Saturday, July 06, 2013

Review of Between the Forest and the Hills by Ann Lawrence

Great for summer reading, Between the Forest and the Hills is a clever, fast-paced historical novel set at the twilight of Roman Britain, easily approachable for readers as young as 10 but thoroughly enjoyable for adults as well.

The times are changing fast in Roman Britain. With the Western Empire collapsing, the legions have been withdrawn and the British have been told that they're on their own. Saxon encroachments have disrupted ancient lines of communication leaving many towns isolated and at the mercy of the barbarians. But some towns, like Iscium, are remote enough to remain at peace--for a while, anyway.

This character-driven tale is subtitled "A Historical Fantasy" but that term is somewhat misleading. While there are surely a few fanciful elements, there are no goblins or trolls. The town of Iscium is, as far as I can tell, a product of the author's imagination (though the city of Caerleon in Wales was once called Iscia Augusta). The characters too appear to be completely fictional. The setting, however, is quite historical and the reader is lightly transported back to that era of change and transition--when Rome receded and medieval Christendom emerged.

The author's excellent true-to-life depictions of the characters are what really make this book tick. Falx, a Roman boy, displays all the foolish courage and reluctant care of a virtuous lad his age. Malleus the bishop and his pagan friend Frontalis are endearing grumbly old men while Ulna is a wide-eyed Saxon girl, wise in her innocence. Axon and Thena, a young married couple, are forever optimistic despite the often dire circumstances. The Saxon chieftain Torcula is fierce yet reasonable, while the mysterious Teres, like Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, seems to turn up whenever he is most needed. But the most endearing characters of all may be Hrudin and Concha, the loquacious ravens.

There are a few somewhat ridiculous elements to this book if you are a perceptive reader--elements of post-shadowing (if such a term exists) that were a little too cute and did little to enhance the story in my opinion. Others may disagree. See if you catch them.

One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed, and that caught me somewhat off guard, was the author's treatment of the miraculous. The tone of the characters--especially the Bishop Malleus--toward the miraculous is strongly reminiscent of the sneering contempt of 19th century British academics. This was so pronounced that it was beginning to annoy me and it almost felt like the author was trying to make a point that sounded suspiciously like a pompous modernist theologian attempting to explain Christ feeding the 5,000 without any supernatural means, but via the generosity of the wealthy in the crowd. Yet, just when I had reached my limit, the author skillfully and unexpectedly pulled the rug out from under this idea. The scene where this happens is my favorite in the book.

Between the Forest and the Hills is a tremendously charming and well-conceived tale. It is enjoyable reading for young folks (ages 10 and up) and for old folks, too, and I plan to re-read it with my kids in the not-too-distant future. If you enjoy this book, I would heartily recommend Centurion's Daughter which tells a similar tale of the end of Roman Gaul and the beginning of the kingdom of the Franks.

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