Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear
In this, the last of the Boudica quartet, the Boudica (“Bringer of Victory”) struggles to recover from a Roman flogging. If her people are to drive the Romans from Britain they must strike while the governor is attacking Mona, the sacred isle. If the Boudica cannot lead them, who will? Her son is headstrong and her brother untrustworthy, being twice a turncoat – to Rome then back again. Meanwhile, her army advances on the Roman capital with a legion on its tail.
Manda Scott has the imaginative empathy of Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Renault, enabling her to convey a sense of the ‘differentness’ of long-lost times. Her descriptive powers, precise and poetic, engage all the senses so that we feel we are there, in British roundhouse or Roman town and her battles ring with bloody authenticity.
The story, however, is a mess. As in the previous novels, there are too many characters with bewilderingly complicated spiritual, emotional and sexual relationships. While the main plot stays close to the record, its power to move the reader is too often blunted by an overabundance of highly-charged scenes and subplots elaborated to the point of incoherence. All this is built on a flimsy foundation of simplistic notions from the one-note ghastliness of Roman imperialism to the fuzzy idealisation of Iron Age culture, one of whose few detailed elements is religion – which Scott recreates as the shamanic dreaming that she herself practises. This is plausible enough, but it becomes tiresome when described at far greater length than is necessary in order to convey religion’s importance in ancient lives.
Scott is a gifted novelist who has made a heartfelt attempt at Boudica, but I cannot help thinking that this overwrought opus conceals a leaner, more memorable work.