The Skystone: Jack Whyte

★★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book I

Two men meet in the African desert. One is Caius Britannicus, a brilliant Roman general who has been taken captive by one of the desert tribes. The other, his rescuer, is Publius Varrus, a centurion finally heading home to a new posting in his native country. Both men are Britons; both, by a quirk of Fate, are destined to head over the seas together to take up new positions in the same legion. And that same Fate has greater things in store, because Jack Whyte’s gripping historical novel isn’t just a story of Roman Britain, giving us a rare fictional glimpse of that cataclysmic moment in the late 4th century when the legions deserted the islands for good. It’s also the first in an epic series of novels that (I presume) will follow the families of Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus down the ages, at least as far as their mutual great-grandson, who will become the King Arthur of legend. So far, the tale has been utterly absorbing, rationalising the legends into a completely plausible tale of honour, nobility and brotherhood in the dying days of the Roman Empire, when one man’s dream becomes the foundation of a new age.

The first part of the book jumps around slightly, introducing us to our two main characters. This is unfamiliar historical-fictional territory: these are the days of Theodosius, Valens and Valentinian, emperors in a period when the Roman Empire had overstretched itself and become too cumbersome and too complacent. In Britain, the native tribes have been growing stronger and, when they finally swarm across the Emperor Hadrian’s great wall, and come down into the soft Roman south, there are few legions strong enough to stand against them. Caius Britannicus’s army is one of the few to survive, thanks to its general’s reputation for being an old-fashioned swine without an ounce of compassion – but his traditional values mean that his men are trained well enough to fight their retreat without being overwhelmed. Their triumphant arrival in safe Roman territory, however, is spoiled by an encounter with the Legate Seneca, a member of an old, proud and inordinately wealthy Roman family; and, rather inconveniently, a sworn enemy of Caius Britannicus and (in days to come) also of Publius Varrus.

But the story really begins when Varrus is invalided out of the army and decides to return home to his grandfather’s smithy in Colchester. Here, he rebuilds old friendships and refreshes his skills, but his grandfather has left him more than a home and a livelihood. He has also hidden away proofs of a remarkable experiment, in which he forged a uniquely brilliant sword from the metal of a stone that fell from the sky. That sword is now in the possession of Emperor Theodosius, although Varrus is stunned to discover a dagger forged from the same metal, left for him as a gift. He dreams of finding more skystones, but how can a man be expected to find something which he has never seen for himself? This will become an obsession for Varrus, stretching across the years to the day when he stands on a hillside in the Mendips, in an area that local people say used to be the haunt of dragons, and finally realises that his dream might become reality.

This is a story about dreams. Varrus dreams of skystones; Caius Britannicus dreams of honour and doing the ‘right’ thing – right as he understands it, not as the unforgiving Roman bureaucracy insists. A smart man, Caius knows that the Roman Empire is failing and, when it does, he is determined to do everything in his power to preserve his native country. Thoughtfully and carefully, he begins to develop the idea of a colony near his villa not far from Aquae Sulis: a colony which will be self-sufficient and defensible, and which will preserve Roman values in the midst of the chaos that he knows will descend on them. It’s a dream that will only come about if he can find men willing to stand with him against the onslaught of the night. Indeed, the latter part of the book reminded me very powerfully of Francis Brett Young’s poem Hic Jacet Arthurus, Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus, which I also quoted in my post on Sword at Sunset (The Skystone also reminded me of that, because Whyte and Sutcliff both create powerful historical fiction out of legends – though Sutcliff encompasses the whole Arthurian story in one volume):

What remains? … This. That when Rome fell … certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood
And charged into the storm’s black heart.

Glorious stuff. Whyte takes things slowly: we spend this book getting to know our characters and watching as they form the relationships that will take them forward – relationships of friendship, love and, as I mentioned earlier, of hatred. I’m not sure what role the Senecas are going to play further down the line, but I’m willing to bet we haven’t seen the last of them. Speaking of ‘relationships of love’, I should note that the book’s sex scenes are a little bit ridiculous (I can elucidate further in the comments if you want) – but not distracting enough to warrant me docking a star. There’s too much good stuff here. I love to see how authors unravel the stuff of legend and explore ways in which it might actually have come about (that’s why I love Mary Renault’s Theseus novels so much). Here Whyte comes up with cunning ways to explain the Pendragon name; the Lady of the Lake; (perhaps?) the foundation of Camelot; and, no doubt, Excalibur. There was also a sneaky hint at where the name Sir Kay might come from. But everything is handled very subtly. This is a book that can be read and enjoyed without any suspicion that it has anything to do with King Arthur. It is, first and foremost, a story of the end of Roman dominance in Britain; the way that men from very different backgrounds can learn to coexist; and meteorites. But Whyte is also setting it up as the first part of something much bigger and grander.

