Posted by: Sarah | January 2, 2006

The Boudica Novels by Manda Scott

Gabriele asked what I thought of Boudica: Dreaming the Hound, which is the third in the Boudica quartet. I’ll be brief (though I could bore you for hours).

I looked forward to these novels, in the hope that they’d tell the definitive Boudica story, unlike previous versions I’d read, which (except for Rosemary Sutcliff’s excellent children’s novel, Song for a Dark Queen), were either trite romances or shallow sub-erotic adventure tomes. Alas, Scott’s Boudica hasn’t so far lived up to my expectations, although I confess there’s something weirdly compelling about its awfulness.

Like the first two novels (Dreaming the Eagle and Dreaming the Bull), Dreaming the Hound is something of a curate’s egg, in my opinion, though there are rather more good parts in it than in the previous volumes. The final volume, Dreaming the Serpent Spear, is published in February 2006. I’m not hopeful about this as I have difficulty taking seriously any novel with the word serpent in the title. However, I shall do my best to overcome my snaky prejudice.

Manda Scott established her reputation in contemporary thrillers with a taut, powerful style of narrative and dialogue. Unfortunately, in writing the Boudica novels, she tossed overboard
everything she’d learned to such good effect in the thrillers.


The net result is a bloated adolescent fantasy in which her obsession with something called “shamanic dreaming” repeatedly bogs down both story and character, so that these essential elements are never satisfactorily developed. The quartet begins in Boudica’s childhood but the story doesn’t get into its stride until Scott picks up the main Tacitus narrative about halfway through Dreaming the Hound. That’s too late for me, Manda. I’m bored already, and skipping chunks. There are slabs of fine, evocative writing, ex-vet Scott knows her animal stuff and there are the requisite amounts of authentic-seeming blood and gore. But the dialogue is risibly portentous throughout and everybody takes themselves far too seriously ALL THE TIME. The only laughs are unintentional, e.g. the cackling toothless crones who drone on in pointless riddles, the dancing-with-bears scene in Dreaming the Eagle, and the general knockabout nastiness of those rotten Romans.

On her website and elsewhere, Scott shares with us some jaw-droppingly silly notions about Brits and Romans, of which this from her blurb about Dreaming the Eagle is a brief taster:

The process of Romanisation was one of genocide, segregation and urbanisation, a stripping of a people from their land and their gods from which we have never recovered. In researching the novels, the greater part of the investigation into our pre-Roman past was a discovery of exactly how much is not known, particularly of our spiritual past. To discover that was an act of dreaming and clearly, the exact routes of the connection between a people and the gods cannot be recreated. What I have done therefore, is to ground the narrative in my own experience. In every sense, the writing of Boudica has been an act of dreaming and I have taken as much care as I can to ensure that the dreaming described has been and can be mirrored in the twenty first century. We no longer exist in a culture which values art above avarice and courage before commerce; we have no recognisable rites of passage nor tales of our own heroic lineage – but there is no reason why we should not re-create these if we so desire. Boudica is a story of who we have been but it is also who we could be again.

Read ’em and weep.

I once heard the author opining with po-faced earnestness on Woman’s Hour to the effect that if Boudica had chucked the Romans out in 60-1 AD, we’d all still be speaking Celtic and hugging trees.

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Responses

  1. The best book I’ve read about Boudicca is Pauline Gedge’s “The Eagle and the Raven”. It’s been years since I read it so I was looking forward to Scott’s “Dreaming the Eagle”. I’ve started reading it, found the prose quite poetic but difficult to get into the story. I’ll try again to get back into it. Found your review of the others interesting.

    I’m a historical fiction writer too, w.i.p. is about the fall of Alexander the Great’s dynasty. I’ve also got another w.i.p. which is a Celtic tale. I thought the Boudicca story would inspire me to get back to work on it. Maybe one of these days…but first I must finish with Alexander’s story as he is my big passion.

  2. Priceless review, Sarah! Thank you so much. I didn’t dislike these as much as you (though I’ve only read the first two), but I also lost patience with the misty-eyed New Age stuff and the shamanic dreaming. I don’t have a problem if the author chooses to create the culture that way – I don’t think there’s any evidence that people in the late pre-Roman Iron Age didn’t hug trees, any more than there’s evidence that they did – but there’s so much of it that it weighs down the narrative rather than supporting it.

    Now you mention it, I don’t think I’ve ever really liked a book that was totally devoid of humour. I don’t mean gag-a-minute comedy, although writers who can do that well and tell a story at the same time (Terry Pratchett, PG Wodehouse) are to be treasured. But occasional flashes of wit or irony, either from the author or the characters, add so much lightness of touch and human warmth. It’s risky for the writer, because by definition some readers won’t have the same sense of humour, and I suppose it’s a particular difficulty in historical fiction because it has to feel authentic (or at least plausible) as well.

  3. V nicely put, Sarah πŸ˜‰ It really was the lack of humour that got to me; no need for slapstick, but lighter moments can easily be worked in. Friends taking the p*** out of each other is always good for a laff

  4. Thank you very much, Sarah. It’s as I feared, a black and white tale with really bad Romans and very close to nature Celts and a MESSAGE. Well, I’m not fond of books with a message that is pushed forward (MZB’s Mists of Avalon were the borderline of what I deem tolerable, any more of it and the book would have hit the wall). Since our University Library has Dreaming the Hound (they always surprise me with the amount of fiction books you can find), I’ll have a look at it, but I certainly won’t spend any money on the books.

    Humour. *sigh* I love to read it and I really like a bit of it even in serious books, but I can’t for the life of me write it. My attempts at adding a bit humour in my NiPs came out forced and silly, so I decided not to have any.

  5. This got me thinking about the whole issue of humour in historical fiction. It’s very difficult to do, for good reasons that are specific to the genre, and that may explain why it’s so often missing. But I think there are techniques that can be applied to bring a bit of lightness into serious books. I shall post something about it when I’ve got my ideas straight.

  6. Scott sounds very weedy.

  7. If you haven’t already done so, I’d be pleased to have you visit the website for my recently published historical novel, “Boudica, Queen of The Iceni” (Robert Hale, Ltd, London). While it’s a work of fiction,it adheres to the historical record as faithfully as the recent History Channel docu-drama, “Warrrior Queen Boudica.” My treatment of the familiar story differs rather markedly from Scott’s. Among the earlier Boudica novels, I also particularly like Sutcliff’s “Song For A Dark Queen” and Gedge’s “The Eagle And The Raven.” [Joseph E. Roesch, http://www.boudica-roesch.com]

  8. somone as obviously narrow-minded and unimaginative as yourself should at least keep quiet. Reminds me of the old adage: those that can write, write. Those that can’t, do criticism.


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