The Singing Sword (1993): Jack Whyte


A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book 2

When we last encountered Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, the two men had founded a colony in south-west Britain, hoping to preserve Roman values and public order even after the Empire inevitably withdraws from the island. This second book in the series shows us the teething struggles of the infant colony, as Saxon raids multiply along the coast and, far across the sea, the Roman empire begins to tear itself apart. While I was glad to be reunited with our two doughty protagonists, of whom I grew rather fond in the first book, I felt that this sequel failed to live up to its eventful predecessor. Pacing becomes a serious issue here, and some factors which only niggled faintly in the first volume became problematic in The Singing Sword. And yet there’s still the pleasure of watching various Arthurian motifs (or characters) coming into being. In short, a curate’s egg – and hopefully only a temporary misstep.

The Colony has grown in strength and size since we last saw it at the end of The Skystone, but its success brings new problems. A close-knit band of friends don’t need to be governed: they tend to think alike, and have the same morals. But the Colony has now absorbed craftsmen and workers from many different places and, as the world beyond their boundaries starts to fall into chaos, even some of the colonists begin to start savour the prospect of a life without rules. Initially, Varrus and Britannicus let it happen. It isn’t the Roman way to interfere in families, which is what they’d have to do in order to stamp out the drunkenness and licentiousness that rumour claims is rising up among their tenants. But soon, two shocking events bring home the true horror of what can grow when morality is unchecked. With one family brutalised and another slaughtered, Varrus and Britannicus accept their duty to create a governing body for the colony – a kind of Senate, in which no man will rule, and all representatives will have a say.

Much of the book focuses on the efforts to constitute a new kind of society, since the old rules clearly no longer apply. Varrus and Britannicus have already started to fortify an old hill fort up above their villa but, as the surrounding country grows more dangerous, that fort becomes ever more necessary. It even acquires a name: Camulod, named in honour of Britannicus’ birthplace, Camulodunum. And the danger no longer comes only from the Saxons. While some members of the Roman elite are sympathetic to the idea of the Colony, it’s technically treasonous to be developing a private army – even if it is run along Roman lines. And no one is more fiercely opposed to the idea of the Colony than a certain Claudius Seneca, presumed dead, who makes a shocking return to the story, with the aim of finally taking his revenge on Varrus, Britannicus and everything they stand for. Other familiar faces return too: Alaric, the gentle churchman; Plautus, the foul-mouthed former centurion; and Picus, Britannicus’ cherished soldier son.

So there is drama – the effort to hold back the Saxons, and the need to tackle and diffuse (as far as possible) the threat from Seneca. There are also increasing numbers of references to the Arthurian story – a round council table; Varrus’ efforts to forge a sword from the skystone metal, which has so far been stored in the form of a statue nicknamed ‘the Lady of the Lake’; and the birth of two characters who are central to the Arthur myth. Despite all this, though, there are two major issues with the book. The first is pacing. This novel covers around fifteen years, with events heavily weighted towards the beginning and end of that time – which means there are some chapters in the middle where we suddenly find that two or more years have passed at a leap. It means that the beginning and end feel much too busy, while the middle of the book is as loose as a piece of overused elastic; and that’s a shame. Furthermore – perhaps because so much of the book is about creating a kind of constitution for the Colony – there are a lot of scenes where serious men stand around and orate at one another, or explain things, which can work now and again, but feels rather overused as a narrative device here.

Second issue: the book’s attitudes to women and sex, which are intertwined. I enjoyed the first book so much that I laughed off the rather painful sex scenes, but it’s more difficult to do that here. The Singing Sword begins with an extensive account of how the wife of one of Varrus’ friends attempts to seduce him. Far from taking responsibility by sending her packing, warning her husband, or explaining that he’s very happily married and not interested, Varrus becomes a willing – even encouraging – victim and plunges deep into emotional affair territory. The woman is eventually slaughtered horribly by her traumatised husband for her general debauchery (but it’s OK because no one finds out about Varrus’ complicity). And does anything happen to Varrus? Nope. A few twinges of conscience, but it’s OK because he has his wife to soothe his worried brow. Although we’re told that Luceiia is a very busy woman, her scenes are disproportionately weighted towards those in which she and Varrus have overly-detailed sex yet again. And, with apologies to Whyte, sex scenes aren’t his forte. Ambushes, battles, yes. Sex, no. This book made me realise, with some annoyance, that so far the women (Phoebe, Luceiia, Cylla) in this series have existed predominantly to show Varrus how sexually irresistible he is, despite the fact he’s an elderly greybeard with a limp by this point. Enid is the exception so far, and I hope that we get more appealing forceful Celtic ladies in later books.

Definitely a mixed bag, here. I’m glad to have followed the progress of the Colony and I will be continuing with the series – thought I don’t yet have the next book – but I hope this will turn out to be merely a dropped stitch in the pattern. Fingers crossed that a taut narrative will return in the third volume, because with the close of The Singing Sword much has changed, and we really are about to move on into a brave new world.

Buy the book

Last in the series – The Skystone

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