Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

I'd like to wish everyone all the best for the new year. Have a very happy, healthy 2008. Hope everyone has had a great Hogmanay! (raises glass of Irn-Bru)

And remember those targets I set for myself? Well, I... didn't meet them. :( Revisions with the plot ended up with two having to be pushed quite a bit back, and as for the others - turns out I didn't have enough time to write as I'd wanted, and when I did have some time, I was a procastinating bugger. 'Nuff said. Still, I got some edits and revisions done, and managed to work out some kinks in the plots of all my NiPs. So it's not all bad. :)

So my New Year's resolution is not to be a procastinating bugger.



Aye, right.

XD

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Dumb Britain

Hello, everyone! I thought I should break my radio silence, but I couldn't think of anything substantial to post. Hope everyone's recovering from Christmas! I've been amusing myself with my new DVDs and my obligatory Private Eye annual. This year, I also got a book of the entries from PE's Dumb Britain section - which reveals the silliest answers given on quiz shows up and down the country. Some of them might just be down to nerves; some are just plain dumb. Here's a selection of my favourites, hope they give you a laugh. Remember - these are all real.

Presenter: When the twins Romulus and Remus were abandoned, they were suckled by which four-legged animal?
Contestant: The minotaur.

Presenter: What G was the complex knot severed by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC?
Contestant: Granny.

Presenter: What type of weapon was a claymore? Was it (a) a mace, (b), a sword, or (c) a dagger?
Contestant: Well, I know it can't be a mace, as the police have only started using that.

Presenter: Complete this well-known saying: "Beauty is in the eye of the..."
Contestant: Tiger.

Presenter: In Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, who was king of the fairies?
Contestant: I'm not very good at history.

Presenter: Who wrote Treasure Island?
Contestant: Robinson Crusoe.

Presenter: What did Roger Bannister do in under four minutes in 1954?
Contestant: Orbit the earth?

Presenter: In which country are the ruins of the ancient city of Troy? Is it (a) Tunisia, (b) Italy or (c) Turkey?
Contestant: I think this is when all those years doing A-level Ancient History will start to pay off. (pause) Well it's not Turkey...

Presenter: King Robert I of Scotland was popularly known by what other name?
Contestant: Bob.

Presenter: Who said "Kiss me Hardy?"
Contestant: Was it his girlfriend?
Presenter: No, it was a man who said it.
Contestant: Was it Stan Laurel?

Presenter: Above the entrance to which place do the words "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" appear?
Contestant: A church?

Presenter: What travels at 300 million metres a second?
Contestant: A cheetah.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Just a quick word to everyone to wish you all a Merry Christmas/Sol Invictus/whatever you're celebrating. Hope you've had a good day! I know I have. Currently regretting eating so much Christmas dinner and cake, have watched the Doctor Who special, and now settling down for I, Claudius. God, I love men in togas. ;)

Anyway, here's a Christmas card of sorts. I don't think there was anything in the Nativity story about giant cats terrorising Bethlehem, but... er...



Hope your Christmas is/was a good one, and wish you all the best for 2008.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Got slightly trigger-happy with the camera tonight - trying to warm it up for Christmas - and the cat was looking so cute and cuddly curled up on my bed. I couldn't resist!

Everyone, meet Cleo(patra). While Clio is the Muse of history, Cleo is my muse of historical fiction. I can't write if I don't have her purring away in the background. :)



Just look at the feline wisdom, lol!...



This third one is, "Name of Bastet, Kirsten, are you not done with sticking that thing in my face yet?":



Now that the Muse is settled down, I might actually be able to get something written today!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hm. Spooky.

It's half three in the morning and I can't sleep, so I decided to do what I normally do, and that's choose something to read about until I do fall asleep. Tonight's topic: Mithraism. This has some bearing on one of my novels, where a female character chooses to devote herself to Mithras. (Long backstory, not relevant here.)

Anyway. Was Googling quite happily on Mithras and sun god cults in the Roman Empire in general, when what should I come across but the scrap of information that the gens Aurelia was especially associated with sun god reverence.

The name of the aforementioned female character? Aurelia.

I may need to give this some further investigation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Excerpt: Cathal and Gairea at Dun Add

I think I remember threatening at one point to put up a snippet from my NiP, so... here it is. I had to rummage around for a decent scene, because the point of the book I'm currently writing involves much of kings calling councils, generals poring over maps and centurions hitting people with sticks. This snippet takes place more than a year and a half into the book. It's still very rough, so any and all constructive criticism is not only appreciated, but craved.

(Yep, it's mine, hands off. No, seriously, don't steal. Not that you'd want to, but still...)

This excerpt takes place in the winter, AD 82/83. Tensions are running high at the Epidii seat of Dun Add. King Nechtain of the Horse Throne is in council with King Calgach of the Caledones, and there is an unmasked traitor somewhere in the upper circle of the dun. Gairea, seer and apprentice to the Chief Druidess, Sargaid, has just intervened in an unequal duel between Cathal, Nechtain's champion, and the Roman legionary Marcus, with whom she has formed a tentative friendship. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, her actions have inadvertently affronted Cathal. And he's already a man with a score to settle...

-

She took a breath to steady herself, but before she could do anything, a hand suddenly seized her wrist and before she could so much as cry out, she was pulled into the shadows beneath the streaming eaves of a nearby house. A shadow moved in front of her, trapping her and blocking what dim light there was. Blinking stupidly, she looked up.

“What in Manannán’s name do you think you’re doing?” Cathal’s hiss was just audible over that of the rain.

Her back went rigid against the wall and she snatched her wrist from his grasp, feigning disdain to mask her panic. “I am not fond of being backed into corners. Especially not by you, Cathal.”

He ignored this, and his hands went out to grip her shoulders, hard. She felt a flare of pain, but pressed her lips shut in defiance.

“Answer me!” he demanded. “What - by all that’s sacred - did you think you were playing at? Was it your intent to make me look a fool before Nechtain, before the Royal Clan - gods! - before Calgach of the Caledones! Why did the Druidess bring you here, if not to support me?”

Dear Epona, what arrogance! Somewhere beneath her anxiety, she felt a spark of indignation.

“You’ve already lost my support,” she snapped. “Sargaid brought me here so I could be tested by the Chief Druid.”

“I see. And does that involve turning on me before the tribe? Shielding enemy soldiers?”

“Does the champion of the King need to beat a defenceless man to validate his position?”

His lip curled in a snarl, baring his teeth, and his fingers tightened on her skin, jerking her slightly as if he dearly wanted to shake her, but did not quite dare. The movement parted a fold of her cloak, revealing the triple-spiralled amulet that marked her as one of the Brethren. Only then did Cathal remember himself, that simply by touching her he was transgressing.

Abruptly, he pulled back. He glanced down at the amulet with a look that was half caution, half rage.

When he leaned in again, he was careful not to touch her, but his fury was palpable nonetheless.

“My position needs no more validation, Gairea. You would do well to remember that.”

Emboldened by her own anger, she shot back, “Have I a choice? You never let anyone forget.”

She saw his right hand twitch, then flex itself into a tight fist at his side. Her hand closed pointedly around her pendant. His face resolved itself into a sneer.

“Clutch at whatever authority you can, lady seer, but remember that two years of training do not make you a Druidess. You are still nothing. I have a position; you do not.”

“I am the apprentice of the Chief Druidess.” Her tone was steady enough, but her mouth was dry and her heart was pounding and she knew what he said was true. “I am the apprentice of the Chief Druidess,” she repeated, “and my only action was to prevent an unfair duel.”

“Unfair! Tell me, how was it unfair? We were both able, and we were both armed.”

Epona, give me strength.

“I’ve no wish to argue with you any more than I have to, Cathal. The duel was unequal and you know it. You willed it.”

“Did you not notice how everyone was cheering? It did them good to see their champion - their protector - defeat one of the Roman dogs who threatens their freedom. I would have thought even you would have been able to see that before you insulted me.”

She shook her head. “Marcus is here as Sargaid’s guest. If anyone has done any insult today, it is you.”

He strode towards her. She recoiled, involuntarily, and instantly regretted it. “Take some responsibility, girl! You slighted me before the tribe! Before your tribe, need I remind you, the tribe that gave you birth. And for what?”

“Marcus is my friend,” she said simply.

He made a noise of disgust. “The Romans do not have friends, Gairea. They have only slaves, and those they would make slaves. And when you affronted me, you affronted the tribe. Simply by showing that Roman anything less than contempt makes you a traitor to your blood. You and he were not even out of sight before I heard two men debating whether or not you had found yourself a sweetheart.”

The blood drained from her face. “That is ridiculous!”

“Is it, though?” Cathal’s eyes narrowed, searching her face with that penetrating gaze she had once found flattering, now intrusive and insulting. It was entirely the wrong moment to think about the veiled sadness in Marcus’ dark eyes. The sadness, and the pleasure she felt when she could replace it with a smile.

Her back stiffened, and she matched Cathal’s look with a glare of her own.

“I wonder...” He drew back, his scrutiny of her lingering just a moment before he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I suppose it matters little to me whom you choose to lift your skirts for. But, when you do, do spare a thought for your Sisters on Mona, the ones who did not choose to be taken in the dirt by Roman legionaries.”

In response to Cathal’s words, her consciousness suddenly stirred, lifting the veil and opening to the shadows. Flames leaping against the oaks. Blood dark on the sand. War-chants turning to terror. The scream of a woman as she was seized by rough hands and pushed down, her pleas mocked, her robe ripped aside, her her body breached - ruined...

Gasping, she shook herself free of the vision. Her body had gone icy, her vision spotted. The shame of a long-dead woman still coursed through her, so violent her head spun and she thought she would faint. She could not hear the sound of the sleet over the blood surging in her ears. Dazed, sickened, she raised her head to look at Cathal. Somehow he looked impossibly far away, but there was no mistaking his expression of triumph. Her horror must have shown in her face.

All fear of retribution gone, Cathal caught her arm and crowded her back against the wall. His touch recalled the hands that had grasped at the woman, and a new wave of terror rolled through her, but she could not find the strength to lash out at him.

