Head of Zeus | 2019 (13 June) | 452p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is AD 100 and once more Britannia is threatened with unrest. Matters aren’t helped by the state of affairs in Rome itself. There are rumours that the Emperor is weak, dead even. Power is there for the taking and there are officials, and chieftains, in Britannia who are very ambitious indeed. Centurion Flavius Ferox, based in Vindolanda, is charged with keeping the peace in the northern edges of the empire. When a public official is found murdered in Vindolanda Fort’s latrine, he realises that the task might not be so easy. But with no time to investigate, Ferox is summoned to Londinium by the governor. A plot has been identified. Powerfully symbolic artefacts are being stolen. Someone wants to work magic with them. Ferox knows it must be the Druids, who are now led by a man with whom Ferox has a grim history. There is no choice. Ferox must go to that most feared of islands, Mona, to confront the Druids in their own lair.
Brigantia is the third novel in Adrian Goldsworthy’s Vindolanda series and it completes the trilogy. The novels stand alone and I don’t think it matters too much if you read them out of order. There is a thread that runs through it about Ferox’s relationship with the wife of the prefect in charge of Vindolanda, but you can easily pick that up and, besides, things have moved on for Ferox. There is another woman who steals his and our attention now, Claudia Enica, a princess of the Brigantia tribe and a young woman who is more than capable of giving Ferox a run for his money.
Adrian Goldsworthy, the well-known historian and expert in Roman military history, undoubtedly knows his subject and his knowledge shines through the novel. There are so many details about life in forts, on the march, on campaign and in battle and they are all fascinating. This is the type of novel that makes you want to know more, to do research yourself. It is a wonderful account of Roman warfare in Britannia at a time that still remembers Boudicca’s Revolt and can even recall the Claudian invasion of about sixty years before. We’re also reminded of the infamous Batavian Revolt that followed on the heels of Nero’s death. A major player in that revolt fights alongside Ferox. I really liked this idea of the past lurking in the shadows around Ferox, his men and his commanders. The old world is almost gone, and with it the Druids and the old chiefs. Their artefacts have such resonance largely because they belong to the past. The future is uncertain and is to be feared. All of this is captured so well in Brigantia.
Ferox is a fascinating character that I’ve enjoyed following over the three books and I love what we learn about him and his home at Vindolanda before Hadrian built his wall. His love life has been tumultuous to say the least and there’s no sign of that ending in Brigantia. But we have also got to know the men around him, especially Vindex and the enigmatic Crispinus, a young nobleman, very likeable but also perhaps not to be wholly trusted. It’s an interesting group. And here we watch them cross Britannia and go into battle, as well as get caught up in all sorts of scrapes. Claudia Enrica adds something extra and I really enjoyed her role in the novel, perhaps more than anything else.
But there are issues with Brigantia. This has been a mixed trilogy for me. I loved the first, Vindolanda, but I had trouble with the second, The Encircling Sea. Brigantia is much better than the novel that precedes it but it still feels like it’s not quite there and there are some editing errors, which marred the reading experience. There’s also something about the writing style that niggles at me. Fortunately, the use of ‘humping’ to replace other curse words is much less evident in this book than in the others, although it’s still there and I just can’t understand why. The prose can be a little lifeless, perhaps trying too hard. Also, as a final book in a trilogy, it doesn’t end satisfactorily. I needed closure on a major plot line.
Nevertheless, Brigantia is a fascinating depiction of what Britain may have been like in AD 100, when some of the chiefs, druids etc who remembered the Claudian invasion were dying off, marking the start of a new era for Roman Britain. I’m interested to see where Adrian Goldsworthy goes with his next Roman series. I’ll certainly be reading.