THE WASHINGTON POST
By the end of the reign of Emperor Claudius, which was shortened when he consumed a plate of poisoned mushrooms served lovingly by his wife Agrippina, Rome was swallowing up nation after nation, often with little resistance. The only thorn in Rome's side was the warlike tribes of Germania. They constantly raided and burned Roman outposts scattered along the Rhine and made the Romans pay dearly whenever they enslaved Germanic tribesmen.
Donna Gillespie immersed herself in the lore and legends of the Roman way of life and has emerged with THE LIGHT BEARER, a fact-filled novel that is sure to entertain readers in a manner they will not soon forget.
This massive saga shifts and twists as it follows the lives of three characters: Auriane, daughter of Baldemar, chief of the Chattians, one of the most virulent of the Germanic tribes; Marcus, raised as a slave before being rescued by his father, a Roman nobleman; and Decius, a Roman soldier captured by the Chattians. Other cast members both real and fictional come to vivid life.
Much has been written of the cold-blooded shenanigans of the Roman way of life, from the dastardly crimes of the empire's leaders to the wheeling and dealing of its senators, but Gillespie weaves her tale in a way that brings new color and excitement to the era.
For instance, when Athelinda, wife of Baldemar, is unable to give birth to Auriane, Ramis the prophetess appears. She massages Athelinda's belly with hen's grease, dittany and hollyhock and makes her walk. The baby is delivered effortlessly. This is the same Ramis who once each year performs human sacrifices in the dreaded bogs of Germania.
Gillespie depicts skin-covered huts with smoke holes, contrasting the primitive and harsh existence of the tribes to the glorious mansions of the Roman nobility and the cesspools frequented by the poorest of city-dwellers.
After his rescue from slavery, Marcus is introduced to the finest education. He grows to love scholarship and the practice of law, which eventually brings fame and fortune as well as jealous enemies.
At the Midsummer Assembly, the most important festival in the Germanic calendar, Auriane relinquishes her right to mortal marriage by giving herself as a bride to the god Wodan.
At sixteen and already adept with spear and bow, Auriane realizes that her tribe is doomed unless wholesale changes are made in its battle preparations. She appeals to Decius, the captured Roman soldier whom she has befriended, to teach her battle tactics and the use of weapons captured in raids.Gillespie gives crisp and detailed descriptions of the fighting methods of the well-trained Roman legions, their precise formations and deadly weapons looking vastly more polished than the ferocious, undisciplined tribesmen.
As powerful as Gillespie's action writing can be, she shows a deft and almost musical quality in more passionate interludes:
"Peace and contentment rolled over her like some golden smoke as she drifted over the black and bottomless pool at the place where the floodwaters became slack and still. Here was the world's end, and world's beginning; she floated through a mythical dusk, caressed by the gentle light-play of dawn."
No Roman tale would be complete without festival games and Gillespie does not disappoint. A dozen golden-helmeted sword fighters arrive at the Colosseum. When their helmets and scarlet cloaks are removed, twelve flaxen-haired barbarian women stand revealed, clad as Amazons in short leopard-skin tunics.
Their opponents are twelve dwarfs attired as Thracian gladiators. In less than fifteen minutes ten women and eight dwarfs are slaughtered. Emperor Domitian orders the two surviving women to be sent to the palace to await his pleasure: "When I take them, they will think they have been raped by Zeus," he proclaims.
Throughout this monumental story, Gillespie constantly increases the excitement and intrigue. There are no flat passages in THE LIGHT BEARER, only a fast-flowing stream that erupts into a full-scale torrent in the book's conclusion. Let us hope that we will see more from this sparkling new author.
THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
San Francisco writer Donna Gillespie has come up with a stirring scenario for her debut historical novel, THE LIGHT BEARER.
She distills the conflict between "civilized" Rome in the first century A.D. and the pagan "barbarian" tribes crowding its borders into the life of a Germanic warrior woman with a foot in both cultures. Fighting for the survival of her people against the invading Romans, Gillespie's heroine becomes, at various times, tribal "battle maiden", and holy woman, a gladiator in the Colosseum of Rome, and a player in a secret plot against a tyrannical emperor. Gillespie's grasp of the daily social, religious and political lives of Germanic tribes and urban Romans alike, and her understanding of the way human deeds are woven by time into myth, keep THE LIGHT BEARER rooted in historical plausibility.
Gillespie's heroine, Auriane, is certainly the stuff from which legends are made. Daughter of Baldemar, the beloved warrior chieftain of the Chattian tribe, Auriane is named for the AURR, the "sacred earth" of her homeland. It is prophesied at her birth that she will save her people, but that she will also kill her own father. The shame of this prophecy drives Auriane to forgo the domestic pleasures of hearth and home to fight alongside Baldemar and his warriors in their endless campaigns against the encroaching Roman legions.
