Saturday, August 29, 2009
Review of Bloodline by Katy Moran
Moran, Katy. Bloodline. Candlewick, 2009.
This is technically a fantasy, as there are some mystical out-of-body experiences - but like Manda Scott's stunning Boudica series (the first being Dreaming the Eagle, which takes place in the 1st Century AD) for adults, it's the historical setting that is so fascinating. Great Britain's history, particularly the era from Rome's conquest and then decline to the rise of the first kings, is rich in mystery and lore, so I'm always eager to read a book that plunges me right into the middle of tribal warfare amidst the dark forests and fertile fields and fetid swamps of pre-1000 AD Britain.
Bloodline takes place in the early 7th century, 600 years after Boudica's ultimately failed attempt to turn back the Romans. Not much is known about this hazy time, but Moran manages to bring alive a desperate time when warlords from Mercia, East Anglia, and Powys were warring against each other when not forming tenuous alliances. Christianity had won a foothold in many areas, but the Angles and Saxons worshipped their own Norse gods and perhaps some surviving Britains still practiced the old ways from before the Roman invasion.
Villages on the shifting borders of the warring tribes suffered, finding themselves on one territory or another, having to pay tribute to one warlord or another. In a similar situation is young Essa, whose father Cai is a dark-haired, dark-eyed Briton and whose mother - about whom Cai won't speak - was a red-headed Anglish woman. Cai abandons Essa in an Anglish village when he is 9, where he is raised by the woman chieftain. But when he is 15, his life suddenly changes - after an Anglish lord binds Essa to him with his ring and bids him to spy on a Mercian stronghold, Essa becomes embroiled in intrigue. His strange ability to enter the bodies and commune with the souls of animals, plus his accidental friendship with the son of a Mercian lord and his new wife, sends him careening across England trying to avert a disastrous war.
Unlike in Scott's Boudica books, the supernatural world is not an ever-present and vital force in Essa's world. Many of the old ways have been lost or forgotten, and although folks still talk of elves and spirits, it's clear that long-held beliefs are turning into superstitions. Essa's abilities, while believed in by those in his village, are never-the-less seen as bizarre and sort of creepy, a definite sign of his Iceni heritage (they were known to mate with elves in the olden days, one boy notes). And no one is around to teach him how to use his unusual skills. The side-by-side existence of Christianity, the Norse religion, and older British beliefs is an uneasy one, and well-portrayed in this book.
Also well-portrayed is Essa, who is an unapologetic hothead who is sometimes confused and often pissed off. But most of all, he is a good person who feels strongly that cruelty and war are a waste and tries his hardest to influence very powerful people. Obviously, he fails - what teenager can stop land and power-hungry lords from warring? But it's this combination of idealistic anti-war youth (with flaming red hair and a supernatural gift, to boot) and rude, attitudinous, often clueless teen that makes Essa very real and worth rooting for. And he's so sweet to his dog and his horse, calling them "my honey" - you have to love a guy who is kind to animals.
Life in 630 AD is described with little bits of detail - smoky fires, greasy pots, folks sleeping in heaps in the main building of a village. Moran's language is simple and effective, with dialogue spiced with just the occasional bit of archaic sentence structure here and there to give us a sense of a different time. There are some loose strings left at the end - an expected showdown as Essa's tribe wars with his friend Wulf's fails to materialize, for example - and I hope this means there will be more books to come about Essa and his tumultuous world. Recommended for ages 13 and up.
In the meantime, here are some other YA authors who do a fine job making the Anglo-Saxon period come alive - Philip Reeve (Here Lies Arthur), Rebecca Tingle (The Edge on the Sword), Kevin Crossley-Holland (well okay, his Arthur books are a bit later - 12th Century - but still), and Michael Cadnum (Raven of the Waves)