“It is time for you to decide where your loyalties lie, Gairea. There is treachery enough at Dun Add, and I will exterminate it.” The menace in his words was hidden by a voice as soft as a lover’s, a knife edge wrapped in otterskin. When she dared to meet his eyes, she saw its glint in the depths of his.

“If I so much as suspect your friendship with the Roman has become too fast, I will kill both of you.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Io, Saturnalia!

Yes, it's 17 December, which means it's the first day of the Saturnalia (or would be, if we were in ancient Rome). It also means it's a week till Christmas Eve and I still haven't finished my Christmas shopping yet - erk!

Good news, however, I finally finished chapter six today. It took me longer than I thought it would. Seems that every single chieftain had their wee tuppenceworth to throw in, then someone mentioned the Iceni and that started off a whole new argument. (sighs) And Calgach just wouldn't stop with the speechifying. I told him, there'd be plenty of time for that later - like, say, the Battle of Mons Graupius - but apparently he just couldn't wait until then. Hmph.

Now I shall skip off to start chapter seven. Perhaps things might actually start happening now.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Holidays and essays and pirates, oh my!

I'm in a much better mood than I was on Wednesday, mostly because term ended yesterday! Hurray! Technically, it ended for me on Thursday, since I don't have anything on a Friday, but I had to go in anyway to hand in my Archaeology essay (the importance of artefacts vs. monuments in assessing the impact of the Roman Empire in Scotland). I'm hoping the marker will find a gem of coherent thought in it somewhere, but I think I waffled a lot of rubbish for 1800 words.

And on Thursday, I got my second Celtic essay back. I got an A-! Even better than the last one, really, since this one was being marked more strictly, and according to my tutor, the Roman Britain question was probably the hardest out of all the ones given. Typical. He told me I could have touched more on certain details (though he didn't even mention my omission of Boudicca, hm), but I did a good job with such ahuge topic. Well, that was a relief! Got my Archaeology field notebook back, too. The comments were mostly positive; I made some good notes in some places, but I could have done with some more detail in others. Fair dos.

And, after all that, I've got exams in January, so although I'm technically on holiday, I'll probably keep working up until Christmas. (sighs) No rest for the wicked. I also met a friend from school in town, and we were talking about getting everyone together for a reunion. We'll have our work cut out for us in trying to arrange that...

In other news, the wreckage of one of the infamous Captain Kidd's ships has been discovered in the Caribbean, so right now I'm watching PotC to celebrate. (waves her tiny, solitary Norrington fangirl flag)

And now my brain's free, so my characters are running back in gleefully. I've got to get chapter six finished tonight: it's turning into the Council of Elrond and killing my soul at the same time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

:(

Was told this morning by a friend that I've been - effectively - chucked out of our group of flatmates for next year. She was genuinely apologetic about it, and I wouldn't be so annoyed if the reason hadn't been so odd. And unfair, from where I'm standing. In essence, I'm being shunted aside for a "theoretical" person. Lovely.

Minorly p-ed off right now.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Time travel

So, Crystal asked me which time period(s) I would travel to if I could, and here's my response. Luckily, I can pick as many as I want, which is a bit of a relief. Yes, there's a lot. Either I was born in the wrong century, or I've been born in several different centuries and drawing on something. ;)

First stop: the Neolithic... somewhere. Anywhere. Let's say Neolithic Orkney, so I could see Maes Howe chambered cairn and the Tomb of the Eagles in use, observe a highly innovative and communal society, and ask someone to tell me once and for all what stone circles and cup and ring marks are all about!

After that, I think a trip to Bronze Age Kilmartin would be nice, since it's one of my most favourite places, and there I'd get to soak up some prehistoric spirituality. And maybe I could steal me one of those pretty jet necklaces!

After the Bronze Age, I think I'll take a break from Scotland and travel to the Bay of Naples for some sun. I'm thinking Pompeii, so I can get to know some of the people behind the graffiti messages and see if Celadus the gladiator is really as hot as everyone says ;). 'Course, I want to get back from this trip alive, so this visit would have to be some time between AD 62 - 79 (no earthquakes/volcanic eruptions plzthanx)

Staying in Italy, I'd take the opportunity to introduce myself to either Emperor Vespasian or Titus, then it's back to Scotland in time for the Flavian invasion (c. AD 79 - 83) to meet two of my all-time favourite figures: Gnaeus Julius Agricola and Calgacus. If Tacitus was there, I'd get an autograph! ;) Probably egg on the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius (from a safe distance). Wouldn't mind seeing the Antonine Wall in something other than bumps-in-the-grass form (c. AD 143 - 163), so I'd go there, too - probably to Auchendavy to see my favourite centurion!

Then it would definitely be time for some of the Historic period, so I think some retail therapy in the centre of trade that was Dalriadic Dunadd would be order! Try to catch a royal inauguration ceremony while I was there, of course - I could get an intentional photo of someone up on that outcrop this time, lol! And I'd see if I could find some distant ancestors there, while I was at it.

After that, I'd turn my attention to the Picts. I'd probably try for the court of King Brude (possibly at Craig Phadraig in Inverness). It would be an opportunity to find out just exactly what Pictish life was like, and find out what the Pictish symbols all mean. Entertainment would be provided by watching the showdown between Broichan the druid-type and ol' Father Columcille. I'd have to snaffle some Pictish silver somewhere - I'm a silver junkie...

Then, being chased back to my time machine/TARDIS/time-turner/whatever I'm using to get about, by an angry silversmith, I'd escape to the Hebrides, probably Lewis, to see some Viking settlements. I love the Vikings (and it'd be another chance to visit some "relatives", lol), but I don't know as much about them as I wish I did, so I'd take a wander around a settlement and see what was going on.

After that, it'd be a visit to a medieval burgh - just to round things off - then I'd come home (making sure that angry Pictish silversmith had managed to follow me, of course!)

That's where I'd go, anyway. Your turn!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Utada Hikaru - Deep River

The most beautiful song I've ever heard; I get tears in my eyes every time I listen to it. I love how, at 0.59, Utada has to keep herself from crying, too!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Dunadd pictures



I got a bit "homesick" for Argyll and Dunadd today, so I dug out the camera and found the photos I'd taken while I was on holiday. There are some pretty good ones, if I do say so myself. ;)

But before I give you the pretty pictures, a quick history lesson. Dunadd is generally considered to be the "capital" of the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada (Dál Riata). The traditional story is that it was founded c. 500 AD by Fergus Mór mac Erc of the kingdom of Dál Riata in Ireland (Co. Antrim). The archaeological record, however, doesn't really suggest any large folk movement around this time, more that Argyll and Ireland (especially Antrim) had strong links long before then. It's a theory I'm playing with in my first-century-set novel, The Ancestor Crown, and a good chunk of the story takes place in Argyll, away from the main line of the Roman advance. (Yes, there is method in my madness.) Dunadd itself turns up once or twice, and provides the backdrop for a few pivotal chapters.

Dunadd was an important site all throughout Dál Riata's flourishing, and it's in a superb location - defensible, and in the midst of one of Scotland's richest prehistoric landscapes (to get an idea of just how rich: linky).

As yet, Dunadd's precise function is still unknown: was it the place of residence for the king and his house, or was it merely a ceremonial location? In TAC - set a good four hundred years before the kingdom's flourishing - I've chosen it as the seat of the Royal Clan of the Epidii tribe, fulfilling both fuctions. It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that the Dál Riata would have adopted an already existing power base for their seat, and there are traces of an earlier, smaller fort, as my professors pointed out during our field trip.

And now, on with the tour! At the foot of the hill, you're faced with a short, but fairly steep clamber, until the ground levels out and you find yourself looking at this:



This is the entrance to the dun, carved straight out of the rock. As you can imagine, this would have given entrance to Dunadd a highly formal, even ceremonious, feel, and when I passed through, more than a thousand years after Dál Riata, I still got the feeling of being "waved through". It wasn't hard to imagine being watched by guards patrolling the rampart above...

From there, we pass into what I'll call the "main enclosure". The rampart is pretty well-defined, and it encompasses a wide area which includes what I think was a well. It's here that archaeology has uncovered traces of a fine metalworking workshop, which may have added to Dunadd's prestige. Marcus, my silversmith-turned-legionary, feels very at home here during his brief stay. :)

Here's a picture looking south over the rampart, out towards the hills and the Mòine Mhòr - the "Great Moss". I think, in Dalriadic times, this marsh would have just about surrounded Dunadd.



Another steep climb takes up to another outcrop (the inhabitants of Dunadd made clever use of all the natural terraces of rock, as we'll see). This is the interesting one: this is where the footprint is:



This rock slab is the most famous thing about Dunadd. On it there's not only a footprint, but a carved Pictish-style boar, and an ogham inscription. In the rock just behind the slab is a carved hollow, or "bowl", and it's thought these were all involved in the inauguration of the Dalriadic kings. An important feature of king-making ceremonies in Celtic Ireland was the king's symbolic marriage to the goddess of the land (the "Lady of Sovereignty", as she is sometimes referred to) and it's thought that a king placing his foot here was demonstrating that same union. Needless to say, I've got quite a few people who harbour hopes of sticking their foot here, including a certain Irish prince from chapter 24 of the Agricola.

(I came up with another, less serious theory: maybe the person whose foot fitted was the one who would be crowned king - a sort of mix of King Arthur and Cinderella, lol!)

The history of Dunadd really suggests a lot of religious significance. The Dalriadic kings were linked with the (then) up-and-coming Columban church on Iona, and according to tradition, this is where Saint Columba inaugurated Áedán mac Gabráin in the first Christian coronation of the Dalriadic kings (and probably tried his own foot on for size - wouldn't put it past him, lol!) When Dál Riata became Christian, Dunadd retained its religious emphasis. Quern stones inscribed with Christian crosses have been uncovered, amongst other things, alluding to a fairly active religious community.

