It's been a while since I read any historical fiction so I decided to give this book another go. I bought it six years back in Wageningen but back then I didn't get past the first fifty pages. I finished it this time but I am not really impressed. Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is the first in a series of four books on the life of the Eceni queen Boudica, who lead a major rebellion against the Roman in in 60-61 AD. Very little is know about Boudica except what the Romans (most notably Tacitus and Cassius Dio) wrote about her and the rebellion. This lack of historical detail makes this first book almost entirely fictional.
The story starts in 32 AD when the girl Breaca is eleven or twelve years old. In the prologue we see a glimpse of he attack on the village in which her mother is killed. Breaca makes her first kill in that attack. Although she wants to be a dreamer it is quite clear right from the start she is destined to become one of the great warriors of her age. In the first chapter, set in 33 AD we meet Bán, Breaca's eight year old brother (who as far as I can tell is entirely fictional). Unlike his sister Bán does have a talent for dreaming, which manifests itself early on in his life.
We follow both Bán and Breaca in the events leading up to the Claudian invasion of 43 AD, when parts of Britain where conquered by the Romans. Bán's and Breaca are separated and believe each other slain in a battle with one of the neighbouring tribes more heavily influenced by the Romans than the Iceni are. Bán's capture at this battle leads him into Roman slavery in Gaul, while Breace moves on to the religious centre of Mona, present day Anglesey in Wales. Each of them will play their part in the unavoidable invasion of Britain by the Romans. A conflict in which Breaca will earn a new name, Bringer of Victory: Boudica.
The cultures of pre-Roman Britain where based on oral traditions and storytelling. Most of these stories are lost in time and what little remains is usually not a good source of history. Not even the spelling of the name Boudica seems to be certain. Scott has to make up almost all of the story, the only firm bit of information we do have about the period is what the Romans wrote about Britain, although the Roman historians were not without bias themselves. Some people consider this a problem. I don't. It is historical fiction after all, the author always has to make choices and too much historical detail can get in the way of a good story as well.
What I am not really impressed with, is the way Scott uses this quite large amount of freedom to tell her own story. A lot of the book is waiting for the storm to break. The Britons know that the Romans are going to try and finish what Caesar started with his invasions of 55 and 54 BC. They are obviously undecided about the desirability of such an event, it raises the tensions between the various tribes a lot, but rarely to the point of outright hostility. Because of these different interests there doesn't seem to be much in the way of preparation for resisting the invasion going on either. Most of the characters seem to be brooding and biding their time. And when that time comes it takes something like 40 pages out of well over 500 to wrap up the book.
It doesn't help that Scott's style is rather descriptive too. There are lots of lengthy passages about the various rituals, day to day activities and characters reflection on events. I won't say this book is boring, I got to the end without problems on this second try, but it certainly is well padded. What I also didn't like about the book is that the main characters frequently have to be stopped by their surroundings from doing something suicidally stupid when things go wrong for them. Bán in particular seems to be afflicted with this, being genuinely disappointed when doing something stupidly brave doesn't get him killed. Of course their culture seems to encourage such behaviour to an extend but Bán overdoes it, and usually in places where his people will not take notice of it anyway.
This book will appeal to some readers. The topic is interesting enough and Scott certainly researched life in pre-Roman Britain well. Especially in the first chapters where Breaca and Bán are introduced Scott creates a very realistic atmosphere of what life might have been like back then. After 43 AD history has a little more to say on Britain. In the next couple of books Scott may be able to put more of a historical backbone in the story and hopefully give a bit more direction. Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle is not a particularly strong start to the series however. I am not tempted to seek out the second book Boudica: Dreaming the Bull any time soon.
Title: Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle
Author: Manda Scott
Publisher: Bantam Press
First published: 2003