THE HORSE COIN
Hodder & Stoughton, Oct 1999
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Historical Fiction, Britain, Boudica Rebellion
It is time for Marcus Julius Severinus, skilled Roman soldier, to learn about governing in an occupied land. He has an excellent teacher, his father Titus Julius Aper, a commander seasoned to wisdom among the tribes of Gaul. He has the perfect proving ground, Britain of 59 A.D. Despite appearances, Britain is about to explode into the rebellion of Boudica.
Marcus Severinus and his father watch in dismay as Procurator Catus sets out on a deliberately provocative course of stripping Queen Boudica’s family of their inheritance; while, simultaneously, Governor Paullinus denudes the territory of protective troups. They make themselves unpopular warning the government not to underestimate the Britons. Ignored, they dedicate themselves to duty and the welfare of the people close to them. Severinus and his friends and family, both Roman and Briton, are swept into the explosive release of sixteen years of resentment.
In Wales, the Roman war machine is making short work of the Druidic spiritual center, while on the east coast, Boudica’s massed warriors overrun Roman city centers. This could be horrific reading, and it would be if the reader had not formed such close ties with the main characters that we see events from their very personal viewpoints. Both armies will raise the hair on your neck for different reasons. Behind the rafts of soldiers out-maneuvering the defenders of island Mona, one can almost hear the confident, unstoppable march of the Empire. The gigantic British tribal horde is a force of nature; you no more want to get in its way than you would stand in front of a buffalo stampede.
Just as in life it takes the small things to make a life experience, so it is in THE HORSE COIN. When we meet the new governor, Wishart tells us much about him by describing his scent. Such a little thing as receiving a bath house towel sweeps us up in the Roman communal bathing experience. A phrase about the mud next to a drinking pool puts us behind the reeds with Briton hunter Tigirseno. We stumble and panic with the Druid Dumnocoveros as he flees through a swamp. As in real life, the little things also have larger connotations. The contrast between Albilla’s eye makeup and her saucy conversation establishes her as an appropriate mate for Severinus. When Brocomaglos kisses the desiccated head of a hero, not only do we feel the revulsion the watching Romans feel, and Brocomaglos’ reverence, we also feel the sadness of two cultures too far apart for understanding.
THE HORSE COIN is named for a love token with a Roman symbol on one side and a British symbol on the other. Where people of two cultures are raised to respect opposite things, Wishart asks, who is at fault? Both sides are determinedly fighting for what they believe in. To the Roman conquerors, cooperation and discipline are of first importance, while the Britons on the other side of the wall value individual freedom above all. Subtly explored from the viewpoints of several characters, both Roman and Briton, this problem gives depth to a story built on a turning point of British development. The reader will find himself connecting elements of this situation with many similar ones throughout history.
I loved THE HORSE COIN from the first rush of cavalry in the mist, when the author put me on horseback with Severinus. Severinus and Aper are admirable companions, men to trust and respect. I charged through the book in one evening and was too uplifted to be sleepy the next day. Following THE HORSE COIN, I read OVID, also by David Wishart. The impudent, humorous narration of detective Marcus Corvinus in OVID could hardly be more different from the straightforward personal tone of THE HORSE COIN, but the author’s understanding of the time shows in both books.
THE HORSE COIN is not published in the United States. We are missing out on a good thing. Vivid, perceptive and warm, it has to be has to be one of my favorite reads of this year.
Nov 2000 Review Originally Published On the Independent Reviews Site
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