A Year of Ravens | 2015 | Knight Media | 483p | Review copy | Buy the book
Last year I was captivated by A Day of Fire, an anthology of shortish stories by several authors which focused on one event in history – the eruption of Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii. I’m not a huge fan of short stories or novellas but this book presented a formula that completely worked, helped along by the fact that the authors included some of the best writers of Roman historical fiction. I was so pleased to hear that this year there was to be another anthology, A Year of Ravens. Its focus is on another key event in Roman history – this time in Romano-British history – Boudica’s rebellion in AD 61.
A Year of Ravens comprises seven stories, each of which takes about 45 minutes to read (according to my one-step-away-from-the-grave kindle): The Queen by Stephanie Dray; The Slave by Ruth Downie; The Tribune by Russell Whitfield; The Druid by Vicky Alvear Shecter; The Son by S.J.A. Turney; The Warrior by Kate Quinn; The Daughters by E. Knight. There is also an Epilogue by Stephanie Dray, which brings the story to a fitting close, and an introduction by Ben Kane (not included in my review copy).
The novel, similarly to A Day of Fire, focuses on a small number of individuals who come and go through all of the stories. This is extraordinarily effective. The book might present the story of Boudica in a broadly chronological structure but this technique gives the collection a cohesion and three-dimensional quality that works perfectly. Occasionally, we revisit the same event more than once, watching it from different perspectives, angles, and even from opposing sides of the conflict. The principal event is, of course, the infamous flogging of Boudica and the raping of her two young daughters. We are reminded of this pivotal atrocity throughout. It focuses the minds of so many of the main figures of the novel. It overshadows many of the actions that follow it with the result that events such as the sacking of Colchester mostly take place in the wings. The exception is the final battle between the Romans and Boudica. The anthology’s focus is on Boudica’s rage and the inspirational havoc it wrought on her family and warriors and the guilt that the Romans bore as a result.
The stories present two worlds – Roman and British. Some characters move between them and life becomes all the more difficult for them as choices have to be made. Some people are dragged into the other world through no choice of their own. Others – particularly slaves, wives – must survive as they can, while even queens, not necessarily Boudica, must compromise for her people to survive. There is more than one queen in A Year of Ravens. There is more than one way of dealing with the Romans. The novel doesn’t falter in its depiction of the Celtic British way of life that the Romans crushed – Druids (now homeless), proud warriors (now weaponless) – as well as in its portrayal of disappointed, guilty, proud Romans, male and female. From Queens to slaves and warriors to priests, the stories here cover them all.
In an anthology of seven stories, it’s inevitable that a reader will have favourites. For me, these were Stephanie Dray’s The Queen, Ruth Downie’s The Slave and The Warrior by Kate Quinn. The anthology has such a strong beginning in the safe hands of Stephanie Dray and Ruth Downie. I think I particularly enjoyed these three stories because of their women – Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes, Ria the slave and half-sister to Boudica’s daughters, Valeria, the proud aristocratic Roman wife. Of all of these, I loved Valeria the most. What a fascinating woman. It’s strange to think on it but perhaps the least attention-grabbing woman in the anthology is Boudica herself. There are some great male figures, warriors on both sides, and Kate Quinn and S.J.A.Turney do such good jobs of bringing them to life. Arguably, though, the most intriguing male figure is Decianus, the weakest of them all.
There was one story that I couldn’t finish, The Tribune. This completely pulverised my tolerance for swearing threshold and stood out like a sore thumb. We all know Roman soldiers swore like sweary fishwives but it does get dull on the page.
Most of us know well the history of Boudica’s rebellion but this anthology makes a well-known story fresh, thrilling, tragic and catastrophic. The range of perspectives and the key figures drifting in and out of the different stories makes the collection dynamic, the movement between them natural and easy. There are some talented writers here, they are clearly inspired and how it shows. Highly recommended.
A Day of Fire