26 December, 2006

The White Mare, by Jules Watson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Orion, 2005, ISBN 0-75286-537-4

The White Mare is set in what is now Scotland in AD 79-81. All the main characters are fictional. The historical figures of Agricola, the Roman governor of Britannia at the time, and Calgacus, leader of a confederation of tribes in Caledonia*, are important secondary characters, and there is a walk-on part for the Roman historian Tacitus, who was Agricola’s son-in-law and whose history is the only documentary record of the events.

Rhiann is a princess and priestess of the Epidii tribe in what is now Argyll in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Her tribe, in common with the others in Alba* (the name used for Scotland throughout the novel), reckons royal descent through the female line instead of the male line, and Rhiann is the only woman of childbearing age in the Epidii royal family. She therefore has an inescapable duty to marry and bear a son who will be the next king of the Epidii – if she does not, some other clan of the Epidii, or perhaps even another tribe, will take over the Epidii by force. When Eremon, an exiled Irish prince, arrives in Epidii territory with his warband of loyal followers, the Epidii druid and chieftains demand that Rhiann marry Eremon as a political alliance. Recognising her duty, Rhiann agrees, but a traumatic experience has left her emotionally crippled and terrified of marriage. Meanwhile, in the south of Alba, the Roman governor Agricola is leading a military invasion that will threaten not only the Epidii but all the tribes of Alba. Rhiann and Eremon have to protect their own tribal territory against the Roman threat, persuade the other tribes to unite into a wider alliance, overcome a variety of enemies nearer to home, and somehow come to understand each other well enough to forge a lasting relationship out of their marriage of convenience.

I first heard of The White Mare when Marg of Reading Adventures reviewed it. I’m delighted to see this under-utilised period of history being explored in historical fiction. The only historical account is the biography of Agricola written by the Roman historian Tacitus (full-text translation available here). Tacitus was writing only a few years after the events, and as he was married to Agricola’s daughter he may well have had access to first-hand information from Agricola himself. This closeness to the events being described lends veracity to Tacitus’ account, though it should be remembered that he (like all historians) will have selected from the material available to him and presented that which he thought most relevant to his narrative. There are no sources telling the Caledonian side of the story. As a result, there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of the social structure, values, culture, religion, language and history of first-century tribal Scotland, leaving tremendous scope for the novelist’s imagination. The author will have had to make up most of Rhiann and Eremon’s world and the people in it, and a helpful Historical Note sets out the skeleton of historical facts and the reasoning behind some of the extrapolations (part of the Historical Note is posted on the author’s web site under ‘History’). I am not an expert on Iron Age Scotland by any means, but I found the novel plausible. The female royal line is controversial (in this period, most things are). Bede, writing in Northumbria in AD 731, says that the Picts* reckoned royal descent through the mother in his day, though he tells the story in the context of an origin myth and modern scholars have suggested that it may be a contemporary tradition rather than a fact. I know of no incontrovertible evidence either way, so you can take your choice. The religion of Iron Age Scotland is unknown, and the author has postulated two competing religions, a male-dominated religion with druids similar to those recorded in Gaul and further south in Britain, and a female-dominated religion based on worship of an earth-mother Goddess and rituals centred around stone circles. It has previously occurred to me to wonder whether there might be a connection between the tradition of female royal descent and worship of a powerful female deity, so I have no problem with seeing both in the novel. Again, there is no definite evidence either way.

The White Mare recreates the lost world of Iron Age Scotland in rich detail, with attention paid to politics, religion, legal and social structures, a working economy, and details of domestic life including food, drink, clothing, jewellery and medicine. It recognises that there were different points of view regarding the coming of the Romans, as the Votadini tribe of south-east Scotland are presented as co-operating with Agricola, which is entirely consistent with the role documented for the tribe in later Roman Britain. I have my doubts about the credibility of a Roman-style palace being built in the middle of the hill-fort at Traprain Law in AD 80 as described in the novel (the remains of its foundations and tiled roof would surely have been visible in archaeological excavations, and there is no mention of such remains in a reasonably recent article), but I don’t suppose the entire area of the fort has been meticulously excavated, so who’s to say? The central characters, Rhiann and Eremon, are firmly anti-Roman and so the novel gives more emphasis and sympathy to this point of view, but the Roman side of the story is presented as well and the Roman characters are not demonised. Agricola is a character in his own right, with his own desires and motivations, and a rather timid Roman engineer is occasionally used to observe and comment on Caledonian society.