The outcrop itself is quite small; only the king, a clergyman and perhaps a few elites would have been able to fit there during the inauguration ceremony: the lesser nobles and/or other clients of the king would probably have watched the proceedings from the main enclosure. The outcrop seems to be the focal point for the whole dun; if you look back at the photo of the gateway, it's the outcrop framed by the rampart, so it's the first thing you see as soon as you step through. Everything is making you look at that outcrop and what's going on there. I imagine the king would have cut quite an impressive figure, framed against the skyline like that. I thought I saw Phaedrus the ex-gladiator standing there with his foot in place, but it might just have been my imagination! (Think I might reread Mark of the Horse Lord soon!)

We now ascend to the highest outcrop on the hill, where it's thought the king's residence would have been. This is where photo fun really begins! From these images it should be easy to imagine how the landscape enhanced Dunadd's position, both in terms of defence and spectacle.

This is looking west, over the Moss, towards the Sound of Jura. I like how this one turned out; I think the beam of light adds a bit of drama!



Looking kind of southwest-ish. It doesn't show in the picture, but the side of the hill looking seawards drops into some pretty sheer cliffs for such a craggy hill. And the marsh would have covered a broader area (large parts were drained in the last few centuries for farming). Anyone trying to capture Dunadd would have had their work cut out for them (and yet somehow the Picts managed!).



This is looking east. Again, just to give you the impression of the kind of views the king would have enjoyed from up here. Good for defence, and good for the ego, no doubt! I actually spent a couple of hours up here by myself one morning, soaking up some atmosphere and looking down at the rest of the dun thinking, "That's where Cathal will challenge Marcus to single combat, and that's where Gairea will eavesdrop on Sargaid and the Chief Druid..."



The best photos I got, though, were the sunset pics. One evening we were treated to a pretty awe-inspiring sunset, so I snatched the camera and hopped up to the summit. Here are the best results:

Towards the Sound of Jura again:



Looking more northwest-ish:



Looking south. I like the gentler colour here:



Probably my favourite one, this is looking northwest-ish again:



This was coming up for about ten at night. Doesn't look it, does it? 'Course, the sunset was just so spectacular, I couldn't resist the urge to include it in a scene in AC - when Cathal puts the moves on Gairea. I'll be in for a challenge when it comes to doing it justice, though!

With such an incredible location - steeped in history, formidably defended and in the midst of such spectacular surroundings - it's no wonder this became the heart of Dál Riata!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Writing targets

I've never actually set myself any targets before, but I thought I should. I thought this would help give me some discipline, so I can get all these things written. I'm going to concentrate mostly on The Ancestor Crown, and I've set some targets for where I want things to be by the New Year. So, by the time the Bells start chiming and everyone starts singing Auld Lang Syne:

*Marcus should be fighting in Galloway.
*Gairea should have started her Druid training.
*Calgach should, if not physically be with the Novantae, then ready to travel to them.
*Agricola should be in Scotland and, at the very least, preparing for Tuathal's departure to Argyll.
*Cathal should already have appealed once to King Nechtain to join the Caledones' battle against the legions.

Hmm. That's quite a tall order. I'll see if I manage to make them. I've never done anything like this before, and I'm interested in seeing how it turns out.

Well, I'd better make a start!

Friday, November 30, 2007

No one is free who is a slave to the voices in their head...

This is based on some conversations with a friend about characters who start getting uppity and demanding more stage-time. In real-life, the process spans from about last March to Tuesday night just gone. Enjoy.

Warning: utterly nonsensical, and I don't even have any sherbet in my system to act as an excuse... make sure you don't trip over the random movie references...

The scene: Kirsten is at her desk, typing happily away at her laptop. Suddenly aware that she's not alone, she freezes, and turns her head slowly to see two men standing next to her with crossed arms - one a Roman general, the other a Caledonian king.

Roman: So... thought you could get away with it, did you?

Kirsten: (nonplussed) ...Away with what?

Caledonian: Writing a novel about the Roman invasion of Scotland, eh?

Kirsten: (brightening) Yeah! It's always fascinated me: you know, the thought of two intelligent, cunning, equally-matched generals fighting it out among the mountains of the Highlands -

Roman: Buttering us up won't change a thing, darling. We know you haven't featured us in it.

Kirsten: And just who are you two that I should feature you in it?

(They look at each other incredulously, then draw themselves up.)

Roman: Well, for your information, I am Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of Britannia.

Caledonia: And I am Calgach the Sword, King of the Caledones. But you can call me Calgacus. Everyone else does.

Kirsten: Wow, what an honour! Can I have your autographs?

Agricola: No.

Calgacus: We're here to demand why we're not in this book-thing of yours, and then to demand that we be in it.

Kirsten: B-but I'm writing a star-crossed love story set against the backdrop of the invasion, so unless you two want me to rename it the Battle of Mons Brokebackius, then - (Agricola and Calgacus reach for their swords) - I mean, yous are in it! You both have very significant cameo roles!

Agricola: Not good enough. We want some spotlight.

Kirsten: Er... didn't your son-in-law make you the subject of an entire book? Whaddya need me for?

Agricola: Well, for starters, I'd like a nice, rounded role with backstory, conflict, emotional resolution - the works.

Calgacus: And I'm fed up with everyone talking about how great that William Wallace lad was, while I'm forgotten to history.

Kirsten: Well, to be fair, William Wallace did win the Battle of Stirling Bridge. If I remember right, you lost at Mons Graupius... (Calgacus draws his sword; Kirsten pales and drops her gaze) I'll see what I can do...

Agricola: (smiling) Great! Oh, and by the way, my son-in-law says he wouldn't mind a bit-part. I promised I'd see to it.

Kirsten: Isn't nepotism wonderful? (Agricola goes for his own sword) ...I mean, the more the merrier! Hang on, I just need to consult with my original protagonist. Marcus! Get over here!

(Marcus comes running in.)

Kirsten: Marcus, I couldn't help but notice you're quite backstory-less. I'll need some insight here.

(Marcus, terrified, whimpers and shakes his head.)

Kirsten: Oh God, not another hero with a dark and angsty past. You really don't want anyone to know about it?

(Marcus shakes his head again.)

Kirsten: Well, unfortunately, what with you being the MC and all, I can't not ignore your dark past, so... here - why don't you write it down here so I can read it?

(Marcus nods, then begins scribbling on a scrap of paper, which he then hands to Kirsten. She reads it, her eyes going wide. She looks up at Marcus incredulously.)

Kirsten: You expect me to be able to write this?

Marcus: ...Sorry.

Kirsten: It's all right. My sympathies go out to you. Well, on you go. I'll call you and Gairea back when you're needed.

(Marcus turns to leave, but then an afterthought occurs to him and he turns back.)

Marcus: Oh, by the way, Cathal says the role you're given him is far too two-dimensional and he'd like a fuller, more heroic story. And Tribune Vitulus says he's fed up being the laughing stock of the Twentieth Legion, and he wouldn't mind a spin-off novella.

Kirsten: Does he now? Well, Marcus my lad, tell Cathal I like his idea, but tell the tribune he can spin on his spin-off... if that makes any sense... ... Anyone else out there?

Marcus: Er... a priestess from Bronze Age Kilmartin. She says you met while you were on holiday. And some guy calling himself Saint Columba. He wouldn't mind turning up in a book sometime.

Kirsten: Only dealing with Roman-period characters right now. Tell them to stay in the waiting room.

(During this exchange, an immaculate man in a senator's toga has entered the scene with his wife, unnoticed by Kirsten. She turns back towards her computer, then jumps as she notices them.)

Kirsten: Who the hell are you?!

Man: (clears throat) Publius Cornelius Tacitus. You might have heard of me. And this is my wife, Julia.

Kirsten: Oh, wow! Tacitus! This is the greatest honour yet! I must be your number one fan - I mean, not so much that I'd tie you to a bed and break your ankles with a sledgehammer, but you get the idea... it's why I agreed to let you have a cameo in my book.

Tacitus: (looking slightly panicked) Yes... I've changed my mind about that. I want a bigger part.

Kirsten: B-b-but you have a nice, neat little walk-on part. Don't you like it?

Tacitus: Ye-eah... but I want a whole subplot.

Kirsten: What??

Tacitus: Let's face it, you owe me. If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have a story, now would you?

Kirsten: (mumbles) No...

Tacitus: So we have an accord? Just since you love me so much?

(Kirsten sighs, then holds out her hand resignedly for Tacitus to shake.)

Kirsten: Hey, Julia, do you want a bigger part with Tacitus? What with you two being married and all?

Julia: We are? I always get the impression he's married to his books and the cursus honorum.

Kirsten: (glancing between them) ...Well, it sounds like there's some interesting backstory going on here. Sounds like there could a be a whole book with you two -

(Julia and Tacitus look at each other, then at Kirsten)

Kirsten: ... I walked right into that one, didn't I?

(They nod.)

Tacitus: I mean, think about it: if you wrote a book with me in it, you would have an excuse to include Pliny the Younger in something, wouldn't you?

Kirsten: (hopefully) Mini-Pliny?

Tacitus: (nods) Mini-Pliny.

Kirsten: All right, let's do this!

Agricola: Er... aren't you forgetting about us?

Calgacus: Yes, aren't you going to get on with your Flavian novel first?

Demetrius of Tarsus: Get on with it!

Exiled Irish Prince: Yes, get on with it!

Cohort of mutineering Usipii: YES, GET ON WITH IT!!

Kirsten: Well, if that isn't proof I've been watching Monty Python too much...

Emperor Domitian: Get on with it!

Kirsten: (ducks her head and starts typing again) Sorry, sorry! Now, let's see... what can I do to build on the story here...?

Tacitus: (splutters in outrage) And what do you mean by that?

Kirsten: Well... come on, your account's a bit vague in places, and you're hopelessly biased. I want to write a more balanced novel. (hands a copy of The Agricola to Calgacus) Here, see what you make of it.

Calgacus: (flicking through the book) "They make a desert and call it peace"?? You actually expect me to come out with something like that?

Tacitus: (goes red) And what's wrong with it?

Kirsten: Well, to be fair, it does sound a bit like you were channeling the writers of Braveheart while you were scribbling away.

