REVIEW: Island of Ghosts by Gillian Bradshaw
Ariantes is a Sarmatian, a barbarian warrior-prince, uprooted from his home and customs and thrust into the honorless lands of the Romans. The victims of a wartime pact struck with the emperor Marcus Aurelius to ensure the future of Sarmatia, Ariantes and his troop of accomplished horsemen are sent to Hadrian’s Wall. Unsurprisingly, the Sarmatians hate Britain–an Island of Ghosts, filled with pale faces, stone walls, and an uneasy past.
Struggling to command his own people to defend a land they despise, Ariantes is accepted by all, but trusted by none. The Romans fear his barbarian background, and his own men fear his gradual Roman assimilation. When Ariantes uncovers a conspiracy sure to damage both his Roman benefactors and his beloved countrymen, as well as put him and the woman he loves in grave danger, he must make a difficult decision–one that will change his own life forever.
Dear Ms, Bradshaw,
Some months ago, your name was mentioned, in glowing terms, on a thread at DA and the descriptions of some of your recommended books caught my attention. Since to me hearing the words “Roman Britain” are like the bell to Pavlov’s dogs, I knew eventually I’d try this book. The first chapter excerpt read wonderfully with vivid characters and a fascinating set-up which hooked me there and then. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Ariantes shepherds all his men, along with those of the other two commanders who aren’t as willing to make the overtures and smoozing needed to smooth the process, across the channel to this island none of them were even sure existed since they couldn’t see it. Things only get worse as the journey continues with both sides rubbing the other the wrong way, honor at stake and the full impact of their exile finally hitting home to these proud men. And that’s before the paperwork kicks in.
The first third of the story is a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork. Roman style. Ariantes is a reluctant diplomat as well as military leader. But he is a leader and one who takes the lives and welfare of his men very seriously. He’s a thinking man though he can wield a sword and dagger as well as anyone. He’s a man lost in a new world, trying to not only find his way with honor but lead his men in finding their footing in their new lives as none of them can ever go back and have already been mourned by their people as dead.
New alliances must be forged among people they don’t know, using customs new to them in a land they were convinced was made up. These are proud men used to commanding absolute obedience, working individually and taking nothing from anyone so their changed reality takes some getting used to.
To be honest, it does take this book a little while to gather itself together and gain a lot of momentum, though the ground work laid in the early section comes into play later on. Just be patient, let it slowly sink in and get its footing. The visual of the Sarmatian units, or dragons as they’re known, outfitted in their ringed armor with silk pennants snapping in the wind must have been something to see.
This is definitely more a historical fiction with romance than a true romance. The relationship, once it arrives, is heartfelt and true though rather fast in a coup de foudre way. But the Lady in question is more than a match for Ariantes and tells him a thing or two when she feels it’s needed. I like that though Ariantes isn’t expecting to find a second love in his life, the loss of his first wife doesn’t send him into the throes of “I’ll never love again!” He quickly realizes that Pervica is a treasure with a will of iron and a level head and he’s damn lucky she says yes when he proposes.
The conspiracy is both intricate and believable and draws in the various factions of the age and time as well as tossing in a few Christians and Druids. The tension grows as Ariantes must solve who is behind the plotting while at the same time keeping the Romans at bay since he can’t make accusations without proof but the conspirators are more than willing to keep trying to kill him until he does. With mutual black humor, he and Pervica set the date for their wedding “providing Ariantes is still alive then.”
The humor is something I hadn’t anticipated yet which I enjoyed immensely. Ariantes’ world weariness as he tries to navigate the Sarmatians through this “Island of Ghosts” ruled by Romans who mistrust them speaks to anyone who’s dealt with middle management anywhere. By the time he’s safely through, with his head and honor intact and the woman he loves by his side, the poor man has more than earned his (hopefully) happy future. B
How ever did I miss this one? Love Roman Britain, love Gillian Bradshaw — must rectify immediately!
PS — If you like Roman Britain, check out the MEDICUS series by Ruth Downie. The hero is a doctor for the Legion stationed in Roman Britain who keeps on getting dragged into solving murders, very much in the noir-ish vein of the down-on-his-luck gumshoe. There’s no real romance in the first book, but the series gradually develops a charming romantic subplot with his patient/slave/housekeeper/partner-in-solving-crime (yes, there is a definite power imbalance, but it manages to stay on the right side of a very squicky line).
@hapax: Luckily this is one of Bradshaw’s books which is out in eformat! I do have the “Medicus” books but put it aside and it got buried under the pile. But I think I actually might know where it is.
I knew her name was familiar even to me :). I have read her “Hawk of May” – really liked and that reminded me that I need to read the other two books, thanks Jayne and this one looks so tempting too.
I adore Gillian Bradshaw. Island of Ghosts was an A read for me and her Arthur trilogy is fantastic. Roman Britain is one of my very favorite time periods to read in and I would love it if others have recommendations. Rosemary Sutcliff has written a few books set in this time period, all of them splendid and some of them with a romance. Hadrian’s Wall by William Dietrich is very good, also.
Loved this book. I agree that it did bog down a little in the middle and the romance was rushed, but the protagonist (we spend the whole book in his POV) is just so fantastic that it didn’t bother me. HIs narration made even administrative details interesting.
Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome podcasts while driving to work lately (I’m at the first Punic War- Hadrian’s Wall is coming up!). I am definately buying this. So excited! I love, love anything about the clash of Romans and Barbarians. Rome’s empire building is fascinating to me. :)
@Michele Mills – If you like reading about the clash between the Romans and the barbarians, I would definitely recommend reading Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers. This story takes place at the time that the barbarians invaded Britain and the Romans who had lived there for 300 or more years had to flee for their lives or risk becoming a conquered people. It is such a beautiful, sad, eloquent book.
Of course, reading Island of Ghosts is also a great idea. A few years ago, there was a movie about Arthur starring Clive Owen. I found it entertaining, if not awesome, mainly because it is not set in early medieval Britain, but instead in the time period when the Romans in Britain were being overtaken by the invading barbarians. Actually, I find this a more believable time frame for the Arthur stories – just my opinion.
It gives me so much pleasure to read about another reader who is fascinated by the Romans!
Thank you for spotlighting this book. Bradshaw is an under appreciated author, and I hope that more people discover her.
Agreed. I read this one years ago and liked the view from the other side of the wall.
@Allison: I’ve got a few other Bradshaw books in mind to try but would love to hear more recs and favorites.
My favorite of her Roman books is Render Unto Caesar. Her hero is a Roman citizen but a native Greek from Alexandria. It neat to see the Roman culture from his perspective as well as the melting pot that is the Roman Empire. He has to go to Rome retrieve money that he is owed and it is fascinating how he see’s it and is treated. We see it from his point of view and he is smart and funny. There is a great love story with a female gladiator which is very realistic and touching.
I think her most romantic book is Wolf Hunt which I also recommend. Takes place in France and is taken from a french legend of a werewolf. I highly recommend both.
I’ve collected a few of Bradshaw’s books having read her not once. Someone recommended her but can’t remember who. Glad to know this is a good read.
@ Jayne – Sirius mentioned the Hawk of May which is the first book in Bradshaw’s Arthur trilogy. The whole trilogy is excellent and I highly recommend it. Gillian Bradshaw wrote this trilogy when she was very young preparing for her exams at Cambridge! If you enjoy her Arthur trilogy as I did, you could try Helen Hollick’s Arthur trilogy which is also excellent.
My all time favorite is “Beacon at Alexandria’. Hmmm, young woman who wants to be a physician and disguises herself as a young man (catnip!). Then she ends up on the frontier and in the hands of ‘the enemy’ (who immediately know she is a she not a he). There’s a subtle romance and a fair dose of politics. Time frame is late Roman/early Byzantium. This book is followed by ‘Bearkeeper’s Daughter’ and ‘Royal Purple’ which are Byzantine focused. (but not the same characters).
I can second Cassandra’s rec of ‘Wolf Hunt’. Really lovely and romantic. I also have a fond spot for ‘Horses of Heaven’ and ‘ The Sun’s Bride’, as well as, of course, ‘Island of Ghosts’.
OMG, I had never heard of this author before, no idea these books existed. *sniff* I love DA.
@Michele Mills: It was Kate Hewitt’s comment in our July 2014 Reader’s Open Thread that brought Bradshaw to my attention so we all benefited from that. ;)
So glad you enjoyed Island of Ghosts! Other Bradshaw books I really enjoyed are Render Unto Caesar (as someone above recommended), The Sand Reckoner, Cleopatra’s Heir, and The Wolf Hunt. The first three are set in Ancient Rome/Greece/Egypt, The Wolf Hunt is medieval with a dash of paranormal, based on a medieval French ballad or poem, I think. Another one that is not out as an ebook is Horses of Heaven, set in ancient (I think, not actually sure of the date) Mongolia.
Another Bradshaw book I liked but can’t remember the title of or see on Amazon was set in 6th century Byzantium and is about a perfume maker? Does anyone know that one? I also second The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, set in the same period.
I also must recommend the Magic Poison series. It’s only in eBook format and is a blend of everything that she does best and kinda defies description. It set in a alternate world that has a lot in common with our middle ages but with magic and different races. A strong female protagonist , action, mystery, politics and romance. Did I mention it has snake people? Really! Like most Bradshaw characters they are fully drawn, sympathetic and just as “human” in there own way as humans in that world.
You have to read it to know how good it is. It say in Gillian bio for it “A fantasy written by an established author when she should have been doing something else.” I’m glad she wrote this series -even if I did not do a good job of describing it. Check it out!!
@Cassandra: I bought the first one to check it out – Bradshaw doing full on fantasy? This I have to try.
@ Mary Beth & Michele Mills — Sutcliffe’s “The Lantern Bearers” is the fourth in a series about Roman Britain. The first in the series is “Eagle of the Ninth”, and it is VG. There was a movie of it a few years ago called “The Eagle”. Not nearly as good as the book but I thought the scenes in the lands north of Hadrian’s Wall were quite well done, and Tahar Rahim as the Seal Prince was compelling. Each book in the series takes place about 75 – 100 years after the prior book and shows the rise and fall of the Empire as her characters experience it. She’s wonderful at putting you in a time and place far from our own. I’d also recommend her “Song for a Dark Queen” about the uprising led by Boadicea (Boudica) against the Romans — just be sure to have plenty of tissues on hand.
The book about the perfume maker in the 6th century is called “Alchemy of Fire.” My library calls it YA. I’ve found her historical fiction to be very good–some of it pushes my own buttons exactly, like “Beacon at Alexandria” or “The Sand Reckoner”–but everything set before the English Civil War is good.