Edition reviewed: Orion, 2006, ISBN: 0-7528-7761-5.
Set in what is now Scotland in AD 81-83, The Dawn Stag is the sequel to The White Mare, and continues the story of Rhiann, Eremon and their friends, families and enemies where the first novel left off. All the main characters are fictional, with important secondary roles for the historical Agricola (Roman governor of Britain) and Calgacus (leader of the Caledonian* tribes).
Rhiann, priestess and princess of the Epidii tribe in what is now modern Argyll, is now happily united with her husband, the exiled Irish prince Eremon. Eremon is accepted as warleader (not king) of the Epidii, and has alliances with some of the tribes of the far north-west and with Calgacus, powerful king of the area around modern Inverness in north-east Scotland. In the south, the Roman governor Agricola has received orders from Rome to invade Alba* and complete the conquest of Britain. The stage is set for a final confrontation between Rome and the tribes of Alba under Eremon's leadership - but Rhiann and Eremon also have to contend with betrayals, intrigues and personal dilemmas closer to home.
The core of the story is the development and maturation of Rhiann and Eremon's marriage, shaping and shaped by the events they live through and the actions they take. Self-esteem, spiritual fulfilment, personal development and the finding of personal happiness in the face of defeat form the key themes. The strong religious and spiritual component in The White Mare receives even greater emphasis in The Dawn Stag, so that in places the novel borders on fantasy. Readers who are annoyed by features like near-miraculous spiritual healing, a shamanic journey to the Otherworld, telepathy under the influence of drugs, visions and prophecy should consider themselves warned. The title, The Dawn Stag, refers to a religious rite.
War and tribal politics also play a large part in the plot. Wicked King Maelchon, the scheming druid Gelert, treacherous Samana and the ambitious young lord Lorn all reappear to keep the story moving, to say nothing of the Roman army. The big set-piece battle scene of Mons Graupius** is given its full weight, told from the viewpoints of multiple characters with fast cutting between them. I thought this worked very well, managing to convey the immediacy of each character's experience and still give the reader an overview of the battle as a whole.
Vivid and realistic description makes the Scottish landscape almost another character. Even the midges get a mention (one of my tests for realism in any description of the Highlands!), along with more glamorous wildlife such as stags and eagles. As with The White Mare, details of day-to-day life such as a food, clothing and domestic life are lovingly portrayed.
The Dawn Stag is told mainly from the Alban side, with occasional forays into the Roman point of view. Agricola is the only fully developed character on the Roman side, and Roman life and culture is sketched in with a few details, reflecting the greater weight given to the Alban side of the story.
Like its predecessor, this is a very long novel (over 650 pages) with a leisurely pace. Now that I know the characters, the slow read did not irritate me as much as it did in the first novel, though I would still have preferred the story to move faster. I think readers would be well advised to read The Dawn Stag and The White Mare as a pair, since most of the plot points begun in the first book run through into the second for their resolution. Taken together, I estimate the two novels add up to about 440,000 words. For comparison, I estimate The Lord of the Rings (excluding the Appendices) at about 530,000 words by the same method, so be prepared for a long read. The reward is to have all the plot threads tied up, including a moving epilogue about Rhiann and Eremon's later life together, rather reminiscent of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen from the appendices to Lord of the Rings. There is apparently a follow-up, The Boar Stone, due for publication late in 2007 to make up a trilogy. I can make a guess at its likely connection with the preceding two, based on the title and the prophecy at the end of The Dawn Stag, but it is set several centuries later and must involve a new group of characters.
A helpful Historical Note sets out some of the known history from the period, and confesses to having taken some liberties. One of these is the night attack on the Ninth Legion (not the same incident as that underlying Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, though the legion might have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland had it in for them). In The Dawn Stag the incident is a victory for Eremon and the Alban warriors, whereas Tacitus (scroll down to 26) says it was turned into a Roman victory by Agricola's timely arrival with reinforcements. The author justifies the change on the grounds that Tacitus may have been eulogising Agricola, who was his father-in-law, and this may very well be true. Tacitus may well have put Agricola's deeds in the most favourable light. As it happens, I'm not convinced that Tacitus would have gone as far as to turn a defeat into a victory, given that he was writing only a few years after the events and any of Agricola's veterans would be able to prove him wrong. But who's to say? Another change that puzzled me more, from a story structure point of view, was the placing of the battle of Mons Graupius in summer instead of autumn. I was expecting the victorious Romans to follow up the battle in the rest of the summer (as Tacitus says they would have done had the battle not happened at the end of the campaigning season), yet the novel doesn't even touch on any post-Mons Graupius fighting. So why move the date of the battle, if the plot isn't going to make use of the revised date?
Epic story of love, war and spiritual fulfilment set against the background of the Roman invasion of Scotland in 83 AD.
* The novel uses Alba as the name for what is now Scotland north of the Forth
and Clyde. Tacitus refers to the area by the name of Caledonia.
**Location uncertain. The conventional identification is the hill of Bennachie near Aberdeen, and The Dawn Stag follows this. For other suggested locations, see Wikipedia.