Calgacus: (mutters) William Wallace again...

Tacitus: Well, I don't care! It's historical fiction you're writing, Kirsten, so you'll just have to follow the rules, won't you?

Kirsten: I was always under that it wasn't rules that written history provided, but more sort of... guidelines...

Julia: (head in hands) Tell me she didn't.

Agricola: ...She did.

Kirsten: Okay, okay! I'll write! (gets typing again)... Now, you know what'd be good? A book - a sort of semi-sequel to this - set on the Antonine Wall.

(A centurion and his very pretty slave girl materialise with a bamf!)

Centurion: You called?

Kirsten: (pales) Oh no...

Centurion: Marcus Cocceius Firmus, centurion of the Second Legion Augusta, commanding officer of the Auchendavy fort.

Kirsten: Oh, yeah, I've read about you. If you don't mind my asking, are you, like, related to Bigus Dickus, because that is a really unfortunate name you have there...

(Firmus' jaw clenches; his slave girl titters)

Slave girl: He gets that all the time. Anyway, as his personal copyist, I've drawn up an outline of our story, and we'd like you to add some meat to the bones. What do you think?

Kirsten: I think Centurion Firmus is going to be seriously skint by the end of the book - commissioning all those altars, forking and re-forking out for you...

Firmus: Yes... (gazes wistfully at the girl)... but so worth it.

(Marcus and Gairea come running in)

Gairea: Hey, we were here first!

Agricola: Back off! I'm here now! All your Caledonia are belong to me!

Julia: Showing your age, Dad! You've had your spotlight! Move over!

Calgacus: I am not leaving until I get a different speech.

Tacitus: (rolling up the right side of his toga) O RLY?

Calgacus: YA, RLY.

Tacitus: Bring it!

(What can only be described as a "kerfuffle" descends.)

Slave girl: (snatches Firmus' vine cane and prods Kirsten) Oh, by the way, we'd like some sexual tension in with our story. Perhaps a kinky role-reversal love scene...

(Kirsten's head meets the keyboard. When she looks up, she sees that a gladiator and an actress have also now appeared from nowhere.)

Gladiator: Salve, scriptrix! I'm Lucius, and this is my girlfriend Verecunda. You might remember us from reading Women in Roman Britain and we think we could make for either a really angsty love story, or a really funny double act...

(Kirsten's head promptly implodes.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Aaaargh *brainmelt*

(The scene: a large pile of very thick books, all of which have either the phrase Celtic or Roman Britain in the title. The pile moves a little, then suddenly they go flying as Kirsten surfaces from under the pile, screaming, "No, Agricola, I don't care what your policy with the procurators was!!")

Ye-eah... if it isn't already obvious, the weekend was fairly stressful on the coursework front. Managed to stagger out of my Latin test on Friday, dazed. No time to recover, however, since I had a Celtic essay and my Archaeology worksheet to finish off for Monday (or so I thought... details to come). I had it all worked out time-wise, but suddenly before I knew it, it was midnight on Sunday and I was two hundred words over my limit for the Celtic essay and trying desperately to cut it down. Argh! How was I supposed to be able to write an essay on the effects of Romanisation in Britain in just two thousand words?!? This is counting Scotland and Ireland, too! And talk about uniformity of quotes - the only contemporary author I could turn to was Tacitus. The quote book didn't have any of the quotes I needed, however, so I had to rummage around for my own copy of the Agricola. (geekdom has its perks!)

So, anyway, managed to trim some stuff (still two hundred words over - going to pay for that, aren't I?), but it was now past one and I still hadn't finished off my worksheet. Damndamndamndamn. I give it a shot, thinking if I have to give up sleep for a night then so be it, but temperamental websites and various technical difficulties made it impossible to do anyway. So I end up having to print out a hard copy in the morning to hand-write.

Needless to day, I slept in on Monday morning. Just managed to get into Latin in time, with essay and worksheet in my back. After Latin I go to hand in my essay - only to find out that it wasn't actually due in till Wednesday! %$@^&!!!$ "F**k it," I think, "it's done." So I hand it in and go up the library to get the worksheet done - to be handed in that afternoon. Barely get that done - still scribbling away on strange Neolithic artefacts in the middle of my Celtic lecture.

Lecture is on Celticity in Britain and Ireland. Halfway through, it hits me - I wrote 2000+ words on the Romans in Britain and didn't even mention Boudica once! Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Surely to God that's instant fail!!

Worksheet gets handed in, give or take some answers which even I don't think are right, and I stumble to the underground to go home, still thinking omgdidn'tputboudicainmycelticessayandonlyquotedtacitusasaclassicalauthorgonnafailgonnafail, wonder if it'd be possible to rework the essay tonight or tomorrow night and hand it on the appropriate day.

Decided against that. I'm just going to say - with some reservations - what's done is done, and it now frees up the rest of my week (I'm not going near my Archaeology essay till this weekend at least). Only problem, after that essay, I don't think I can bear to go near Agricola or the first century for a few days. I think I might have to take a holiday to the Antonine Wall, see if Centurion Cocceius Firmus is free this week...

No, I'm not a Monday person.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nomenclature in Flavian-era Scotland

I think I might actually have hit upon a scheme that works!

One of the challenges I was having was trying to fit a "type" of language to the Caledonian characters in my book, and thus a decent naming scheme to the characters. Of course, we don't know what the people of first century Scotland spoke, though it was likely a precursor to the later Pictish language. Pictish itself is a debatable subject, since it's all but lost to us. However, the two main theories seem to be this: either it was a P-Celtic language, related to Welsh and Breton, or it was an earlier, non-Indo-European dialect.

I've gone with the former theory for two reasons: a) it's easier for me to get names when I run out of ones to snaffle from the Pictish king list, and b) it's the one that makes more sense, to me anyway. We've got names like "Maelchon" and "Drustan" which appear to have comparable forms in the P-Celtic languages, like "Maelgwyn" and "Tristan", and our only actual first-century name - "Calgacus" - does seem to be Celtic under the Latinisation. So, now, most of my Caledonians have Welsh names where the king list fails to turn up results (in the case of female names, for example). I don't think the Picts really spoke Welsh, any more than they spoke Gaelic, but at least it gets across that these people are speaking some sort of P-Celtic tongue.

The exception to this is the Epidii tribe in Argyll. The reason for this is that I've depicted them as a sort of seed of the later kingdom of Dalriada, and they, along with a certain exiled prince, are part of a subplot which deals with Agricola's plans to invade Ireland. It was for this reason that I decided to make the Epidii a bit more "Irish" than the rest of the tribes, and the easiest way to show this was to give them all Irish names, or names based on Irish. This decision was originally made purely to suit the needs of the story, but it seems I might just have a leg to stand on here - archaeology suggests that Argyll has had strong links with Ireland since as far back as Neolithic times. That was good to find out, and it made my decision feel a lot less random than it did originally.

There! I've managed to organise my thoughts on the matter! I'm glad I'm back blogging - it has a very "Penseive effect". ;)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Yay!!

Got my first essay for Celtic Civ. back today. I got an A3!! Hurray!

I wasn't expecting anything as good as that; I wasn't even expecting the thing to pass. Though I think I freaked out my tutor a bit - I kind of squawked, "What?" when he told me.

Haha! I passed my Celtic essay! :D :D :D

Now I'd better go. Scrubs is on.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gaia Avatars!

All right, so I'm probably the only person who's just come across this. That's right, it's the GaiaOnline avatar-making site. My sister has hours of fun with it, so I gave it a whirl, trying to make little anime versions of the characters from my book. My favourite so far is Cathal, battle-fury of the Epidii tribe:



In't he cute? (Btw, I doubt the Picts fought with katanas, but it was the best I could do, lol!)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Producers

Went to see The Producers today at the King's Theatre. F-ing brilliant, every second of it! Even better than Chicago, which was the last thing I went to see, and which I also loved!

I was a bit apprehensive, since I know the 1968 film almost off by heart, so I was worried I wouldn't find it so funny this time round. Couldn't have been more wrong! I laughed as if I was seeing it for the first time. There was a great atmosphere, too, and the cast didn't hold back at all, even though we went in the afternoon, not to the evening show.

'Course, nothing quite beats the original, but this performance definitely matched the new film, and was maybe even a bit better. Cory English was just outstanding as Max Bialystock, easily as good as Nathan Lane, and I've never seen Joe Pasquale in anything before, but he was great as Leo Bloom. I loved his blue blanket tantrums! :D The rest of the cast were great, too, especially Allan Stewart as Roger DeBris - he was hysterical!

The highlight was, of course, the Springtime for Hitler number. Yay all-singing, all-dancing Nazis! But I still miss L.S.D. "Love power..."/"I lieb ya, baby, I lieb ya!" XD

There was some great interaction with the audience, too, and with the sign language guy at the side of the stage. Just added to the whole experience!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Latin results

Got the results for my first Latin test back today. Could have gone better, I suppose, but it could also have gone much worse. I didn't do nearly as badly as I'd thought, though I'm still annoyed that most of the bits I got really wrong were things I KNEW. And if I hadn't been so panicky, I would've got them right, too. >:(

Still, I did well on my translations, so that bodes well.

Had a museum session for Archaeology on Wednesday as well, looking at some of the Antonine Wall slabs. And I could even translate bits of them! Well - all right - I don't suppose it takes too many brain cells to work out that an inscription reading "TITO AELIO HADRIANO ANTONINO AVG PIO" is a dedication to Antoninus Pius, but at least I could feel all smug at recognising it was in the Dative case! XD

God, I'm sad.

I guess I need to start working on not getting so bloody panicky.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Book review: The Pict, by Jack Dixon



Warning: there’s spoilers in them thar reviews.

Typical. I start getting stuck into a NiP about the Flavian invasion of Scotland, and suddenly everyone starts publishing books about it. First came Jules Watson’s Dalriada trilogy, now comes Jack Dixon’s debut novel The Pict.

