In 79 AD, an old man looks back over his life and prepares to write his memoirs for his granddaughter. He is Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, born and bred in the British southlands of the Regenses. Trained as a priest, he was then crowned an unwilling king, first of his own tribe and then as Great King of all the Britons, with the weight of the emperor’s authority behind him. As he remembers his experiences across three decades – from a visit to Rome with the then-general Vespasian, to the horror and fire of Boudica’s revolt – Cogidubnus meditates on the tightrope he has had to walk throughout his life: defending his people, while remaining loyal to a vast and unpredictable foreign power.
In theory, I should have enjoyed this book immensely. I’m fond of novels about the Roman period and, thanks to Manda Scott, I’m always interested to hear about Boudica. There’s a list of glowing reviews for An Accidental King on Amazon and Goodreads, where people are throwing around five stars like they’re going out of fashion, so I don’t really understand why I found it so hard to get my head round it. I’m sorry to say that I found the structure confusing (perhaps exacerbated by using a Kindle), because Patton uses flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, so that there are usually two stories going on concurrently. Characters and events are discussed by others before we’ve met or seen them, and there’s such a bombardment of names that I found myself rapidly sinking without the aid of an index (again, perhaps a problem with having an ebook). Maybe the novel simply assumed a level of knowledge that I didn’t have. This isn’t a book for a novice in the period.
Cogidubnus himself isn’t a bad sort. He’s a decent, honest fellow who’s been forced to take on worldly concerns through no will of his own, and he’s devoted his life to healing the breaches between different British tribes, and trying to reconcile them to Roman rule. Practising as he preaches, he inhabits a splendid Roman-style palace where, at the urging of the new governor Agricola, he tells tales of the country’s unsettled past – and particularly that moment when one red-haired woman almost brought down the entire structure of Roman domination. Sadly Patton’s Boudica doesn’t live up to Scott’s. In Patton, we have little sense of Boudica’s personal charisma, energy and determination; nor do we see her as a strategist. She’s a wronged woman, certainly, as a result of her rape and the despoiling of her late husband’s estate, but the impetus behind the rebellion doesn’t seem to be hers. Instead Patton places the power in the hands of her priest-adviser Maticos, an unscrupulous druid who seeks to falsify omens and who slithers around in the shadows of British tribal relations.
Where I did enjoy the book was in its depiction of the positive side of Romano-British relations. All too often we hear about this period through the eyes of the noble downtrodden tribes, with the Romans as hated occupiers. It’s refreshing to see this world through Cogidubnus’ eyes and to realise that, not only did Britain have trade with the rest of the Roman world, but that some Britons did go to Rome, either to study or as honoured guests. It also does an excellent job of showing the horrific, gritty, painful reality of Boudica’s attacks. I haven’t yet reached this stage of the story in Scott’s novels, but Patton conjures up a ghastly image of London, blood-soaked and ravaged by the rebels, so littered with corpses that, even years later, people won’t return there for the unburied ghosts.
I suppose that sometimes we just don’t click with books, and this was one that I couldn’t love. Sprawling and thick with detail, it’ll probably appeal much more to those with a thorough preexisting knowledge of the period – and perhaps the hard copy includes family trees, lists of names and so forth, which are easier to reference than trying to flick through an ebook. Patton obviously knows his stuff intimately, but although I can see the book’s virtues, I personally found it a bit of a slog. However I’m very keen to hear from those who’ve read it and adored it, because I always like people to balance out my views.
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review