The main characters are well rounded, with a mix of good and bad qualities. Both Rhiann and Eremon are complex and intelligent with a strong sense of duty, and both have previous painful experiences to overcome. Caitlin and Conaire are in some senses sunnier versions of the two leads, with less responsibility on their shoulders and consequently more opportunity to be fun and outgoing. The main plot driver is the relationship between Rhiann and Eremon, and the overall tone is one of epic drama, sometimes veering into melodrama. Occasional verbal sparring between Rhiann and Eremon, Caitlin’s artless chatter and laddish humour among the warriors provide a few glimpses of humour to lighten the tone.

The secondary characters, such as Gelert the crafty druid, cruel king Maelchon, scheming Samana and noble Calgacus, are vividly drawn, though their clearly defined roles in the plot limit the aspects that can be portrayed and they may appear somewhat one-dimensional. Rhiann is a strong character without being a warrior princess, and although the Goddess cult is feminist the society as a whole isn’t presented as a feminist utopia.

The novel is very long (605 pages) and rather slow, in part because the detailed world-building takes up a lot of room, and in part because Rhiann’s emotional trauma seems to be repeated rather more than I thought was necessary. It starts to pick up around page 250 or so, but I still found it a slow read and would have preferred a faster pace and fewer reminders of Rhiann’s personal problems. This may be because I found it hard to credit that Rhiann’s aunt, a fellow priestess in the Goddess cult, didn’t recognise the reason for Rhiann’s aversion to marriage until well over halfway through the novel, whereas it seemed obvious to me within a few pages.

Most of the plot elements are not resolved at the end of the novel. You have to read the sequel, The Dawn Stag (even longer), to find out what happens in the end, so be prepared to embark on a 1200+ page odyssey.

There is a strong spiritual and religious theme in The White Mare, particularly for the Goddess cult (the rival druid religion gets less emphasis). Occasionally this spiritual theme spills over into events that appear to be overtly magical. For example, Samana casts a spell on Eremon, and Rhiann uses some sort of magic to bewitch a Roman sentry and gain access to a Roman fort. As I’ve said elsewhere, I am not a great fan of fantasy elements in historical fiction, and for me this tended to weaken the story.

I found it odd that none of the characters ever compared their situation and the choices facing them with the recent experiences of the tribes further south in Britain. The White Mare is set only a generation or so later than Boudica’s revolt against Rome in AD 61 (review of a novel telling Boudica's story here), and Cartimandua’s reign as a pro-Roman client queen. Yet no-one in the novel ever tries to draw lessons from the decisions made by Boudica and Cartimandua and the other tribal leaders further south. Geographical isolation isn’t the explanation, as there is reference to a marriage alliance with a prince of the Trinovantes, one of the tribes that joined Boudica’s revolt, so clearly the tribes in the novel have contact with their contemporaries in the south of Britain. Cartimandua’s territory is likely to have bordered Votadinian territory so she and Samana might even have been neighbours. Maybe the tribes of Caledonia don’t consider the other British tribes worthy of attention (though they are evidently considered worthy of marriage alliances with royal females). Maybe the events were so traumatic they were wiped from popular memory. However, it also extends to the Roman side, as Agricola fought military campaigns in Britain shortly after Boudica's defeat, yet he never refers to her revolt and its aftermath as a dire warning of the consequences of resisting Rome. I find this apparent disconnect from recent history rather puzzling.

A richly detailed recreation of Iron Age Scotland at the time of the first-century Roman invasion.