Ah, well. Who can blame them? It’s a fascinating story, all the more so because our only contemporary source comes from Tacitus’ (hardly impartial) biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who led the invasion. But while Tacitus relates the story from the Roman point of view, Jack Dixon looks to the other side of the tale, and gives us a fictionalised account of the life of the man who defied Agricola: the elusive “Calgacus”. This hooked me in at once, as Calgacus had a solid supporting role in Watson’s The White Mare and The Dawn Stag, but since he’s an MC in my own piece, I was looking forward to seeing how someone else portrayed him in the spotlight.

The Pict begins in ancient Scythia, where a ragtag band of refugees, led by a man named Cruithne, are forced to flee their homeland and, with the help of the Scoti, found a home in a distant corner of the world, hidden away behind the mountains and mists. This chapter makes use of key elements in the traditional origin myth of the Picts, as related by Bede (I think. *shifty eyes*).

A thousand years after Cruithne’s migration, we come across eleven-year-old Calach, a precocious young warrior and hunter of the Caledonii tribe. While visiting a mysterious glen said to be home to the spirits of the ancestors, he meets the even more mysterious Girom, an elderly Obi-Wan-esque figure who offers him some spiritual guidance: never to let fear, or hate, rule his heart, for they will weaken his spirit. Later, Calach proves his prowess as a warrior when he rescues his boyhood crush from a gang of thugs and Melcon, king of the Caledonii, allows him to be recognised as a man before his traditional coming-of-age. Ah, bless.

We now skip forward several years, and Gnaeus Julius Agricola has just arrived in Britain, under the orders of the Emperor Vespasian, to conquer the last part of the province. We’re given a brief overview of the first few years of Agricola’s governorship, then we plunge straight into AD 82. The Ninth Legion, frustrated and vengeful from the memory of Boudicca’s rebellion, march into southern Scotland and inflict a bloody and unprovoked massacre upon the inhabitants of a peaceful village of the Selgovaii tribe (who I’ve only ever seen spelled “Selgovae”, but okay...). News of this atrocity reaches the other tribes, and they all reach an agreement: to unite as one and drive the Romans out. Due to his renown as a warrior and tactician, Calach finds himself thrust into a position of leadership, a position he isn’t entirely comfortable with, thinking instead that his brother Gabhran would make a better leader, and longing to live out his days peacefully with his wife, Fiona. Now, with the freedom of the Pictish people at stake, and with tragedy and betrayal shadowing his every move, can Calach hold true to his vow not to let darker forces take over his heart? (And was that nervous penpusher in the corner a certain Cornelius Tacitus...?)

At 190 pages, this isn’t an epic book by any means, and it moves along at a fairly quick pace. The bulk of the story is taken up by Calach’s internal struggles and the guerilla tactics employed by the Picts as they chip away at the hated Ninth Legion. Dixon makes the bold move of eschewing the battle of Mons Graupius entirely, and when Calach and Agricola finally do face off, it’s not on a battlefield, but in a tête-a-tête where Calach effectively makes Agricola his biatch and tells him to retreat and never allow a Roman force to enter Pictish lands again (Inchtuthil and the glen-blocking forts notwithstanding).

The highlight of the book was, for me, the first raid on the Ninth Legion, when the Picts slip in and out like phantoms, leaving the legionaries increasingly terrified and bewildered as they advance further north, and the descriptions, especially those of the ghostly pipes, were the most atmospheric in the book. They definitely sent a wee chill down my spine. I had my doubts, however, that the Picts would be able to break into a Roman camp as many times as they did. Tacitus only mentions one such incident and treats it as if it were a very unique, alarming event. Which it most likely was.

The inclusion of Girom as a spiritual mentor was an interesting one, and The Pict is peppered throughout with some interesting, thoughtful ruminations - especially regarding what it means to be a good person (though I think the “I took a life”/ “A life was forced on you” exchange was a bit convenient). Lots of other characters also have their own little brand of wisdom, and there were plenty of times I found myself going “Hmm...” (Though there were other times when I felt it was a bit “lesson-heavy”.)

Unfortunately, the book’s quick pace often renders the rest of the story quite simplistic. I would have liked to see more of Calach’s maturation as a warrior and tactician, rather than simply fast-forwarding in time and having to take the author’s word for it. As a result, his characterisation is often seems a bit compressed, for lack of a better word, and it was not only a bit tiresome to constantly have to read about how in awe of Calach everyone was, but also a tad predictable that the one who turned out to be a traitor was the only warrior who didn’t prostrate himself before him. (And for such peaceful, wise people, the Picts were dealing out some pretty sadistic punishments.)

In the end, The Pict’s major flaw is the same as the Agricola’s. It lauds its subject so much, and so one-sidedly, that in places the reader is left going, “Uh-huh... yeah.” The difference is that where Tacitus makes a point of depicting his Calgacus as the Worthy Adversary - a “man of outstanding valour and nobility” who managed to keep Agricola on his toes - Dixon’s Roman force comes off as naive and amateurish, and Agricola himself appears as the weak-minded rookie he almost certainly wasn’t. Suffice to say, if the Roman army had really been the way it is depicted here, then that empire would never have come into existence. In fact, apart from the token massacre at the beginning (which seems to have been thrown in there simply to show just how rotten those Romans were), I was left wondering exactly why the Picts were so worried about them.

I would have thought, too, that Calach would have had more of an uphill struggle in his efforts to unite the Picts; Dixon simply tells us that he organised them into a “well-trained and closely-knit force”. It’s mentioned, too, that the Picts have an innate suspicion of overlords, yet they have no problem accepting Calach as their leader. Even when he finally does succumb to his hatred and need for vengeance, despite all of Girom’s warnings, he still easily outwits Agricola and wins without any trouble or major repercussions (except becoming a distinctly less attractive character). I don’t know - in the end everything just seemed a bit effortless.

The omission of Mons Graupius also, IMO, did the book a disservice, as it renders it a bit anticlimactic. This could, however, be because I was expecting it to be the big set-piece, as it was in The Dawn Stag and, of course, the Agricola. I did have to chuckle a bit, though, because even though Dixon leaves out the battle on the grounds that it could be an invention on Tacitus’ part, he just can’t resist including the famous speech, which very definitely was a figment of Tacitus’ imagination.

And, just because I’m a godawful nitpicker, there are other things that are out of place. One is the phrase “AD 82” in the prose itself. This concept didn’t exist to either the Romans or Picts. Another is the mention of people laughing “like jackals”. Yep, there were lots of them running around first century Scotland. It also seemed a bit incongruous that most of the Picts had Gaelic names, since Bede and Adomnán both make it clear that the Picts weren’t Gaelic-speakers. The name Fiona is out of place anyway because, although based on Gaelic fionn, it’s not a traditional name and didn’t seem to have come into use until the eighteenth century at the earliest.

For me, The Pict was ultimately a bit too one-sided and simplistic, but if you’re interested in the Picts (who simply don’t get enough love in fiction) and/or the elusive “other side” of history, then you may find it worth a look. And even though I take issue with some of the events of the book, for one reason or another, I can definitely appreciate Dixon’s love and enthusiasm for his subject matter, and his daring to look past the “offical version” of history.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Why historical fantasy?

It's a question I've asked myself a few times while I've been writing. What's the appeal of historical fantasy?

For years there, I've been addicted to fantasy and sci-fi, and my first forays into the realm of writing were all of those genres. But when I dreamt up my Flavian novel (which still doesn't have a decent title), I hadn't actually planned to add in any fantastical elements, but they wove themselves in nevertheless.

It could just be the combination of two things I love that hooks me, but since I didn't consciously decide to add in anything of the paranormal, I decided to look a bit deeper.

So I thought about my two favourite fantasy series: Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Prydain, and I realised what sets them apart from, say, The Wheel of Time is that their links to the authors' sources of inspiration are very strong and evident (I suppose you could say that about WoT, lol, but I'm talking in terms of mythology). LotR feels like a proper myth, as do the CoP, because they both make use of what's already in the "source material".

Which brings us back to historical fantasy. As someone who reads a lot of Celtic hf novels, I realised that most of them work the fantasy elements around the beliefs of the people back then, in the same way Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander grounded their stories in the myths of Scandanavia and Wales, respectively. Things like reincarnation, the Otherworld and second sight are treated as real because that is how they were seen. Whether the modern reader believes in them or not, these things were as real to the ancient people as cattle raids and warrior feasts. They blend seamlessly together in mythology, and so, too, into fiction today, which is why, I think, so many novels set in Celtic times have paranormal elements mixed in.

There is, too, a definite hint of mystery to the Celtic people themselves, due mostly to the nature of their sources - from classical writers who were invariably opposed to them. Therefore there will always be that debate whether or not the Druids really did make human sacrifices, to give the most obvious example.

That said, I've never really been fond of these New Age-y, misty-eyed novels, where the Celts are these tree-hugging, ethereal, oh-so enlightened people. By all accounts, they tended to be a very earthy, oftentimes aggressive society, which I've tried to incorporated into my own writing.

Then again, it could just be because people have blended history and fantasy since they began telling stories. History is as much a part of folklore as any myth or fairy tale. After all, that's how figures from Queen Maeve to Imhotep, and likely a certain Arthur, became semi-mythical beings.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

AOLer Translator

I've just reacquainted myself with this hilarious little thing. You type in anything you want, and it translates it into the way a twelve-year-old AOL user would use it. (I've seen many, many reviews on FanFiction.Net that look as if they've been run through this several times.)

Anyway, here's the most recent victim I copy-pasted into it. If you want a clue as to what it was in its past life: linky.

