Set in a period I knew very little about, The Lion and The Lamb I found to be in the end, an excellent book, instantly engaging, really well written and a thoroughly good investment of my - and your - time and money. OK, I got it as a Christmas present, so of my friend’s money. But I digress…
It is set during what seems to be the latter days of the Roman occupation of Britain, AD363, to be exact. This is Britain in the final years before Rome finally withdrew all her soldiers. When the Roman Romans, were getting set to abandon their British project, and the British who’d become Roman, were beginning to get worried. That part doesn’t play a huge part in most of the book, but I felt it was an essential and well played undercurrent, especially as there come more and more ‘outrageous’ barbarian attacks along the coast. That the ‘barbarians’ are the enemy and invaders and are essentially the descendants of the people who were conquered by the Romans when they invaded, is an ironic delight.
The story follows Gaius Cironius Agnus Paulus and his family. They are from a British tribe, but are full-blooded British Romans now. After what could be called a ‘misunderstanding’, Paulus flees their home in (what is now) southern England, gets ‘press-ganged into the Army and is sent north to Hadrian’s Wall. A punishment sees him sent even further north, where amidst the corruption and treachery, he finally sees the light, as it were, and realises he needs to return home, whatever the consequences. Along the way, he meets an Irish slave girl, Eachna, herself with a somewhat disrupted family background, in its own way not too dissimilar to his and they journey south to confront barbarians, his family and the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ attitudes of the southern Romano-British society. Phew! If all that reminds you - minus the fighting of Barbarians - of some of Jane Austin’s work, then it did me too. There is, especially with Paulus’ sister and her attitude to what is and what isn’t important and how you do something feels more important than what you are doing, something of the Emma here. And that’s a good thing, in my book. Think Jane Austin, set in Roman times. But with more balls. And not the dancing kind.
It was a change perhaps, from the Roman epics I’ve been reading of late, in that it isn’t bristling with battles - but it was a refreshing change. In looking at the attitudes, morals and lifestyles of the rich and famous Roman Britons - trying to be more Roman than the Romans sometimes - you really do get a feel for a country about to have the certainty of how their lives have been for the previous 400-odd years, removed. Not knowing, as The Clash once so eloquently put it; Should I Stay or Should I Go?
If I had to pick holes, and I feel I have to, one thing that did irritate me, was the switching between the two areas of the story. One chapter with the son up north, the next with the family down south. I can see why he would do it, but by a little over half way, it’s became a little forced, mechanical and risked becoming a distraction. Fortunately, he managed to pull it back from the brink in the final third and that, packed with intrigue, tension and flow, made the book as a whole.
It reminded me in many ways (and not just because of its British setting) of Douglas Jackson’s Rome’ series. The first in the series, as that is set in Britain, anyway. The same instant engagement and ease of story telling. If you’ve been reading any of the first three in Anthony Riches’ Empire series (as they too are set in northern Britain, but some 180-odd years earlier), this could well be seen as the antidote. A really pleasant break from the full-on, hard living, hard drinking, (and in Anthony Riches’ stories) hard-swearing, epics I’ve read a lot of just lately. I still love them, but I think I can appreciate this all the more for having come away from them, and will appreciate them all the more when I come back from this. If you follow?
It’s also well worth staying on for the Afterword and Historical stuff. Very interesting to see how delicately he’s woven his tale in and out of the available facts.