Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Review: A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion

You've heard her name. Of course you have. Everyone has. And when you've heard it spoken, you've heard the hushed awe of her admirers or the grudging respect of her enemies. You've heard her legend.
Because she did not fight merely for lands or even for freedom. She fought for the humanity and the dignity of her daughters. Because of that, her name will always serve as a rallying cry for those who seek justice. 
- Stephanie Dray, A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion

Those who know me know that I'm one of the admirers of Boudica, the Iceni queen and warrior who raised a rebellion against the Romans. The first novels I ever read about my beloved heroine were the four “Dreaming...” novels by Manda Scott. I fell in love with these books. They became so much more than books to me. Since then, Scott's Boudica has been my Boudica, her story the story of Boudica to me. This, however, hasn't stopped me from enjoying other takes on the same subject.

So, when a dear friend (yes, another Boudica fan!) let me know about “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion”, I immediately added it to my TBR list and, a while later, bought the book... and couldn’t wait but started reading right away.

The novel is actually a sort of anthology consisting of seven stories by seven authors who all – as far as I know – have experience of writing fiction set in the period in question: Ruth Downie, Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney, Russell Whitfield and E. Knight.

What's different from a typical anthology where stories may focus on the same theme or take place in the same world or be otherwise more or less loosely connected is that the seven stories actually tell one tale, i.e. although the main characters and narrators vary, the stories form a (mostly) chronological, consecutive whole. It may be possible to read only some of them, but I'd say you need to read them all to get a proper picture of what happens.

What I like about anthologies is that you get different stories and different voices in one book. As I may have mentioned, I like variety. Another reason I like anthologies are the bite-sized stories; sometimes you just are in the mood for something quick. That's also their drawback, however; if you really enjoy a particular story, it will end much too soon. That, in turn, leads me to what I think is the very best feature of anthologies: they can serve as an introduction to new authors. You get a good sample of the work of different contributors and maybe find something you like and want more of.

This anthology's writers include some authors whose work I've been meaning to sample, some I'd not heard of before and only two (Russell Whitfield and Kate Quinn) whose books I've actually read. Therefore, I was very interested in this collection and potential new favourite authors I might discover.

Now, one thing I have to point out: this anthology is called “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion”. Note that it is a novel of Boudica's rebellion. It is not a novel about Boudica. The stories are narrated from the point of view of other characters while Boudica herself remains a rather distant figure. This was something of a disappointment to me, but then, I should have realised this before buying the book… not that it matters; I'd have bought it anyway. It's close enough. ;)

As a whole, the novel is fast-paced, well written and the feel of the period authentic. There were some scenes that failed to maintain my attention and I found my thoughts drifting away from the book, but these scenes were fairly few. The many main characters and thus the different points of view – queens and slaves; warriors and druids; Britons and Romans – guarantee variety. This, however, also meant that the main characters disappeared for long periods of time, and even if some of them reappeared, they were (often) supporting characters in someone else's story. I suspect that this is why I did not find the book as emotionally engaging as I had hoped.

I'm not going to go into individual stories here, but I will mention that I particularly enjoyed Stephanie Dray's “The Queen”, which not only made an interesting, sympathetic character of Queen Cartimandua but was also written in a beautiful language; Russell Whitfield's “The Tribune”, which mixed brutality of battles, humour and even some light philosophy into a very enjoyable read, and Kate Quinn’s “The Warrior” with its lively dialogue and the poignancy with which it handled both bloodshed and relationships, especially the often painful ones between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters.

I'm definitely going to take a look at other works of some of the authors here, and was pleased to discover that they have collaborated on a similar novel before, titled “A Day of Fire: Novel of Pompeii” (now on my TBR list).

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