I can’t wait to find out where it goes next. I’m writing this from my hotel room in New York, where I’m currently on business, and I plan to head down to the Strand Bookstore tomorrow afternoon to lay my hands on the second book in the series, which I know they have in stock. Very excited. Perhaps not as immediately, epically moving as Sword at Sunset, but it’s a different beast: it’s a lot slower-paced and there’s surely a great deal of potential for mad, heart-rending nobility and sacrifice further down the line. More soon!

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5 thoughts on “The Skystone: Jack Whyte

  1. Tom BurkeTom Burke says:

    My big problem with this sort of book – and I suppose I’d have to include the Sutcliffe novels as well, as much as I enjoyed them at the time – is that this isn’t what happened. There was no onslaught from the north, there was no Anglo-Saxon invasion, it’s even possible that the legions weren’t withdrawn in 410 AD – that famous document might refer to somewhere else entirely. Roman Britain just collapsed slowly, over 50 years or more – it just got too expensive to maintain it. The western empire largely fell because it lost its tax base, and in a time of budget cuts the expenses of running Britannia couldn’t be met. The first few chapters of Robin Fleming’s ‘Britain after Rome’ tell the story, and they’re very evocative.

    I mush prefer GG Kay’s novels: set in a world quite like our own, but just different enough for us to accept that it’s not our world or our history he’s fictionalising. The Sarantium books remain among my favourites.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      As you’ll know from the rest of my blog, Guy Gavriel Kay can do very little wrong as far as I’m concerned (but I still hold him to account sometimes!). Sarantium is gorgeous, you’re right. I’m well overdue for a reread, now I come to think of it.

      As for the historical accuracy or not of these books, I’m relieved to say this is a period I know virtually nothing about so – thank God – I’m saved from the sense of utter fury that I get when reading 90% of novels about Renaissance Italy. I can just enjoy the books instead. To give Whyte credit, he does include an author’s note and in such cases I generally give authors the benefit of the doubt – but their ‘truth’ will depend on the state of academic research at their time of writing. Of course, such research is changing massively all the time so I suspect that may also be an issue.

      Ultimately though, given that Sutcliff and Whyte are rationalising a story which involves wizards, women who live in lakes, questing beasts and sorceresses, I’m willing to let them get away with quite a lot. But I will be interested to look up Fleming’s book in due course, to find out more about what ‘really’ happened. Thanks for flagging it!

      • Tom Burke says:

        Thanks for the response.

        I ought to mention that ‘Britain after Rome’ is non-fiction, of course. It’s nearly 10 years old now, and is a constituent volume of the Penguin History of Britain. Robin Fleming is an American academic, and she bases a lot of her conclusions on archaeological evidence as well as documents.

        Most of the book covering the 7th to 11th centuries is pretty familiar: the patchwork of early kingdoms, Briton and ‘Saxon’; the dominance of, in turn, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex; the Vikings; and the slow steady building of the two larger kingdoms, England and Scotland. But it’s the early chapters covering the late 4th, 5th and into the 6th centuries that I found the most fascinating. Based on the evidence she paints a picture of a society that seems to have simply closed down; in the west people returned to the hill forts, while the east became very sparsely populated. Town were abandoned by the early 5th century. But slowly people came, almost individual by individual, and settled in the spaces between those already there and set about staying alive.

        Her portrayal of the end of Roman Britain is especially poignant. For example, the iron industry collapsed, and among the artefacts no longer available were nails. As a result from the 370s onwards, there were no more hobnail boots or nails for coffins, so “the British slipped in the mud and buried the people they loved directly in the cold, hard ground”. If that’s not evocative I don’t know what is.

      • The Idle Woman says:

        It sounds really good – and I didn’t imagine for a minute that it was fiction, don’t worry! I will always kick myself that I didn’t take the Anglo-Saxon module in my history degree, which might have given me a better understanding of this period. But this sounds like a good opportunity to brush up on a very underappreciated period. I’ll definitely look out for Fleming’s book!

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