WHEN3VER I CONSIEDR DA ORIGIN OF THES WAR AND DA NECESITEIS OF OUR POSITION I HAEV A SUR3 CONFIEDNC3 TAHT THES DAY AND THES UNION OF U WIL B DA BGINNG OF FREDOM 2 TEH WHOLE OF BRITANE!!1!!!111 WTF LOL 2 AL OF US SLAEVRY SI A THNG UNKNOWN THEIR R NO LANDS BYOND US AND AVAN DA S3A SI NOT SAEF M3NAECD AS WE R BY A ROMAN FLET!1!111 WTF LOL AND THUS IN WAR AND BATL3 IN WHICH TEH BRAEV FIND GLORY 3VAN TEH COWARD WIL FIND SAEFTY!1!!1 LOL FORMER CONTESTS IN WHICH WIT VARYNG FORTUNE DA ROMANS W3RE RASIST3D STIL LEFT IN US A LAST HOPE OF SUCOUR INASMUCH AS BNG DA MOST R3NOWNED NATION OF BRITANE DW3LNG IN TEH VARY H3ART OF TEH COUNTRY AND OUT OF SIGHT OF TEH SHOR3S OF TEH CONQU3RED W3 CUD KEP EV3N OUR EYES UNPOLUTED BY TEH CONTAGION OF SLAEVRY 2 US WHO DWEL ON DA UTERMOST CONFIENS OF TEH AARTH AND OF FREDOM THES REMOTE SANCTUARY OF BRITANES GLORY HAS UP 2 THES TIEM B3N A D3FENCE!!!11111! NOW HOWAVER DA FURTH3ST LIMITS OF BRITANE R THROWN OP3N AND DA UNKNOWN ALWAYS PASES FOR DA MARV3LOS!1111!! WTF BUT THEIR R NO TRIEBS BYOND US NOTHNG INDED BUT WAEVS AND ROX AND DA YAT MORE TERIBL3 ROMANS FROM WHOSE OPRASION ASCAEP SI VANELEY SOUGHT BY OBDEINC3 AND SUBMISION!11!!1! OMG WTF ROB3RS OF DA WORLD HAVNG BY THEYRE UNIEVRSAL PLUND3R AXHAUST3D TEH LAND THEY RIFLE DA DEP!1!111! IF DA 3NEMY B RICH TH3Y R RAPACIOS IF HA B POR TH3Y LUST FOR DOMINION N3ITHAR TEH 3AST NOR TEH W3ST HAS BEN ABLA 2 SATISFY THEM!!!!!! LOL ALONA MONG M3N TH3Y COV3T WIT 3QUAL 3AEGRNAS POVERTY AND RICHES!!11!1 LOL 2 ROBERY SLAUGHTER PLUNDAR THAY GIEV DA LYNG NME OF EMPIER THEY MAEK A SOLITUDE AND CAL IT P3AEC!!1!! OMG WTF LOL

That unearthly shriek you just heard was the ghost of Cornelius Tacitus.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Oh, my Goddess!

So the time has come. I knew I was eventually going to have to confront this particular issue at some point.

One of the protags, Gairea, is about to begin her Druidess training. Now, in my version of first century Scotland, the Druid order strives to maintain a balance between the sacred masculine and feminine, with the male Druids being caretakers of the male power, the yang (for want of a more accurate term), and the Druidesses taking care of the yin. That is, the focal points of their worship are a father god and a mother goddess. The "guise" these deities take is localised depending on the totems and/or religious practices I've assigned each tribe, and also to various reasons that probably only make sense in my head, but at their core they are these two all-encompassing deities: the "God" and the "Goddess".

Anyway, since Gairea's female, and my main PoV window into the druidic aspect of the story, the religious focus is likely to slant more to the "Goddess" side of things. I've got some characters who can even the odds a bit, but at the moment I'm having to work hard to make sure I don't end up mired in the clichés of so many feministly reimagined historical novels.

In other words, I don't want to come off as some hack Marion Zimmer Bradley wannabe. One of my pet peeves in fiction is blatant authorial messages, whether I agree with the author's stance or not, and another is PC stuff forced into novels set in decidedly un-PC times.

So far, after skimming the Rules for Feministly Reimagined Historical Fiction (linked to above), I think I've managed to avoid most of the most pertinent clichés. And I've even turned the menstruation rule on its head and ended up with a good wee bit of comic relief, one which I think all women will be able to relate to! :D

But I'll have to see how the rest of it goes. No doubt this will become more of an issue in the near future, when I really get into the thick of it...

Monday, July 2, 2007

Roman girls' names

I was lurking over at Michelle Styles' blog, and saw this post where she talks about the name of the heroine in her newest Roman historical. It got me thinking about the names of my own Roman characters, in particular the female ones.

The standard naming convention for Roman girls is famously unimaginative. Probably due in part to the fact that she "belonged" to her father, a girl wasn't usually given a personal praenomen, but instead was given a feminised form of her father's family name and cognomen. So the daughter of Caecilius Metellus would be Caecilia Metella, the daughter of Livius Ocellus would be Livia Ocella, etc. There were exceptions to the rule, obviously, but this was the standard way of doing it.

This caused me a bit of hassle when it came to naming the two sisters of one of my Roman characters. The father's name is M. Valerius Laevinus, so as far as I can tell, both girls should be called Valeria Laevina, with the added moniker Majora/Prima for the elder, and Minor/Secunda for the younger one. Of course, it would be too confusing to call them both Valeria, so I decided to just refer to the elder one as Valeria. This leaves the little one. I don't think calling her Secunda would be too bad, except it strikes me that the "number name" was simply for official purposes. Would parents simply call their daughters "One" and "Two"?

There is evidence that girls had nicknames, but I'm not sure these became official names like cognomina. "Claudia Trifosa" seems to indicate that they sometimes did, but I don't know whether she was an exceptional case or not.

It could come down to how the family, and the girl, thought of her as. Given the personality of the father of these two sisters, very conservative and authoritative, I could imagine he might call his elder daughter Valeria, to "link" her to the family, and Secunda - the second daughter. Of course, Secunda's mother, sister and brother might have another nickname for her, but I've not found a good one yet.

By the imperial period, as well, it seems girls, especially those of aristocratic birth, were given names that linked them to renowned ancestors, not necessarily their fathers. Some had their mother's name, and some had their mother's nomen along with their father's. In the Republic, it seems there was a tradition of a married woman taking the feminised form of her husband's cognomen, but it seems to have become obsolete by the imperial period, with the focus being on keeping the girl's link to her ancestors apparent.

It makes sense, therefore, for my Aurelia Cotta (the daughter of Q. Aurelius Cotta, a Senator), to keep her maiden name after her marriage to A. Lucilius Atellus, a tribune, since in my chronology her father is more renowned than her husband, and all my sources so far seem to indicate that by the first and second centuries AD, women didn't take their husband's name.

But I don't know. It's a bit of a mess, depending on period and class, and whether the parents wanted to stick to the rules. I will research it to death tomorrow and finally figure it out.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Doctor Who finale

Wow.

...

...

Sorry, still reeling from the amazingness that was the final episode of Doctor Who. I think there are still red marks on my face from where I was clutching it. It's been a long, loooong time since I read/watched something where I was so convinced the mains had no chance of getting out alive. I'm so, so happy the series managed to get back on form during its second half - I was beginning to think it was circling the drain there for a while. But, this last episode was one of the best yet, definitely. F-ing brilliant writing complemented, as always, by its stellar cast. Tennant and Agyeman acted their socks off (as always) and John Simms was just deliciously evil as the Master (I knew he was going to be coming back. I have the Shining as far as these things go, lol!) Not to mention that total surprise about the eventual fate of good old Cap'n Jack. Sad to see Martha leaving, though. I was hoping she'd stay on.

I'm a happy little sci-fi fangirl. I was almost ready to give up on Doctor Who, but my faith is totally restored. I just hope that in the next series, they don't throw in so many dud episodes where the only worthwhile part is the last five minutes where there's some hint for the last episode.

Great. Bloody great. And it's so welcome, especially seeing as the prospects for our intended holiday down to London are looking a bit leery.

Ah, well. Can't wait till Christmas!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Blast from the past

Wow. Was cleaning out my room today and what should I find under my bed, but the ring binders containing the first completed "novel" wot I rote, and what I'd done of the second in the series. Due mainly to school, and some fanfic projects, and most recently the research for my historical, I hadn't touched the things in at least a year. So, naturally, for nostalgia's sake, I started flipping through them, remembering how I thought I was the absolute shit for completing a novel.

Retrospective rating: (shudder)

For a start - the clichés, dear God, the clichés.

Elves. Yeah.

Videogame logic.

Awful prose. Yeah, I know it's a given since I was fourteen, but it still buggers the mind to think I thought I was writing anything decent. Innocence is bliss.

The blatant evidence of "Mum and Dad are going to be reading this, so I'd better not write anything that might shock them".

The Mary Sue heroine. Granted, I had plans for her in the rest of the series, but in the first one... wow.

Attempts at making up own language. More than one, too. Warning: attempt only if your name is J.R.R Tolkien.

The map had no scale, no logic.


On the other hand, there were a few glimmers of good points:

Though their execution wasn't stellar, the characters (even Mary Sue heroine) had good, solid foundations and I had a fairly good grasp of their psychology for my age.

Hero wasn't a poor farmboy.

Twenty chapters and about two hundred pages is a bit of an achievement for a fourteen-year-old with a short attention span.

Though the plot was hackneyed, the world itself was fairly unique in that it wasn't a faux-medieval Middle-earth clone.

Weirdly enough, the romance subplot was pretty well thought-out, even if it hadn't been fully realised.

I didn't even try to include any "epic" poetry, since I knew full well I can't write it. (Can't even write haiku.)


It was quite a reminiscence. Totally cringeworthy, but it really threw into perspective how much I've grown in the last few years. I've got a long way to go yet, but at least I've managed to get the really godawful stuff out of my system.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Historically speaking...

One of the main ways to create an authentically historical atmosphere, I've noticed, is the use of dialogue. It's also harder for some eras than it is for others. Periods such as Victorian times or the Middle Ages have definite, recognised speech patterns and slang, so dialogue can be recreated fairly accurately.

Periods such as first century Scotland are a bit more problematic. Not as much for the Roman characters, because there are plenty of opportunities to get a feel for how Romans of all classes spoke, from the letters of Pliny the Younger, to the Vindolanda writing tablets, to the Pompeii graffiti. A bit more formal than modern speech, even in everyday conversation, but simple enough to emulate (with a few tweaks to make it sound a bit more natural to modern readers).

