Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Chariot of the Soul by Linda Proud

shortlisted for Book of the Month



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#Book one of a proposed series

Fictional Saga
1st Century
Roman Britain

"Togidubnus, son of King Verica of the Atrebates, has been living in Rome for ten years. During a visit to the Oracle at Delphi, he is given a divine injunction to return to barbaric Britain. He wants to stay in Rome with his host, the scholarly Claudius, and his teacher, the philosopher Seneca. But events conspire with the gods: Claudius becomes emperor, Seneca is thrown into exile and King Verica arrives in Rome to beg help in regaining lands lost to the warlord Caratacus. Claudius sends Togidubnus home in advance of the Roman army to persuade the Britons not to resist or else face a bloodbath. Why should they resist? After all, the Roman way of life is better. Isn’t it?"

Togidubnos (AKA Delfos or Delphinius) is the youngest son of the Briton King Verica, sent to Rome as a royal hostage as part of a trade agreement between Verica and Rome. Educated in that great city for ten years by Seneca himself, Togidubnos is then sent back to Britain to help convince his people that their wisest course of action is to fall in line and submit to the might of the Roman Empire. When he arrives, he finds his two worlds - Roman and Stoic, Briton and Druid - at odds, both in the politics of the world and within himself.

Chariot of the Soul focuses on the eventual takeover of Britain by the Roman Empire under Claudius. The author sets the stage nicely. It is obvious that she did some excellent research and she shows it with thorough but not pedantic history given as current events in Togidubnos’s young life. The Britons are still rather tribal, and alliances between the various tribes are often unpredictable and ever-changing.

Caligula sent an invasion force during his short, disastrous reign, but it failed, the biggest impact being that some British tribes continued trading with Roman territories afterwards. Claudius was smarter about it, using Togidubnos’s knowledge of his home country to try to win the Britons over through more peaceable means. To some extent, this worked as the regions in southern Britain were generally more peaceful under Roman rule than other regions. By the end of the novel, readers have a good understanding of the shifting politics of the period. We are also introduced to Boudicca, that spectacular woman who united the tribes and very nearly kicked the Romans out on their collective asses. Presumably, that part will come in the sequel, as Chariot of the Soul is only the first of a series. 

The characters in Proud’s novel were all deep and well-crafted. Seeing the ways in which Togidubnos grew and changed over time was...not really fun since a lot of bad things happened to him. But satisfying, I suppose, to see how he grew and learned how best to use his knowledge of both Rome and Britain to help as many people as he could, and how he reconnected with the people of his birthplace. 

His mission was really an impossible one - go back to Britain and convince these very different and almost neurotically independent tribes to submit peacefully to Rome. It is no wonder that he became conflicted in a variety of ways. 

Togidubnos was a real king, by the way, of the Atrebates tribe. There's not a lot known about him, but it was enough to give Proud a few good ideas! His British slave, Mandred, was probably my favorite character. I have a soft spot for sarcastic folk anyway, and he was probably the one person who truly kept Togidubnos on a proper path. 

I think my favorite element of character development focused on Claudius himself. He did not have a very large role in this novel, nor was it necessary since the story isn’t about him. But I loved how Proud made him seem a fool prior to becoming emperor, but he always had flashes of the real man underneath, hidden and waiting to be released. She really highlighted the ways in which other people underestimated him. I never really subscribed to the view that Claudius was mentally challenged because I just don’t see how he could have reigned for nearly fourteen years if that were the case. I suppose he could have been a puppet but it seems easier and more in line with so much of Roman succession if his handler were just to kill him and take over. I recently read that possible reasons for Claudius’s tremor, slurred speech, and other physical ailments could have been polio, cerebral palsy, or even Tourette’s syndrome. Whatever the reason, I think he was a more successful emperor than many who came before him, and certainly more so than some who came after. 

Another excellent element of this novel was the focus on horses. Yes, I was a horse-crazy little girl. I am probably still a horse-crazy middle-aged woman. But no, that isn’t why I love this part. In a lot of other novels I’ve read set in pre-Roman or Roman Britain, horses were present but treated mainly as tools. Here, they were priceless, with herds going back through generations of painstaking breeding. The warriors loved their horses and when bad things happened to them, they were as grief-stricken as they were when a beloved comrade died. I liked seeing this side of ancient British culture explored more. *

Proud also did a good job with her handling of the druids. I loved the mystical feel to many of these characters, but it wasn’t so mystical as to be unbelievable. I do wish there had been more here, more detail or rituals. But Proud did a good job with the extremely limited sources there are about the druids. 

The only thing I didn’t care for was the title. It does come from a discussion Togidubnos has with a druid, but we don’t get that until near the end of the book. 

A complex and very well researched novel, this was an excellent read and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

(* Note from Helen Hollick: this empathy with horses  is probably why the British are particularly 'horse people' even today, and why many of us have an inbuilt taboo against eating horsemeat. For those of us who are 'Britons' via long-distance DNA, horses are more than pets or things to own. They are family.)

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Kristen McQuinn
 e-version reviewed

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