*The nomenclature of the inhabitants of what is now modern Scotland is confusing in the extreme. Tacitus refers to Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde as Caledonia. In later centuries, Latin writers from the late Roman Empire (fourth century AD or so), and Bede, also writing in Latin, refer to the inhabitants of north-east Scotland (roughly, north of the Forth and east of the main spine of the Highland mountains) as Picts. Irish writers writing in Irish at the same sort of time as Bede refer to the same area as Alba and its inhabitants as Albans. No source preserves the name that the inhabitants of the area used for themselves in their own language, whatever it was. It is entirely possible that these different names refer to different tribes who displaced each other; for what it’s worth, I’m more inclined to think that the simplest explanation is that they are all different names for the same people, with ‘Picts’ and ‘Pictland’ replacing ‘Caledonia’ in later Latin sources (possibly by a similar process to that which replaced the names of medieval duchies with the names of the larger kingdoms that absorbed them, e.g. the areas that were Gascony and Aquitaine in the 13th century are now referred to as parts of France), and ‘Albans’ and ‘Alba’ being the equivalent terms in Irish Gaelic.

27 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

According to Amazon.de it's going to be a trilogy. :)

The first book is out as paperback, so I'll order it the next time I have some money left. After all, it takes place not much earlier than Caledonia Defiant (which is 119-22 AD), and my MC Talorcan is related to Calgacus. *grin*

Sarah said...

Thanks for the review, Carla. I read The White Mare about a year ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I didn't know nearly as much as you do about the historical background. It started off very slow for me as well, and after the first 100 or so pages, I admit I wasn't sure whether I'd continue - but after that point, the characters began to finally come alive (this was about when Samana came into the picture, I believe).

In the US, it's categorized as historical fantasy, maybe to attract the Mists of Avalon crowd, but that decision puzzles me. There are some fantasy elements in it, as you mention, but they were comparatively minor. I also thought that shelving it in with fantasy novels wouldn't help the novel find its natural audience in historical fiction readers.

Marg said...

I'm surprised that it was classified as Historical Fantasy too Sarah - the only fantasy elements were those linked to the goddess religion.

The third book is due out in May 2007 - I will definitely be looking out for it!

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
How does the title fit with the plot?

Carla said...

Gabriele - the story of the main characters is all wrapped up in the sequel, and the last book in the trilogy is set much later, around AD 400 or so. The Selgovae don't get a mention, but their neighbours the Dumnonii (south of the Clyde) feature, as do the Votadini, and all the Highland tribes have a part. In the novel, Calgacus is king of the tribe that lives in the area around what's now Inverness, and he's firmly located to that area.

Sarah - there seemed to be rather a lot of tea drinking, herb gathering and ill-defined angst in the first 100+ pages, I thought, which rather tried my patience. The cover packaging in the UK reminds me of Manda Scott's Boudica series, which is a not dissimilar mix of historical fiction with elements of New Age-y fantasy and sort-of-proto-environmentalism. Perhaps fantasy is considered more marketable than historical fiction in the US? Or maybe the Roman invasion of Scotland may not be all that well known in the US? Although I think people looking for an epic fantasy novel would be disappointed, and I'd agree with you that it's more likely to appeal to readers looking for historical fiction.

Marg - was it marketed as straight historical fiction in Australia? If so, maybe the fantasy positioning is a US thing.

Bernita - each of the tribes has a totem animal, and for Rhiann's Epidii tribe it's a mare. Also, there are occasional references to mares being associated with the Goddess. So I interpreted the White Mare of the title as referring to Rhiann, in her dual role as Epidii royalty and priestess of the Goddess cult. If that is any help?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great review, Carla! But I'm afraid I couldn't last through the "ill-defined angst," so I'll give this one a skip. (I like my angst defined.)

Carla said...

Well, tastes vary, Susan, so you might find it better defined than I did. I wonder if the idea was that the author was trying to keep the reader guessing about exactly what had happened to Rhiann, whereas I guessed it more or less immediately and so I found the hints irritating rather than tantalising. Or maybe I just missed the point?

Gabriele C. said...

400 AD - that would bring it close to The Charioteer; Ciaran is part of the first wave of Dalriatan settlers getting in trouble with the Picts.

To have Talorcan related to Calgacus from the maternal side is a recent development in my plot twists, but since it's only two generations between them, he can use the name to try an rally some tribes, albeit less successfully than his ancestor.

