Review – A Year of Ravens

What a powerful book about a powerful woman leading a group of warriors in an attempt to overthrow the shackles of Rome! I never read or even properly understand Boudica’s tale, other than the fact that she is a warrior queen who has led her tribe to almost succeed in humiliating Rome in its subjugation of Britain.  I certainly do not realize that there are several other crucial characters to this dramatic tale, and I am so glad to have lived through the year of rebellion with the seven authors that have brought the conflict alive.

Since it is an anthology, I will be reviewing the individual stories in a moment. I do want to take the time to compliment every author for their skills in bringing Ancient Britannia (although nobody at that time would have actually called Britain that) alive and showing how complex both the Romans and the natives are. While my tastes may be subjective, I cannot deny that all the authors have clearly done their research (above and beyond) to ensure that the reading experience is authentic as possible. None of the authors shy away from the bloodiness and awfulness that rings historically true to that period. Finally, this is a collaboration between authors who are not only great at their craft but clearly enjoy working with each other (read Kate Quinn’s hilarious take) as they meticulously plan the novel as a whole to ensure the protagonists from each individual story slip in and out of other stories seamlessly.

As for my individual take on all the stories themselves:

The Queen by Stephanie Dray—This is a fantastic story that sets the stage for both the novel itself and the historical events that will unfold. Dray explores Queen Cartimandua, a client queen of Rome, who chooses to protect her people through diplomacy and appeasement. But do not think that this is a spineless queen; Cartimandua is unafraid to make unpopular choices and is willing to stick to her principles. I love Cartimandua’s voice, particularly because Dray gives her enough characteristics to be a three-dimensional individual. I also find it fascinating that Cartimandua can almost be viewed as an anti-heroine in her own story, because while I understand Cartimandua’s choices and justifications completely it is apparent that few around her can. In fact, most around her are very likely to misinterpret her actions as evil. I thoroughly enjoyed this queen’s story that I almost forget that the book is about Boudica and her rebellion. Dray does explain the political situation that will lead to Boudica making the choices that she did from Cartimandua’s POV, and I finished the story with great satisfaction yet great pity that this queen is not more celebrated. (Plus, excellent Roman POV character in the form of Decianus Catus who is usually the villain in the Boudica story, but I am pleasantly surprised here)

The Slave by Ruth Downie—After the brilliant beginning by Dray, I jump into this story hungry for Boudica’s tale to begin. And so the infamous events (I will not spoil it in case some people don’t know what they are since I do not initially, but let’s just say that it involves a lot of violence, cruelty and humiliation) all from Ria’s POV. Ria is a slave (as noted by the title) but more importantly, also an illegitimate daughter of the late king. While I have trouble figuring out the direction of the story at first, Ria captures my attention completely. Given her status, she has little (if any) autonomy and is always trying to make the best of her situation but somehow fails. In fact, another interesting thing that I find is that Ria can also easily be considered an anti-heroine, since some of her actions can be misconstrued despite her better intentions, such as giving away a large box of silver to the Roman soldiers. Still, what I admire about Ria is that she tries to make a better situation for herself, and since this story like all the others is historically accurate, it does not usually happen. Finally, I love how Downie introduces all the important players on the British side of this war: Boudica, her two daughters, her right hand, and other warriors. It is through Ria’s eyes that I can see the wisdom and cunning of Boudica for the first time, and I can understand why she inspires her warriors to rebel against Rome.

The Tribune by Russell Whitfield—This is the story that introduces the Roman military POV as well as the major players on the Roman side. It is also the story that completely exposes how hypocritical Romans can be while trying to conquer a province just because they are Romans. It is told from Agricola’s POV, and this is a story where it focuses on two things: huge character growth and plenty of battles. If you like action and battles, I am certain that you will enjoy this story. Whitfield really pulls no punches here as the gore is in spectacular but tasteful detail. Agricola at the beginning of the story is someone who is at Britain just so he can advance his career, but he definitely experiences huge character growth by the time he reaches Mona. A decent story that is important to the rebellion, but it is not my favourite since I do not respond will to action-heavy stories.

