28 January, 2007

The Dawn Stag, by Jules Watson. Book review

Edition reviewed: Orion, 2006, ISBN: 0-7528-7761-5.

Set in what is now Scotland in AD 81-83, The Dawn Stag is the sequel to The White Mare, and continues the story of Rhiann, Eremon and their friends, families and enemies where the first novel left off. All the main characters are fictional, with important secondary roles for the historical Agricola (Roman governor of Britain) and Calgacus (leader of the Caledonian* tribes).

Rhiann, priestess and princess of the Epidii tribe in what is now modern Argyll, is now happily united with her husband, the exiled Irish prince Eremon. Eremon is accepted as warleader (not king) of the Epidii, and has alliances with some of the tribes of the far north-west and with Calgacus, the powerful king of the area around modern Inverness in north-east Scotland. In the south, the Roman governor Agricola has received orders from Rome to invade Alba* and complete the conquest of Britain. The stage is set for a final confrontation between Rome and the tribes of Alba under Eremon’s leadership - but Rhiann and Eremon also have to contend with betrayals, intrigues and personal dilemmas closer to home.

The core of the story is the development and maturation of Rhiann and Eremon’s marriage, shaping and shaped by the events they live through and the actions they take. Self-esteem, spiritual fulfilment, personal development and the finding of personal happiness in the face of defeat form the key themes. The strong religious and spiritual component in The White Mare receives even greater emphasis in The Dawn Stag, so that in places the novel borders on fantasy. Readers who are annoyed by features like near-miraculous spiritual healing, a shamanic journey to the Otherworld, telepathy under the influence of drugs, visions and prophecy should consider themselves warned. The title, The Dawn Stag, refers to a religious rite.

War and tribal politics also play a large part in the plot. Wicked King Maelchon, the scheming druid Gelert, treacherous Samana and the ambitious young lord Lorn all reappear to keep the story moving, to say nothing of the Roman army. The big set-piece battle scene of Mons Graupius** is given its full weight, told from the viewpoints of multiple characters with fast cutting between them. I thought this worked very well, managing to convey the immediacy of each character’s experience and still give the reader an overview of the battle as a whole.

Vivid and realistic description makes the Scottish landscape almost another character. Even the midges get a mention (one of my tests for realism in any description of the Highlands!), along with more glamorous wildlife such as stags and eagles. As with The White Mare, details of day-to-day life such as a food, clothing and domestic life are lovingly portrayed. (Did you ever wonder how grain was stored in the Iron Age? You'll find the answer here).

The Dawn Stag is told mainly from the Alban side, with occasional forays into the Roman point of view. Agricola is the only fully developed character on the Roman side, and Roman life and culture is sketched in with a few details, reflecting the greater weight given to the Alban side of the story.

Like its predecessor, this is a very long novel (over 650 pages) with a leisurely pace. Now that I know the characters, the slow read did not irritate me as much as it did in the first novel, though I would still have preferred the story to move faster. I think readers would be well advised to read The Dawn Stag and The White Mare as a pair, since most of the plot points begun in the first book run through into the second for their resolution. Taken together, I estimate the two novels add up to about 440,000 words. For comparison, I estimate The Lord of the Rings (excluding the Appendices) at about 530,000 words by the same method, so be prepared for a long read. The reward is to have all the plot threads tied up, including a moving epilogue about Rhiann and Eremon’s later life together, rather reminiscent of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen from the appendices to Lord of the Rings. There is apparently a follow-up, The Boar Stone, due for publication late in 2007 to make up a trilogy. I can make a guess at its likely connection with the preceding two, based on the title and the prophecy at the end of The Dawn Stag, but it is set several centuries later and must involve a new group of characters.

A helpful Historical Note sets out some of the known history from the period, and confesses to having taken some liberties. One of these is the night attack on the Ninth Legion (not the same incident as that underlying Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, though the legion might have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland had it in for them). In The Dawn Stag the incident is a victory for Eremon and the Alban warriors, whereas Tacitus (scroll down to 26) says it was turned into a Roman victory by Agricola’s timely arrival with reinforcements. The author justifies the change on the grounds that Tacitus may have been eulogising Agricola, who was his father-in-law, and this may very well be true. Tacitus may well have put Agricola’s deeds in the most favourable light. As it happens, I’m not convinced that Tacitus would have gone as far as to turn a defeat into a victory, given that he was writing only a few years after the events and any of Agricola’s veterans would be able to prove him wrong. But who’s to say? Another change that puzzled me more, from a story structure point of view, was the placing of the battle of Mons Graupius in summer instead of autumn. I was expecting the victorious Romans to follow up the battle in the rest of the summer (as Tacitus says they would have done had the battle not happened at the end of the campaigning season), yet the novel doesn’t even touch on any post-Mons Graupius fighting. So why move the date of the battle, if the plot isn’t going to make use of the revised date? (Suggestions welcome – I’m genuinely puzzled about this).

