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Book Review: After Rome

By (March 14, 2013) No Comment

After Rome: A Novel of Celtic Britainafter rome

by Morgan Llewelyn

Forge, 2013

“The earth holds her breath as if waiting for disaster,” we’re told at the start of Morgan Llywelyn’s unusually stark, almost elegiac new novel After Rome, “but the disaster has already happened. Civilization has collapsed.”

It sounds like the set-up for a work of science fiction (and science fiction fans will feel this all the more keenly because one of the central locations of the novel is a place called Viroconium), and it carries all the enormous inherent drama of science fiction as well: in the late 4th and early 5th century, the battered Roman Empire was rapidly contracting in an effort to save its own life, and as a result, Roman troops were withdrawn from the far-flung territory of Britannia, leaving the inhabitants in the center and south to fend for themselves after centuries of sheltering under Roman dominion. A great deal of this is conveyed very economically in the cover illustration for After Rome, done by the great Greg Manchess: a lone rider (whose clutched sword manages to look pathetic rather than dangerous) makes his way from a hint of daylit battlements into the dark green gloom of a forest. In just a matter of a few years, the citizens of Britannia found themselves facing such darkness on every side – not only was there nothing to stop the depredations of the barbarian tribes they’d previously treated with such a heavy hand, but there was likewise nothing to stop the strongest in their own ranks from stepping into the role of overlord, now that the real overlords were busy elsewhere.

It’s a premise so pregnant with doom and drama that it’s fired the Western imagination ever since, giving rise to poems, plays, priestly chronicles, and some very good histories (and of course one legend likely to live as long as mankind does) – and also novels in an endless procession, of which Llywelyn’s is the latest and one of the best, shot through with twilight and populated with the kind of near-mythically simplified characters that have endeared her books to millions of readers ever since her enormous 1980 breakout bestseller Lion of Ireland about the great 11th century Irish High King Brian Boru.

There are no such larger-than-life characters in After Rome. The story centers instead on two very different cousins: Cadogan, a soft-spoken thinker who dreams of a peaceful world, and Dinas, a hot-tempered opportunist who dreams of a peaceful world that pays him taxes every quarter. Cadogan aspires only to be a good man and a good Christian, whereas Dinas is ready to snap out his credo to anybody who’ll listen:

“Listen to me. Life is an opportunity, one single, amazing opportunity. Life is the sun and the stars, the wolves howling and the rain lashing and the thrill of danger around every bend.”

When he’s sitting by the fireside talking to Saba, the mountain woman who’s his friend and sometime-lover, he talks of raising enough of a stake to hire a handful of men and carve out a small piece of the chaos the Romans left behind:

“I intend to get my share, Saba,” he repeated. “Why not? Isn’t that what the strong always do? You may not realize this up here in the mountains, but Britannia is falling apart. We’re almost entirely cut off from the continent now. Britons won’t be paying taxes to Rome anymore but they will still pay taxes to someone. And the cleverest among us will find treasure among the wreckage.”

Cadogan the mild, sane cousin dreams of no such clawed-out glory; he’s a wellspring of inspiration, a thinker, a restorer (there’s one in every Llywelyn novel, a familiar type she makes her own by cross-hatching in an extra amount of rough-hewn valor). He looks at the destruction that’s come to the city his father once oversaw, and he has words of quiet encouragement for the ragged band of followers he’s mildly shocked to learn he’s accumulated:

“We can’t create another Viroconium … because it took centuries to develop that city. But it must have begun with a tiny village; a small cluster of houses like those we’re going to build here. Your ancestors made that beginning and we can make another.”

The usual pattern in a Llywelyn novel is that the reader can tell she favors the noble side of the coin but her prose’s wanton undercurrents lead her readers to favor the wolves (this is especially true in her quintet of novels set during the Ireland of the 20th century) – and so it happens in After Rome: we deplore almost everything about Dinas, but we’re captivated every minute he’s on the page. The disappearance of Rome has set loose hungers inside him that even he can’t quite identify, and Llywelyn devotes some of her best and leanest writing here to giving his internal struggles as much dramatic heft as the battles he wages with the other desperate inhabitants of Britannia.

After Rome is a quiet, somber novel from one of our greatest working historical novelists, a meditation on endings and beginnings that feels very much like an evening work. Although Morgan Llywelyn fans will certainly hope the evening lasts a long time yet.