Auriane learns the principles of swordfighting, Roman military strategy, and the rudiments of Latin speech from the cynical Roman, Decius, a captured legionnaire who is now a thrall (tenant farmer) on her father's property.
When Baldemar dies, in part through the treachery of a rival chieftain, Auriane dedicates her life to seeking vengeance against her father's murderer, the only way to cleanse her people of despair and dishonor. It's a vow she is destined to pursue even after she is captured by the Romans and sold as a slave into a gladiatorial school in Rome.
In contrast to the pagan mysticism of the Germania scenes is the parallel story of a young Roman, Marcus Arrius Julianus. Abducted and enslaved as a boy, then reclaimed by his aristocratic father, Marcus is a philosopher destined to be 'the bane of rulers', and a purveyor of banned books in the repressive age of Nero. It's clear the unlettered natural woman and the compassionate philosopher are destined for each other, despite their many differences.
Once the story shifts permanently to Rome, the narrative hits its stride,with Auriane struggling to survive her many gladiatorial combats while Marcus launches a dangerous, delicate plot to assassinate the despotic, unpredictable Emperor Domitian. Gillespie shows how Domitian uses games and superstar gladiators to mollify a hostile populace "allowed no hand in governing", whose religion has become "mummified."
Marcus tries to convince Auriane that her lust for tribal blood-vengeance is no more "sacred" than blood-lust in the arena. It takes Auriane a long time finally to decide between the feminine "world of the spirits" and the masculine "world of war".
But Gillespie keeps the reader engaged, whether portraying the hierarchy in the Roman gladiatorial schools or the pagan festivals of Eastre--complete with colored and hidden eggs, resurrections and cross symbolism--that will later be transformed into the Christian Easter. At its best, THE LIGHT BEARER taps into one of the most popular themes in historical fiction today, the unsung woman who takes a hand in the shaping of history.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY 'starred' review:
Probably the greatest compliment to Gillespie's first novel is that at 800 pages, the book isn't too long. Spanning the years between A.D. 52--shortly before Nero' accession--and Nerva's accession in 96, the novel invokes tribal warfare, two tyrants, Domitian's terror, gladiatorial spectacles, blood vengeance, imperial intrigues, and a mythic love. At the center is Auriane, the daughter of a Chattian chieftain, fated to lead her tribe against Rome but also to disgrace it by murdering her father. On the other side of the Alps is Marcus Julianus, a philosophically disposed nobleman trying to salvage justice under the despotic Nero and Domitian. Marcus is haunted by his late father's vague records of a German warrior maid, and the two finally meet when Auriane is captured in Domitian's Chattian campaign. For anyone interested in this tumultuous period of Roman despotism and Germanic tribes, Gillespie's epic is an intriguing recording of everyday detail, national issues, and, more impressively, overarching influences of religion and psychology.
THE NORTHWEST FLORIDA DAILY NEWS
THE LIGHT BEARER is time-capsule journey into a world of richly embroidered adventure.
In the fourth year of the reign of the Emperor Nero, a ragged-but-literate slave boy, Endymion, dared to add his own pleas for justice to the words of the great philosopher Seneca, that he was supposed to be copying verbatim for a cruel master. When this happened, the master of the scriptorium had the boy soundly beaten, then sold to a ropemaker. Anecdotes such as this abound in Donna Gillespie's book, THE LIGHT BEARER, set in 50 A.D. and beyond, in the territory bounded by the North Sea and the rivers Elbe, Danube and Rhine.
Richly flavored with historical references, the story is packaged readably, and the plot, action, and painstakingly developed characterizations make it a treasure--even for those who don't put historical tomes high on their reading list.
Gillespie's greatest gift is the way she crafts descriptive passages--phrases never sit static on the pages. These words are fluid grace points that translate instantly into living, active images in the reader's imagination.
From Z. Budapest for SAGE
Reviewed by Zsuzsanna E. Budapest
When I first laid eyes on the 8oo page book called THE LIGHT BEARER, I was totally intimidated. When would I have time to plough through such a hefty novel? It seemed like an enormous commitment. But I had a long trip to New Zealand coming up; I decided that would be the ideal time to plunge in.
And so I packed this big book on my fifteen hour flight, and started reading it as we pulled onto the runway. The opening scene describes the birth of the heroine, Auriane, in the barbarian lands of northern Europe in the late first century AD. Her birth was presided over by the high priestess Ramis, who pronounces a terrifying prophesy over the newborn child: Auriane will slay her own father, but she will also play a part in the toppling down of a faraway empire. Ramis then gives the baby a priestess name, over the protests of the child's mother, as well as a precious earth talisman from the holiest of holies, known as the aurr.