Epic story of love, war and spiritual fulfilment set against the background of the Roman invasion of Scotland in 83 AD.

Has anyone else read it?

* The novel uses Alba as the name for what is now Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde. Tacitus refers to the area by the name of Caledonia.
**Location uncertain. The conventional identification is the hill of Bennachie near Aberdeen, and The Dawn Stag follows this. For other suggested locations, see Wikipedia.


Bernita said...

I must say I highly approve of these titles.

Marg said...

I am actually really looking forward to the third book, and to seeing how she ends up tying the three books together! As you know I do have a theory, but we will just have to wait until May to find out I guess!

Rick said...

Readers who are annoyed by features like near-miraculous spiritual healing, a shamanic journey to the Otherworld, telepathy under the influence of drugs, visions and prophecy should consider themselves warned

I might have to grit my teeth a bit at time, but I could handle that stuff with no real problem. On the other hand ...

Self-esteem, spiritual fulfilment, personal development

... sound truly grim, as though hapless 1st century Caledonia has been invaded by a force far more dreaded than the legions of Rome, namely Oprah-ism.

Yeah, I know that's completely unfair - just your quick thumbnail of themes (and my own book could be accused of dealing with self-esteem and personal development). But in those bald terms it sounds so terribly contemporary in sensibility!

As it happens, I’m not convinced that Tacitus would have gone as far as to turn a defeat into a victory

I'd be inclined to agree, and the odd thing is that this could easily have been finessed, by setting it up as a battle that both sides credibly believe they won. I don't know any of the specifics here, but it is not hard to arrange - for example, a raid situation.

Romans: "They took us by surprise, but we rallied and drove them off."

Albans: "We took them by surprise, and slipped away before they could trap us."

So why move the date of the battle, if the plot isn’t going to make use of the revised date? (Suggestions welcome – I’m genuinely puzzled about this).

My guess, worth what you paid: This is a "ghost offramp." That is, Watson shifted the date because of an intended subplot that she ended up not developing. So the change is left hanging, like a connecting ramp to a freeway that ended up never being built.

Carla said...

Bernita - any particular reason why you like them?

Marg - I have a theory too, but I think it's slightly different than yours :-) Will be interesting to see what she does.

Rick - I hope I haven't been unwittingly unfair. I only have a vague idea about Oprah picked up out of the aether, as I haven't ever seen the show (not even sure if we get it over here). It did feel a bit contemporary to me as I was reading, sort of finding oneself through the Goddess, and reminded me of some of the things you see in self-help therapy books. As far as I know we have pretty much no idea whether there were such concepts in Iron Age Scottish society - we don't even know what the religion(s) was/were - so I don't object on historical grounds. Probably most novels have something to do with personal development, aka character growth, i.e. by the end of the story one or more of the characters will now think or act in a way they wouldn't have done at the beginning. It seemed an especially important aspect here, so I mentioned it. Another reader might see it differently - you might like to look at Marg's review for an alternative viewpoint.

The attack in question is a night raid on a Roman camp, so yes, it could easily have been claimed as a victory by both sides. The Romans in the novel clearly don't feel it as a victory, though. Maybe they changed their minds later? I suspect the story needed some Alban victories, since it's told mainly from the Alban side, and several reverses makes for a more exciting narrative than Tacitus' rather unrelenting account of Roman success. (Tacitus' reverse comes later, after Mons Graupius, when he says crossly "Thus Brtain was conquered and immediately let go").

Your suggestion sounds eminently plausible. The best I could think of was that it was determined by the conception date of a premature baby born during the battle, which meant the battle had to fall in July not September or the baby either wouldn't have been premature or would have been conceived in February rather than December. But that seemed a bit tenuous to me. It's possible that the off-ramp actually leads to something in Book 3 of the trilogy; we'll find out in a few months :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, the Caledonians at Mons Graupius did what all the tribes in the western part of the Empire did best: they escaped into the bogs, woods, crags and other places of an inimical landscape without Roman roads.

