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Island of Ghosts by Gillian Bradshaw

Island of Ghosts

by Gillian Bradshaw

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Competently written, if a bit straightforward and predictable: the plot moves quickly and kept my attention, but there's never really any doubt about the villain or the outcome. The main character, Ariantes, is likable, but he has a dispassionate, matter-of-fact voice and comes off as rather distant. But there are some generally moving moments; I particularly liked the way Ariantes' friendship with Facilis developed. There were times when I wanted more lingering explanation and reflection; things that seemed fairly important (Comittus' druid connections, for example, or Facilis' son's death) were dismissed or lightly brushed over, and the romance progressed very quickly. But this was an enjoyable read; I was glad for a fresh take on Roman Britain. I intend to read more by this author. ( )
  9inchsnails | Mar 7, 2016 |
Capitulated troops from the steppe in the east are sent to Britain to guard another frontier. At home they are declared dead, their wives widows, and they don’t believe in an island across the ocean, unless ghosts inhabit it.

So starts this story of cultural intersection. The captain Ariantes needs to learn Roman ways to look after the welfare of his troops – the only concern left to him now – but this is to Romanize, which he has no wish to do. The book is first person Ariantes and he came alive for me at once. He’s an extremely sympathetic character.

It’s a gently-told story. The Sarmatians’ old scalp collections are a great talking-point for the Romans, but Ariantes is weary of war, and though he’s matter-of-fact and unapologetic about scalps of the past he’s not here to take more. The first thing I noticed is what humanity she gives to Sarmatians – and then to unexpected Romans too. I’m such a believer that human decency was alive and well in the second century (not invented in the twentieth) that I can’t believe the complaint I’m about to make. As we went on I found the novel a little too gentle, too easily solved. People came around too soon. Not that it’s happy-happy – he knows his Sarmatians won’t be Sarmatians in a few years’ time, so we have that melancholy tinge.
  Jakujin | Sep 7, 2013 |
Bradshaw is best known for her Arthurian trilogy. My first work by her, read in my teens, happened to be the third book in that trilogy, In Winter's Shadow. I loved the portrait of Guinevere, who with Arthur sought to form a firebreak to keep the guttering flame of civilization from going out in Britain after the Roman withdrawal. When I finally hunted down the first two books, I was actually disappointed. Because the first two books were really fantasy--the last really was historical fiction. And I think Bradshaw is at her best presenting history without fantastic embellishments--and she has a special way with Ancient history--especially Roman history. In a way Ariantes is the flip side of Guenevere, on the other side of the divide. He's a Sarmartan (ie "barbarian") Prince exiled in a Roman Britain where there's only hints that the Roman Empire and the civilization it engenders might be beginning to ebb. I can't say I know enough about this period and place to say Bradshaw got it all right--but it feels as if she does; I felt transported to a different place and time--you can ask little more of a work of historical fiction. ( )
1 vote LisaMaria_C | Aug 25, 2013 |
If you have had the misfortune, fellow reader, of seeing the 2004 King Arthur film, starring Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd, and Kiera Knightley as a warrior-babe Guinevere, then you will perhaps be aware that there is a school of thought which holds that much of the King Arthur mythology comes from an Indo-Iranian people called the Sarmatians. Don't be put off by the ahistoric melodrama of the movie - the notion of a Sarmatian influence in ancient British mythology is actually the hot new theory in Arthurian Studies, and is not as far-fetched as it might first appear. Those interested in pursuing the topic should locate a copy of C. Scott Littleton & Linda A. Malcor's From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail.

It was in my own search for more material concerning the Sarmatian presence in Roman Britain that I first came upon Gillian Bradshaw's novel, Island of Ghosts, which I would rank as the best work of historical fiction I have read in the last decade. It follows the story of Ariantes, a second-century Sarmatian prince and cavalry commander who finds himself transplanted from his homeland to far-off Britain, as part of the peace settlement between his people and the Roman Empire. Here, on this "island of ghosts," Ariantes struggles to adjust to and survive in a new world, to protect the interests of his men, and to retain the essential values of his own culture.

This was a satisfying novel on many levels. As an adventure story it offered action, suspense, and romance. Bradshaw's skillful handling of the many intersecting threads of her narrative, her clear understanding of the complexities of intercultural communication and exchange, and her lucid and restrained, but somehow emotive prose, all combined to create an unforgettable reading experience. In many ways I was reminded of Robin McKinley, one of my all-time favorite authors...

Ariantes' personal struggle to overcome the demons of his past, is mirrored by his experiences as a barbarian being incorporated into the vast, multicultural Roman Empire. Island of Ghosts is in many ways the classic immigrant story, for all that it is set in ancient times, and Bradshaw is to be commended for her dead-on historical accuracy. Not only does she show a keen appreciation for the larger themes of the period, with the barbarian-Roman divide playing out in the story of one man, but the minutest historical details of her story have been well-researched. ( )
2 vote AbigailAdams26 | Jun 18, 2013 |
It took me a while to get round to reading Island of Ghosts, but I'm so glad I finally did. I remember finding one of Gillian Bradshaw's other books slow but compelling: I read this all in one day, though I wouldn't call it a quick read. It is a compelling one, though, just as expected. I wasn't sure exactly what was so good about it, but by the time I was a quarter of the way through, I was determined to finish reading it today.

One of the factors is the main character, Ariantes. Full of honour, and in a position where revenge would be almost justified and certainly expected among his people, he is also practical and adaptable. He is willing to change for the good of his people, and he guides them to change as well. He's disabled, with a bad leg, but while this limits him somewhat, it doesn't keep him from doing what he needs to do. In short, he's an admirable character, and despite what seems like barbarism at first sight, an honourable and likeable one.

The other characters are similarly well-handled. There isn't anyone who we are expected to hate without cause, nor anyone who is portrayed as wholly evil. Even the main antagonists have their honour, or their weaknesses... whatever makes them human. It was refreshing that, though people take sides, the sides are not clear-cut, light/dark. Everyone is human.

As historical fiction, it's well-researched -- so far as I know, anyway, Roman Britain being something I know about only incidentally (though I do have an A Level in Classical Civilisations, for whatever that counts for). Certainly, it all reads believably.

I could go on: there's plenty to like about this novel. I can't think of much I actually saw as flawed. There was one point which used a plot device I don't particularly enjoy, but even that, I didn't find too jarring, and it was dealt with reasonably well even for a trope I don't like. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812545141, Mass Market Paperback)

Ariantes is a Sarmatian, a barbarian warrior-prince, uprooted from his home and customs and thrust into the honorless lands of the Romans. The victims of a wartime pact struck with the emperor Marcus Aurelius to ensure the future of Sarmatia, Ariantes and his troop of accomplished horsemen are sent to Hadrian's Wall. Unsurprisingly, the Sarmatians hate Britain--an Island of Ghosts, filled with pale faces, stone walls, and an uneasy past.

Struggling to command his own people to defend a land they despise, Ariantes is accepted by all, but trusted by none. The Romans fear his barbarian background, and his own men fear his gradual Roman assimilation. When Ariantes uncovers a conspiracy sure to damage both his Roman benefactors and his beloved countrymen, as well as put him and the woman he loves in grave danger, he must make a difficult decision--one that will change his own life forever.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:17 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A Slav prince is caught in political and romantic intrigue in Roman Britain. He is Ariantes, commander of a regiment of Sarmatian cavalry in the service of Rome. The intrigue involves a Christian woman and a Druid rebellion.

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