The Dawn Stag, by Jules Watson

It is AD81 and Agricola the governor of Roman Britain is intent to conquer Alba, Scotland as he has captured the rest of Britain. He has been outwitted by Eremon before and does not plan on letting it happen again. Eremon, though has two new weapons: new allegiances, formed with the Kings and chiefs of the surrounding duns; and the new powerful love he shares with Rhiann. Together the pair hold the hopes of the nation.

When the armies of Alba and Rome finally meet it is in an epic battle which will decide the fate of a nation. No one who is there on that day will remain unchanged.

The Dawn Stag is the second book in the epic Dalraida Trilogy and, like the first The White Mare, is a boon for lovers of Celtic history, epic tales and historical fantasy. Author Jules Watson weaves a story which draws readers into its depths, connecting with the characters and living their highs and lows with them.

A dense volume, it is no light read, but this is its appeal – there is plenty of time to develop the characters, setting and, of course, the wrenching plot.

The Dawn Stag, by Jules Watson
Orion, 2005

Tree of Angels, by Penny Sumner

They were all watching, everyone in the room. Young women who’d been friends…slid their eyes over Nina now. She was pitied and despised. She’d seen a man naked; had held his shaved skull in her hands. And worse, she could have shouted, she’d done worse than that – promised him life where there was none. Her eyes pricked, though whether with pity for the violinmaker, or herself, she couldn’t have said.

Nina has grown up on a beautiful estate in Russia, with an older sister she adores, a beautiful mother and a slighlty eccentric father. But the peace is shattered when her mother dies in childbirth and her father begins to lose his mind. At just fourteen, Nina realises she must leave home and enters into a marriage to a complete stranger – an Englishman with a need for a wife to conceal a dark secret.

In England Nina makes a life with her husband, Richard, and learns to be happy. When he is murdered, a result of that dark secret, she is left carrying the child of her lover – an Australian serviceman, Harry. It is when Harry also dies that she sinks to dark depths. Her post-natal madness sees her baby taken away from her.

It is not until Nina’s grandaughter, Julia, travels to England and visits the town where the grandmother she believes to be dead once lived, that what remains of the family is reunited.

Tree of Angels is a story of exile, of family and of tragedy. Over three generations Nina’s family must fight against the odds to retain ther dignity and their sanity.

This is a stunning debut novel. Sumner creates deeply textured and believable characters and the reader is drawn into their lives and their struggles, hoping desperately that things will work out. The recurrent images of angels throughout the book is a lovely piece of symbolism. An angel appears in the book’s prologue in a piece of foreshadowing which leaves us wondering, over the bulk of the book, which character is aboard the ship the angel hovers over. The answer, when it comes, is unexpected. Yet it is this unexpectedness that makes the book a success: it is not predictable but it is, ultimately, a satisfying story.

Penny Sumner was born in Australia and now lives in England. She came upon the idea of the story from a Russian exile she met in London. Whilst the story is fictional, it rings true because of its accuracy regarding the time period in which it is set.

Tree of Angels is a gripping read from an outstanding author.

Tree of Angels, by Penny Sumner
Orion, 2004

The White Mare, by Jules Watson

In first century Britain, Agricola, the governor of Roman Britain, is advancing into Scotland, determined not to rest until he has claimed it for the Empire. Whilst some tribes have been conquered and others have surrendered, some are determined to withstand the threat.

Rhiann is both princess and Ban Cre (priestess) to her people. When the reigning King, her Uncle, dies, the pressure is on her to marry and produce an heir. The husband chosen for her is Eremon, an exiled Irish prince, who seeks an alliance with the Epidii for reasons of his own.

As they face the Roman enemy, the pair must also face their own troubles. Theirs is not a joyous marriage – Rhiann carries ghostly memories which prevent her from trusting any man, and Eremon needs desperately to prove himself to his men and to his new allies. Only if they work together can the pair overcome these personal woes and lead their people in resisting the Romans.

The White Mare is a stunning debut novel for Western Australian author Jules Watson. The five years spent researching and writing the novel is apparent in the attention to detail and authentic feel for the times. The White Mare is the first in a trilogy. The next installment will be eagerly awaited by those who read the first.

The White Mare, by Jules Watson
Published by Orion, distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin