20 April, 2010

The Moon on the Hills, by Bill Page. Book review

Troubadour Publishing 2009, ISBN 978-1906510-589, 314 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by author.

Set in Roman Britain in the late spring of 367, in the area around Corinium (modern Cirencester), The Moon on the Hills follows a civil guard captain, Saturninus, as he searches for his lost lover and the meaning of a strange and terrible dream. All the main characters are fictional.

Saturninus, the captain (Primicerius) of the Corinium civil guard, is an ex-soldier with a troubled past. He and his father were on the losing side at the terrible battle of Mursa in 351, and Saturninus is a survivor and casualty of the Persian wars of 359-363. Scarred mentally and physically by his experiences, he was discharged from the army on medical grounds. On his way back to his home town of Corinium, he met and fell in love with a girl named Pascentia, only to lose her when the ship she was travelling on disappeared in a freak storm. Then Saturninus experiences a strange dream in which he glimpses Pascentia alive and sees himself killed under a full moon by a man called Caelofernus. Saturninus knows he must find and kill Caelofernus before the next full moon to save his own life and perhaps have a chance of finding Pascentia again – but he has no idea who Caelofernus is, and the full moon is only four days away.

The Moon on the Hills has some lovely, lyrical descriptions of the Cotswold landscape and wildlife – the wild boar sow with her family of striped piglets, the spring flowers in the grass, the clear streams of the limestone hills. Saturninus is acutely aware of the beauties of the natural world – perhaps because he fears these may be his last few days of life – and they are skilfully described to transport the reader to a late spring in the Cotswolds, bursting with the promise of new life. The dialogue is lively and believable, written in straightforward modern prose with a salting of the wry humour one might expect from old soldiers.

The plot seemed to me rather meandering, and there are quite a few turns that could seem like coincidence if not for the strong feeling that events are controlled by the guiding hand of Fate. It is narrated in third-person, mainly but not exclusively from Saturninus’ viewpoint, and uses present tense throughout. This is probably intended to convey a sense of urgency, as Saturninus searches for his unknown foe with the time of the full moon drawing inexorably closer; however, for me it had the effect of putting everything into slow motion.

The dreamy atmosphere suits the subject matter, which is concerned mainly with the characters’ religious and mystical beliefs. Although Christianity is firmly rooted in Roman culture now, beliefs in pagan gods, goddesses and spirits are still strong. This is a world in which a change in the weather, an encounter with an animal, a shift in the wind, a dream or a half-seen figure glimpsed out of the corner of an eye in a town street or a woodland path can all be seen as omens, signs from the gods.

Beside this spiritual world, the practical quest to find and kill Caelofernus takes something of a back seat. Many plot threads are never resolved (or it was too subtle for me) – who was Caelofernus? Was he really intending to kill Saturninus at the full moon? Even the fate of Saturninus himself and Pascentia is left open; although the reader has a fair idea of what probably happened to them, it is not fully spelled out. This suits the otherworldly tone of the novel – as the jacket copy says, “….nothing is certain, not even the past.” However, readers who like to finish a book with everything neatly resolved may find the ambiguity frustrating.

There’s a useful gazetteer of place names and their modern equivalents, for readers who would like to trace Saturninus’ journeys on a modern map. A list of historical events and the emperors of the period gives the context for some of the characters’ remarks and references, and will be helpful for readers who aren’t familiar with the history.

Beautifully described, otherworldly evocation of the landscape, religions and beliefs of Late Roman Britain.


Meghan said...

I don't mind endings that are a little open, yet this sounds like it might be a frustrating read for me. Too bad because otherwise it sounds interesting.

Rick said...

This sounds rather like a sort of literary mood music, where the plot is just a sort of thread to hang things on.

Gabriele Campbell said...

It sounds a bit slow. I'm not that much into religion, dreams, mysticisma and whatnot - Manda Scott's books never worked for me, fe.

Carla said...

Meghan - You might see it quite differently and enjoy the anbiguous ending, or you might think it's not that ambiguous at all. Every reader sees something slightly different in a book.

Rick - The religious and mystical aspects look to me to be the main focus, though I wouldn't put it quite as strongly as mood music. Gabriele's mention of Manda Scott's Boudica novels is not a bad analogy, and this one isn't overstuffed with shamanic dreaming every few pages.

Gabriele - Not as much shamanic dreaming as Manda Scott, fortunately :-) The focus on the spiritual is not dissimilar though; I'd guess that people who enjoyed the mysticism in the Boudica novels would also enjoy this one.