Book review: A Year of Ravens

I need to break from our Viking adventures for a few moments to share some thoughts on an excellent book! Before the Normans conquered, before the Vikings invaded, before the legends of Arthur, before someone invited Saxons to settle, the island of Britannia was already home to numerous separate native Celtic tribes that together would be knows as the Britons. These tribes were the original kingdoms of the island and just as any other kingdoms would, they fought with each other for domination and control of the land… until one outside force arrived and began to take control. In AD 43 the Roman Empire began its conquest of the island, establishing a province they called Britannia, which came to encompass the parts of the island south of Caledonia (roughly Scotland).  This Roman invasion and domination would last until some time in the 5th century. 

The Celtic tribes were varied in their reactions and acceptances of the Roman conquest. The Roman conquest was a gradual one that actually could be seen as a somewhat peaceful and benefitial  alliance between the tribes and the Roman Empire. In common with other regions on the edge of the empire, Britain had enjoyed diplomatic and trading links with the Romans in the century since Julius Caesar‘s expeditions in 55 and 54 BC, and Roman economic and cultural influence was a significant part of the British late pre-Roman Iron Age, especially in the south.

Between 55 BC and the 40s AD, the status quo of tribute, hostages, and client states without direct military occupation, begun by Caesar’s invasions of Britain, largely remained intact. Augustus prepared invasions in 34 BC, 27 BC and 25 BC. The first and third were called off due to revolts elsewhere in the empire, the second because the Britons seemed ready to come to terms. According to Augustus’s Res Gestae, two British kings, Dubnovellaunus and Tincomarus, fled to Rome as suppliants during his reign, and Strabo‘s Geography, written during this period, says that Britain paid more in customs and duties than could be raised by taxation if the island were conquered. 

During this early time of Roman involvement, many of the tribes were fighting between themselves and in some cases they sought the assistance and intervention of Rome to strengthen their sides. By the 40s AD, the political situation within Britain was apparently in ferment. The Catuvellauni had displaced the Trinovantes as the most powerful kingdom in south-eastern Britain, taking over the former Trinovantian capital of Camulodunum (Colchester), and were pressing their neighbours the Atrebates, ruled by the descendants of Julius Caesar’s former ally Commius.  In fact, when Claudius eventually mounted his invasion and takeover, it’s intent was to force a reinstatement of client King Verica, who was an exiled king of the Atrebates.

England_Celtic_tribes_-_South

map showing locations of Celtic tribes in southern part of Britain during Roman occupation.

Map_of_the_Territory_of_the_Brigantes.svg

Map showing the Brigantes tribe region during Roman occupation

 

I am only sharing this very basic pre-history of the Roman involvement to point out that during the lengthy process of their conquest, there were tribes that willingly chose to ally themselves with Rome, either for economic benefit, political advantage or in some cases, perhaps they saw a larger picture and felt that resistance was not in their best interests.  Because the tribes looked at themselves as separate entities rather than a unified force against one opposing force, they were unable to come together in the beginning stages to prevent a take over that many of of them did not see coming in the first place.  In a way it directly relates to future invasions of their land by the Saxons and then by the Vikings. It could be said that Rome’s occupation of the island destroyed their unity and ability to fight as a that one united force… but, realistically it might better be said that their unity was not there in the first place and it allowed for a situation in which Rome could conquer them. Had they been able to come together from the beginnings of the rebellions, there are times when they could have defeated the Roman forces.  Boudicca’s rebellion was one of those times and events. 

Her rebellion was enough of a crisis to cause Emperor Nero at the time to seriously consider pulling all Roman troops and involvement out of Britain at this early time in their occupation. Unfortunately, despite earlier victories, her army made crucial mistakes that led to their final defeat. Her forces vastly outnumbered the Romans in the battle of Watling Street and had they chosen a different strategy that what they did, they should have been able to win that last battle. For what ever reasons, they chose to meet the Romans head on in a battle of open ground. Previous victories and successes by Briton forces and others against the Romans and each other were won not by head on battles but by more surprise attacks. It also did not help matters that the army brought with them their entire villages and placed them at the edges of the battle location thereby allowing for the slaughter of everyone, not just the army involved in the battle. 

 

With that bit of pre-history and thought in mind, we can move on to the main focus of this post! The book, A year of Ravens is an excellent historical fiction look at one event where the Britons could have managed that defeat and been successful at their attempt to drive the Romans out of their land. It looks at the event of Boudica’s rebellion from all perspectives- the Romans, the Client Kingdoms, the ones who were intent on rebellion against the massive strength of Rome, and from the standpoint of those who had little say in the event. 

