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cover of Island of Ghosts, simple picture of Roman cavalryman on rearing horse
Island of Ghosts, Gillian Bradshaw

I swapped ebooks with weekend, who very kindly sent me a copy of Island of Ghosts. (We were talking about Gillian Bradshaw's Arthurian books, which are Hawk of May, Kingdom of Summer, and In Winter's Shadow. All of you should read these books! They are my favourite retellings of the Arthurian mythology. More historical and less fantasy, and they follow Sir Gawain, and completely heartbreaking by the end.)

Island of Ghosts is about three companies of defeated Sarmatians who are marched to Britain to form part of the Roman forces in the second century AD. The protagonist, Ariantes, is the scepter-holder of his company who struggles to make his new life in northern Britain.

A lot of his struggle is that all of them, the men he commands--and his peers, Gatalan and Arshak, both nobility--deeply distrust and feel contemptuous towards the Romans. Their customs are almost completely alien to each other. The Romans see the Sarmatians as barbarians, citing their custom of cutting and keeping enemies' scalps, their nomadic civilization, the various acts of war. The Sarmatians, who are now minorities in this new land, are unwilling to assimilate, afraid of losing their identities. The Sarmatians don't like the bread that are the Romans' staples; they refuse to sleep in the barracks indoors; they are all cavalry, no infantry at all, and value their horses enormously; they do not share a religion; they are horrified with the Romans' custom of burning their dead, believing it to destroy the soul. The novel begins with the Sarmatians nearly mutinying when they are told they have to go to Britain by ship: they are convinced the Romans are tricking them and that there is no land beyond the water, and they've been marched there to be killed.

That's the best plot summary I can give. It's not really so much a plot-driven book as it is character-driven, and Ariantes is actually only one of those characters. Ariantes, who is more willing than Gatalas and especially Arshak to speak to the Romans, ends up struggling particularly hard with the question of Romanization. For the sake of the men he commands, he ends up making compromises; he recognizes the usefulness of writing early on and reluctantly accepts the offer of a slave scribe, for one.

Arshak, who was in line for the throne, is more hotheaded than both of them and ends up throwing himself into an alliance with Bodica. Bodica is the wife of a Roman legate but more importantly, a high-born descendant of the native British tribes and fiercely proud of this. Tensions between the Romans and the native British population run high in the north, where the Sarmatians are stationed, and Bodica--absolutely ruthless, clever, and an excellent actress--is determined to restore the tribes' dominance. United by their common enemy, they are trying to destroy the northern garrisons.

To be honest, I liked Bodica the best out of all them. Ariantes is honourable in the true sense of the word, and tries very hard to do the best he can for the people he is in charge of. But I never quite clicked with him. Eukairios, Ariantes' slave, is a Christian and in a situation somewhat parallel to Ariantes, though he does not have any of his status (this is pre-Constantine, where Christianity is an illegal religion.) Arshak is Ariantes' opposite, unwilling and unable to compromise. Despite Bodica's obvious cruelty--it's telegraphed by her poor treatment of horses, and I think one of the more effective markers for evilness is the animal cruelty--she's absolutely audacious and defiant all the way to the last.

Final verdict: do recommend! 8/10

NOTE: My classics history is very poor. (I'm really only good for medieval history, I'm afraid.) I think I have missed a lot regarding all the ranks (eg: how do legates and tribunes differ?) Clearly more reading is in order.


According to my kobo e-reader, which I have been using since mid-March, I have logged a total time of 389 hours and completed 53 novels on it. I'm a bit stunned. The kobo counts books as finished when you read cover to absolute end and does not count re-reads, halfway through, marked as read, etc titles. I'm sure the actual number of hours is a little smaller (sometimes I left it on while charging) but not by more than 10 hours. That's a lot of time I've spent reading, considering everything, and also there were the months of May/June when I was abroad and didn't bring it at all. I...yeah. You know what probably took up the most time? Les Misérables. God, there were so many hours burned on that book.

Also interesting are sometimes the page statistics. I'm currently reading Fragments du Passé which is a Dear Canada book from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor: they're books for young girls published by Scholastic. They're epistolary novels which are set in different points in Canada's history. When I was in elementary and junior high school I read a lot of them--there was that traumatizing one about the filles-du-roi (see, her husband dies of this poisoned mushroom and she screams and raves before accepting he's dead, and then she has to survive the Maritime winter by herself--terrifying, have you seen what the weather is like in the Maritimes?, she barely makes it--AND give birth by herself in the spring) and there's one about the Spanish influenza which introduced me to the prayer "if I should die before I wake" (atheist household so I never encountered this; I still think this is a horrifying prayer to teach kids), the one about immigration to the Prairies, the one about the Loyalists, the one about the War of 1812, I think I read the Plains of Abraham one too, probably more I'm forgetting. I grew out of them but man, I read a lot of them...they cover a lot of geographical ground and time and probably taught me more Canadian history than I ever learned in class. Anyway, I saw this one in the ebook library of the public library and decided to try one. My French isn't strong enough to take on the books I really want to read--they're just too long--so I decided to pick up this one. See: fondness for this series. Anyway, what I was going to say before I went on this long tangent--someday I should really put together a post about the Dear Canada books--is that usually the pages per minute count is 5-8 pages per minute, but it's all the way down to 1 on these. I only just realized Terry is not, in fact, a boy, twelve pages in. I don't know how I missed that.

Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/162262.html.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 2nd, 2014 10:45 pm (UTC)
They do! There's even a Wikipedia page for them, actually http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dear_Canada Oh man, I'd forgotten about the Dear America series. I only remember the Princess Diary series which is also by Scholastic; that one's world-wide.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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