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).