Barbara Wood’s newest historical, about a woman’s spiritual journey through the 1st-century Roman world, is a mixed effort. The segmented approach impedes the story’s flow, but she succeeds in illuminating a time in which Christianity hasn’t yet taken root and populates it with dynamic characters.
The Divining stands alone yet also works as the sequel to Soul Flame (1987), which followed a Roman healer named Selene. In 54 CE, Ulrika, Selene’s 19-year-old daughter, begins seeing mysterious visions that draw her away from Rome. She joins a caravan to Germania, her father’s homeland, in hopes of saving his people from a Roman ambush and learning more about her heritage. She falls in love with the caravan’s leader, Galician trader Sebastianus Gallus, although their romance must wait until their separate missions are over. As Ulrika travels on to Antioch and Babylon on her quest to control her gift, Sebastianus obtains orders from the despotic new emperor, Nero, to open diplomatic ties with distant China, a trip marked by deception.
Oddly for a novel about a journey, little time is spent on the road; one would expect travel to be more complicated and arduous than it is here. Despite the narrative’s jumpiness, though, it provides a nice panoramic view of the era. “Deities, Ulrika realized, were as diverse and various as the people who worshipped them,” Wood writes, which captures the book’s greatest strength. The cultures Ulrika encounters are fascinating, and her openness to spiritual discovery means the reader approaches their beliefs – some ancient and others newly born – in a similar way at first. Everyone Ulrika meets has a tale worth hearing, and her story creatively intertwines with that of the earliest Christian saints.
For those who share the author’s wide-ranging interest in women’s lives through history, Turner has also reissued sixteen titles from her backlist, all with gorgeous covers.