Romans: we showed them the power of Rome and drove them back into the wilderness.
Caledonians/Germans/Gauls/Batavians: we escaped without too many losses, and the Romans went back to their winter camps.

Though in the cases when Rome was set upon conquering the place (Gaul, the Batavian rebellion) they succeeded in the end. In Germania and Caledonia, they decided it wasn't worth the hassle.

I'm going to try and get the books via interlibrary loan, they don't look like something I'd like to pay some 25 buck on. I want to read the battle scenes (esp. Mons Graupius) but I'm not interested in self finding stuff and healing dreams, that looks too close to those shamanistic Boudica novels.

Carla said...

Gabriele - interlibrary loan sounds very sensible. I enjoyed both but I wouldn't want to pay 25 euros each for them, and the third one I'll definitely borrow from the library. They're more Mists of Avalon and Manda Scott than Bernard Cornwell, so from what I know of your reading tastes you might find yourself skipping between the battle scenes.

What always puzzles me is why the German and British tribes, having discovered that guerilla warfare worked against the legions, still fought pitched battles. Glory and the warrior ethic, I guess.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hmm, although I haven't read the Manda Scott series (and not sure I want to) Mists of Avalon sounds like the books might be more to my taste than Gabriele's! Maybe I'll see if my library has them.

Carla said...

Alianore - it's a long while since I read Mists of Avalon, but I thought there were some features in common. The author mentions Marion Zimmer Bradley as one of her two favourite authors on her website, so the resemblance may not be entirely in my imagination.
She also mentions on the home page that both The White Mare and The Dawn Stag are published in German translation (Tartan und Schwert, and Das Keltische Amulett, respectively), so those editions may be easier to find in German libraries.
If you read either or both I'll be interested to hear what you think. (Edward II isn't in either of them, I'm afraid).

Gabriele Campbell said...

Tartan und Schwert? - I hope she doesn't have tartans in her books for real. Titles sometimes get a weird translation.

I meant 25€ for both books together, but it's still money I might better spend on something I'll be sure to keep. Like the new biography of Augustus, soon to be released by the Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. :)

Magpie said...

Just an aside to your post regarding the ninth legion...

A source I have says the ninth legion was wiped out by the Dacians in 86AD.
I think this is wrong and actually refers to a time when elements of all four legions in Britain were transferred to the Rhine, and the element from the ninth may have been lost, but not the legion itself.
That source says it was founded by Pompey but another I have attributes it to Octavian. I think this is because it was disbanded at one point, probably in the aftermath of civil war, but a new ninth was later raised by Octavian.
Although there were same numbered legions existing at the same time, and distinguished by other names, there was only one ninth and in the custom of the Roman army the number was not reused if the original was destroyed in combat.
Yet the ninth clearly lived on in Britain in some form deployment well after 86AD.

It's ultimate fate is a mystery and the theories of what happened to it are legion (sorry I couldn't resist the pun). Possible locales for the last stand are literally all over the Empire: The Danube, Asian Minor, Africa, Judea... Most put its demise in the 2nd century AD.

It took the name Hispania, but it's identifying symbols (such as one would see on a shield) are unknown.

Carla said...

Gabriele - no, there are no tartans in the novel! As with The White Mare, I thought the historical detail for Iron Age Scotland looked pretty plausible, though bear in mind that I haven't got a PhD in the subject. What does 'Schwert' mean?

Hazel-rah - many thanks for your comment! For ages the Ninth Legion was supposed to have vanished in Scotland around 117 AD, which is the story in Eagle of the Ninth, though I gather it's now thought that (at most) they might have lost a vexillation and the legion itself went on later than 117. I think the evidence for that comes from recently discovered inscriptions dating from after 117 AD, though I don't know the details. I didn't know the story of them being wiped out by the Dacians in 86 AD! One wonders how many lives a legion can have? - nine (Ha!) like a cat? If it was originally a Pompey legion it may well have been disbanded after Pompey's defeat in the civil war and then later reformed by Octavian (Augustus) when he put the army on a professional footing. The Ninth Hispania served at Lincoln and York (Eboracum) in Britain in the first century - if I remember rightly, they were credited with building one or both fortresses - and no doubt saw service on the Wall.
Do you happen to know why they took the name Hispania? I assume because they won a big battle in Spain?

Gabriele Campbell said...

The Ninth surely is the legion with the most contradictory and messy documentation. I have some suspicions there was a dark patch on its reputation somewhere that had to be covered. Maybe the legin was indeed split into vexialltiones serving in different places but without ever been officially disbanded.

