I appreciate different viewpoints in literature, and Haley Elizabeth Garwood’s Ashes of Britannia is an interesting example of how two voices can weave together in a book to tell two sides of the same story. I call this a duet story, which means a story that tells the entire perspective of two competing clans from their own perspectives. Throughout history, the winner tells the story, but this intriguing book intentionally tells both sides of the story, which both intrigues and makes you wonder who to root for. Ashes of Britannia tells the story of Boadicea and how she rose to power and was a serious threat to the Roman machine as they invaded Brittan. The story is told from two viewpoints—Boadicea and the Roman soldier Suetonius who was first her friend and then her rival. Ashes of Britannia works because of the duality of voices—Queen Boadicea’s story against Rome’s Suetonius; if either one was taken away, the book would be incomplete.
The interesting thing about this book is how it’s arranged by alternating narrators—first Boadicea is the narrator and then Suetonius, through seven chapters together moving throughout their lives, and the epilogue is Meara’s tale, talking of Boadicea. By creating even keel with her characters, the author can play both sides without seeming to choose one until the epilogue.
The differences in cultures are evident from the beginning. Boadicea learns to hunt with her father (5); her father says, “You have the strength of boys and girls twice your age and the keen eyesight of a falcon” (5). Her mother, speaking as Priestess Durina, says: “you have been chosen to begin studies that will make you a priestess, providing you pass the tests” (7). The author chose to not give everything to Boadicea, but instead to make her earn her role, which makes it that more valuable to the character and to the reader. In the next chapter, which focuses on Suetonius, he is on vacation back home as a young soldier; the things he worries about are who to sleep with. An interesting choice the author made was to focus on the whole family, not just Suetonious. She chose that tactic to show how women were treated in both cultures and the reader gets a wider view. So through Vivianne, his mother, we see how aristocratic and slave women are treated. Suetonius treats his mother with regard, and he heeds her when she tells him Trista is “not to treat her as your personal concubine” (33). When his little sister is mean to Trista, he takes his little sister and Trista swimming (41). Apparently Tiberius treats all women as game for his “roving eyes and pawing hands” (48), so when attending a party at his estate, Vivianne deliberately goes against the grain of beauty—she wants to be plain, not singled out, but it is that act that makes her his chosen for the night (46-61). It was normal for women of that status and time in Rome to sleep with the Emperor—threats weren’t made outright, but they knew the whole family would be threatened if she didn’t comply (49). Through showing the different facets of their lives, the cultures are shown as being very different, and it sets up the clash of cultures.
Throughout the book it continues to go back and forth showing the differences of cultures. Later, when Boadicea, her husband, and the elders of their people talk, she is the one they turn to, and she wanted peace because her gods wanted peace (273). When they first meet, the author highlights the difference between their cultures, initiated by the Romans, as General Cerialis suggests the women leave the discussion (281). What is most interesting about this is King Prasutagus’ response:
My queen rules by my side as an equal. She has as much authority as I do as a ruler. As a Druid priestess, she governs everyone, even me, in religious, family, and medical Matters. As a warrior, she has been trained since childhood in the ways of war. (281)
This presents a new way of thinking to the Romans—the old way of thinking as personified in General Cerialis by having the women leave, and the new way of thinking, shown by Suetonius, as dealing with the Queen as an equal. The way the author crafted it is smart—she set up the culture clash throughout the book and then brought it to a head by pitting them against each other in an already charged meeting. After the Romans win the battle and Boadicea commits suicide rather than submit to what the Romans want (349-52), Suetonius hails Boadicea:
You taught me not to underestimate the enemy. You taught me to respect a warrior bee it a man or a woman. You taught me that the Roman army is vulnerable against an army led by passion and a desire for freedom. Here’s to you, Boadicea, a fine warrior queen. (363)
Boadicea proved to Suetonius that women are formidable enemies and that men should take them seriously.
After she has built up to the deaths throughout the story, the author brings it home with an epilogue that finally tells what a woman warrior of Boadicea wishes that her Queen “knew she had conquered the Romans after all” (365). This way Haley Elizabeth Garwood put the novel together is important because she wanted to highlight one idea—a story has multiple lenses and all lenses are equally valuable. Without one side or the other, the book would not have been the same—it took both sides to tell the whole story of what happened when the Ashes of Britannia smoldered.
I rate this book as a three-star book.
Garwood, Haley Elizabeth. Ashes of Britannia. Bruceton Mills, VA, The Writers Block. 2000.