Monday, December 8, 2008
Book review: Dark North, by Gillian Bradshaw
Insert your own likely spoiler warning here.
Let me just start off by saying that I'm so, so glad to see Iron Age/Roman Scotland being used more as a setting for novels. There were some pretty intriguing and not-too-greatly-documented events and characters, so it makes the ideal writer's playground. The Flavian invasion of the first century AD has gained some popularity with writers, and in Dark North, Gillian Bradshaw takes on the Severan invasion of the third.
The year is AD 208, and the Emperor Septimius Severus has arrived in Britain to deal personally with the troublesome tribal confederacies in the north: the Maeatae and the Caledones. Among the ranks of soldiers drafted over from the Danube frontier is Memnon, an African scout in the numerus (roughly, "unit") of Aurelian Moors. As the book opens, we meet Memnon playing an elaborate practical joke on the legionaries of the Second Legion Parthica. When said joke embarrasses the legion, infuriates the Emperor, and has the Imperial spies doing the rounds, Memnon's prefect, Rogatus, decides to get him out their way by sending him north, partly to save his hide and partly to punish him, to make an initial report to the unit's new garrison, Aballava (Burgh by Sands). Not too thrilled at this prospect, Memnon is assigned to a travelling party whose members are also bound northwards. Most of them are soldiers, but it also includes two members of the Imperial staff, the freedman Castor and Athenais, a secretary to the Empress Julia Domna.
Despite his introduction as a troublemaker, Memnon soon proves to be quite heroic, when the party is ambushed by Maeatae raiders and Castor and Athenais are captured. While the tribune in charge is all for retreating, Memnon breaks away and goes after the raiders by himself, spurred on by memories from his past. He succeeds, not only in rescuing the two from torture, but also in besting the Votadinian chieftain Fortrenn (pedantic quibble time: Fortrenn is actually a genitive form, the reconstructed name being *Fortriu, but I managed to live with it). After putting the fear into Fortrenn and his warriors, Memnon frees the two prisoners and they make their escape. Despite the anger of the tribune, he earns a hero's reputation amongst the soldiers, though because of his memories, he's not quite so glad about it. He also gains in Athenais and Castor two good friends at court.
Meanwhile, he and his unit move into Aballava alongside a resentful cohort of Frisian auxiliaries, and begin to scout the countryside in preparation for the war. But it soon becomes clear that it's not only the Maeatae that they should be worrying about, as, thanks to Castor and Athenais, he learns of the strife and intrigue within the Imperial family. The Emperor's two sons, the vile Antoninus (aka Caracalla) and the not much better Geta, are constantly vying against each other, and as they use their father's war for their own nefarious purposes, many lives become endangered: Castor's, Athenais', and even Memnon's, when the intrigues involve his numerus. In addition to this intrigue are Memnon's adventures on the frontier. Whilst on campaign, he is cornered by a group of warriors, but with his bravery and wit he gains the respect of the Caledonian chieftain Argentocoxus, and spends some time as his guest/prisoner. This allows him a glimpse into their culture, which ultimately humanises them to his eyes. When he escapes and returns to the army, his outlook begins to change. His years in the army have led him to love the Empire, but as he learns more about the power struggles within the Imperial family from Castor and Athenais, he becomes increasingly disillusioned with the people at the head of it. As the war rages on and the intrigues become more dangerous, Memnon and his friends will need all their wits to survive.
The novel is told entirely from Memnon's PoV, so it's a good thing that he's such an engaging and lovable hero. Bradshaw strikes a good balance between his good humour and his troubles, his practical jokes and his diligence as a scout. His past and the fears it has spawned in his mind are present, but never veer into draggy angst, as they might easily have done, and his personality means that there are plenty of humorous moments in between the intrigue and danger of the plot. There were a few times where I think Bradshaw let him get out of trouble a wee bit too easily, but luckily, he never turns into a full-blown Gary-Stu, remaining a very human protagonist. As well as the tribes and the Emperor's sons, he also has to deal with the prejudices of his fellow soldiers, who believe a black man to be an unlucky omen (despite, y'know, the Emperor being African), and of the tribes, who have never seen an Ethiopian before, and fear him to be a demon. Usually racial tension in historical novels of this period deal more with the Roman v. Gaul/Briton/German/Goth/etc. theme, so it was interesting to read about a form of racism (white/black) which is much more virulent in our own time. People, and, sadly, their prejudices, never seem to change.
Memnon is, I think, the best-developed character of the book, but there are others characters I grew fond of, like the unconventionally brave Castor, the intelligent and capable Athenais, and Rogatus, the hard-bitten old prefect with a heart of gold. I even got quite attached to Dozy, Memnon's trusty gelding. Historical figures such as Severus, Julia Domna, Caracalla, Argentocoxus and his wife, also get small parts and cameos.
The novel's plot stays faithful to Cassius Dio's account of the Severan invasion (scroll down to paragraph eleven), including all the major events and utterances reported. Bradshaw also uses an anecdote from the, admittedly unreliable, Historia Augusta, albeit, as she points out in her author's note, one that might just be plausible. The world-building is sound, especially in the details of the Roman army, even if there were a couple of times where the narrative strayed a wee bit too close to an info-dump. Bradshaw does a good job in portraying the possible tensions between legionaries and auxiliaries, and even between auxiliary cohorts. I'm no expert, but the details of the cavalry, the horse training and care, all seemed pretty authentic, too. I should maybe add that Bradshaw's identification of the Maeatae as a confederation of Lowland tribes (Votadini, Novantae, and Selgovae) might be disputed by those who favour their location to be in Fife or further north, but since Dio describes them as living "next to the wall that divides the island in two", I'm inclined to agree with her.
The fact that the novel is seen completely through Memnon's eyes was perhaps its greatest weakness. He receives most of his information about the court intrigues second-hand through Castor and Athenais, who are in the thick of it, and maybe telling parts in their PsoV could have made the dangers more immediate and intense. For instance, Caracalla's cameo portrays him as rude, but not necessarily dangerous: we learn that mostly from the information passed to Memnon. Giving his friends their PoV would have enhanced the suspense of the novel, and fleshed out the historical cameos a bit more, as well as the complicated emotions created by the sorta-love triangle that develops between the three of them.
That said, Dark North was still highly entertaining and exciting, and I finished it in a couple of sittings. Bradshaw's other book about Roman Britain, Island of Ghosts, is definitely on my TBR list.