Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Morgan Llywelyn's After Rome, her newest novel of the passionate Celts

Through her carefully imagined novels, Morgan Llywelyn has traversed nearly three millennia of Celtic history, with The Horse Goddess's ancient pagan mysticism at one end of the spectrum and 1999, the last volume in her five-book Irish Century series, at the other.

The title of her newest, After Rome, makes it easy to place on a timeline.  The Romans have fled early 5th-century Britain to defend their home city from barbarian attacks.  The educated Britons they had trained as civil servants are left to pick up the pieces.

Governmental foundations have collapsed, and order has broken down.  Roads have deteriorated, physicians are nonexistent, and nobody knows how to work many of the engineering marvels so prevalent in Roman daily life.  Britain has become a chaotic, desolate place full of abandoned ruins and lingering memories, not all of which are pleasant.

This is a history-driven novel, meaning that Llywelyn has developed characters to fill specific roles and dramatize two opposing paths taken by the native Romano-British in re-civilizing their homeland. Mature and responsible Cadogan, living in self-imposed isolation in the woods, becomes the reluctant leader of a group of survivors after Saxons sack and burn his home city of Viroconium.

His cousin Dinas, restless and ambitious, seizes an opportunity for leadership by gathering together a cadre of would-be warriors to conquer the land wanting to make himself their king in the process. Antagonism runs blood-deep between their branches of the family after a love affair turned deadly.

The secondary characters in After Rome are a quirky and oddball bunch: the scrawny and feisty Quartilla, who claims to be a centurion's daughter and who Cadogan finds alternately annoying and helpful; his estranged father, old Vintrex, Viroconium's chief magistrate; and the motley members of Dinas's growing band, which include one injured, saintly man who isn't mentally all there and another with an uncommon rapport with animals.

As the men and their followers struggle to regroup and establish bases of power, the Saxons are equally eager to drive them apart and crush them.  One particularly vivid scene sees Cadogan and his fellow refugees sitting nervously in the darkness of Viroconium's public bathhouse while marauding tribes slaughter everyone outside.  In the parallel story involving his wanderer of a cousin, the remote peaks of Eryri, in what will one day be Wales, appear in stark, haunting detail:

By the close of day the land was engulfed in purple shadows.  One last flare of gold and crimson from the west, then darkness.  Dinas drew rein.  "Night in these mountains can be as black as the inside of a cow," he warned his companions ... He led the way beneath an overhanging shelf of rock, then onto a narrow ridge that climbed toward the sky.  A million stars blazed over them.

This is sharp and evocative writing, but on other occasions, Llywelyn drifts away from her story for a pages-long history lesson.  While these are informative, it feels startling to wake up from an involving tale to find oneself inside an encyclopedia.

After Rome doesn't have the same consistently engaged style as her earlier works.  However, readers drawn to the post-Roman, pre-Arthurian period will want to pick it up for its energetic yet thoughtful recreation of this transitional stage in Britain's history, and of a proud people who formed the bedrock of a new nation.

After Rome was published on February 19th by Forge in hardcover ($24.99 or C$28.99, 332pp).

16 comments:

  1. I'm adding Llywelyn's earlier novels to my TBR because, hello, they sound amazing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My favorites are The Wind from Hastings (her first novel, a feminine viewpoint on the Norman Conquest), The Horse Goddess, and 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion, which is superb.

      Delete
    2. Sarah, what a coincidence, those are my favourite's of Morgan books

      Delete
    3. Also like The Druids by her!

      Delete
    4. Glad you agree! Each of them is very different from the others, too.

      Delete
  2. Oh my...I haven't read a Morgan Llewellyn book in years! I think it was Druids...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I read that one long ago, too!

      Delete
  3. I've only read one of Llwellyn's books, Grania, and I admit to not having liked it all that much. I guess if I try another I should probably go with one of her earlier books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Her work is hit or miss for me. I haven't read Grania, but didn't care for Red Branch (based in Irish mythology). There's a sampling of The Wind from Hastings online at Amazon which I just reread, and I enjoyed it just as much as I did years ago. It's a first-person account, told simply and clearly. If you like the sample, you'll probably enjoy the rest of it too.

      Delete
  4. I haven't thought about Morgan Llywelyn in years! I used to devour everything I could find of hers in the library, but it must've been ages ago. My favorite (and it seems from the comments that I'm not alone) is The Wind from Hastings. I have a battered copy that has been much re-read. I remember really liking Red Branch, Druids, Lion of Ireland, Finn MacCool. I haven't read any of her recent stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lion of Ireland was excellent too. You don't see many epics like that anymore. My copy of The Wind from Hastings is the original one I bought in the '80s, and I've reread it numerous times. Most recently she's written some Irish novels for children, plus an adult novel called Brendan, about Brendan the Navigator. It's been a while since I'd read anything by her either!

      Delete
  5. Just wanted to say hi from Australia and that I love your site. I blog about the history of bushrangers and have found it difficult to find other history blogs until now, Thanks for the great list of blogs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lesley, thanks very much! You have some great vintage photos on your blog.

      Delete
  6. I'm looking forward to reading this book. I haven't read anything by this author before but now I want to look at her backlist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She has a lengthy backlist. If you're interested, she has an official website at completist.com that has descriptions of all of her books.

      Delete
  7. This sounds like it covers a lot of the same territory as Jack Whyte's Arthurian series (titled A Dream of Eagles in Canada and the Camulod Chronicles in the U.S.). One of my favourite historical series. I've read one Llewellyn book (Bard?) and found it so-so; can't decide whether I'd pick this up, or just re-read my Jack Whyte.

    ReplyDelete