23 July, 2011

The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams, by Bill Page. Book review

Matador, 2011. ISBN 978-1848766105. 325 pages. Review copy kindly provided by author.

Set in Late Roman Britain in 368–370 AD, in the area south of Corinium (modern Cirencester), The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams follows on from The Moon on the Hills (reviewed here last year), though it can stand alone. The Barbarian Conspiracy of 367-8 that forms the backdrop to the novel is a historical event, and some historical Roman Emperors are mentioned. All the main characters are fictional.

Promoted to acting Primicerius (captain) of the Corinium Civil Guard after his predecessor Saturninus mysteriously disappeared on the first night of the Barbarian Conspiracy a year before (events recounted in The Moon on the Hills), hard-bitten ex-soldier Canio has had enough of the army and enough of the Civil Guard. When a dying army deserter tells Canio about a hoard of gold bullion hidden in a lake many miles to the south, Canio sees an opportunity to buy himself the luxury retirement of his dreams. But the deserter makes him swear that he will take a figurine of the goddess Hecate to the lake and throw it in – and Canio has his own dark reasons to fear Hecate. He persuades a young priestess, Vilbia, who is searching for Saturninus, to accompany him in the hope that she or the goddess she serves will somehow protect him from Hecate. On their physical and spiritual journey in search of the gold, Canio finds himself developing a brotherly affection for Vilbia. But will Hecate guide them to the gold – and if she does, what will be the price?

The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams follows on from the events in The Moon on the Hills, and features some characters who appeared in the earlier novel. It also resolves some plot threads that were left open at the end of The Moon on the Hills, and readers who (like me) wondered what really happened to Saturninus and Pascentia will find the answers here. However, The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams can stand alone. Readers who have read The Moon on the Hills will recognise the events and people referred to, but the backstory is explained as required and it isn’t necessary to have read The Moon on the Hills first.

The central character is Canio, who was second-in-command to Saturninus in The Moon on the Hills. I remember Canio as a tough ex-soldier with a liking for alcohol and an unscrupulous eye for the main chance. In The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams he is revealed to be a more complex character than he first appears, haunted by the memory of a tragedy in his distant past. Canio has a nice line in cynical humour, and referring to their horse (Antares) as a third person in the party becomes a running joke between him and Vilbia. The development of his character as the narrative unfolds was one of the most interesting features of the novel for me. Part of this is achieved by showing his developing relationship with Vilbia. As Vilbia says as she learns more about him, “…some made me like you better, some not so well.”

Like its predecessor, The Sower of the Seeds of Dreams features some lovely, lyrical landscape descriptions. Most of the novel takes place in high summer, and the rich beauty of the area that is now Gloucestershire and Somerset is brought vividly to life, from the salt-marshes of the coast to the vast reed-beds of the Somerset Levels.

As well as a journey through the geographical landscape, the novel is at least as much a journey through the spiritual landscape of Late Roman Britain. Roman gods, British goddesses, the soldiers’ cult of Mithras and Christianity all play a role, and the ancient myth of Proserpina/Persephone and her abduction by Hades is a key component. The characters believe in omens, portents and supernatural powers; this is a world where a strange dog can be a sign from the gods. Vilbia in particular is seeking a renewal of her faith in the goddess she serves, and even the outwardly materialistic Canio seems to be searching as much for spiritual meaning and human contact as for the hidden gold. All the apparently supernatural events are at least ambiguous, capable of some natural explanation or possibly confined to the characters’ imaginations, so it is up to the reader to decide whether to share the characters’ beliefs.

The journey in search of the gold keeps the tale moving along at a steady pace, punctuated by colourful encounters – some benign, some mysterious, some dangerous – with fellow-travellers and local residents. All the main plot threads are resolved by the end, although there is still scope for interpretation of some of them, such as the significance of the Hecate figurine.

A helpful historical note explains some of the underlying history and provides a glossary of Latin terms used in the text, and a map at the front is invaluable for following the characters’ journey for readers unfamiliar with the geography. There is also an outline of the roles played by each character in The Moon on the Hills, for readers who haven’t read the earlier novel or who would like a refresher.

Beautifully described exploration of the natural and spiritual landscapes of Late Roman Britain.


Rick said...

No villainous, one-dimensional Christians?

For shame!

Carla said...

Not really - there's a group of Christian widows trying to destroy pagan monuments, but they're more traumatised (by the Conspiratio and its aftermath) than villainous.