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Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine

Dr Viv Lloyd Rees is in danger of losing her job. A Celtic historian at Edinburgh University, she has a book about to be published about the forgotten queen of the north: Cartimandua, High Queen of the Brigantes. Professor Graham's problem with the book is the degree of detail which cannot be supported by the historical evidence. Her filling in the gaps with imaginative deduction - he feels - undermines not only her own scholarship, but also the reputation of the whole department. He is furious - to a degree which Viv cannot fathom. She will admit (if only to herself) that she is not sure where some of the more intuitive deductions originated, but will not admit - even to herself - that there is anything particularly odd or unworthy about them.

Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Cartimandua struggles to hold the Brigantes' lands safe and prosperous against the Romans, while dealing with the internal politics of her tribes and the personal struggles of a woman increasingly alone. Meanwhile, a connection is made between the Celtic High Queen and a historian in the modern day as characters from the past struggle to play out their purpose, and those in the modern day struggle to discover the truth but maintain their own sanity. Danger awaits everyone involved.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 480 Date: April 2007
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
ISBN: 978-0007174270

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In another time, Cartimandua is a tomboyish child, hunting and riding with her brothers, certain of her destiny to be a queen.

The two lives are about to become even more entwined in a story that plays out in two centuries, whose boundaries become ever more blurred

In the present day, Viv struggles to maintain her dignity in the face of Professor Graham's increasingly irrational responses to the publicity surrounding her book. Her stresses mount as a related radio play brings her into conflict with a co-writer, who takes a growing interest in one of the more minor characters in Cartimandua's story.

As work on the radio play continues, Viv's connection to Cartimandua steps beyond intuition based on passionate involvement in research into a direct connection... a connection cemented by her handling of an ancient gold and enamelled brooch, a beautiful crane carrying an ancient evil curse.

The brooch has a direct link to the High Queen and is a museum piece. It happens to belong to Professor Hugh Graham. The handling of it draws him and others closer to the past. Rational 21st century beings all, they resist the feeling of its power touching them, and struggle to find other explanations...

In the first century A.D. Cartimandua grows into a world where women have power and rights greater than they will ever have again for about 2000 years, where they may be taught not just the healing arts, but the scrying of the druids, contact with the gods, languages, and writing, and politics. Where they can ride into battle as tattooed and wild as their menfolk. Where they can earn respect and command loyalty. Carta (as she is familiarly known) has all of this and more... and secures her destiny as High Queen... but these are turbulent times. The Romans invade and the tribes are pitted no longer just against each other, but against the overlords. Choices now begin to have wider implications... political choices and personal choices amount to the same thing if you are a High Queen.

And even a High Queen... one who rides painted at the head of her warriors still has to deal with the egos of men who find it hard to bend the knee to a woman, still has to contend with the biological and emotional realities of being a woman.

If books must have a theme, then Daughters of Fire has a few: there is the role of women and how much / how little that has changed over the centuries; the conflict between rationality and spirituality; notions of time and transmigration of the soul; and finally, the nature of history: how little we can truly know about how it was and how many assumptions there are in what we claim to know (the written record being that of those who left one, we are easily hoodwinked into their point of view).

If the reader pays attention and ponders the ideas, there is much grist to the intellectual mill and conversation for the book-club table...

... or you could just sit back and enjoy a wonderfully evocative "romance" of the Celtic wilds... barren moors and iron-age forts, where feasting continues until all are unconscious, when the men aren't away hunting or reiving or fighting the latest squabble with their neighbours. Set in a time of druids and close connection to the planet and the gods. Set in a culture not as primitive as the Romans would later have us believe, where there are skilled craftsmen working metals and enamels, weavers of fine woollens, artistry displayed in decoration of body and home.

Slipping between that time and our own Erskine gives us love stories, and stories of hatred and revenge. She gives us the high drama of battle in the time of the Celts, and the threatening suspense of controlled menace in the modern day. Above all she gives us a wonderful evocation of those wild places - as they were then and as they are now (which is not so very different).

The historical and geographical research upon which the novel is based must have been extensive. Her timings work, her deductions are believable, most importantly her detail "lives".

Her characters ancient and modern are alive and consistent with the lives and back-stories she has given them. Most importantly where the historical and the modern meet and cross-over, she avoids melodramatic shifts and allows a number of interpretations to be possible.

If parts of the progression of the story are predictable, that is only because they are inevitable in the context, and even so are perfectly executed to maintain the drama and the emotion.

As a 'historical romance' Daughters of Fire will not appeal to everyone, but I'm not prepared to down-rate it on that basis. I was engrossed from start to finish, and I'm still playing with and pondering some of the ideas and nuances and possibilities raised.

For those familiar with Erskine's earlier work - Daughters of Fire does use the formula that was so successful in Lady of Hay, the interplay of two lives across time, but has successfully developed it beyond that original concept to produce a more subtle cross-time connection, that works far better. Reactions to the earlier book were mixed, and many felt the historical part of that story the weaker of the two angles. In Daughters of Fire, the balance is redressed and in the final analysis there is only one story being told.

Take a step out of time, and enjoy.

My thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

If this is the type of book which you enjoy then you might also like Michelle Paver's Soul Eater or The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett.

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