Blood, intrigue and lust for power dominate this tale – and that’s just among the Romans. Throw in the squabbling tribes north of the Wall and you have an explosive recipe for carnage.
Marcus Flavius Victor is the Lord of the Wall, charged with defending northern Britain from the disparate Celtic tribes and Picts who inhabit the wild lands beyond Hadrian’s Wall. But, of course it’s not quite as straightforward as that because, not only does Marcus have to worry about the threat from the north, but also from quite a number of folk on the Roman side of the wall. Hence, he is obliged to disguise his plans lest his enemies, on both sides of the border, should attempt to foil them. The reader too only learns of his true intentions close to the end of the story.
The hero, Marcus Flavius Victor, is a complex character enmeshed in a dangerous game of war and politics on the embattled northern frontier. At times he can be brutal but that only lends more credibility to the character. The other main protagonists of the story are also fantastic creations. I was especially impressed with the range of interesting and contrasting female characters in the book, notably Calista, a Celtic priestess and Marcus’s sister, Valeria. But, for me, it is the savage Pict Queen, Briga who almost steals the show. She alone is, as they say, worth the entrance money!
This period, during the last days of Roman rule in Britain, is notoriously difficult for a writer to portray since much of the available evidence is archaeological and thus gives a tantalising, but inevitably patchy, impression of what life was like. Despite these difficulties, Douglas has managed to recreate this little-known world very vividly in our minds. The sprawling physical landscape is vast and so distant in time that, even describing the terrain, the forts and other buildings one might have found in the period, is an immensely difficult task. Add to that the cultural depth of this novel and Douglas has constructed a remarkable environment for his story.
This is a richly-told tale in which the author is skilled enough to highlight the minutiae of life in 400AD without slowing the pace of this riveting story. To enable him to do this, Douglas visited the Wall on several occasions and was able to gather information about actual people of the time from surviving inscriptions. Some of these, I am sure made their way into the book either as the inspiration for characters or merely to provide some authentic names.
With relentless momentum, the story builds to a climax where the Romano-Britons and their northern neighbours play out their rivalries on the battlefield. Douglas has handled the broad scope and complexity of the battle with consummate skill so that the reader follows the ebb and flow of events with bated breath.
Bristling with fierce characters and Pictish venom, this story is one of the most authentic I have read about the twilight of Roman Britain.