Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear: Manda Scott

★★★★

Boudica: Book IV

I’ve been saving the fourth and final Boudica novel until the Christmas holidays, because the epic sweep of these books demands a bit of focus. Besides, I’ve grown deeply fond of Scott’s characters, who blend courage and nobility with a profound self-knowledge, and I wanted to savour the conclusion properly. I’ve followed their stories across four books and three decades, but all things must end.

The brutal conclusion of the third book has left Breaca lingering near death, flogged and beaten, and her eight-year-old daughter Graine traumatised by her rape at the hands of Roman legionaries. They are damaged both in body and mind, with Breaca having lost her shimmering insight as a leader, and Graine finding herself suddenly shut off from her dreaming. Both of them must heal, and those who love them try to find the time to let them do so. Graine goes to Mona, where the dreamers can care for her, while Breaca tries to conceal her new frailty and to keep the hearts of her warriors strong. But she can’t hide her wounded soul from those closest to her.

If Breaca cannot lead, then others will have to take her place. As she struggles to reconnect with her past and her duties, her son Cunomar and her brother Valerius try to lead as best they can. But Cunomar is young, impetuous and sworn to the cult of the she-bear. Valerius, despite his power as a dreamer and his fierce, tactical brilliance as a warrior, is overshadowed by his vicious deeds during his during his time in the Roman army. Yet there is no time for rivalries. As the Roman governor and his legions close on the sacred island of Mona, Valerius sees a chance to attack the half-defended Roman towns of the south-east. Fire, sickness and slaughter will all be necessary before Camulodunum, Verulanium and Lugdunum will fall. But everyone knows that these skirmishes and ambushes will resolve nothing. If Rome is to be challenged, it must be in open battle, pitting all the power of the tribes against the eagles.

Scott writes battles wonderfully, but she is not a battle-writer per se. This book, for all its martial glamour, is a tale of how people cope in extremis, when personal cares must be set aside for the greater good. There are evocative twists of language: ‘soul-friend’; ‘heart-gift’, which have the cadences of oral storytelling and give the story a sheen of bronze. It’s a tale of healing, in so many ways. The divisions between the native tribes must be bridged to make a force capable of meeting Rome in the field; Breaca and Graine must try to heal their spirits so that they can rise above their brutalisation; and Valerius must try to join the two viciously divided parts of his own heart. Valerius – tormented, bitter, passionate and lonely – has always been my favourite and, going into this book, I desperately hoped there might be a way for him to find peace within himself and also in his estranged relationship with Corvus.

I must confess that the later books of this series have never quite matched the astonishing power of the first and that, in the last couple of volumes, the supernatural elements have been a tiny bit too powerful for my taste. I love stories in which we are shown that people believe deeply in a certain faith system, but it takes away some of the human power once we sense that the author also believes in this supernatural quality. Some things happen in this book which couldn’t have happened without the involvement of spirits or gods or ancestors, call them what you will, and for me that always blunts the thrill of a story about the clash of wits and wills. I always want to feel that one could, if one tried, rationalise the events of a story, even if our characters see them different.

However, this isn’t to take away from the huge impact that Breaca’s story has had on me and I do very highly recommend the series. Scott is a tremendous writer and I’m keen to seek out her other Roman novels. If anyone is interested in the period of Roman rule in Britain, or if a novel like An Accidental King leaves you curious to explore the Boudica story from the point of view of the native tribes, this is the place to start. (I was interested to see that, in An Accidental King, it’s the pro-Roman British forces who demolish Vespasian’s bridge across the Thames at Lugdunum; here, it’s Valerius and his men.) Scott effortlessly conjures up the rhythms of ancient British life, and her writing has a haunting, elegiac, nobly spine-prickling quality: the literary equivalent of a carnyx echoing far off in the mist. I already want to read the series again, knowing how things work out, to see if I missed some of the threads she laid in the first two books.

Buy the book

Last in this series – Dreaming the Hound

A sad paucity of alternative covers here. Indeed, we have only two other options.

6 thoughts on “Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear: Manda Scott

  1. Heloise Merlin says:

    I have to admit that I’m not terribly interested in the period of Roman rule in Britain, and I have the same misgivings about an author trying to sell me the supernatural as a thing even outside of the reality of their novels – but based on your reviews of those books I have become quite interested in those, and am seriously considering giving them a try before too long. I’m looking forward to what you’ll think of her Rome novels. It seems she is writing mystery novels, too, and I’m curious about those as well, but I assume there is not much chance of you reading any of those? 😉

    • The Idle Woman says:

      How did I not reply to this before?! Sorry, Heloise! Honestly, these are worth a read because they do so much to evoke the cultural world of pre-Roman Britain (and the series is really about that, not about Roman Britain per se). Plus, Valerius is the complete archetype of a doomed hero and you know how wonderful those are… 😉

      No, I probably won’t read the mysteries, but I’m definitely going to read the Rome novels. I have a couple of other battle-heavy historical novels to tackle first (Simon Scarrow about a Roman legion and two Conn Iggulden novels, one about Julius Caesar and the other about Genghis Khan). But I certainly won’t be able to keep away from Manda Scott for long!

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    Somewhat to my own surprise, I actually did end up reading all four volumes fairly quickly, and am very glad I did – I doubt that would have happened without your reviews, so thank you very much for that. 🙂

    While the fourth volume continues as historical Fantasy, I did not find it quite as obtrosuive as in the last one (even though this time there is an advertisement for the author’s dreaming seminars in the ebook version, too), but I suspect that is more due to a shift in my expectancy towards Dreaming the Serpent Spear than the novel itself. And I can’t help the feeling that thematic conistency was becoming a tad sloppy, too – the novel makes a lot of Breaca having to chose between the survival of the land (or was it tribes? my memory seems to be getting worse by the day)or of her lineage; but in fact when the moment of decision comes a survival of the land is not really an option anymore anyway, because the battle against the Romans is already lost and all that remains is to at least salvage something from the general debacle.

    Alsol, I still am not quite clear how Breaca and her warriors managed to be defeated even with their vastly superior numbers – the way it is told, with the Romans throwing wave after wave of fresh forces into the battle you’d think it was them who had several time the soldiers the Britons had, and not the other way round. I do have a nagging suspicion that the Britons just bungled the attack due to bad strategy but that this is somthing that Scott within the framework of her novels can’t have happening as it would have been inconsistent with everything that went before and so she is forced to fiddle it. She’s certainly in famous company with that, Tolstoi did something very similar in War and Peace, but I still found it somewhat grating.

    So,in summing up, I thought the second half of the series did not quite live up to the first half, but just like you I think the series as a whole is well worth reading. I might even give Manda Scott’s mystery novels a try some day. 😉

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