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…
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.