Author(s): Tanya Landman
Publisher: Walker Books
Publication date: 6th April 2017
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
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Britannia. A conquered land.
Running. Weeping. Blood on her lips.
Blood in her mouth.
Blood that is not her own.
After maiming her master, Cassia has no choice but to run. With dogs on her trail and a bounty on her head, escape from the vast Roman Empire seems impossible. But beyond the river, far to the north, stands Hadrian’s Wall – the furthest limit of the empire. And beyond it? Danger. Uncertainty. Freedom.
I snapped this book up because of its premise. Historical fiction set in the Roman Empire, but not from the perspective of a Roman? A female lead and a solid cover to boot? It’s eye-catching stuff (or at least it is if like me you’re on the lookout for more historical fiction in your review pile). The book’s protagonist Cassia once didn’t even know there was a place where the Roman Empire ended, but finds hope in tantalising rumours of a wild land the Romans have failed to tame beyond what became known as Hadrian’s Wall. I particularly liked the potential for deconstructing the Roman occupation through the eyes of a character who doesn’t fit into their highly stratified society. And the greedy, cruel, violent, hubristic Romans of fourth century Britannia certainly are the villains of the piece. Cassia only dares accept aid from one or two of them, and the major Roman character, Marcus, has secrets of his own.
This is the first Tanya Landman book I’ve read – the first I’ve even heard of, though I was vaguely aware of the name, probably because of the Carnegie Medal – and there were some flashes of promising prose (‘the statue of Neptune was face down like a drowned man’), particularly in the earliest chapters. The plot focuses on Cassia’s various escapes from slavery, taking her from stately villa to chaotic Londinium, from roadside taverns to the wintry north. As well as Marcus, she’s joined by fellow escaped slaves Rufus, Silvio and Flavia, and there were some emphasised moments such as the returning of the elderly Flavia to her village in Germania. However, just when the story would have been at its most interesting – Cassia’s arrival and acceptance into a complex, cultured ‘barbarian’ tribe (probably Picts) in what was known to the Romans as Caledonia – the book abruptly cuts away .Marcus’ narration reverts to Roman society and while it provides some plot twists, it means that the increasingly pent-up curiosity built by the entire first half of the book goes unfulfilled. A near-cliffhanger in what is slated as a standalone also makes for a displeasing, rushed ending.
The book stops short of the really demanding, thoughtful exploration its themes could’ve yielded, too. It hurries along at a commercial pace, but fails to stretch itself in the thematic department, as strong YA historical fiction should. Perhaps this would’ve been fine in a title for younger readers (and even then, I say this with a pinch of salt – look at the scope and skill of books like Robin Stevens’ Murder Most Unladylike series or Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Island at the End of Everything) but while the cover gives it an apparent middle grade vibe, make no mistake: this book isn’t for kids. Violence, particularly sexual violence, incest and misogyny, is not only pervasive in Landman’s text but is also essentially used as a carousel of plot tropes. Landman spins from one to the other before rounding back to the start all over again. It’s tedious, unoriginal and downright tasteless in a book which makes absolutely no attempt to pursue alternative sources of ‘tension’ or ‘stakes’. The result is a book that seems at once both ‘convenient’ – as characters pass through whole swathes of the Roman Empire unimpeded or have minor plot problems solved with almost oleaginous ease – and horrific. I won’t be recommending this one.
A solid premise is let down by a narrow, unimaginative selection of plot events and an unsatisfying shift in character which fails to capitalise on readers’ curiosity about the very thing described by the title: that is, the wilderness Beyond the Wall.