Susan,
I'm not looking forward to the first 100-150 pages after Carla's review, but since it's so close to the time of my NiP I thought it may be interesting enough to get through.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Jules Watson starts the Dal Riadan connection earlier than convention, as she makes Eremon sort-of the start of the connection, in AD 79. It's quite likely that there was contact back and forth between west Scotland and Ireland for ages, so I don't have a problem with that as an idea.
Is Calgacus seen as a great hero in your story, then? I always wondered whether the Caledonians thought of him as a liberator after the Romans gave up and went away, or whether they thought of him as a loser since he was defeated at Mons Graupius. One of these unknowable questions that makes history such fun!

As I said to Susan, you might not have a problem with the slow pace, and if you do, you can always skim until you get to the bits of the history you're interested in. You may well find the world building detail more fascinating than most, since you have to build a similar world for your story so you may find it interesting to compare her version with yours and work out where and why they differ. I'll be interested to see what you think of the novel if/when you read it.

Constance said...

Carla, thanks for the in depth review. I may go looking for this one. I'm not shy about skipping over the boring parts, either. :) It makes a good study on how not to handle things in one's own work. I'm a bit leery of sequels and trilogies right now, does the book stand alone? Will I want to read any further books on this batch of characters?

Marg said...

I think it was also classified as historical fantasy here as well.

Sarah said...

Carla, you're right on both counts, I think - fantasy is more marketable (at least it has its own bookstore section in the US...) and the Roman invasion of Scotland is little known here. It was just weird, even the jacket blurb doesn't make it sound like fantasy at all, so it's hard to see why fantasy fans would choose it - unless they liked general historical fiction as well.

Gabriele C. said...

Looks like many Fantasy fans have a pretty broad view re. 'fantasy' elements. Guy Gavriel Kay or GRR Martin have only little magic in their books, compared fe. to Feist, Eddings or Tad Williams, and they sell fine nevertheless. So, if you offer Fantasy readers something Celtic and swords, they seem to be happy enough. *grin*

I've had my stuff criticized by Fantasy writers quite often, esp. since there was no Historical Fiction section in the Forward Motion forum before I joined.

Gabriele C. said...

Carla,
Talorcan uses Calgacus in the sense of mythical leader who kicked the Romans out (and if you remember my esay about the genesis of the Song of Roland from defeat to victory, you'll know it doesn't take long to twist history). The problem Talorcan encounters is that the tribes further away from the Stanegate Defenses have less trouble in his time and are not interested in provoking the Romans.

His cousin Muirtholoic is the one who deconstructs the mythos by memories Talorcan prefers to forget, that is, the building of the Gask Ridge forts after the battle of Mons Graupius.

Rick said...

I'm sure it's what Sarah and Gabriele said. "Fantasy" is easier to sell - especially for a novel set in the Celtic mists, with natural appeal to a big chunk of the fantasy readership.

(So true, also, what Sarah says about lack of a hist-fic section in bookstores. You can't really browse for it.)


I'd have a really hard time getting past "a traumatic experience has left her emotionally crippled and terrified of marriage." Obviously there's nothing new about that (Elizabeth I a case in point), but it sound so, well, Oprah.

A small point, but Caitlin? I can see the fun of using a popular modern name if in fact it goes back to the period, but Caitlin is the Gaelic form of Catherine, anachronistic by about a thousand years. It wouldn't make me throw the book against the wall, but I'd spend the next 200 pages looking for where the time machine was hidden.

Carla said...

Constance - If you get into this book, you'll want to read the sequel (The Dawn Stag) as well, because most of the plot points aren't resolved at the end of this one and you have to read the sequel if you want to know what happens next to all these people. However, the third volume in the trilogy apparently then hops forward 300 years (according to the author's website), so that's bound to have a new set of characters and will probably stand alone. Expect to have to read the first two as a pair (I have; and I'd say they're one huge book published in two volumes), while the third one should be more separate.

