Reviewed by David Maclaine
In Dark North Gillian Bradshaw creates another of her tightly constructed novels of war and romance, this time set in Britain late in the reign of Septimius Severus, the emperor who brought a measure of stability to the empire by making sure the army always came first. The hero of Bradshaw’s tale is an African who has traveled across the deserts south of the coastal kingdoms of North Africa and become a scout in the Roman Army’s auxiliary cavalry from Mauritania. He goes by the name of Memnon. His unit heads north in the vanguard of the imperial army as it gathers to punish the rebellious tribes of northern Britain and force them into submission. Along the way he meets an attractive slave named Athenais who serves the empress and an important official named Castor, both of whom are taken captive when the British ambush their party. Memnon's daring rescue of the pair does not put an end to the trials the group faces. The rivalry of the emperor’s two sons leads to treachery, and the successful conduct of the war may hinge on whether their plots can be neutralized. The action is fast and furious: battles, escapes, assassinations and revenge.
Bradshaw offers a sympathetic view of the British tribes who struggle to remain free of Roman rule, and a believable account of the difficult political balancing act needed to keep peace between military units from different parts of the empire doing hard duty at its far northwest boundary. Dark North captures the feel of the empire at a moment when the strong rule needed to hold it together was in danger of unraveling. The novel ably illustrates the differences between the varied nationalities within that empire, in a story with engaging, likeable characters and engrossing twists and turns. Memnon and Athenais struggle for a happy ending, but long-term prospects for a well-governed Roman state seem rather more precarious. (2007, 315 pages)More about Dark North at Powell's Books or Amazon.com