Something a writer can play with as I do in Caledonia Defiant. :)

Schwert is 'sword'. With a title like Tartan und Schwert I'd never have picked up the book, thinking it was yet another of those clichéd, badly researched Highland Romances.

Carla said...

Gabriele - Thanks for the translation! Yes, the title does rather shriek Kilt and Claymore Highland Romance, doesn't it? I must look up the cover art on amazon.de and see what they've chosen for that.

Constance Brewer said...


Excellent review, as always. I add the books to a list of those to hunt for copies of, but fiction isn't high on my list at the moment. I was burned by some historicals that were thinly disguised "women power!" tirades, so I'm wary of authors I don't know. I'd have to leaf through and read a bit here and there to see if I can handle it.

"a shamanic journey to the Otherworld" sounds right up my alley, though. :)

Carla said...

Constance - there's a strong emphasis on the women, particularly Rhiann, and on the Goddess religion, so there's a fair amount of 'women power', though it doesn't wallow in the Rules for Feministly Reimagined Historical Novels cliches, if that's what you're worried about. The journey to the Otherworld is only a few pages, and it's more mystical than sharply described adventure (quite different from, say, Odysseus' visit in the Odyssey). If you're wary of fiction in general and female-centred novels in particular, definitely one to try before you buy.

Rick said...

Carla - you make a very interesting and subtle point: As far as I know we have pretty much no idea whether there were such concepts in Iron Age Scottish society - we don't even know what the religion(s) was/were - so I don't object on historical grounds

Quite true! I still queep at finding ultra-contemporary sensibilities like goddess-y feminism in cultures that lie just beyond range of our historical radar, like the ancient Celts and Minoan Crete. Authors should try to disguise it just a tad!

Not quite the same thing, but here's my own attempt to finesse a modern-sensibilities issue:

The bagno master showed off his wares with pride. "Look at them, Signor Capitano," he exclaimed. "Not a thin arm or weak back in the lot!"

William de Havilland watched, not impressed, as the men were marched past - if march was the word for the trudge of galley slaves being shown off to a prospective buyer. He pointed at one with his sword. "He won't live a week at sea. Waste your time if you wish; don't waste mine." During his latest cruise the bagno had changed hands. William doubted the change was for better or worse, as bagno masters went, but he'd have to break this new man in to his needs and how he met them.


"Only those?" asked the bagno master when William was done. "Surely, Signor -"

"Those, and no others." William detested the institution of galley slaves as contrary to all reason. No wonder Christian galleys got the worst of it in most encounters with the Monites. Galleys of al-Fustat were pulled by slaves, true, but that was different - the Mamelukes who fought on their gangways were also the Caliph's slaves, as were their captains, and the Grand Vizier himself. William needed men who would row with a will, and rise from their benches to fight when it came to push of pike. Of all Christian states in the Middle Sea, only the Republic of Ravenna still used free oarsmen. Not by coincidence, only the proud galleys of the Serenissima regularly bested Monites in battle.

On why the barbarians didn't just settle on guerilla warfare, I think there were limits to it. Even in modern guerilla wars, the guerilla side often moves to conventional operations for the end-game - Dien Bien Phu a classic example.

Anyone interested in Rome v barbarians should read The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, by Edward Luttwak. He notes that the legions had "escalation dominance" - they came at you like a tank, and you had to fight them or get out of the way. It would have taken enormous patience for people to endlessly keep retreating, abandoning one town or village after another, even if in hindsight that was the most effective course in the long run.

Gabriele Campbell said...

And the Romans knew dang well they stood their best chance in pitched battles, and tried to force the enemy into them. The battle of Idistaviso (Arminius against Germanicus) was not something Arminius wanted, but it was his only way of stopping the Romans from reaching the Elbe and claim Germania Transrhenania as province, conquered or not.

Calgacus needed a victory (or at least the No One Lost he got) at Mons Graupius to keep his grip on the allied tribes. Men follow victors.

Vergingetorix didn't lose a battle but a siege. He knew to avoid battles and led Caesar a merry dance through Gaul for some time.

The Parthians at Carrhae were the only ones (of the battles I've researched) who wanted a pitched battle because they had the superior cavalry, the heavy cataphract élite. And the Romans were exhausted by the desert climate which was worse than German woods and Caledonian mists. :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Ordered the book from the library, Rick. Thanks for the tip.

Magpie said...

