My version: PDF
Genre: Historical Fiction Romans, Britons, Druids (!)
Publisher: Steven A McKay
First published: 2018
Sent by author
From the cover:
Northern Britain, AD430.
A land in turmoil. A village ablaze. A king’s daughter abducted.
In the aftermath of a surprise attack, Dun Buic lies in smoking ruins and many innocent villagers are dead. As the survivors try to make sense of the night’s events, the giant warrior Druid Bellicus, is tasked with hunting down the raiders and thwarting their dark purpose.
With years of training in the old ways, two war-dogs at his side, and unsurpassed skill with a longsword, Bellicus’ quest will take him on a perilous journey through lands still struggling with the departure of the Roman legions.
Meanwhile, amongst her brutal captors, the little princess Catia, finds and unlikely ally. But even he may not be able to avert the terrible fate King Hengist has in store for her.
This, the first volume in a stunning new series from the best-selling author of ‘Wolf’s Head,’ explores the rich folk law and culture of post-Roman Britain, where blood sacrifice, superstition and warfare, were as much a part of everyday life as love, laughter and song.
If you’ve come across Druids in Historical Fiction novels before – old, vague, talking in ‘riddles,’ calling grown, bearded warriors ‘my child,’ wearing long white robes and mistletoe – forget them!
You need to think again.
Because Bellicus, the Druid at the heart of Steven’s new series, is nothing like anything you’ve read before. Bellicus is big, huge in fact. He wears a brown robe, and he’s young, just twenty-six. Yes, he sometimes has a beard, but it is not white, or even grey – though it might be soon, if he has to go through (which I suspect he will in the next books) more of what he goes through in this first volume. Bellicus is “taller than any other man he’d ever met,” he has been in a shieldwall (or two) and consequently:
“A group of Saxon raiders held no fear for him.”
You see, Bellicus is a warrior druid. He is a match for any Roman centurion in a fight and is steeped in the ancient druidic lore. He is one of an old line, one trained by the best of the druids who managed to escape the Roman slaughter on Ynys Môn (Anglesey), but those Druids living in the far north, well away from their Imperial rulers, have continued the old traditions. Bellicus is accompanied everywhere, by his two war-dogs, Cai and Eolas. Huge beasts, like their master, they add another intriguing dimension to The Druid, that will not be quickly forgotten by anyone who reads the book through to the end.
The story begins in the kingdom of Alt Clota, ruled by King Coroticus. Alt Clota and the great fortress of Dun Breatann seems to have been located around the area of the Antonine Wall, as was, modern Strathclyde (which I know from my reading wanderings through Viking history. played a huge part in later Viking Kingdoms in the East of Britain and Ireland). The King’s daughter, Catia, has been captured and spirited away, for reasons unknown, by ruthless, savage Saxon warriors.
The Druid then, is about the chase Bellicus sets out on, and the tortuous quest he has to make in pursuit of his King’s only daughter and her captors. We travel south, over Hadrian’s Wall, then deep into the heart of Dark Age Britain, physically and mentally. To the ancient, beating, bleeding heart of Britain, at Stonehenge. It is a place where strange rituals once took place, still take place on moon-lit nights, and where the spirits of the long dead victims are said to walk the land on certain, terrible occasions. Why Stonehenge, why Saxons, and the rest of why this book is so fantastic, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
In the meantime…I don’t know any druids, I’ve never met any druids and as far as I know, no druids have ever met me. However…this druid feels much more realistic, than the druid you will, for instance, meet in James Wilde’s Pendragon series – if you don’t want to punch him in the face after two pages, then check your pulse, you may have died. Bellicus even acknowledges the actual powerlessness of his ‘power.’ He knows it is one that is in reality, based on trickery (just like the tricks that worked so well some 400 years earlier, for a simple, illiterate, nobody in the Galilee area. Why do you think poor people flocked to free exorcisms?).
The quest Bellicus is on is also, as the introduction at the top of the post says, an chance to look at several parts of the immediate post-Roman age Britain. Obviously, a lot of British society was thoroughly Romanicised when the legions left, and the arrival of the seemingly lawless and culture-less, Saxon invaders, just emphasised the black, barbarian hole their previously ordered lives seemed to be falling into. The Druid, with some finely worked, illuminating (!) details about Dark Age Britain, looks at how, in many areas, people felt they were abandoned, but had set about starting again, from year zero. For good or bad. Ordinary people are struggling to make sense of their new, constantly changing world, and falling back on the only stable, or constant, parts of their lives – the change of seasons, the need to eat, life and death, their old gods, and each other. And in the face of the rampant changes in waiting from the new religion of the White Christ, we can see how their druids could also offer at least a semblance of much needed spiritual stability as well. As well as a battle axe, in Bellicus’ case..
What is even more stunning than the inspired character of Bellicus, is the quality of Steven’s new writing. The Forest Lord series was very good indeed, this is better all the way round – substantially better. How? I can’t analyse it properly, I can just state what I feel. It feels bright, clean, unencumbered, yet in no way stripped-down. Confident, straight-ahead and vivid – instantly engaging storytelling on a par with anything you’ve read before by him there Cornwell, or Kane, or Kristian (I’ll also throw in a ‘Harffy,’ if he sends me a physical copy of his next book…).
It was clearly time for Steven to spread his writing wings after his best-selling The Forest Lord/Robin Hood, series reached its conclusion and starting out on a new adventure must have been more than a little daunting. However, Steven can relax (hopefully for not too long, as I want to be reading more about Bellicus and soon at that!). The promise from the Robin Hood books is fully realised, with characters, plot and results that are immensely satisfying. Hey! I could also see, and would read in a heartbeat, books about several of the other characters Steven has populated this story with. Not least the ex-Roman Centurion turned baker, Duro. There is an interesting character if ever I read one! How, for instance, did a former Roman soldier, become integrated, or is it re-integrated, enough to be a baker in a small British village? What is his background that led him to this point? He certainly knows how to time his arrival in a fight, that’s for sure, not something learned in a bakery, I’ll bet! And we haven’t even mentioned King Arthur, Hengist or even Horsa yet…
So, The Druid is richly imagined, confident and gripping, full of memorable characters that fair leap from the page, and with a protagonist who, despite his calling, is written with just the right mix of the earthly and the unearthly, the spiritual and the realistic. Bellicus is big and strong, a warrior, and he doesn’t have the irritating, crippling self-doubt (predictably washed away by the “battle calm”), off-the-shelf characteristics so beloved of just about every other Tom, Dick and Hist Fic writer you’ll meet. Steven is to be roundly applauded for creating one of the most engaging, and more importantly, believable, Historical Fiction novels I’ve come across in a good while. The Druid is, to borrow a previously much over-used (elsewhere) term: a triumph, an honest to goodness, self-assured triumph.
You need to buy The Druid, read it, savour it, hug it and buy it again if necessary – just do it now!
*The illustration of Bellicus above, can be found, along with others, in The Druid, paperback and Kindle, all illustrations are by Robert Travis.
**In The Druid, Steven uses the term ‘Saxons’ as it most probably would have been used by the peoples of Britain at the time, as a catch-all for the invaders coming from Northern Germany, Jutland (Jylland, as I know it) and thereabouts. The Britons din’t know, and weren’t likely to stop and ask them, where they were from, before they burned their farm down and killed them.
***If you buy this book, I promise not complain to Steven about describing the ground here in Jylland as ‘frozen.’