by Ashley Reid
Cathy Marie Buchanan’s newest novel is set in pagan Europe, on the eve of the arrival of the Roman Empire. The story is told from the perspectives of Hobble, a young girl with otherworldly gifts, and her mother, Devout. Hobble has foreseen soldiers spreading to the village of Black Lake and bringing with them an end to the old ways. A druid named Fox stays with her family, having journeyed far to raise a rebellion against the southern invaders.
Devout earned her name as the village healer, capable of pulling magic from Mother Earth’s roots, leaves and blossoms. However, some years earlier Devout lost her first partner, Arc, and as a result, she struggles to maintain her faith in Mother Earth. Smith, Hobble’s father, harbours secrets of his own, as he risks the safety of his family in an attempt to reclaim his birthright.
“The men with the shields were in boats this time. Druids waited on the shore with their arms raised to the gods. They didn’t fight back. They were cut down. All of them.”
I was encouraged to pick up this book because one of my all-time favourite novels is set in a relatively similar world. Because of this, I had high expectations for Daughter of Black Lake.
Buchanan created a very compelling world. The depth of her research was depicted in her recreation of ancient traditions such as the “Feast of Purification”. The villagers also gave away parts of their crops to honour Mother Earth and ate black henbane in honour of their god, War Master.
“But some put their hands on the stone altar and cried “Heed War Master. Heed him well.” And those who had swallowed black henbane danced wildly, leaping out and calling to War Master, who had given his devotees the sensation of soaring above the earth.”
While set in an ancient world, the story clearly depicts a world on the brink of change. I have found that other novels set in this time period also feature the disappearance of paganism from Europe. However, that process is typically described as a meek and inevitable event. In my experience, Daughter of Black Lake is unique, as there is no insignificant amount of bloodshed in the druids’ opposition to the invasion of the Roman Empire. They do not go mildly.
Buchanan’s characters were intriguing. Though Hobble may have been “the main character”, I liked reading the chapters from Devout’s perspective more. Her relationship with Arc is completely different from her relationship with Smith. Her partnership with Arc is depicted as one of those “set by destiny” loves, whereas her relationship with Smith is nothing short of work. However, I appreciated that the author still allowed Devout to fall in love with Smith – and made it genuine.
To contrast with her human relationships, Devout also had a tumultuous relationship with her faith and Mother Earth. Throughout the book, Devout experiences a number of losses, and each time she struggles with her identity and her place in her community, which is centered on her commitment to the gods. This relationship gave Devout real depth.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find all of the characters to be so believable. As a reader, I felt that Arc didn’t have a solid presence in the book, so his personality had very little substance. Because of this, I was skeptical of Devout’s love for him.
I also found that Fox’s actions fell flat on occasion and fit the “villainous religious leader” trope. If he had revealed one redeeming quality, I may have believed his motivations. I was pleasantly surprised by the sacrifice that Fox makes towards the end of the book. Without writing too many spoilers, Fox’s actions demonstrate a genuine belief and faith in the gods, which made him more compelling.
Overall, I found that this book was a light and enjoyable read. Did it change my life? Probably not. Will I ever read it again? I might. If you are a person who enjoys historical fiction, but is simultaneously one of those readers who doesn’t want to be inundated by details (I’m looking at you, Ken Follett), this would be a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. It is an escape to a new and fascinating world.
Rating: Good, but not life-changing. 3/5.
Already read it? Try Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, or Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (I joked about it, but I love this series.)
Banner image courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Gracie Safranovich.