Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear is the fourth and final book in the Boudica series by Manda Scott. This has been a captivating series about the warrior queen Boudica as she spearheaded the Celtic struggle to defeat the Roman occupation of Britannia. This final book coalesces the threads from previous books and brings them to a culminating, climactic battle in which Boudica is killed and the Celtic warriors are forced to retreat in defeat. Although history tells us the Boudica does not live to see the expulsion of Rome from Britannia, nevertheless, Scott’s masterful and tension-filled description of the final battle keeps us hoping until the last page for an alternative outcome.
The characters are vividly portrayed and show growth. Bán/Valerius is reconciled with his dual identity and is no longer conflicted about where his allegiances lie; Cunomar shows his maturity by putting the needs of the people above his own need to prove himself worthy. Although still a young child, Graine shows a maturity and understanding well beyond her years but one that perhaps borders on implausibility considering the physical and emotional trauma she experienced at the hands of the Roman conquerors. And, finally, there is Boudica, a mother, a sister, a warrior, a hero, and a leader. Through her portrayal of Boudica, Manda Scott shows that a leader transcends her physical limitations because she represents something larger than herself. By the end of the series, Boudica the warrior is no longer capable of being the warrior she once was, but Boudica as a symbol and representative of her people’s aspirations remains untarnished.
The final book of the series veers more toward historical fantasy than historical fiction in that gods and spirits of the ancestors intrude in the affairs of humans with greater frequency than in previous books. And animals continue to be endowed with an uncanny connection with humans, anticipating their thoughts, actions, and emotions.
Scott draws the reader into a world in which men and women willingly sacrifice themselves for the greater good; in which to die in battle is considered the highest honor; in which the spirits of ancestors are seen to receive the dead; and in which dreamers are honored and relied upon to manipulate nature, send their thoughts across great distances, and give direction and guidance to the people.
The battle for control of Britannia is depicted as a clash of cultures. The invading Roman army is technologically advanced, disciplined, organized, eager to pillage natural resources, and brutal in its treatment of the indigenous population. The indigenous population consists of feuding tribes, which eventually unite to fight a common enemy. They communicate with nature and with the world of the spirit just as easily as they communicate with each other. Viewed by their Roman conquerors as primitive, they paint their bodies, run around naked, and engage in an elaborate system of mystical beliefs that baffle and scare the invading army. But they behave according to a strict code of honor, placing loyalty to family, friends, and tribal affiliations above all else.
The novel is not without its shortcomings. Descriptions of the battles can be confusing and some passages are obscure and unnecessarily drawn out. But the biggest drawback lies in the conclusion. The intense tumult of the final battle, replete with clashing armor, screams of vengeance and death, blowing trumpets and horns, thrashing horses, and dismembered limbs was a thrilling page-turner. By contrast, the final scene with the dying Breaca feels inconclusive and disappointing, as if the novel fizzled out with a whimper.
In spite of these few shortcomings, however, Boudica: Dreaming the Serpent Spear is a crowning achievement in an entertaining and exciting series.