Review of DRUIDS by BARBARA GALLER-SMITH and JOSH LANGSTON
(first in the DRUIDS saga)
This week I find myself reviewing yet another historical fantasy, an underappreciated subgenre from my experience, perhaps because many history buffs don’t want to see fantasy in their history and many fantasy addicts don’t want real history clogging their fantasy. Such a shame! It is remarkable what skilled writers can create with facts and truth in one hand and imagination and words in the other.
This particular historical fantasy takes place in the last century BC during the Sertorian War. While the book bears a background of historical events and some characters taken from history step forward now and again to play greater roles, the story revolves around the two fictional protagonists, the druids Rhonwen and Mallec. Their stories alternate, though there’s little connection at first. Rhonwen’s uncle Orlan becomes Mallec’s tutor and the prophetic Mallec has occasional visions about Rhonwen. I expect the two will meet, but it isn’t in the first book.
DRUIDS is tricky to describe without giving away too much as the wonder is in how the well-told epic unfolds with carefully paced events. So rather than reveal even the first scene and deprive others of the chance to experience the emotions it conjures, I will disclose a little about some of the characters. The book opens on Rhonwen, a young and stubborn healer who won me over with the choices she makes when her loyalties conflict. We also meet her younger brother Telo, an overeager warrior ready to prove himself, her mother Baia, a source of much grief and guilt, and her uncle Orlan, also a druid as well as her tutor and perhaps the single strongest connection between herself and Mallec. I won’t be surprised if Orlan leads to their first meeting; in fact I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t! A few chapters later we meet Mallec, also a druid in training like Rhonwen at the start, though he’s not accepted among his peers who consider brute strength the last word in personal worth. It isn’t for a while that he meets Deirdre, a bitter druid who only values knowledge in relation to the power it might bring and has a metaphorical bright red warning light flashing over her head from her first appearance. Sertorius, the namesake for the war and one of the characters based from history, crosses paths with Rhonwen multiple times throughout the book, starting with the first scene. Their interaction buzzes with their mutual attraction; however, their meetings always prove bittersweet, stuffed with strong, passionate emotions, but not all of them good.
The fantasy element in this saga is deceptively light, which proves to be a great strength. While the druids make use of many traditions and rituals that at first appear as magic, in almost all cases the allusion of magic is merely a tool and the wondrous act a simple trick. Of course, this only makes the real magic all the more impacting. When you read closely, you realize there are actually only two fantastical elements in this book: the prophetic dreams and visions of a few select druids like Mallec and an unexpected and unique power that those who discover it guard as a precious and dangerous secret.
There’s a subdued sense to this epic. Tragic moments gripped me with intensity, but due more to the authors’ subtle restraint than any excessive description of how betrayed or pained the characters felt. While the book finds a nice place of closure, the story hangs open for the next installment. I find myself happily lacking any confident predictions other than the eventual union of Rhonwen’s and Mallec’s stories.