The book is a unique collaborative project by seven authors with seven separate yet connected stories of the events leading up to the final battle and aftermath. It addresses the issues that I touched on in the pre-history discussion including reasons for a Client Ruler’s acceptance and alliance of Roman governance. It also gives us an understanding of various Roman perspectives. Not every Roman was stereotypical bad nor did they all agree with what was taking place. In that same line, not every Briton was good or a true believer in the rebellion. 

A year of Ravens

by Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn,Stephanie Dray, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney , Russell Whitfield, E. Knight

Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Celt . . . and these are their stories.

A calculating queen sees the sparks of revolt in a king’s death.

A neglected slave girl seizes her own courage as Boudica calls for war.

An idealistic tribune finds manhood in a brutal baptism of blood and slaughter.

A conflicted warrior hovers between loyalty to tribe and loyalty to Rome.

A death-haunted Druid challenges the gods themselves to ensure victory for his people.

An old champion struggles for everlasting glory in the final battle against the legions.

A fiery princess fights to salvage the pieces of her mother’s dream as the ravens circle.

A novel in seven parts, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Celts who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?

These separate stories come together so well to tell a larger story of Briton and of Rome, of  mistakes on both sides that brought about the rebellion. In telling their separate stories of one particular point in time and one event that had such an impact on the history of Britain, these seven authors have created a vivid and realistic picture to show us all of the sides. It is grim, harsh and gritty, and fault is laid on all of those sides for the decisions and actions that led to the battles of Boudica. Yet, despite all of the fault and harsh reality, there is an underlying message of  understanding, forgiveness and hope amid such a dark future that lies ahead for so many. Boudicca’s rebellion has failed but her legend will live on to inspire others in the future. 

One of the most interesting and compelling stories for me was not that of Boudicca herself, but of another Queen for the most part forgotten in history. The story of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes in northern Britain at the time. Cartimandua or Cartismandua (reigned c. ad 43 – c. 69) was a 1st-century queen of the Brigantes, a Celtic people living in what is now northern England. She came to power around the time of the Roman conquest of Britain, and formed a large tribal agglomeration that became loyal to Rome. Our only knowledge of her is through the Roman historian Tacitus, though she appears to have been widely influential in early Roman Britain.

Perhaps we know little about her because her story is one of loyalty to Rome. Author Stephanie Dray’s interpretation of this little known Queen provided such a detailed look at this woman who would have been considered a traitor to the Briton’s cause. It presented an understanding of some of those reasons why a ruler would choose alliance and loyalty to Rome to ensure the future of their people- even if the people did not appreciate it, resented the decision and would choose to spit on said ruler’s grave… As Cartimandua points out in this story, “At least my people will be left alive to spit upon my grave!”  She may have been hated by her people but she was able to look beyond that hatred and be at peace with the decisions she made in order to buy her people time and life in an uncertain future.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartimandua

Another of the stories that caught me up was the story of Duro the Iceni warrior and Valeria the Roman wife turned slave. Both of these characters were fictional but came truly alive and believable through Kate Quinn’s story telling. This is the story of an aging battle hardened and weary warrior who is Boudicca’s most ardent supporter and leader of her army- second only to her and the council… Duro is the old warrior set in his ways and beliefs, struggling with changes that he can not accept. Valeria at first appears as the stereotypical Roman wife also set in her Roman ways and beliefs. On the surface their relationship is one of detest for each other and the other’s ways. They are on opposite sides in every way possible but underneath all of the opposition and hatred, there is a level of understanding between them. They both know that should the other side win, their own personal life and future will cease or change forever. Duro continues to look to the past he remembers before the Romans but Valeria reminds him that it is wishful thinking and that past will never be again. Valeria reaches within herself to find a person, a warrior that she never knew existed… she will fight for life and survival no matter what, and she can appreciate that Duro has taught her that. Valeria is young enough and strong enough to change her ways of thinking in some ways and to understand that her world has changed. She is on the verge of some new life while Duro is at the end of his and know it. He can not change as his world is changing but Valeria gives him the one thing that matters most to him in the end… a renewed relationship with a son that he spent years pushing away. This story leaves an open ending with Valeria embarking on a new journey, a renewed life forever changed by her experience and her relationship with Duro.  This is about as close to a romance as any of the stories get and it is one that left me wondering about the what ifs… and the future for Valeria on her return to husband. My personal what if was this… what if Boudicca’s army had listened to advice and won the battle? Where would that have left Duro and Valeria?  I could actually see some of that version that Duro dreamed of!

All of the stories were excellent. I have only chosen to highlight the two that touched me the most!

This overall story is balanced with more than enough historical research to enrich the fiction that is woven around the often limited facts. I found myself completely swept up in the individual stories and not wanting them to end. I was left with an overwhelming appreciation of the writing and the history, an almost obsessive need to know more about all of the people whether real or fictional and the events that were taking place during this time. While it began as an effort by the various authors to tell Boudicca’s story, what it did was tell the story of so many others involved in the history taking place during her life time. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “Book review: A Year of Ravens

  1. There was a very interesting article in National Geographic on the Celts, oh about 10 years ago. It was called Celts: History’s Beautiful Losers. The Striking thing to me was the Celts, at first attacked the Etruscans, but then formed an alliance with the Etruscans. They almost beat the Romans, but not quite. There were the Seven rulers of the Etruscan city states. I never thought about it but the shoes and the clothes do look a lot like the Celt’s clothes and shoes. The pin they used to pin their clothes looks very similar. http://ancient-rome.com/ppl_f.htm So the Romans at first conquered all their Italic neighbors, and then they went after the Celts who had taken over the Po Valley. The thing about that article I remember the most was that the Romans left behind their laws and customs . The food, music, the styles, the art, and really the soul was captured by the Celts and the Etruscans. They shared a lot of similarities maybe because they were neighbors for so long. The few things they didn’t share, the WEIRD Etruscan language..and the Etruscans Anatolian DNA, and the TOTALLY weird and different gods of the Etruscan.

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  2. I ran across this on Goodreads and was delighted to see such a thoughtful in-depth review! (I’ve posted it to the team author page on Facebook, so the rest of the authors can see it, too.) Delighted that Duro and Valeria so sparked your imagination – I have to admit that while writing their tale, I too did a certain amount of “What if”. Their story, had it gone on post-Boudica-victory, could have been a very interesting one.

    Thanks again for reading!

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed my thoughts on the book and the story of Duro and Valeria! I admit that I was a little sad when she decided to go back to her husband and try to work things out.

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      • I think that had Duro and Valeria been born to the same side – either side – they’d have been a pair for the ages. Had he been Roman, he’d have made a ferocious legionary commander and she’d have had the husband with drive and ambition to match her own, rather than her mild-mannered accountant. And had she been born Iceni, she’d have been raised in a culture that nourished her fighting side instead of shuttling her into support-roles, and she’d have been a warrior Duro would have been proud of. But, opposite sides it was, and so ne’er the twain shall meet. Except in a certain grudging empathy. (Though I do think if Boudica had won, Valeria would have fought her way to a pretty decent life among the Iceni. She wasn’t the type to stay in a situation she hated; she’d remake the situation to her own advantage. Probably would have ended up mother to the best warrior in the tribe, and wresting respect from everyone whether they liked it or not!)

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      • That was my thought reading it and letting the what if take over for a few moments, much like Duro did towards his end.Even though they were opposite sides, even though she was a slave- and they would neither of them ever admit outwardly or willingly that they felt anything for each other… if Boudica had won, yes- I do think Valeria would have made a good life for herself with the Iceni!

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  3. If I had any writing talent, I would write a book on what if the Celts won against the Romans in the very beginning. They would not have been pushed up into the Celtic “fringe”. They are still in Spain as the celt-iberians. The original population just stayed in place, but I guess the leadership went to the fringes. What if that never happened? There would have been no Octavian. He’s the one that turned Rome from a city of bricks to a city of marble and established the Pax Romana which spread across the Mediterranean. That allowed the Spread of the Christian religion. In fact the gospels start at the Pax Romana. Would everyone have Celtic gods now? They had no written words…

    What would the American government look like? That was all based on Roman law.

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    • The thing is even if they had won their battle against Rome, they would have encountered them or other invaders or traders at some later time and still been influenced by those other cultures. The question is more of whether they could have retained the united strength against such a force as Rome had become. In order to progress as a people, they needed to be willing to take what they learned from Roman and use to their benefit. Many of the tribes, just like many Romans, did not want to move forward or change even if the changes would benefit them as whole.

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      • Watch this, my kid was playing this a few years ago. The Tribes of the Po valley are the Celts. They were allies with Hannibal. The other superpower of the Mediterranean was Carthage. Hannibal almost beat them too. So maybe the Celts and Carthage would have had an empire, and Rome would have been the beautiful loser. Interesting to think about… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5v6hPr6L7U

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