Marg, Sarah, Gabriele - there was a fashion in the UK in the 80s to play up the fantasy element in anything even remotely 'Celtic', and maybe that still applies. Maybe there's a fair amount of overlap between historical fiction and fantasy readers, since both types are set in a time and/or place that isn't the contemporary world?

Gabriele - so your main characaters have two conflicting views of recent history and two conflicting myths about it? That does sound interesting!

Rick - indeed, the 'Celtic mist' conflation of anything Celtic with magic/fantasy is very pervasive. I remember hearing a Welsh historian fuming that his serious academic translation of The Mabinogion was apt to get shelved in the 'Mind, Body and Spirit' section of bookshops :-)

It's a pity there aren't historical fiction sections in bookshops (I believe there are in Germany, but not in the UK) - it makes it hard for me to find anything other than authors I already know about. So I rely a lot on the library, which does have a historical fiction section.

I'm afraid some aspects of the novel reminded me of Oprah, too. Fortunately there's more going on than just Rhiann's troubled psyche, so the novel doesn't drown in depression, and as you say, such things do happen in real life. It's quite a challenge for a novelist to put a character through hell and show how hurt they are without veering into whining. Arguably there was a similar problem in Flight of the Sparrow. Someone on the verge of clinical depression, for good reasons because their life has fallen apart, and it's hard to make that attractive to a reader. Black humour can work, but humour tends to be rare in historical fiction and fantasy.

I should have mentioned something about the names in the review. There are no - and I mean none, not one - female Pictish names recorded. So the author used Irish and Brittonic-derived names for her female characters. Rhiann is sort-of Welsh, and many of the other women's names are Irish. There's a theory, which I think is quite likely myself, that Ireland and West Scotland might have shared a common language and cultural contacts across the Irish Sea from a very early period, so Irish names in W. Scotland would fit with that. I wouldn't have used as popular a modern name as Caitlin, myself, I'd have gone and found some out of the Tain Bo cycle, or made some up to sound vaguely Irish/'Celtic', but I can see why she did it. Caitlin gives an immediate Irish feel for a modern reader, and since there are no documented female names from the right region and time, she can't be either 'right' or 'wrong' and so might as well use something familiar.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, tell me about the absent female Pictish names. I've filched the Irish lists, too. :)

It's hard to make a broken and depressed character interesting, and it's even harder if the main POV is that person. Lois McMaster Bujold managed in The Curse of Chalion as far as I can say after having read some 120 pages, Donaldson in his Covenanter books doesn't - I gave up on the first, whiny and a jerk is a bit much.

We have special shelves for Historical Fiction here, and well filled ones, too. :) Gabaldon is shelved as hist fic and that's a good thing because I'd not have found her in Romance since I don't browse these. The only 'historical' books with romance that end up there are the ones with Fabio covers. If the element of magic is minor and fits the time, a book may still be considered hist fic, but Mists of Avalon ended up in the Fantasy/SciFi section.

Carla said...

One reason I like multiple characters and viewpoints in a novel is that it gives me a choice of people to get interested in. A character and situation that I find compelling may leave another reader cold and vice versa. The White Mare is a good example of that - if it had been told entirely from one point of view I don't think it would have worked as well for me.

Sarah Cuthbertson said...

Carla, thanks for your review. I tried reading this when it first came out, but soon got bored with the draggy angst and tea-making. If I'd got further, I too would have thought it odd that Agricola didn't refer to Boudica, given that he was a junior officer in the Roman army that fought her.

Carla said...

Sarah C - Thanks, I'm glad it wasn't just me!
I thought Agricola was a junior officer on Suetonius Paulinus' staff during the Boudican revolt too, but when I tried to check the references the translations of Tacitus' Annals and Agricola that I could find didn't say definitely one way or the other. The Agricola refers to him arriving in Britain as governor some years after the revolt, but I didn't find a firm statement saying whether he had been there before or not. Maybe it's missing in the translation, or maybe it's from another source. Do you happen to know?

Gabriele C. said...

Agricola. 5 (Agricola) prima castrorum rudimenta in Britannia Suetonio Paulino, diligenti ac moderato duci, adprobavit, electus quem contubernio aestimaret.

