Review: In The Shadow Of Rome – Joanna B. McGarry

My version: Paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction, Roman Britannia
First published: 2019
ISBN: 9781096508489
Pages: 278
Sent for review by author

From the cover:
In ancient Caledonia, now known as Scotland, the native Caledonians and the occupying forces struggle to co-exist: sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.
Sigdan, a former sea-wolf from Scatinavia, lives, loves and fights as a Roman auxillery in a fort on the Antonine Wall. After being captured while fighting against the Romans, he was given his Current position in recognition of his savagery in battle.
But all is not well. Vespasian, an incompetent Roman officer, has perpetuated a long-standing feud between the two men. He frequently pushes Sigdan into conflicts, hoping for retaliation. Vespasian knows he will end up breaking Sigdan, but when is another matter.
Meanwhile, Sigdan is preoccupied with Giorsal, a Caledonian apothecary who lives in the settlement that grew up around the fort and who is pregnant with his child. When four abused child slaves of Fabious, a Roman citizen, seek help from Giorsal, she becomes a target. What she does next will change her life – and Sigdan’s life – forever and leads to a dramatic – very Roman outcome in the arena.

Once again, my kind of book this. An Historical Fiction novel set in Roman times. In Roman Britannia. No ‘the start of a thrilling/explosive/bloody new series.’ And especially no ‘Rome was in turmoil…” in the back blurb. It’s got everything going for it so far.

Well actually, Rome may well be in turmoil, but we wouldn’t know because we’re a long way from Rome in the year…well, around 150-200 CE? That’s my guess, if Hadrian’s Wall is up (122- CE), as is the Antonine Wall (142- CE), and both are well established enough to have settlements grown up around them. Yes, some idea of where, when really, we are, would have been a help. We’re in the harsh, unforgiving, wilds of what will eventually become Scotland, and about as far as we could possibly get from any turmoil Rome might potentially be in. Anyway, news of turmoil would have taken weeks to arrive at where we are – the absolute outer limit of Roman influence – on the Antonine Wall. While it was only in use for a relatively short period of time, you can still see remains of it today running between the Firth of Forth (near Edinburgh) and the Firth of Clyde (near Glasgow). Apparently, it took twelve years to build, yet was only used for around twenty.

Well, we’re at the Antonine Wall at the start of the book I think, or some point maybe at the beginning anyway. Certainly in the description on the back of the book. I say ‘think,’ because the final stages of the book at least, are definitely set at Hadrian’s Wall. I may have missed the shift, from Antonine to Hadrian’s, it’s absolutely possible, but I don’t think I did. If it is meant to be all set on the Antonine, then some explanation why the characters we follow/have followed, clearly have their dwellings around Hadrian’s Wall, is needed! If it isn’t just me, then the good Ms McGarry needs to look at that point. If I’m wrong, kindly disregard all the above.

I also feel that more of an explanation of how a Roman auxiliary, at the end of Hadrian’s reign, on Hadrian’s wall, comes from ‘Scatinavia,’ worships Thor and Odin and also believes in Bifröst and Valhalla. Surely that’s the Vikings!, I reckon a lot of readers – those who have the slightest grip on early British history anyway – are going to think. And doesn’t she mean ‘Scandinavia,’ not ‘Scatinavia’? Well, dear reader, it turns out that the area (modern Scandinavia) in Roman times, was (perhaps) known as Skaðin-awjō‘ (maybe meaning ‘dangerous islands’). The Romans, substituted a ‘t‘ or ‘d‘ for the ‘ð,’ hence Scatinavia. The religion we associate with the Vikings – Thor, Freja, Odin, etc – began further south, with the Germanic peoples, from around the Iron Age and onwards. The Norse peoples of (modern) Scandinavia were the ‘last’ group to start worshiping the gods we now only associate with them. So, she’s not wrong that Sigdan could have worshiped the pagan pantheon more or less as we know it, but I think she’s maybe just getting a little ahead of herself with him being from north of Germania, while worshiping them. Him being further south, Germania central maybe, would have fitted better. At least some explanation of why she’s written him as she has is needed.

These slight inconsistencies apart, the book seen as a whole is nothing more than a truly welcome, heartwarming tale of doomed love, set in the midst of harshly beautiful landscape. The feeling of being on the far frontier of the Roman world and even Roman influence, comes through very well. As does the way some locals have assimilated themselves into the new, dominant culture to the point of humiliating themselves. The feeling of the locals maybe thinking that the Romans have at least brought a peaceful kind of civilisation – once all resistance was crushed, obviously – to the area, was, if not completely welcomed, at least worth hanging on to, is very well reflected in many of the characters. There is a real empathy for what makes, or would have made, her characters ‘tick’ coming off each page. The characters she chooses to follow are easy to understand, easy to sympathise with and had me caring for their future way too much by the ending chapters.

This book succeeds, I feel, because it limits its scope to the ordinary people of the outpost. People perhaps like you and I, so I can really relate to them – just that it is 2000-ish years ago, at a time when we would have been trying to make heads and tails of our existence in a constantly changing world. Like we do now, then. I’ll not give anything away by saying, the tragically, unstoppable inevitability of the ending, really helps set the book apart, and will certainly make an unforgettable impression on pretty much any reader.

You can buy In The Shadow Of Rome from Amazon.

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