Land of Fire, by Derek Birks

Amy Thomas

455AD and the Romans leave Britain to become a land of violence.
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Land of Fire has Britain in 455AD and in turmoil. The departure of the Roman Empire has left warring factions in a country of many different peoples, from Saxon to Druid, creating a tumultuous world where corrupt kings such as the formidable Vortigern abuse their power to gain maximum control.

It is into this crisis, a world at tipping point, that our protagonist, the fierce Roman Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus, enters. Ambrosius has been in Britannia for a mere six months; six months however, which so far has left him with more questions than answers. After encountering his dangerous half-sister in a battle, with growing concerns about her new alliances, he finds himself tracing his enemy High King Vortigern across unfamiliar country with decreasing numbers and a desperate need for new alliances.

Ambrosius has come to Britannia in part to search for the real answers about his mother, and the ancestry he knows is based in this country. But the answers he finds only complicate the struggles of battle. What he learns will force him not only to make a choice between the two women he loves, but also lead him to a choice that will define not only his future and that of his loyal band of Bucellerii, but the future of the very lands they travel through.

The struggles Ambrosius and his men face are a microcosm of those in Britannia at large. Characterised by their mixed identities – incorporating Briton, Roman, Saxon, and their recent Scotti enemies – they must search for allies in all places, even the most unlikely – and the most dangerous.  The reluctance they encounter, even from those who support their cause, reflects the constant fear of being on the wrong side of power.

Birks reminds us of the importance of the individual, both in literature and in history, with his depiction of Ambrosius, a real figure immortalised as a hero by the writings of the monk Gildas a century later. Through his strength, and his flaws, we see the increasing move towards armies centred around an individual rather than an Empire; a move that would pre-empt the shift towards the tradition of medieval knights and beyond.

By conjuring to life such a compelling time of history about which so little is reliably recorded, the research and diligence of Birks is evident. A world in a state of flux is captured, and the choice to adopt the increasingly prevalent view that the Roman Empire fell gradually in Britain only strengthens the perspective offered by the novel. Crucially, with the incorporation of historical figures, we have versions of these characters just as we do versions of history. Birks presents Vortigern as an aging king in demise, desperate to increase his hold on fractured Britannia, and Ambrosius desperate to assert himself in a new chapter of his life. The struggle between enemies in battle is age-old, but just as timeless is the portrayal of a diverse and complex country fractured by imperial retreat. In Land of Fire, Birks subtly challenges our perception of post-imperial Britannia by capturing it through the eyes of an outsider; and in doing so, he reminds us of the challenges of the modern historian attempting to access this era.