Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
In my mind, I can think of absolutely no books written from the perception of the losing forces in the Gallic wars, waged by Julius Caesar against the Celtic Gauls northwest of Rome. Druids, however, tackles just that. The immediate problem with this approach is that we, in the 21st century, happen to know that the Gauls lost everything.
Fortunately, that does not affect the play of the words on the pages in this book. Ostensibly the book is about Vercingetorix (pronounced vur-sin-JET-ur-iks), leader of the Gauls in their last attempt at survival against the endless Roman legions advancing on their way of life. But this book isn't called On Conquest of Gaul. It's called Druids, and it's really about those mystical sages who knew the Celtic world better than anyone else alive--specifically, one named Ainvar, and his peculiar on and off relationship with Vercingetorix (or, as he liked to be called, 'Rix').
The story begins with Ainvar talking about the first druidic ceremony he ever witnessed, something no one but the druids should ever see. His elderly grandmother was to be taken to the grove to be a sacrifice to the gods of the trees, that the drought plaguing the land might be ended, rain finally to fall. She is administered a poison (some druidic laudanum, in overdose portion), allowed to die, and then killed on the altar, by way of sacrificial dagger. Ainvar, distraught, runs to his grandmother, wakes her from her sleep. To the druids, this is quite clearly a show of some great power, the ability to bring someone back from death's edge. At the end of his manhood trials, after years of study and hard work, he is inducted into the Order of the Druids.
To say anything beyond that would be to ruin the story more than history books already do.
On Magic, History & Fantasy
Unfortunately, Llywelyn's books are often classified in the "fantasy" sections of bookstores, which is both misleading and demeaning to the work that she does. Granted, the knowledge of that era of history is less well known than, say, 1976, but the knowledge that is known, mixed with a great deal of logical conclusions, gives Llywelyn a strong foot to stand on when she describes the Druidic rites, and the actions of the Romans on their way for conquest.
For example, she does not shy from the fact that, as history notes, Vercingetorix burned villages as he left them (to evade Julius Caesar) so that the Romans could not live on the land during their pursuit. This description does not really draw Rix as a compassionate, easy to understand hero, and Ainvar's protestations, despite the success of such a maneuver, do not save a spot in our hearts for him, save for the environmentalist in all of us.
Most surprising (and applaudable) is her insistence on not relying on typified magic of Celtic lore. Never once does she have a character cast fire bolts out into the approaching army, never once is lightning cast from the heavens "just in the nick of time," no water purified by thought, no giant, crystal staves with glowing orbs--none of it. Llywelyn is committed to creating a picture of 50 B.C.-era Celtic tribes as close to the reality as she possibly could.
In all, the book is well-written and interesting, both to students of history and fantasy aficionados, despite the lack of fantastic material in the book. So long as you don't mind fictitious characters interacting with historical figures, Druids is worth a read.
Written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.