HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)
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Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
he last novel I read by William Dietrich was his Antarctica thriller,
. In contrast,
is set in Britain as the Roman Empire's power waned. What do the two books have in common? They're both thoroughly researched, so that this time the reader gets the feel of what it would be like to live on both sides of the Wall, and to empathize with the cultures it divided. On one side is an uneasy coexistence of superior Romans and despised conquered peoples. On the other is a place where '
Behind the visual world was a second universe of vision, legend and memorized song that was somehow as real to these barbarians as stone, bark, and leaf.
s the novel opens in 122 A.D., we see Hadrian commanding the building of the Wall named after him, as part of a grand scheme to set and defend the boundaries of an over-extended empire. The story then fast forwards to 368 A.D. and the point of view of inspector Draco, a bureaucrat with '
the ear of emperors
'. He was sent to the legionary fortress of Eburacum in northern Britannia to resolve the mystery of the disappearance of a Senator's daughter at the same time as a '
'. It seems the beautiful and willful Valeria travelled to the Wall for an arranged marriage with Marcus Flavius. Their alliance won Flavius the command of the Petriana cavalry, while at the same time solving the financial difficulties of Valeria's patrician father.
raco's interviews with a cast of characters involved in the mystery are interspersed with flashbacks to the events of which they speak, the suspense building steadily. Though Valeria inflames passions in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Helen of Troy, she remains a sympathetic character - rash, loyal and brave. Savia, Valeria's Christian slave, chaperone and mother substitute, reminds her of duty, while facing temptations herself. Marcus Flavius is cold, distant, and indecisive. The young aristocratic officer, Clodius, who accompanies Valeria on her journey, is quickly in over his head. There's Arden Caratacus, a heroic Celt who has lived in the Roman world and straddles the two cultures. And then there is senior tribune Galba Brassidias, brutally competent, and highly ambitious. He felt the commander's position was his due, and manipulates events with a Macchiavellian skill and the heart of Othello's Iago.
ietrich tells his tale with a gritty realism. By moving characters between Roman and Celtic civilizations, he gives us a fascinating comparison. South of the Wall is the organized society exported from Rome, with its systematic and deadly machine of war. North are the Celtic peoples, disorganized but with a deeper freedom, an '
independence of emotion
', and a deep feeling for the natural world. These are folk for whom '
every deed was aimed at that day, not the next.
, the author captures a period on the cusp of history when '
The world is holding its breath
', and encloses in it a remarkable, romantic tale that sets love and loyalty in opposition to ambition and envy.
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