In the last fifteen years or so, the women’s novel has turned into the Amtrak of American literature; crashing through the gates at Aristotle, jumping the tracks at Horace, ignoring the flashing red lights at Boileau, and scooping up Alexander Pope in the cowcatcher. The rules are down and it’s every stylist for herself in this best of all Tupperware parties, where plot and characterization have been replaced by the kind of non-stop chatter that enabled the French Foreign Legion to meet its enlistment quota for a hundred and fifty years. In the unlikely event that future scholars will bother to give our era a cultural tag, it will be called the Age of Women’s Litter. – Florence King
Honestly, Ms. King’s words have been a mantra for me more often than not these days. In this era of “50 Shades of Gag Me With A Spoon” I have been not only distressed, but horrified by the state of literature written by women. Not all women, of course. I have read, and reviewed, several books by women authors which are exceptional. However, the exceptional has been overshadowed by the inane and senseless. It is heart breaking.
Then, just when I despaired, something wonderful happened. I listened to The Shadowy Horses. Written by Susanna Kearsley, and narrated by Sally Armstrong, this book should be on every bestseller list in existence. If you haven’t read it, I highly, Highly recommended the audio edition. Sally Armstrong has a beautiful, lyrical voice which turns the smooth prose of Kearsley into pure poetry.
Kearsley’s story is set in Scotland as is well described in the blurb for the book and in other reviews. The story follows archeologists at a dig at Rose Hill, or, in old Latin, “Rouges Hill” a name which will come clear as the story unfolds. The voice of the book is beautifully paced, and draws you into the world of both modern and ancient Scotland, introducing the people both gently and with true understanding. Some are good, some not so much, but the people and the land are, above all, truly well written and make you feel that you are actually being drawn into the story.
This is a beautifully designed tale. The main storyline concerns an ancient mystery – what really happened to the Legio Nona Hispana, the 9th Spanish Legion of the Roman Empire. The last testified activity of the Ninth in Britain was reported during the rebuilding in stone of the legionary fortress at York, or Eboracum in 108 AD. After that, the 9th disappeared into the mists of history. Did they simply disappear in Britain about 117 AD? Were they slaughtered during the war with the Parthenian Empire much later on? The only known fact is that they were nonexistent during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. What truly happened to these thousands of strong, well trained Roman Legionnaires?
Kearsley builds on the stories and the mystery of the infamous 9th, following the theory of Miles Russell of Bournemouth University who has theorized that, “by far the most plausible answer to the question ‘what happened to the Ninth’ is that they fought and died in Britain, disappearing in the late 110s or early 120s when the province was in disarray”. And Britain was, indeed, in disarray. For all the control and training of the Romans, Britain was not easily taken or controlled. Did the “savage” tribes of Britain really destroy a formerly invincible army?
While this may sound at first as if this is a dry text, it is very far from being so. Verity Grey has traveled from London to the village of Eyemouth, Scotland at the behest of her great friend and mentor Peter, an aging archeologist who has long searched for the vaunted 9th Legion. There, things become very strange, as she meets Robbie, a child with the “Second Sight” a psychic ability which has for centuries been believed to be inherited through family lines in Scotland and other countries with rich cultural histories. Robbie is a main character in the storyline, introducing Verity and the other archeologists to “The Sentinel” a ghostly figure wandering the lands of Rose Hill, who speaks the Latin, wears the clothing, and carries the arms of the Roman Legions. A lost and lonely figure who has great secrets and great heartache, secrets and pain which have apparently kept him tied to these lands for thousands of years. For why else would a wraith stalk these hills for centuries on end? Kearsley does a beautiful job with Robbie’s abilities – they are not overdone or unbelievable, but rather handled with a deft touch, much in line with how Second Sight is actually understood in Scotland. (For more info on Second Sight see The Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 13, Number 3, pp 351-372, 1999, or online at: Second Sight and Family History:Pedigree and Segregation Analysis by Shari A. Cohn http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_13_3_cohn.pdf)
While others seem to have reviewed this as a “romance” this is absolutely not how I understood this beautifully written novel. Yes, there is a bit of romance, boy gets girl stuff. But that is such a small portion of the overall tale. This is a tale of mysteries, of history and culture and beautiful, beautiful words. Of an ancient land and ancient peoples, brought into the modern day through the use of story and theory woven into a ghostly tale of the horrors of a brutal time in history. Of love of family, the bonds of friendship in times of war, and the length one man will go through to protect and honor his friend and his family, though death take all.
This is, again, a beautiful and fascinating story for many reasons. I have visited that area of Scotland, and would do so again – only if I were to go back, it would be very hard to drag me away again. The history of the British Isles is rich and varied, brutal and savage, and deep as any Scottish Loch. And it calls to my heart and soul, a siren song of longing which I am loath to deny. I would wish you to know the beauty of those lands and its stories . . .