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 BrĂ³nach, 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.

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