Boudica: Dreaming the Bull by Manda Scott is the second in a four-book series on the Celtic warrior Boudica, leader of the coalition of tribes fighting Rome’s invasion of Britain. As with the first book in the series, Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle, Scott combines historical research with a creative imagination. But this second book in the series falls short of its predecessor.
Picking up where Dreaming the Eagle left off, Dreaming the Bull begins with a lengthy description of ongoing battles and complex battle maneuvers between the two sides. The description is unnecessarily detailed, convoluted, and somewhat tedious. But once you get passed that, the pace of the novel picks up.
Intermittently threaded throughout the battles and skirmishes with the indigenous population, we witness Bán (Boudica’s brother) becoming progressively more brutal. The novel focuses on Bán and his downward spiral more so than on Boudica. Bán, who has adopted the name Julius Valerius, has immersed himself thoroughly in Roman culture and the military, dedicating himself to the Roman god, Mithras. He has worked his way up the military ranks, becoming increasingly brutal toward members of his former tribe and their coalition partners. He uses his knowledge of their battle maneuvers to entrap them, rapidly developing a reputation among all sides for his extreme brutality.
Unfortunately, Bán’s transformation from Bán of the Eceni tribe to Julius Valerius, Decurion of the first troop, First Thracian Cavalry, was unconvincing. Why does Bán become more Roman than the Romans? Why is he so hell-bent on destroying all traces of his heritage even after he learns his sister is still alive and leads the rebellion? Why is he so full of venom that he embraces every opportunity to betray the tribes and their cause? We read of Rome’s cruelty toward the rebels—tortures, crucifixions, flaying of victims, and hangings—all of which Bán eventually endorses. His pangs of guilt manifest through frequent visits from spirits of his deceased family and friends, but he suppresses their voices by calling on Mithras and/or burying himself in alcohol. His journey from Bán to the “Decurion on the pied horse,” the rebel’s most hated military officer in the Roman army, isn’t believable.
Scott peoples her novel with a motley crew of characters: a Roman emperor desperate to hold on to power; dreamers who commune with the gods, see into the future, and control the weather; a young man from the Eceni tribe turned cruel Roman soldier who suffers from a severe identity crisis; a female warrior who leads a coalition of tribes in the resistance to Roman occupation of its lands. The spirits of the dead make frequent appearances, blurring the lines between the real and imaginary. The transitions are seamless with characters dialoguing with one another as routinely as they dialogue with spirits. Greater prominence is given to life in the Roman military and the political intrigues of the Roman Empire than life among the rebels. Similarly, the degree to which we follow the tribulations of Dubornos, Cunomar (Boudica’s son) and Caradoc after their capture shifts the attention away from Boudica and relegates her to the margins of her own story.
Despite its shortcomings, Boudica: Dreaming the Bull is an entertaining and compelling read as Scott manages to sweep us up in her vision of a time when Rome’s tentacles reached the shores of Britain.
Recommended with reservations.