Tacitus surely didn't made Agricola's his time as tribune, though one can't know for sure how much truth is in his exemplaric conduct. :)

Sarah said...

Carla, there was a statistic in Locus Magazine a few years back (their annual end-of-the-year survey) that said that 30% of their subscribers also read historical fiction. Locus is the big US-based trade magazine for SF/F. That's a considerable number. I've no idea of the figure in reverse but think it must be quite a bit smaller.

Interestingly, I was at Borders earlier tonight and saw the new trade pb release (link to Amazon) of The Dawn Stag. It's gorgeous, imho, and really plays up the Celtic look.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Thanks! I was looking in the later chapters (20 onwards) that describe the Scottish campaign and forgot to look in the earlier part! No, I'm sure Tacitus didn't make up actual facts, though no doubt others could have interpreted them a different way.

Sarah - How about a survey of HNS members to answer the reverse question? It might be interesting to see how many also read and enjoy straight fantasy and historical fantasy. It's an attractive cover, and I like the superimposed map of Scotland. I also like the more abstract UK covers with the little item of jewellery and the mosaic border, a little like the Boudica covers with the sort of enamelled medallion showing a stylised animal.

Rick said...

Sarah - 30% of their subscribers also read historical fiction ... That's a considerable number. I've no idea of the figure in reverse but think it must be quite a bit smaller.

At least in the US, I'd suspect that the SF/F readership is much larger than the historical-fiction readership (at least, apart from historical romances emphasizing the romance). So most people who read hist-fic here probably also read SF/F.

(Though it might depend on period - there's probably a much bigger overlap for medieval settings and the like than for, say, 19th century settings.)

Carla - Giving Celtic names to Pictish characters makes perfect sense to me, e.g. Rhiann - surely related to Rhiannon, made popular by Stevie Nicks but having ancient roots.

Still, Caitlin seems as close to "wrong" as a name in a setting lacking primary sources can be, since it has a known Christian origin. For comparison, I'd have had no problem with Brigid - the name of a saint to be sure, but an Irish one, and evidently of pre-Christian origin.

Carla said...

Rick - Off the top of my head, I'd guess that you're probably right about there being a bigger overlap for earlier time periods. Perhaps the earlier in history you go (medieval and pre-medieval), the more exotic and remote from the present it's perceived to be and therefore the step to fantasy is perceived to be shorter.

Yes, I assume Rhiann is a modification of Rhiannon. I'd have preferred older names, like Brigid/Bride, too. I didn't know Caitlin had a known Christian origin (never researched it) - I always vaguely thought the original Greek form Akatarina (spelling?) was much older than St Catherine's martyrdom in 300-odd-AD, and so had a vague idea that variants of the name might have existed before then. If St Catherine is the first recorded use, then ouch! Caitlin is out by at least two centuries, most of the distance across Europe and a change of religion.

Sarah said...

I've been having trouble posting comments today - hope this goes through.

Rick and Carla - yes, the SF/F readership is much larger than that for historicals, I'm sure, and I agree the overlap is likely greater the further back in time you go. Most of the authors I know who write in both genres stick to medieval and pre-medieval settings. I just don't think the percentage of HF readers who also read fantasy is as large as the reverse... I've always found it hard to find reviewers willing to cover novels that are obviously historical fantasy (Sara Douglass, Judith Tarr, etc). I always suspected I was an oddball because I was reading fantasy long before I read historical fiction.

I wouldn't mind doing a survey, but getting people to respond without some major incentive is like pulling teeth! (Been there, done that)

The name Caitlin stood out to me as "wrong," too.

Carla said...

Sarah - thanks for persevering, and your comment made it. I don't like the mix of historical with fantasy, myself - unless it's being used as a misnomer for what I'd call invented history, e.g. Guy Gavriel Kay - but I like either on its own. Maybe some readers particularly like the educational aspect of historical fiction, which by definition is absent from fantasy?

Interesting that Caitlin felt wrong to you as well. It struck me as modern Irish but didn't annoy me - maybe I was just relieved not to encounter anything like 'Stan' or 'Red', or 'Kylie' or 'Jade' :-)