The Caledonian characters, however, are more of a challenge to "translate". They left no written records, so I don't have the same kinds of sources I do for my Roman characters. I wanted to give them a sort of accent that would be different from the Roman one, to get across that these are two different peoples speaking different languages, even though I'm writing in English. The problem: we don't know what language these people spoke, though it was probably a Brythonic tongue, so a proper accent is out.

So I decided to give them an accent that would get it across that they're an ancient Scots' ancestor people. The question is, how much of an accent? I want it to be distinctive from the Romans' speech modes, but I definitely don't want them to sound like refugees from The Broons. I've thought about giving them a little of my own accent, which is a kinda watered-down Glasgow one. The pitfall there, of course, is that I don't want them to sound Glaswegian, and the Glesgae accent is very recognisable, and if I got carried away, I could easily end up with Calgacus and his war-leaders sounding like a bunch of neds frae Chewin' the Fat. I can see them shouting down from the summit of Mons Graupius now: "Get it up yees, Romans!"

Don't want to go down that road. (lol)

At the moment, my Caledonians have a sort of faux-archaic speech pattern going on. I suppose I should just stop thinking about it consciously and let the accent reveal itself on its own as I write. I've learned from previous projects never to force anything, especially not dialogue.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Lloyd Alexander, and a reminiscence

I was very saddened to find out just a few minutes ago that Lloyd Alexander, author of the the Chronicles of Prydain, died on May 17.

I first read The Book of Three, the first in the series, in primary seven, when I found a copy on the class bookshelf. I remember being completely immersed, so much so that the teacher gave me into trouble for reading well into the Maths slot. I was only eleven, and I didn't really know anything about the Mabinogion or Welsh mythology in any real detail, but I can still clearly remember the sense of awe and pure transportation I encountered when I read that book, a sense I just hadn't encountered before while reading. Unfortunately, the school shelf didn't have the rest of the books and I spent several years searching, without success, in shops for them. I only read The High King last year, when a new edition of the series was published, but the Chronicles are without a doubt amongst my favourite books of all time.

Few books have touched me in quite the way the Chronicles of Prydain did, and they, along with The Hobbit, were among my first influences in writing when I was younger. When I was eleven, I only really consciously appreciated the adventure story and colourful characters, and while I still do, I can now appreciate the complexities of all those characters, the subtle links to mythology, but above all, Alexander's wonderfully understated wisdom and tenderness, in both his prose and his author's notes. And while Finn and Aoife, the hero and heroine of my own fantasy series, are very much their own characters, they will always have their roots somewhere in Taran and Eilonwy.

Goodbye, Mr. Alexander. I hope you found your Summer Country.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tomb Raider: Anniversary - first impressions

It's here! It's finally here! Our copy of TRA arrived from Amazon yesterday (two days before the cited release date, but whatever). Had to resist all tempation to just rip it out the packaging and play it at once; it just wouldn't be the same without me, Dad, and my sister taking turns to play, or heckle: "Go, jump. Jump. Aargh! Oh, my God! Pull out your guns! No. Over there. Over there. What the hell are you doing?! Oh, give it here." Repeat.

As we all know, Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the remake of the original PS1 game, which saw Lara, hired by businesswoman Jacqueline Natla (boo, hiss) to recover the mystical Atlantean Scion, globetrotting to Peru, then somewhere that was probably Greece, then Egypt, then finally onto Atlantis itself. The basic storyline seems to be the same, but there also seems to be a new twist in that Lara and her father had been searching for the Scion already, but hadn't been able to find the hidden city of Vilcabamba. I expect something else will be made of this, but I can't be sure, having only played the Mountain Caves level and part of Croft Manor.

Of course, graphics have moved way, way on in the eleven years since the original. Gone are the square caves with very flat walls and ledges positioned at right angles to each other, and every screen is now crammed with lush, organic scenery, from trailing vines to pillars with intricate Inca-style carvings. I can't wait to see the Egyptian levels. Lara's movement is also much more fluid than the original, as is the camera.

Luckily, Anniversary already seems to be much more than just a remake of the original with prettier graphics. Familiar locations are immediately recognisable, but while some scenes were simply big empty spaces with a couple of vampire bats, every screen so far has been crammed with more opportunities to explore. Lara's moves have gone well beyond the original run, jump, catch, shoot, and it looks like you'll need every trick at your disposal to complete the puzzles. Another welcome addition is the grapple-hook, which was only seen in the original during a cutscene. And Croft Manor is no longer the training level, but a whole location to itself, as it was in Legend.

The real plus with Anniversary is the puzzle-solving. The manor is a big puzzle, and while the timed door from the Caves level makes a return, it's far more sophisticated this time than simply pulling a switch and racing like mad to get through before it closes. The darts that shoot from the walls are back, and there's more head-scratching involved with them. While in the original you could get away with running and jumping over them, Anniversary makes you stop and work out whether you run straight through, jump over, or crawl under.

Of course, one of my favourite parts of Tomb Raider was the sense of atmosphere, and it was great to see it was back, too. Instead of the creepy "tomb noises" of the original, though, the Caves are filled with the sound of dripping water and wind, and the wolves howl to announce their presence.

To sum up, then, Anniversary already looks like a brilliant reworking of an old classic, because it brings so much freshness to the old structure, the enhanced abilities and trickier puzzles being the big pluses. The levels I'm looking forward to the most are the Lost Valley, Saint Francis' Folly, the Palace of Midas, and all the Egyptian ones. Can't wait to see those mummies!

'Scuse me now, I've got to go and explore the City of Vilcabamba...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Book review: Liberty, by Kimberly Iverson



Here there be spoilers.

Ah, Roman Britain, it does know how to surprise us. Every so often, it throws up a remarkable discovery - like that of the "Great Dover Street Woman" exhumed in 2000. The cremated remains of a woman were discovered outside the limits of second century London, and the artefacts discovered with her suggest that she was actually a gladiatrix - a female gladiator. Apparently they were all the rage from the time of Nero until they were banned in 200 AD by Septimus Severus, but until then, no one had actually found any proof of one. A fascinating, unique discovery like that must have had an interesting backstory, and author Kimberly Iverson (otherwise known as Kim Headlee), attempts to give it one.

Although the Dover Street Woman actually lived around 80 AD, Iverson's story begins some time around 160 AD, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Rhyddes (which means "freedom", as we will be reminded many, many times) is a Votadini farm girl who suffers the temper of her abusive father. Things go from bad to worse for Rhyddes within the first couple of chapters. A Pictish raid on her home leaves two of her brothers dead, and her father sells her into slavery to pay off a tax debt. Not even two chapters in, Iverson shows that she has no intention of stinting on detail, no matter how harrowing, and Rhyddes is gang-raped by the soldiers she has been sold to. She then ends up in the slave market, where she is paraded naked in front of the bidders.

Among those bidders is Marcus Calpurinus Aquila, the fictional son of the historical Governor Sextus Calpurnius Agricola (not to be confused with Gnaeus Julius Agricola). Marcus lives a double life as an aristocrat's son and star gladiator "Aquila Britannia", even though he knows his "hobby" scandalises his father. Agricola wants Marcus to marry Messiena, a senator's daughter, and also to retire from the arena. Marcus, unhappy at having to give up his freedom, goes to the forum with Jamil, the Egyptian gladiator trainer. Both Marcus and Jamil covet Rhyddes at first sight, but for very different reasons. Marcus wants her 'cause she's hot, and Jamil's looking for a potential gladiatrix to add to his stable.

Anyway, after a grrgnash-inducing scene where Marcus feels up the merchandise and Rhyddes finds herself getting all tingly inside (despite - y'know - the public humiliation and the gang-rape), Jamil comes out the winner, and Rhyddes is introduced to Villa Britanniae, one of Londinium's gladiator schools, to become its first gladiatrix. Marcus, although no longer allowed to compete, comes down regularly to train with the gladiators, and from there he and Rhyddes fall in love. All is not well in the Empire, however, and they very soon find themselves embroiled in a plot to depose Marcus Aurelius, from which neither of them may escape with their alives.

An ambitious novel, definitely, and it could very well have been intriguing, if it weren't for the fact that the core of the story wasn't the kill-the-Emperor one, but the so-called romance between Rhyddes and Marcus. And even then, it wouldn't have been a problem, if the romance wasn't so tepid. I really wanted to feel for Rhyddes, as she's a young woman who's gone from one kind of terrible life to another, but she's just such a two-note character, jumping back and forth between "angry stoic Votadini warrior" to "giddy teenager in lust", I just didn't really care either way what happened to her.

Marcus, however, is worse by far. No matter how many times Iverson describes him as "charming", he remains anything but. He's a shallow, self-absorbed twit who cares about one thing and one thing only: getting Rhyddes in the sack. Such faults could be excused, given that a young Roman aristocrat would no doubt be that way, but there's no character growth there, no reason for me to stop seeing him as merely an arrogant spoiled brat who just happens to have a nice smile.

The whole novel, in fact, is very tepid. Even the kill-the-Emperor-plot is devoid of all suspense, as the identity of the culprit is pretty much obvious from the word go. Not to mention the entire thing didn't make sense. Maybe I missed something, but I couldn't really work out just how a huge gladiator uprising would aid anyone in assassinating the Emperor, especially since half the Praetorian Guard had already been bribed. The book just seems to lumber along, with no real change in pace or mood, with no proper cleverness or humour to add some flavour. Like the two leads, the prose just seems to go along with one or two notes, and although all the scenes with gladiators and the gladiator school are informative without resorting to info-dumping, they're not particularly atmospheric or absorbing. I felt I really was reading the story, not watching it unfold in front of me. Even the historical Agricola, Marcus Aurelius and Empress Faustina are reduced to mere stock cameos.

The romance is badly executed. Rhyddes and Marcus only see each other sporadically, and their encounters leave no room for either of them to properly learn anything about the other for me to believe that what they had was love. By the end, all Rhyddes seems to know about Marcus is that he's good-looking, he has a nice smile, he's a Roman, he's good-looking, he's a good fighter, he's getting married to someone else. And, oh yeah, he's good-looking. By the same token, Marcus only knows that Rhyddes is a beautiful gladiatrix with a terrible past. Their encounters are devoid of any proper emotion, or even any proper eroticism.

