Posted on March 11, 2008 by Monica Valentinelli
Written by Diana L Paxson
Reviewed by Monica Valentinelli
Ravens of Avalon is the type of fantasy novel that also falls into the realm of historical fiction. The tale is a sequence of events about the Roman invasion of Britannia, threaded together with a cast of characters focused on Boudica, an Iceni Queen who united Britannia and led a bloody, short rebellion against their Roman invaders.
Having read some of the other “Avalon” novels, I expected certain conventions to remain true to this story. For one, this is a story told from the point-of-view of a priestess from Avalon, the Druid tradition. This alone makes the story different, more colorful to read as you travel back to the time of early civilization, and are able to understand not only what the goals of the characters are about, but what life might have been like during those ancient times.
This story is one that I would consider to be a full-blown tapestry of events, where the strength of the plot lies in the endless hours of research for the smallest of details. Descriptions like:
To house their guests the Druids had repaired the huts in the meadow where they held the festivals and removed the wicker sides from the long feasting hall to admit air and light for their deliberations.
From telling you how buildings were built, to the rationalization behind naming conventions, Diana L Paxson pays every bit of attention to the tiniest of details. Several finite touches flesh out Boudica’s trials as she battles against the Romans not just for her people, but to display the difference between Roman thought, politics, government and society and the Druids. Something as simple as explaining the difference between how the Romans built their roads turns into something significance; remember that these are the days when horse, boat and ship were the primary means of travel.
While there were a lot of subtle details to the story, the plot is heavily fraught with pagan religious ideals and rituals, which are part and parcel to the Avalon series of books. At times the book is heavy with Druidic rites and rituals in order to show how Boudica changes from a slip of a girl to a fierce, vengeful queen. Gods and Goddesses like The Morrigan become part of the cast of characters as the conduits or “oracles” commune, channel and are even taken over by their foreign, superior ways. Indeed, much of the “magic” within the book is hinted at through these techniques early on, but much of that color dissolves as the true plot begins to emerge.
We start out following the relationship between Boudica and the Druidic tradition, and then watch as she does what any princess must—marry. After being separated from Lhiannon, we follow a lengthy back-and-forth conflict of Boudica’s emergence as Queen of her tribe, while conflict stirs in the background. Much of the book is about how Boudica became what she was—mother, Queen, diplomat—in the midst of a Roman occupation of the British Isles, and quite a few characters, places and new settings enter the fray. As you watch Boudica grow from girl to maiden to mother, you’re also traveling alongside her within the Druid Isles in places only dreamt about now. The novel climaxes much later than I had expected, and focuses on the central concept behind the novel, Boudica’s vengeful stand against Rome.
The weakest part of the book was Boudica’s relationship to her husband, primarily because so much importance has been placed on how she interacts with Lhiannon and how Lhiannon feels about her. This relationship is fairly powerful because of its intricate ties back to the Druidic religion, womanhood, and friendship, so everything else seems flat and, at times, forced by comparison.
My favorite character in the book, however, was a minor character named Coventa who had a natural gift for divining the future without relying on traditional trappings. Here Paxson explores themes well beyond the mythic “oracle,” but talks about how older traditions may have relied too heavily on seeing the future to make decisions, plan attacks, and understand what is going on. Coventa evolves through a number of trials; she plays several roles behind-the-scenes as she is manipulated by the other druids and is, at times, pitied but never revered for her gift. She only comes into her own when she is face-to-face with war’s ugly side, and does what she feels is right for her.
In the end, the true “winner” to this heroic tale (if you could call any one character “victorious”) is The Morrigan or Cathubodva, the Battle Raven. Interwoven with what Boudica can do as a human, is what she does as a goddess. It’s interesting that Paxson underlines how dangerous the gods can be, and how much they rely on the concept of balance—something that may (or may not) work in the favor of Romans or Brits alike. One of Cathubodva’s most powerful statements in the book is when Paxson writes:
“Do you not, even now, understand? I am the moan of the dying warrior and the shout of the one who slays him; I am the scream of the woman in childbed and her baby’s first cry. Fear my fury, for without balance, it will destroy the world.”
I know I didn’t comment much on the fact that this was written by a different author within Bradley’s universe, but I found the work to be so similar in style to Bradley’s other work that I didn’t feel the distinction was worth mentioning. Paxson was kind enough to provide more details about why she wrote this work in the book; if you’re interested in that aspect I would definitely read her comments.
Fans of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s work will enjoy this book, as would readers that may have liked fringe historical romance novels from authors like Diana Gabaldon series. While this story has a much more serious edge to it than a fluff romance novel, the point that I’m trying to make here is that Ravens of Avalon could appeal to a much broader audience than merely “fantasy.”