Hadrian's Wall


William Dietrich


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

November 26, 2005

fter zipping right through Dark Winter, I picked up Dietrich's subsequent novel, Hadrian's Wall, hoping for an equally engaging read. But this book did not have the same page turning momentum. Historical fiction can offer some terrific novels (You want a list? Try these: An Instance of the Fingerpost- Iain Pears, The Coffee Trader - David Liss, Sacred Hunger - Barry Unsworth, Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco, Shogun - James Clavell, and don't miss Perfume by Patrick Suskind) but I don't think Hadrian's Wall belongs in the pantheon of great reads. It certainly starts out okay - the wealthy daughter of a Roman Senator is coming to Britian to marry Marcus, a wealthy man who has used his connections to win the appointment of commander at Hadrian's Wall, where he hopes to earn fame and credibility as a leader. However, Galba, a lifetime soldier serving on the Wall, had expected the appointment to be his, and he bitterly resents Marcus' authority.

We arrive at the story from the point of view of Draco, investigator for the Roman empire. Thus, through his questions of the survivors, we learn that something terrible has occurred, but exactly what went wrong is slow in coming to light. The beautiful daughter of the Senator is Valeria, who has journeyed from Rome under the protection of Clodius, an aristocrat turned soldier - just the kind of man Galba despises. The first meeting between these two men instantly sparks a rivalry. It seems the spirited and beautiful Valeria captivates most any man she meets - even if the man is a barbarian raider from north of Hadrians Wall, who has somehow slipped across the border and makes an attempt to kidnap her.

The depiction of Roman era life is interesting. In another portion of the book, we are treated to an idyllic presentation of life on the barbarian side - and I think this is where the novel bogs down. C'mon, a lawless society of brutes is going to be a heck of a lot coarser, colder and ruder than is shown in the book. Why would anyone dream that it would seem more appealing than Roman civilization? Another reason the pace slows is that tensions have heightened because a strike by the Romans against a sacred grove of the Druids has resulted in the destruction of the trees (a nice battle scene here) - and the barbarians want to retaliate - yet nothing happens! No organization, no rallies, no plots - no vows of revenge or reckless charges or raids against the Romans. Instead, the novel gets sidetracked into an implausible romance and everything else is put on hold for several chapters. I think Dietrich would have been better off sticking to a tale of treachery and warfare, and made the romance portion just a subplot. This book is still a good read, but not exceptional. (How come the druid speaks Latin? Or how else was Draco able to interview him?)