The Druid by Vicky Alvear Shectar—If the last story exposes hypocrisy, this story exposes some hypocrisy as well as major misunderstanding between the British (or whatever the people identified with themselves back then) and the Romans. This is told through a duo POV, from a captured Roman as well as a young Druid priest. Both hate each other yet “need” each other throughout their journey, and both have plans for each other that they will not verbalize but are constantly thinking. This is also a story that really explores the customs of the Druids and how they are integral to the society. That ending definitely brings shiver down my spine (in a good way)!

The Son by S.J.A Turney—The POV character for this story must be one of the most interesting and conflicted characters in this collection, particularly in terms of personal identity. Andercarus is the son of the right hand man of Boudica, but he is also one of the hostages that has lived with Romans for the majority of his youth. He therefore is someone who belongs in both worlds yet is seen as alien by both groups of people. This struggle is one of his major problems throughout the story, the other being his brutish adoptive brother. While Andercarus is struggling to ensure that he stays honourable to both groups of people, the sacking of Londinium looms ahead. The Romans chooses to abandon the city to its fate, recuperating and gathering strength for the future.  On the other hand, the rebels are ecstatic and high on adrenaline as they believe victory is within their grasp after the collapse of multiple cities. This is where savagery is displayed on the British side and shows that neither group has a higher moral ground than the other.

The Warrior by Kate Quinn—I am unsure if I have mentioned it, but Quinn is one of my favourite authors. I am always astounded by the quality of her work, and I have high hopes for this particular short story. Luckily, my hopes are not dashed. Quinn really brings out all her tricks and craft here by weaving a compelling story with plenty of snappy dialogue. It is from Valeria’s (the unfortunate wife of Decianus Catus as she is now a captured slave) and Duro’s (Boudica’s right hand man) POVs. They hate each other before they even set eyes on each other, and neither is afraid to demonstrate it. Particularly Valeria, and I find it very amusing since she is in such a reduced position given the dramatic change in her status. However, it is also through this story that we eventually see while there are plenty of misunderstandings (as highlighted in The Druid) there are also commonalities between the two groups of people. Aside from the great battles that serve as the climax of the story (which are again very brutal and very bloody but very realistic and impactful), what I think is truly moving and satisfying is the character arc. Both Valeria and Duro are unpleasant supporting characters when they are first introduced in the other short stories. But Quinn manages to flesh them into three-dimensional people while still retaining their voices from all the other stories. I highly enjoyed this story, although I do have some pangs that the characters did not meet under better circumstances (since they totally will have made an excellent power couple that will dominate everyone else).

And finally…

The Daughters by E.Knight—Since Quinn is one of my favourite authors and I thoroughly enjoy her story, I believe that The Warrior will emerge as my favourite story in this collection. Not after reading this one though. This is an emotionally charged ending from the POV from Boudica’s daughters. It is also fitting that their stories come last after they have appear in some capacity in almost all the other stories, either in passing or as supporting characters. While there is already some growth to the princesses since their father’s death (and the many awful changes that have occurred in one year) this story really encompasses all of that growth. There are flashbacks that reference to both princesses’ lives before the rebellion begins and it shows how they eventually live up to their names, their people, and the destinies that they are meant to fulfill. I will not lie; tears are shed throughout parts of this story because I truly connected with the two princesses and everything that they endured. It is also a beautiful ending by Knight, and while there is no way of verifying what the princesses are like in real life, it is a pity that the world does not know more about these very brave girls who rise above their circumstances to be strong females.

This is a beautiful novel and an impressive feat overall. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the fascinating rebellion that Boudica sparked. I also highly recommend reading the stories in order. While each story is structured to be an individual story, there are multiple easter eggs and threads that run throughout that will be experienced best when reading the novel in chronological order.

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