Boudica: Book II
Naturally it didn’t take long for me to plunge into the second of Manda Scott’s Boudica books after my admiration for the first volume, Dreaming the Eagle. It is just as magisterial and sensitive as its predecessor, with an epic sweep that now opens out far beyond the tribes of Britannia. Rome is, both culturally and geographically, a more significant player here. Perhaps it lacks a little of the tightly-forged focus of that first book, but this is often the case with second instalments, which both open and close mid-action, as it were. But if that’s a flaw, it’s small and scarcely visible in the finely-crafted whole. Weaving between her two protagonists with elegance, and a fine feeling for the grey areas of the soul, Scott creates yet another gripping glimpse of a lost history.
The usual caveats apply here for a book in a series. I can’t say much about this volume without referring to the events of the first, so if you haven’t read Dreaming the Eagle and think you’d like to, I encourage you to come back to this when you’ve finished it. I’ll do my best to avoid major spoilers, but of course there’s only so far I can go in that.
We rejoin Breaca and her family four years after the Roman invasion of Britannia, when the slow creep of the legions has scoured the land around the south east and made a fortress of Cunobelin’s Dun, now rechristened Camulodunum (modern Colchester). Native resistance to the invaders is centred on the sacred isle of Mona in the west, where the dreamers and singers preserve the ancient ways of life. Here Breaca makes her stronghold. With faithful warriors around her, her husband Caradoc at her side and powerful dreamers led by her beloved Airmid, she has every reason to hope that they can drive the Romans back beyond the sea. Their courage and bravery is not in doubt. But that bravery is set against the lethal discipline of a well-trained force which, under the leadership of its new governor, Scapula, shows neither respect nor compassion for the conquered peoples beneath its heel.
Across the country in Camulodunum, the young cavalry officer Julius Valerius faces both outer and inner battles. On the field, he is the most feared and most recognisable of the Roman commanders, known for his vicious pied warhorse which is almost as ferocious a killer as its rider. Off the field, he struggles to find comfort and meaning in a half-life which began on the day he joined the Roman army, shunning his former name and memories and fighting desperately against the ghosts of his past, which threaten (often literally) to unman him. Damaged by self-loathing, Valerius lashes out both at those who love him and those he hates, and seeks solace in the embrace of a new god: the soldiers’ mystery cult of Mithras, killer of the bull. More than any other man of the legions, he knows the capabilities of the red-haired warrior who leads the tribes’ forces, and the golden-haired warrior who fights beside her. And, more than any other, he longs to meet that golden-haired man face to face, to avenge a lifetime’s conviction of betrayal. His wish will be granted, one day, but in a form he could never have imagined.
As Heloise has perceptively remarked in the past, my soul sings for doomed heroes. Now, not even the kindest heart could call Valerius a hero, but he is undoubtedly an antihero and a fine one at that. Damaged, tormented, finding comfort in killing and in wine, he nevertheless has a twisted sense of honour and I, for one, felt my heart crack for him. Systematically destroying his own chances of happiness, both in love and in his own self-esteem, Valerius is a one-man chariot crash happening in slow motion. For me, at least, he’s by far the most interesting character in the novels because of the different loyalties and affinities he has layered up within him, and Scott has done a great job of making him a plausible honourable bastard – brutal, but not sadistic; scornful of love, yet scarred by it; a man who has remade himself in a new image, yet is unable to shake off his old existence.
One area in which this novel differs from the previous one is that the otherworldly aspects are much stronger here. There is nothing that I would call magic. Rather, the boundaries between the worlds become more fluid and permeable than in most historical fiction and, as the dreamers believe they can converse with the spirits of the dead, so do we. Omens, ancient rites and ancestral power hold a strong sway over the intellectual and cultural world of Breaca’s Britain, but Scott errs on the right side of caution. The effect is ethereal and haunting, the convincing worldview of a people raised in mists and smoke and old tales around the fires. As ever, the world-building is extraordinary, whether we’re poised on a hilltop in ancient Wales or experiencing cramped apartment life in Imperial Rome – and Scott’s writing is equally strong in the ‘widescreen’ battle scenes and in the quiet moments, where a glance, a touch or the exchange of a dagger is laden with significance. Rich with honour, nobility, great battles and the trials of the soul – and a few moist eyes here and there – this book definitely lives up to the promise of its predecessor.
So please, join me and read on! I have the third book primed and ready to go, and I ordered the fourth and final novel this morning, but I won’t be reading either of them immediately. I want to eke out Boudica as far as possible. It feels, a little bit, like the experience of reading Lymond for the first time: a blend of almost strangled impatience to read everything immediately, and a desire to take it slow, so that every word and scene can be savoured.
Last in this series – Dreaming the Eagle
Next in this series – Dreaming the Hound
And here is the Cover Feature for this instalment, showing off some of the designs.