History, too, is skewed. Not so skewed as in the Gladiator movie, but noticeably enough. Gladiator life is described down to the tiniest detail, but everywhere else there are glaring errors. More than once, the unmarried Messiena is described as wearing a stola. Tiny, but very obvious. Marcus' short stint as a military tribune is completely off. Tribunes were appointed by the Senate, not by Daddy, even if Daddy happened to be the Governor of the Province, and elected at the yearly Tribal Assembly, not whenever they damn well felt like it. Modern dialogue such as "Quit staring" or "Am I glad to see you" didn't help with the atmosphere at all, furthering the impression that these characters were nothing more than modern teenagers in period costume. The oh-so happy ending was incongruous, too. Yes, as far as I know, a freed slave could be adopted and did receive citizen's rights, but the stigma of slavery remained with them for years in the eyes of society. And Marcus' promise of fidelity to his bride-to-be was so anachronistic it was almost laughable, especially seeing as their marriage was a political contract.

In short, Liberty felt very much like a wasted opportunity. I did like the characters of Jamil and Messiena (my favourites in the entire book), and my inner Roman history geek did enjoy finding out about the lives of gladiators, but as a novel about two people trying to free themselves from the shackles of society, it fell flat. It didn't hit the wall, but I did have to force myself to finish it.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Baby swans!

Can't believe it - after several years with no success, the swan couple on the "pond" - that's the mini-loch next to our garden - have hatched cygnets. Six of them! And so much for the Ugly Duckling - they're gorgeous!

Back when we first moved in, there was a couple who had cygnets every year, and the male came up to the garden a lot (ever barricaded yourself in the house cause there's an adult male swan laying siege on the patio?), but in the last few years they stopped visiting and a new couple seemed to have taken their place. It was sad to watch, though, because every year we'd see the female on her nest, but they never hatched. The other week, however, a male came up to the garden, so we're not sure if this is the old couple back, the later couple or a new one, but the important thing is, they've got babies - six wee, cheeping, adorable bundles of grey fluff.

Naturally, we reverted to type and named them, keeping to our old tradition. My sister had a bit of an obsession with swans when she was wee, so we named the cygnets after the Children of Lir, which was our favourite Celtic myth. This year, we renewed that tradition, so we now have Fionula, Fiachra, Conn and Fionn (we forgot what the fourth one was called, d'oh!). And for the remaining two, we have Eithne (my choice), and... Penny (her choice). Slightly off the Irish naming scheme, but tradition's tradition. No, I don't know what sex they really are.

Oh, I'm feeling all nostalgic now.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Scottish Historical Exam

Having just finished The Boar Stone, I started looking about for more books set in ancient Scotland, but only ended up with screeds and screeds of Scottish romance novels. Nothing inherently wrong with that - I'll read anything that sounds good - but eventually they all ended up sounding exactly the same, with Lachlan McLean, the tortured alpha-male laird of Dunglen or some other made-up fief. Which was why it was such a relief - and a laugh - to find The Scottish Historical Exam here.

Very funny, and very good for showing all the most well-known clichés. I had to give a big "lol" to points 11 and 12. Hmm... maybe when I finish with the Roman invasions, I'll start looking into some novels about Clan Campbell. Poor, maligned Clan Campbell. We're not evil. We're just misunderstood. Really.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Psycho Murderer Syndrome

Dear God, it was an eventful day yesterday. Trouble with a bogus council worker ended up with me having to give a statement to the police. First time anything like that had ever happened to me, and I was shaken for hours. The really fun part was, "it" had swung around again the same morning with its usual toll of ruined PJs, frayed tempers, sore backs and Feminax. And, just to top it all off, there wasn't a bloody crumb of chocolate to be had in the house. Dad, gallant as ever, refused to do the decent thing and go down to the shop, trying to make out that he's the one who suffers most from PMS so I owed it to him, but I reminded him (very nicely) that it probably wasn't the best day to try that on.

Much better now, however, though I still haven't got back the will to write. Wonder if other women writers just completely lose it those first couple of days. I know I do. I tend to open a file, stare at the screen for hours, type a couple of swear words, then shut the computer down again.

And my letter from Glasgow Uni came through in the post this morning, saying they'd got my acceptance of the place. Just a few more things to sort out now. Feeling better now. Much better.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Book review: The Boar Stone, by Jules Watson



Warning: Spoilers, ho!

I fell in love with Jules Watson's Dalriada trilogy from the first. The first two books, The White Mare and The Dawn Stag, centering around the struggles of Epidii princess Rhiann and her exile husband Eremon to fight the Agricolan invasion of Scotland, were characterised by Watson's wonderful, atmospheric writing, meticulous attention to detail and more drama than you could shake a pilum at. And, after the somewhat abrupt ending to The Dawn Stag, which left me in tears, I barely managed to wait till the release of The Boar Stone, the third and final installment in this thoroughly enjoyable trilogy.

The Dawn Stag effectively ended with the defeat of the Scottish (here called Alban) tribes by the Roman legions at Mons Graupius in AD 83. We now jump forward nearly three hundred years in time, to the year 366, where we encounter a whole new cast of characters. Admittedly, after spending two books with Rhiann and Eremon et al., I needed a wee while to get used to this fact. Only a wee while, though.

Minna, nursemaid to a wealthy Roman family near Eboracum (York), is feared and reviled by the local people because of her unnatural dreams. When her grandmother dies, she's all but accused of witchcraft and leaves. Her brother has betrothed her to one of the household, a match she has no intention of upholding, and decides to go north to join him on Hadrian's Wall. I liked this; the opening of The Boar Stone echoes that of The White Mare, where the heroine is being pushed into marriage against her will, and it helped link the two of them together in my mind.

Anyway, en route to the Wall via Eboracum, Minna befriends the wandering acrobat Cian. When she has to pass the Wall to reach her brother's fort, Cian goes with her. However, all does not go as planned, and a series of unfortunate events sees both Minna and Cian captured by slave dealers and being sold - very literally - up the river, to Dunadd, the seat of King Cahir of Dalriada. Dunadd, however, is very different from how we last left it. It's still a crag surrounded by marsh and topped by the King's Hall, but, instead of the White Mare of Rhiannon, the totem of Dunadd is now Hawen the Boar God. More importantly, due to King Cahir's somewhat reluctant dealings with the Romans, a lot of people, including Cahir's queen Maeve, are desperate to be Romanised and will do anything to see that happen.

Cian is sent to work in the stables, while Minna becomes nursemaid to the young princesses, Orla and Finola. King Cahir returns from the north, and we soon find that something is rotten in the state of Dalriada. Forced to pay tribute to Rome and under pressure from his wife and other courtiers to submit once and for all, Cahir cannot help but be ashamed, especially since he's a descendent of Rhiann and Eremon, who fought the Empire all those centuries ago. But he soon remembers a prophecy made by Rhiann and passed down from king to king, a prophecy he remembers when Minna speaks the words in a vision. Without giving too much away, he and Minna are obliged to travel into darkest Pictland in search of something that will reveal their joined destiny and bring back old memories for us readers, and from there form an unsteady alliance with the Pictish King Gede (Picts and Dalriadans aren't exactly the best of friends) to do what Rhiann and Eremon just fell short of: driving the Romans out of Alba once and for all.

The Boar Stone, like its predecessors, falls very definitely in the category of historical fantasy, filled with ancient mysticism and second sight. There's also the issue of reincarnation. From a remark made at the end of The Dawn Stag, I had a theory about who Minna was, and - (insert happy dance) - I was right. What I didn't expect was how incredibly emotional the revelation would be, for the characters across the centuries. Another possible reincarnation was the old Pictish herb-woman, Darine, whose name is an anagram of Nerida, the name of the high priestess of the Sacred Isle in the first two books. I couldn't help wondering whether this was deliberate, or just a very, very good coincidence.

As with the previous Dalriada books, the best-developed characters are the leads, Minna and Cahir. The secondary characters, from the deceitful Maeve to the very likeable maid Keeva, to King Gede, are all vividly drawn, though they're fairly limited to their roles, and consequently some of them come off as a bit one-dimensional. One character who really intrigued me was Cahir's aunt Brónach, and I'm sorry we didn't get to know more about her story. I'm also a bit surprised Cian's role turned out to be fairly minor, given his introduction at the beginning. The problem may also have something to do with the fact that this set of characters only had one book to themselves, whereas Rhiann and Eremon had two, giving the reader much more time to get to know them.

Nevertheless, Watson's third book is as emotionally engaging as her first two. Although the time leap between Rhiann's time and Minna's seems vast, Watson expertly weaves them together, penning scenes that had me moved to tears barely halfway through the book - a rare thing for me, let me tell ya. Cahir and his peers think of Rhiann and Eremon almost wistfully now that they're three hundred years away in the past, and I really shared that. Another scene, where Linnet's old seeing pool is described as overgrown and almost forgotten, was unexpectedly poignant. And yet, although Eremon and Rhiann are dead, they're not at all gone. The close weaving, and the distance, of past and present is one of the book's most emotional themes. And that's without the relationship between Minna and Cahir - not to mention that ending which I just did not see coming at all and needed lots of tissues for. Just a prior warning.

I also thought it was lovely that Rhiann could act as a sort of spirit-guide for Minna, especially since she spent most of The White Mare and The Dawn Stag desperate for such a thing herself. There was a real sense of fulfillment from that. Did I mention I needed tissues?

Combine all that with Watson's vivid descriptions of everything from daily life at Dunadd to the bloody battles between the Dalriadan-Pictish alliance and the Roman army, and what you've got is a stunning, truly satisfying end to a wonderful trilogy. Although I had my doubts about the time-frame (I thought Dalriada was established in Scotland after the Romans had left, though Watson does give her reasons for an earlier setting), this is an incredibly plausible and immersive vision of ancient Alba. I felt like I'd just stepped into a whole world, one I have every intention of returning to.

Quite simply, I loved it.