Boudica, Queen of the Iceni

By Joseph E. Roesch
Robert Hale Limited, 2006

There are battles, there is intrigue, there's romance, there's a powerful female heroine – and most of all, there is terrific historical research.

More, Joseph Roesch's novel, BOUDICA, QUEEN OF THE ICENI, centers on the lives and fortunes of the fascinating Celts, a people surprisingly ahead of their time in ways that, from our perspective, seem somewhat confounding.

A nomadic people of middle-European origin, the Celts wandered across Europe, into the Middle East, and some believe much further. They were proud, fierce, artistic, brave, mystical, even slightly crazy. And they gave women full measure in their tribes. Women fought, owned property, headed families, and made names for themselves, at a time when most women lived and died in the shadow of their men. Their unusual and modern ways have made the Celts a subject of great interest in recent years, but I have to say that I am equally interested in the antagonist side of Roesch's novel – the Romans. Another proud, but certainly more political, immensely clever, disciplined, relentless, and even oddly moral people, the Romans make a perfect "conservative" foil for the "liberal" Celts in Roesch's telling of the tale of the warrior queen, Boudica.

Born in the early part of the first century, A.D., Boudica was daughter to a king, and later married to King Prasutagus of the Iceni. During King Prasutagus' time, Britain was littered with fractious and rivaling tribes of Celts and Picts. Upon Prasutagus' death, the Romans annexed his lands, establishing "Pax Romana," building cities, paving roads, and thoroughly demoralized and over-taxing the indigenous people.

In Roesch's account, Boudica is a natural leader, a woman born to perform her role, who sacrifices the consummation of true love for her duty to tribe and family. He skillfully mixes historic characters with fictional ones to flesh out the few facts we have about Queen Boudica's rise to power, and her revolt against the Roman occupiers. And he blends them all with hints of the mystic spirituality of the Celtic people, who were instructed by Druids, a mysterious class of scholar-priests.

Protesting the burden of taxation and mistreatment at the hands of the Romans, Boudica is whipped and her two young daughters are raped. Rather than being cowed, Boudica's anger is inflamed. Using political skill and her own poise and magnetism, Boudica convinces neighboring tribal leaders to join her in fighting for freedom from the Roman yoke.

In approximately 61 A.D., while Roman governor Gaius Suetonius is leading a campaign against the Druids on the Isle of Mona in Wales, Boudica and her cohorts attack Camulodunum ( Colchester), destroying a temple to former Emperor/God Claudius. Marching on to Londinium (London), Boudica's army kills an estimated 70-80,000 people, and it seems victory is imminent. There is even a brief moment when Roman Emperor Nero considers abandoning the island, but ultimately the rebelling forces are defeated, and Boudica dies. But not before becoming a cultural icon, and a symbol of undaunted strength to the oppressed ever afterward.

Unlike many highly-researched books, this one reads easily and well. As might be expected, Roesch is at his best with the military and political details. I admit it, I often skip over the paragraphs on battle strategy, but Roesch is masterful in not only describing the action and relating the strategy, but in making it readable and entertaining. Perhaps it's the fascinating details – we learn how a sword is forged, what a tubicon is, and how a warrior suits up for battle – or perhaps it's Roesch's willingness to put himself in the minds of his characters as they make the decisions that move the battles forward. Either way, I found myself as eagerly following the action of the battle scenes as the love scenes.

With her fabled sword Calabrenn raised in defiance and triumph, Boudica's likeness can be found all across Great Britain today. It was not until I read this book, however, that I understood her significance. Roesch puts the words into the mouth of Boudica's lover, Drustan, who, as she lies dying, believes that all is lost. "Victory is not ours," he tells her. "But we fought bravely because you gave us the courage to try. That moment of glory can never be taken from us!"


Anonymous said…
An excellent review, I finished reading the book today and enjoyed it immensely. I headed straight to the website for more and followed the link here. A well rounded and intelligent piece of criticism.

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