By the time we flew over the Pacific I was totally enthralled. I recognized the well-researched spells in the scenes. The novel describes many of the old festivals of the pagan north, demonstrating how the ancient belief systems were realized in daily life--and all is blended together with this writer's clear smooth language, which delights the ear like words flowing from a honeyed tongue. As a child Auriane sleeps over a sword; as she grows older she masters the sword. In young maturity she encounters the brutality of the Romans. But she counters it by learning their swordfighting techniques and battle strategies from a thrall, Decius, who is a captured Roman soldier. Her destiny slowly unfolds from fight to flight and back to fight again. This maiden is good. Ms. Gillespie is even better.
By the time I arrived In Auckland, New Zealand, I was planning to read just a little further as soon as I got to my room. I wanted to quickly romp through the book, then devote my full attention to New Zealand. But while this brand new reality unfolded around me, Ms. Gillespie did not loosen her grip on my mind. The book proved to be a true page-turner; with each resolution, the author establishes a new hook, so that the suspense never flags.
I took the book to the bush with me. The bush is actually a semi-tropical forest, beautiful and wild, and filled with exotic birdsong. I finally gave myself up to the new continent, but as night fell I couldn't wait to continue my journey with Auriane and the story of her exploits, victories and woundings--all interwoven with magical language, many invocations of the goddess, and a wealth of fascinating detail about life in the first century AD, which was full of violence and ritual.
And so Ms. Gillespie won. It was clear that I would not be able to finish this book quickly, and also that I wouldn't be able to simply disengage from it until it was time to go home. Now I started savoring the book, purposely reading only a little bit at a time. This book is a feast: It ripples with colors and tastes and smells. Now the Roman sections paralleled the North European sections. I walked in the palaces of Nero, and beheld their banquets, their wealth, their total power. I learned more about the Roman Empire than I cared to know, especially concerning the shocking abuse of children and the senseless sacrifice of men and wild animals in the Colosseum.
This author is not squeamish. Her research turned up many horrifying customs, and she doesn't spare us the details. But it isn't Ms. Gillespie's fault that savagery was so rampant in first century Europe.
Of course, our heroine becomes a gladiator in the Colosseum. Of course, her tribe's most despised enemy must be defeated there, in front of the Roman mob. Of course, I couldn't lay the book down during my entire trip. Between workshops, and during lunch breaks, I would sneak back to my room and read a little more. I was, by now, determined to finish this book before going home. This couldn't wait! I just had to remember to find something else to read on the way home.
Right through to the end, The Light Bearer proved impossible to put down. My fingers ached from the heaviness of it, and I no longer cared. The book had become a passion. My trip was nearly over, and still I was avidly reading. Surely a book that took twelve years to write deserves at least a good two weeks devoted to it. Much of the enchantment came from the characters themselves: Ms. Gillespie's characters are fully formed, and real as the people around you; they're both lovable and hatable, and unpredictable as life.
Auriane begins her life as a young maiden clever with a sword, a determined avenger. Through the course of the book, however, her purposes evolve; she who fights first with skill, fights later with wisdom. By the book's conclusion, Auriane has at last surrendered to fate, and readies herself to take on the mantle of a tribal priestess. "You will be a living shield..." proclaimed the prophecy given so long ago, and as she begins a life of serving her people, the prophecy is triumphantly fulfilled. Throughout all her adventures and trials, Auriane's cruel bouts of self-doubt render her believably human.
This is a great novel! Ms. Gillespie has given me so much pleasure with her work. Most of the time I was reading this book, I kept holding in my breath, wondering: What on earth is going to happen next? Or else wiping off tears, because a poignant moment left me so moved. She has converted me back to novel reading! For the past twenty-five years I've read mostly philosophy, thealogy, psychology, and history. Most novels are just too slow for me, the characters too belabored. As for historical novels, they seem too far removed from the realities of daily life. By contrast, I found The Light Bearer to be strikingly contemporary; Auriane's inner torments will inspire recognition and sympathy from women today.
Read The Light Bearer and swoon. I did.
THE EAST BAY EXPRESS
San Francisco author Donna Gillespie, in this ambitious debut, spent twelve years researching and writing The Light Bearer. Full of coincidences and twists of fate worthy of Charles Dickens, and just as forgivable, The Light Bearer is an historical epic spanning the declining reigns of the Emperors Claudius and Domitian. To her credit, its pages fly past the eye. Gillespie supports a legion of memorable characters with mundane and believable details of both Roman and German worlds. Thematically aware of the irony of the barbarity of the nobles and the nobility of the barbarians, she masters the subtlety of portraying the jaded imperial Roman city-state, its modern achievements built on a foundation of misery and blood lust, against the outwardly crude tribes of Germania, whose communal philosophy is imbued with an acceptance for the mysteries of life. Gillespie has created a compelling, living world.
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