Author: Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, E. Knight, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, S.J.A. Turney, Russell Whitfield, and Ben Kane
Genre: historical fiction
Published: November 15 2015
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Britannia: land of mist and magic clinging to the western edge of the Roman Empire. A red-haired queen named Boudica led her people in a desperate rebellion against the might of Rome, an epic struggle destined to consume heroes and cowards, young and old, Roman and Celt . . . and these are their stories.
A calculating queen sees the sparks of revolt in a king’s death.
A neglected slave girl seizes her own courage as Boudica calls for war.
An idealistic tribune finds manhood in a brutal baptism of blood and slaughter.
A conflicted warrior hovers between loyalty to tribe and loyalty to Rome.
A death-haunted Druid challenges the gods themselves to ensure victory for his people.
An old champion struggles for everlasting glory in the final battle against the legions.
A fiery princess fights to salvage the pieces of her mother’s dream as the ravens circle.
A novel in seven parts, overlapping stories of warriors and peacemakers, queens and slaves, Romans and Celts who cross paths during Boudica’s epic rebellion. But who will survive to see the dawn of a new Britannia, and who will fall to feed the ravens?
This anthology boasts some of my favorite historical fiction writers and ones who collaborated so well with their Pompeii-centric anthology A Day of Fire. There were some new voices (SJA Turney, Ruth Downie, etc.) added to the mix this time around and though new to me, they were fitting additions to the known talents of Knight, Quinn, Dray, and Shecter. Spanning just the year-ish long rebellion of the infamous Iceni Queen and told through seven disparate but relevant voices from both sides of the conflict, A Year of Ravens boasts some complex themes, fully dimensional characters, and remarkable storytelling.
There's a lot to admire about A Year of Ravens but there were three notable standouts as I made my way through the the early 450 page collection. Stephanie Dray's authorial talents bookend the anthology with two stories about a forgotten contemporary of Boudica's -- Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. Cartimandua is a fascinating character (and was a real life client Queen of Rome.) Dray is of such talent that while reading her stories, I have to google all the fascinating details she peppers her narrative with. (Seriously - who would have thought Roman client-kingship so interesting?)
Dray makes the point that while you have heard of Boudica, you can't fully understand her or put her life in context without comparing the life of her contemporary queen Cartimandua. Dray fully proves her point with her powerhouse introductory addition. She skillfully brings the reader up to speed on what Roman-held Britain was like; how the various tribes rebelled, fought amongst each other, and then finally united after an unforgivable series of events. Boudica's legend has lasted a thousand years while Cartimandua's has not. With Dray's talent, this real-life woman provides an excellent foil for her more famous counterpart.
The four stories that followed Dray's The Queen (The Slave, The Tribune, The Druid, The Son) were good. A few were very good - The Slave by Ruth Downie and The Son by SJA Turney were four stars each. The other two (authored by Russell Whitfield and Vicky Alvear Shecter, respectively) were three-stars and just lacked the spark I felt for the other stories. Those two were also quite intertwined with another - both in terms of plot and with characters that inhabited both. I was interested in Agricola because of his role but found his narration somewhat stilted and overlong. I liked The Slave because it showed a different, unique view of Boudica -- from even amongst her own tribe. Her legend has lead people to remember and revere her but she was not perfect. She made mistakes and wasn't always what she is remembered to be, as shown in her treatment of Ria, the slave.
A Year of Ravens takes pains to show the horrors and complexities of rebellion and war. In trying to rid their shores of the hated Romans, the Iceni and their allies often resort to the same butchery and torture as the Romans did before them. And in return, the Roman reprisals are equally damning. Both sides have valid points of contention; both sides have wounds that demand redress. Duro, Boudica's premier warrior and Valeria, a captured Roman matron, especially show the differing views but vivid commonalities between the two cultures. In Kate Quinn's contribution The Warrior, these points are made easily with the banter of the oddly complimentary and combative pair. Kate Quinn is a master of characterization, even with less than 70 pages to work with.
I first read E. Knight last year, with her excellent contribution to A Day of Fire, a short story titled The Mother. Her choice here was to give voice to Boudica's two wildly different but beloved daughters and it was impressively handled. Historically remembered as just "Boudica's daughters" Knight gives them names, voices, personalities, motivations and more. They come alive as Boudica does, but from their own point of view and in their own distinct voices as we never see or hear from their warrior mother. They are two vastly different kind of women and their POVs flash between the past and the present, but it's a streamlined narrative. Knight easily picks up the plot lines laid down by the six authors before her and weaves them into an expected but still original ending.
This was a fantastic anthology. The authors' various styles meld well together and foster a remarkably coherent tale for one told from so many varying techniques and perspectives. A Year of Ravens uses Boudica and her rebellion to propel the main plot but it's the little seen narratives and views used that make the anthology creative and memorable. A Year of Ravens is the kind of historical fiction that leaves you even more interested in the time, place, and people depicted than you were before. Boudica has long been a historical favorite of mine and I can definitely say that this anthology did her legend more than justice.