Sunday, 2 October 2011

Penguin no. 1820: Red Queen White Queen
by Henry Treece

I do not pretend that this is a historical novel, in the sense that it is a closely documented and minutely factual account of what actually happened in A.D. 61 in Britain. Perhaps no one could write that novel, to satisfy the Omniscient Overlooker of All - for, in any case, the few records which remain are heavily biased and are written from one viewpoint only, that of the conquerer, the Roman invader. And such an account could be as untrue as, let us say, Hitler's conception of the account of the Battle of Britain.

This idea that Boudicca's uprising is known only through the biased accounts of the victors, which are likely to be largely unreliable, is given in the prologue, and it seemed to me the only interesting idea expressed in the entire book. The author infers from it a license to present the Boudicca of his imagination: a maternal figure who is almost a goddess, a type of Earth mother. There are frequent references to her physical size, and her enormous breasts, thighs, and stomach, and her unlimited appetite for sex and other sensual pleasures. The idea is also echoed in her behaviour, with her concerns for the domestic arrangements and comforts of her people. As with her contemporary, the Roman Emperor Nero, she lives a life of indulgence, but unlike him, her passions are conventional. The Boudicca of the author's imagination would have been content to continue with such an existence, and live out her life in relative peace.

Boudicca's rebellion is triggered by a miscalculation on the part of the Romans. One evening following the death of her husband, five companies of Roman soldiers enter the village of Venta Icenorum, tie her to a post outside her home, and subject her to a flogging; her two daughters are raped. Antagonised, Boudicca responds by razing the Roman veterans' colony of Camulodunum, and murdering the Roman citizens. But this is only her first strike: she sets her sights on the destruction of Rome.

If the author had been content to focus on the story of Boudicca's campaign, this book may have been more interesting to read. However these events are only sketched in the background; the primary plot concentrates on two half-brothers, one a Celt and one a Roman, who have been ordered to journey through territory controlled by Celtic tribes and assassinate Boudicca on the eve of battle. What follows is a kind of episodic adventure story, with certain death invariably followed by miraculous escape, until both brothers fall in love with the Celtic Princess Eithne, and the story becomes little more than a romance novel set against this background of Celtic and Roman brutality.

The author uses this artificial and convenient set-up to explore the many differences between the Celts and the Romans, such as their values, Gods, weapons, superstitions, and beliefs. But nothing is done subtly in this story; it reads as though he had compiled a long list of Celtic and Roman references, and was checking them off one mention at a time. While in content this was clearly a novel for adults, in style it seemed as though written for children, with short sentences and simple ideas, and too much enthusiasm for the unfamiliar Roman and Celtic names and titles. It was impossible to read more than a few pages without becoming overwhelmed by a desire for sleep.

This is perhaps an example of the one drawback of those attractively simple, though uninformative, Penguin covers. Had I known that this was the third volume of a Celtic Tetralogy, elsewhere published with a lurid paperback cover, I would have been forewarned of what to expect: an uninteresting and soporific genre novel, historical romance rather than historical fiction, and an inefficient way to learn of Boudicca's story. 

3 comments:

  1. Oh, dear. I'm sorry to hear this one was a disappointment. It sounds like you had a similar experience with it to the one that I had with "Hereward the Wake," which looked like it would be a thrilling tale but ended by annoying the hell out of me.
    JNCL
    The Beauty of Eclecticism

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  2. Actually I read a lot of Henry Treece growing up as a kid (late 60s, early 70s) and he categorically was a children's author regardless of what the content might have been. At least every library I was ever in stocked all his books in the kids section.

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  3. Hi Owen,

    Perhaps he wrote for both markets? Penguin haven't chosen to publish this as a Puffin. There so many references to sex and 'men's needs', that it is impossible to believe this could be a novel written for children.

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