

    I will have to look at this one. (downloads sample)
    I wonder if you’d like a couple other early Britain books, one by Pauline Gedge before she turned to ancient Egyptian settings: THE EAGLE AND THE RAVEN. I liked it long ago, but never had my own copy and haven’t reread it in ages. I’m reimnded of it because it also deals with this period, with the main character Caradoc, not Boudica. it follows him into his capture and time in Roman hands.
    Patricia Finney, also wrote a couple early books of Roman Britain (more or less) with an Irish main character who is cursed by Maeve of Connaught and the Morrigan: A SHADOW OF GULLS and THE CROW GODDESS. Cuchulain appeared in at least one of them in exile, but again, I haven’t reread either in a long time. Finney’s good, though. The narrator is a harper exiled from Ireland to Britain and friendly with Romans. He sings the Aenead to some Romans at one point.
    And there’s always Rosemary Sutcliff.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Elaine! Welcome to the new blog.

      Yes, there’s always Rosemary Sutcliff and I think I have at least one of her other books tucked away somewhere on my Kindle, so I’m keen to see how that measures up to Sword at Sunset. Thanks for the suggestions of Pauline Gedge and Patricia Finney, neither of whom I’ve heard of. The Eagle and the Raven sounds particularly interesting…

  5. elainethomp says:

    Oh, I thought Finney was reasonably well known. She’s written two more or less straight Elizabethan novels: Unicorn’s Blood and Firedrake’s Eye, oh, and Amazon shows one more, Glorianna’s Torch. Very vivid characters and good plot. Several Dunnett readers I know are very fond of them. Also the Sir Robert Carey mysteries starting with A Famine of Horses (Carey was a real person, who held the positions and relatives shown). And some other things I haven’t read. The author is definitely worth a try. The Gedge I read and reread until it disappeared from the library. I never took to her Egyptian-set books, though.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Ah, I’ve heard of Firedrake’s Eye. It’s always a good recommendation to hear that Dunnett readers endorse something! I shall have to track her down then, and Gedge too. Thanks as ever, Elaine, for coming up with new recommendations for me. I am grateful, even if my bookshelf isn’t!!!

  6. Alex from Carlisle says:

    I’ve always avoided Manda Scott’s Boudicca because it has a reputation for being very ‘New Age’ and modern-day-six-celtic-nations themed. I enjoyed reading Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica history book though, especially for the Roman and British background. The only Boudicca fiction I’ve ever read has been the ‘A Year of Ravens’ anthology, which surpassed all my expectations.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Hello Alex, and thanks so much for the comment!

      Regarding the New Agey stuff, I have a pretty sensitive tosh-o-meter, but it wasn’t triggered at all by this book. I don’t think you can really avoid druids and so forth if you want to bring to life the religious and social context of this period. There are elements of Scott’s story that do cross the line into the faintly supernatural, such as the visions of the Dreamers, but for me it has never felt overdone or intrusive. Indeed, it often adds to the power of the story. Maybe I just haven’t got to the bit about the six-celtic-nations stuff, or perhaps I’m not sensitive to that kind of theme, but I haven’t noticed this at all… beyond, that is, the links that we know were historically present between tribes on the British mainland and those in Ireland etc, and the connections that would naturally come from sharing the same beliefs and religious structures.

      If you can bear it, I would strongly advise giving the first book a go just to taste it for yourself. I avoided this series for a long time because I’d jumped to conclusions about what it was going to be like and I was humbled by how wrong I was, and how powerful it was.

      Thanks for the recommendations of the other books! Collingridge sounds very good and I may well look this out in the future. Much appreciated!

  7. Heloise Merlin says:

    I finally read this, and have to say I am very impressed. It’s not quite on par with Dunnett or Renault which I think is mainly due to the narrative voice – where Dunnet and Renault stay close to their protagonists and their time, with Scott there seems to be some distance, an implied narrator with a distinctly modern viewpoint looking back on the events of yore. This – again, speculating here – is probably due to her trying to juggle both the Briton and the Roman perspective, and to prevent her novel from falling apart she needed an equidistant outside perspective – I can see the structural necessity, but it does seem to harm immersion.

    Even so, I thought this was a splendid novel, for all the reasons you pointed out in your review. Mostly, I loved the writing – “vivid” is an often-used (by me as well) cliché but I can’t think of a better word to describe the way Manda Scott brings this far-away peroid to intense, sensual life.

    And while the Romans are clearly the villains here, the picture the novel paints is not all black and white – not everything about the British tribes (even those that did not turn traitor) is nice and shiny, and the Romans are not painted as the root of all evil. In fact, although one needs to read a bit between the lines to realize it, I think Manda Scott did an excellent job to show that it are two disparate world-views clashing here, each of which has its own merit – while the Romans, from the Britons’ perspective, may be lacking in honour, they are masters of efficiency and getting things done, something the tribes clearly are struggling with.

    I did not find it very “New Agey” either – yet. From your reviews of later volumes that assessment may change, but after enjoying Dreaming the Eagle as much as I did I’m definitely going to continue reading the series. Thank you for the recommendation! 🙂

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Oh, I’m so happy you liked it! I felt more immersed in the viewpoint than you did, but I’m glad – and relieved – to see that it worked its magic on you too. Of course that dual point of view, both British and Roman, becomes an important way for us to follow our two main characters through their lives. (You won’t have encountered Valerius at his tormented best yet, so I’ll wait to ask what you thought of him until you read the next book…) 😀

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