Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The White Mare by Jules Watson

AD 79. Agricola, the ruthless governor of Roman Britain has just subdued the Welsh. Now he has turned to the last unconquered territory in Britain - Alba, Scotland.

For Rhiann, an Alban priestess and princess, the thread of invasion changes her life irrevocably. The king, her uncle, has no heir, and it is her duty to submit to a political marriage. But she is emotionally scarred from a terrible trauma, and can imagine nothing worse than matrimony. Desperately, she looks for a way out, but sees only the Romans closing in.

Into this volatile situation sails an Irish prince, Eremon, exiled from his home by familial treachery. His aim is to win renown and regain his throne, but first he has to deal with an unexpected alliance, prove himself a military leader, and unite the feuding tribes of his adopted country.

Against this backdrop of looming war Rhiann finds herself embarking on an unexpected journey of love and loss that will the true purpose of her life.

The White Mare is the first novel in the Dalriada Trilogy and marks the arrival of an exciting new talent in historical fiction. In the grand tradition of the saga, it is a tale of heroic deeds, of kinship and kingship, and the struggle for power, honour, freedom, and love.

One of the things I love about reading is the way that you can travel to other places and/or times, without actually leaving modern comforts behind!! This book transported me to Scotland (Alba) in AD 79. The Roman forces are massing in the south of Alba waiting for the order to be given to conquer the wild tribes of the north once and for all, given Rome control over the whole of the mainland Britain.

With the prospect of war looming, Eremon arrives. He is fleeing from a usurper that has taken his rightful place as King from one of the tribes of Ireland, and is looking for a place to spend time regrouping until he can go and take back what is rightfully his. His plan is to make a name for himself, and one way that can happen is if he becomes war leader of the tribes. However, that will take some doing, because the tribes of Alba are notorious for their ongoing feuds and battles. Eremon sees that the only way to defeat the Romans will be to be fighting as one cohesive unit, and works his way towards that girl.

Rhiann is a princess and also a priestess, and she has one pressing duty - to provide a royal heir. Quite interestingly, author chooses to have the crown pass through the females of the family, so that if Rhiann has a son, then he will become King, instead of the more traditional way of passing the crown from father to son. Rhiann is a leader of her people and a very strong woman, in all ways except one. She is traumatised from events that happened several years ago where her foster family was all killed, and she herself suffered terribly. These events have left her with a terrible distrust of men, and warriors in particular.

When it is agreed that a political match be made between Rhiann and Eremon, she is terrified of what is to come, and for a long time after the wedding she maintains a completely distant persona. Gradually though, Eremon and Rhiann begin to work together for the good of the people of Alba, although it is fair to say that there are setbacks along the way. They also work together towards healing of both their relationship and their minds.

The author doesn't back away from the faults of the characters, moving the story forward through the mistakes and errors in judgement that occur.

With a strong emphasis on the role of fate and on the role of religion during those times, there is almost a mystical feel to this book. It has to be said that I haven't read a lot about Roman times, or the tribes of the time, so I have no idea how feasible some of the ideas are that are presented in the book, but they seemed reasonable enough to me as I read it. What I look for in a book is readability, and for a story that hooks me in and makes me want to keep reading. Using these two as measurements, this sprawling sage is a winner!

I enjoyed it immensely and I will definitely be reading the sequel, The Dawn Stag, and the final book in the Dalriada trilogy, which is due out early next year.

Rating 4.5/5


  1. Several historical sources say that the Picts (the inhabitants of the eastern side of what's now the Scottish Highlands, later called Alba, the Romans called it Caledonia) reckoned royal descent through the female line, so the idea that Rhiann's son would be a candidate for King has some basis. None of the sources was written in contemporary Pictland - so modern historians argue about whether the Picts really followed this tradition or whether it is just a legend made up about them by other cultures. Take your choice!
    Am wondering if the story is, or is going to be, connected with Calgacus who was the (legendary?) leader of all the Pictish tribes at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 84. The Roman historian Tacitsu gives Calgacus a splendidly moving heroic speech on the eve of battle. The battle was lost, but the Romans never occupied Scotland, so I suppose it could be counted as an honourable draw.
    I'll see if I can find this book - thanks for the review.

  2. Hi Carla! Thanks for dropping by! Calgacus is certainly one of the major characters in this story, and I have no doubt that he will play a big part in the next book of the trilogy.

    It would be interesting to hear your take on the story as I have no idea how good or bad the historical aspects of this book are - the author does include quite a lot of notes in explanation of assumptions she has made to give some idea, but that is about all I could tell you for sure!

  3. I have a request in for it at my local library now! Almost nothing is known for sure about the tribes in Scotland at the time. The only near-contemporary source is the Roman historian Tacitus, and there are no records of the Pictish side of the story except whatever can be gleaned from archaeology. So the author has a pretty free hand with regard to making things up! Her website suggests she takes the same approach as I do; treat the one surviving near-contemporary source as a skeleton of 'facts' (Bede in my case, Tacitus in hers) and make up the rest based on archaeology, common sense, accounts of related societies and imagination. For what it's worth, the Historical Background on her website sounds plausible to me. For example, she says that it's not known what the Picts called themselves, which is true. I should say though that it's not my primary period. Gabriele Campbell could probably tell you more as she is writing at least one novel set on Hadrian's Wall in the second century AD, set I think about 50 years after the period of The White Mare.

  4. Glad to hear you liked this one, Marg! I have it and its sequel, The Dawn Stag, on my shelf, but haven't cracked it open yet! Also am glad to see you enjoyed Heir to the Shadows. I also have Anne Bishop's Black Jewels trilogy on my shelf ... another one I didn't get to.

    And, in response to the comment you left on my blog, I'm glad I'm not the only one who isn't too impressed by Judith Tarr! I felt like I must have been missing something ;-)


  5. I wondered if it was just because she was coauthoring with someone else, but maybe that's not it at all!