Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Valiant by Lesley Livingston

Fallon, youngest daughter of Virico Lugotorix, King of the Cantii tribe of Prydain, lives in Durovernum. Fallon's two older brothers died when she was a baby and her mother died days after her birth. Her older sister Sorcha was killed in battle with the Romans. King Virico was captured by Caesar and his legions and Sorcha was lost in the battle to free him. It has been seven years since the Roman legions have left Prydain, whom they call Britannia, but Fallon and her people know they will one day return. Prydain is too rich in gold, tin and timber and slaves to be abandoned. Fallon plans to be ready like the rest of her Celtic tribe to fight off the Roman invaders, as her sister Sorcha did.

The novel opens on Fallon's seventeenth birthday with her attempting to execute a chariot maneuver called the Morrigan's Flight, named after "the fearsome winged war goddess who flew over battlefields collecting the souls of the worthy dead." Fallon knows this to be "the supreme act of a true Cantii warrior." Driving her chariot is Maelgwyn Ironhand, the boy whom Fallon loves. She hopes that she will be made a member of her father's war band.

After almost killing herself in her attempt, Mael is furious and begs Fallon to allow him to ask her father for her hand. However Fallon declines, begging Mael to wait as she expects her father to make her part of his war band. It is not unusual for the women of the tribes of Prydain - the Cantii, Catuvellauni, Trinovantes and Iceni to choose to fight with the men warriors.

Fallon's birthday coincides with the Eve of Lughnasa, when the four tribes of Prydain came together to feast. At the feast that night, Fallon is horrified when her father betrothes her to Mael's brother Aeddan, who is now king of the Trinovantes. Although Fallon loves Aeddan as a brother, it is Mael she wishes for her husband. Her father tells her he will not make her a war chief because he doesn't want to lose her the way he lost Sorcha.

Fallon decides to run away to avoid marriage to Aeddan and asks Mael to join her. He refuses. On her way out of the village she encounters Aeddan and Mael fighting and to her horror sees Aeddan kill Mael. She is grabbed from behind and knocked out.

Fallon finds herself on a boat gliding down the River Dwr, a captive of slave traders. On the slave galley heading to Rome, Fallon is questioned by the Macedonian slave trader who tells her his name is Charon. Charon attempts learn Fallon's name and questions her about the sword she was carrying. It has the engraving of a triple raven on it - the mark of the Morrigan. Fallon tells him she did not steal the sword but that it belonged to her sister, a great warrior, who gave it to her. Charon orders her to be taken to the hold but not to be harmed in any way.

They land on the north shore of Gaul (France) and travel overland by caravan in wooden cage carts. Fallon and the other slaves wear a slave collar and are chained together at the neck and at the ankle. The territory they are passing through is dangerous, after Caesar defeated the Gallic king, Vercingetorix (Arviragus) and destroyed the Arverni tribe leaving the land filled with raiders. Fallon fights with another slave, Elka who is a member of the Virani tribe. Their fight results in the cart tipping over and crashing into a ravine and both Fallon and Elka escaping.

Their escape is short lived however as Charon recaptures them and they are taken to the port of Massilia. There they are forced onto another slave galley that will be accompanied by a Roman legion ship under the   authority of Decurion Caius Antonius Varro. Their journey is short however when the slave galley is attacked by pirates. Fallon and Elka are able to free themselves from the ship's hold and Fallon attempts to kill the Roman Decurion. However, he convinces her to attack the pirates. As the ship is sinking, Fallon rescues Charon who insists on saving a small trunk.

In Rome, Fallon and the other girls captured are prepared for the slave auction. Fallon has no idea what her fate will be nor why she merits the special treatment by Charon. What will her future be in the city that is the center of the world?

Discussion

Arviragus (Vercingetorix) surrendering to Julius Caesar
The Valiant is arguably one of the best novels of 2017. It has a fierce, plucky heroine, is set in both Celtic Britain and in Rome at the height of its power, and is a story filled with brutal battles and Roman intrigue. Added to this is the blossoming forbidden romance between a Roman Decurion and a barbarian warrior.

Livingston portrays both tribal life and customs in Celtic Britain in approximately 46 B.C as well as life in Rome during Caesar's reign. Female gladiators, known as gladiatrices existed but were probably not the norm as they would have gone against what Roman's considered the ideal for women - that is being wives and mothers. There is some evidence for their existence and there seems to be some discussion around what they wore, if they were slaves, how they fought and even if they existed during Caesar's reign. We know from historical accounts that the Emperor Domitian had gladiator contests that involved women. Livingston models her gladiatrices after the male gladiators; Fallon wears a helmet as well as a breastplate and a leather skirt, her fights are not to the death as portrayed in film and gladiatrices were slaves.  Readers will learn a bit about the different types of gladiators and their training. For example in the gladiator school (Ludus Achillea) run by her sister, Fallon fights Gratia who is a Murmillo, a gladiator who uses a sword and heavy shield as well as Meriel who is a Retiarius, a gladiator who fights with a trident and a rope net.

In the novel, Livingston uses Caesar's Triumphs as the setting for Fallon's own victory. Fallon takes part in Caesar's Triumphs, which was a series of events to celebrate Caesar's military victories, especially the conquering of Britain. Beforehand she meets the king she worshiped as a young girl, the imprisoned Arviragus. Known as King Vercingetorix to the Romans, he is no longer the young, fiery leader she remembers. He has been kept in a cell for years with the intention of parading him in front of the people so they could see how terrible he was and what a victory this was for Caesar. Afterwards he would be taken back to prison and strangled. He advises Fallon to win the heart of the people and of Caesar so she can win her freedom.

Besides the detailed descriptions of battles and intrigue, Livingston also weaves a budding romance  between Fallon and Decurion Varro into her story.  Although this is easily a stand-alone book, Livingston has a sequel planned which will likely tie up some loose ends. For example, it is never revealed who is behind the threats to Fallon and her relationship with Caius Varro remains unrequited.

Overall, The Valiant is an exciting novel with a strong female protagonist and several strong female secondary characters that captures life in ancient Rome during the time of Julius Caesar.

Book Details:

The Valiant by Lesley Livingston
Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.     2017
372 pp.

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