Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Island in the Mist by J.V.Briggs. Hadrian’s Wall Trust. £9.99
Imagine. One night in December. The noise of rowdy singing. Angry shouts. “The shouting had turned into a brawl, which had overflowed onto the verandah.” The place, a windy headland on the Cumbrian coast. To the north across the Solway, the coat of Scotland. To the west, the Isle of Man.
The place is Alauna, the Roman fort, at the north-west corner of the empire. It looks across to the hostile Scottish shore. The date is sometime in the second century AD. Flavius Valentinus Paulus has just become commandant of the auxiliary fort. He stands with his senior centurion, Rufus Lugo, listening to the drunken revelry all about him and has no power, no control. It is the time of the Saturnalia. “Can’t do anything about that now, sir,” said Lugo, shaking his head. “No rules, no discipline during Saturnalia.”
There are offences against military decency. Discipline can be restored to the orderly rows of regimental barracks and the parade ground. An old hand like Lugo can quietly guide the steps of his clever new commander.
The following day, in the cold misty morning of the winter solstice, Flavius sits in judgment. The most worrying case concerns a soldier with an exemplary record. He's let himself be irritated by name-calling from a young British kid, chased him home and knocked the door in. It's a delicate matter where the commander has to weigh his sense of justice towards the young officer against the sensitivities of the natives. He doesn't want to be faced with riots or rebellion.
He is faced with rebellion back in his fine quarters, quarters, which, it is said, were built by the Emperor Hadrian himself.
His wife Lucilla is unhappy. She hates the cold and the damp. She is the daughter of an impoverished senator and she has married beneath herself, hoping that her husband's money will keep her in the style to which she was born. She never expected to be here on this cold and misty headland, with no companions of equal status.
Jean Briggs infuses life into Alauna. The Roman fort is alive with individuals. The bearded Aelius is his Greek steward. He's been Flavius's friend since childhood. Master and servant - Aelius is no longer a slave - have a conspiratorial understanding in the management of the unruly Lucilla.
There is the Emperor Hadrian returning to this fort in secret with a few retainers. He is a weary man, cynical, but sensitive, appreciative of the wit and intelligence of the young lawyer. There is Marcellus the fort commander in Ravenglass and his sensible, sympathetic wife, Celia.
And there is the mysterious, beautiful and totally unRoman Elphin from the Isle of Mannanan.
Flavius will stay in Britain for two years. They will be years in which he learns about command, about people and about one woman.
Jean Briggs is a born story teller. Island in the Mist moves through the world of Roman Cumberland building a picture of life as it must have been lived two thousand years ago. The close knowledge of the classical world is lightly worn, but gradually accumulates to create a multi-coloured backdrop, to this recreation of Roman Maryport.
Jane’s earlier book, another historical romance, The Flame of Borgias, sold over 40,000 copies. This novel has been published by The Hadrian’s Wall Trust and proceeds will go to help the museum at Alauna. It deserves the same success.
Island in the Mist is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from bookscumbria.com.