by Joy Nash, historical (2005)
LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 0-505-52639-5
Joy Nash's LoveSpell debut historical romance Celtic Fire has plenty of atmosphere and details in the setting, but unfortunately, all that richness is wasted on the main characters that behave like present day characters playing dress-up games as Roman centurions and kidnapped Celtic princesses.
Set in 117 AD, during the Roman invasion into the land that we know now as the British isles, our key players are Rhiannon and Lucius Ulpius Aquila. Perhaps it is destiny at work, for their fates are intertwined when Rhiannon's tribe kill Lucius' brother Aulus even as Lucius, who is at that time in command of an outpost in Assyria, begins seeing the ghost of his brother hovering around him. A year later, Lucius receives news that Aulus had been killed sometime in the previous year and sets off at once to the outpost of Vindolanda, intending to take up command there and find the person responsible for his brother's death. While he and his entourage are making their way to Vindolanda, they are ambushed by Rhiannon's tribe. During an attempt to save her brother's life, Rhiannon finds herself taken captive by Lucius. As so it begins.
There are many interesting ideas in this story, seen chiefly the poignant and sometimes funny interaction between Lucius and the ghost of Aulus. The historical details are most richly detailed and always fascinating. I am not learned enough to gauge the accuracy of these details, but Ms Nash has a beautiful way with words at times that she can most likely sell me the fact that these Romans use machine guns back in those times. Even the political intrigue brewing in Rhiannon's tribe would have been interesting were not for the author's efforts at characterization that are inferior compared to her descriptive prose.
I wonder why this book isn't more appropriately called Hot Roman Studs because if there is one clear message I get here, it is definitely not that the principal Celtic characters are halfway subtle in their bumbling villainy. Putting aside the historical details, the perception sold by the author to the reader is definitely that of how Roman hot studs are far more superior than those uncivilized cartoon characters that are the Celts. Rhiannon is the queen of her tribe but she is merely a symbol. The real power lies in the hand of Edmyg the warlord and Madoc the resident Druid and I tell you, Edmyg is a brutal lover while Madoc is a cackling psychopath. Lucius, of course, is the gentle and skilled lover of women and Rhiannon, who has never known gentle loving, naturally succumbs to his tender caresses.
While there is no denying that the Celtic culture of yore can be drenched in gore and blood, it does seem that Ms Nash is using what we would view today as a bloodthirsty and cruel culture as a plot device to have Madoc jumping around and raving like a nutcase. The Romans under Lucius' leadership come off like unrealistic pacifists who take up arms only because the insane savage Celts forced them to do so in this story. With such simplistic and definitely unrealistic whitewashing of history, it seems that the author's hard work in setting up the history is wasted on the characters.
The mid-portion of the story is too dull for words, made lively only by my pleasant envisioning of various ways I want Rhiannon to die. The relationship between Lucius and Rhiannon in that portion is pretty much a constant and tedious pattern of him touching her and making sensual promises and she declaring that she will never submit to him while secretly shivering inside with desire.
While Lucius on the whole is a rather dull gentleman, redeemed slightly only by a few moments when Ms Nash allows him to be a soldier that he is supposed to be, Rhiannon is simply too irritating for words. She's the worst kind of heroine ever - the one who wants to save the world but is completely useless at everything that the best she can do is to shriek hysterically and flail around helplessly. This stupid wretch can't stand to see anybody get hurt so she's constantly running around weeping or screaming for world peace that she becomes a useless liability more often than not. At least Lucius has some moments where he seems to be a man of his time, but poor Rhiannon is like a ridiculous college student who, after a few minutes of reading a pamphlet from Greenpeace, is convinced that she knows everything there is to save the world. She is useless, annoying, and constantly whiny. She has no subterfuge, she is a terrible liar, and she insists on keeping all kinds of secrets while pouring on the guilt and self-flagellation.
Is she hoping to win some kind of medal for being the biggest martyr on earth? Here's the medal, let me shove it down her throat.
Anyway, the hideously irritating heroine who deserves to die slowly and painfully at least three times over aside, the rest of Celtic Fire still comes off like an unfortunately too simplistic and one-sided depiction of a harsh and difficult era. The author shows plenty of promise in her prose and the occasional glimmers of good ideas in this story, but on the whole, Celtic Fire barely kindles a spark where I am concerned.
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