Excellent recommendation you make there.
I've read Luttwak's book.
In fact I couldn't put it down. It's superb.

Interesting generalisation he makes is that the "barbarian frontier" usually required more manpower to defend than the more civilised areas, regardless of the relative sophistication of the different threats, because civilised people did not need to constantly see a Roman army to know what it could do. The idea itself was enough of a deterrent.

Alex Bordessa said...

Here's a nice link for the Ninth Legion Hispana (sic)

Carla said...
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Carla said...

Rick - it raises my hackles too, but just because something is modern doesn't mean it couldn't have existed in an earlier period too. Just because young men now get drunk and leer at women doesn't make a Roman soldier doing the same an anachronism, unless there's some sort of evidence that such behaviour was unacceptable at the time. Social norms and mores don't survive as artefacts, so recreating them is a lot harder than getting the number of rivets on a breastplate right, especially for societies with zero written records like Iron Age Scotland. I can say I don't much like New Age-y feminism and self-fulfilment in a novel, and that I don't find it very convincing and that I'd have preferred the book with less of it, but I can't say it's wrong.
I like your slave example. I'm sure I remember a classical Roman writer saying something about making a man a slave destroys half his usefulness, which sounds very similar to de Havilland's view. One can accept something as normal without necessarily thinking it's sensible :-)

Gabriele, Rick - re guerilla warfare, I guess it's hard to tell when the end-game is reached, yes? Arguably Germania and Caledonia succeeded in the end, since the Romans gave up and went away, but there would never have been a point where they could say "Ha! We won!". Almost victory by default, in a way.

Hazel-rah - I've heard something similar advanced, but arguing that 'civilised' societies were more specialised and most people in them didn't expect to own or use weapons. So civilians were easier to control, partly for practical reasons and partly because weapon-bearing soldiers had a mystique that acted as a deterrent. In contrast with 'barbarian' societies where most men expected to have a weapon of some kind and to carry it around all the time (eg the Norsemen in the sagas who take their spears when they go to cut hay), so they were less likely to be overawed by a group of soldiers. Does that sound plausible?

Many thanks for the recommendation of Luttwak's book!

Alex - thanks for the link, very informative

Carla said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Magpie said...

I think the reasons were less "psychological" than they were a matter of indirect knowledge.

What "barbarians" would have seen a lot of the time was not a legion but advance border posts, light scout cavalry, and the odd unit of auxiliary or perhaps even irregular troops. The legions proper were stationed further back from the front.
Such forces would not have been so intimidating to an aspiring warband leader, and he would not have had as much opportunity as a city dweller in the near east to either see Rome in strength, or comprehend how Romans would fight. The idea of a sustained campaign of defensive build up, multiple acts of reprisal and grinding ruthless siege - going for years - is not something every warband leader could imagine.

I think that's what Luttwak means.

Although it might sound prejudiced - and I do not demean any ancient culture - "civilised" people would have had more to lose too... their city, their native institutions, 'polite' representation in the Empire, trade..etc.
The "barbarians" are already on the outer.

Carla said...

Hazel-rah - many thanks for that interesting point. I've ordered a copy of Luttwak's book and am looking forward to reading it.
It might be fair to say that barbarians had different things to lose compared with a city-dweller, rather than less to lose. Tacitus gives Calgacus a rousing speech about the loss of freedom, for example - though of course there's no way of knowing if that's actually what Calgacus thought, or just what Tacitus thought he ought to think.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Arminius did know the Roman legions. He fought as auxiliary officer in the Pannonian wars, he may even have known his later opponenet Germanicus personally, since Germanicus fought in the same war, and I suppose the officers were in contact.

The mess in the sources about Germanicus' movements in Germania look more and more like a dance to me: he wanted to force Arminius into a pitched battle and Arminius wanted to avoid that because he knew his troops would be at severe disadvantage then.

But yes, my fictive character Talorcan, leader of a rebellion in Caledonia in 119-21 AD has only seen auxiliary troops and some vexillationes of the Ninth, not an entire legion. And most of the Roman officers are either young and unexperienced or sullen because of too many years of border warfare, or in disgrace in Rome and sent to the Stanegate Defenses as punishment (like Horatius Ravilla). They make mistakes, Talorcan has some easy victories, but then Rome dispatches more troops to the border and things begin to go against him.

It's fun trying to get into the minds of people living 2000 years ago. :)

Carla said...

"It's fun trying to get into the minds of people living 2000 years ago. :)"

It is - I guess that's what attracts me to historical fiction.