SONG FOR A DARK QUEEN by Rosemary Sutcliff


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If Boudicca's tribe was a matriarchy and she was Queen in her own right, then her vengeance on the Romans for assaulting her person and raping her daughters takes on a different aspect, at once grander and more human. On that premise, Rosemary Sutcliff has recast the life of Boudicca (Boadicea) as it might have appeared to Cadwan, Harper to the Queen--who first fetches back the determined six-year-old when she runs off after the King's war-band. A small wooden sword and a small song are her compensations then; when she has a great sword like her father's, Cadwan tells her, he will make her a great song of the Victories of a Queen. At 13, she accepts and does not accept Prasutagus as her husband; but he has a will and a patience to match hers, and in time she is joyously his wife and the mother of two girls. The tribes, lightly tied to Rome before, must now turn in their weapons--save for the unsuspected swords of the women. A new Emperor, Nero, comes to the throne, and Britain has a new Governor, the celebrated general Paulinus. In this time of changes, of more and harsher regulation, Prasutagus sickens and dies. What could be more obvious to Nero, in the absence of a male heir, than to absorb his people into the Province of Britain? This we hear casually from a young Roman tribune, Gneus Julius Agricola, whose letters to his mother begin at this juncture and thereafter counterpoint Cadwan's narrative. (British children, of course, have the advantage of knowing that this thoughtful, unbellicose youth will be Britain's greatest Roman governor.) Roman officials appear, a drunken insult ends in mass outrage, and Boudicca--her blue eyes now "a dark forest" to Cadwan--rallies the tribes to drive the tyrants out. So begins the onslaught that levels cities, leaves captive women hanging "like dreadful white fruit. . . from the branches of the dark and ancient trees," and climaxes in Londinium with wholesale crucifixion--"a thing that we have learned from the Romans themselves." Then: stalemate. But Paulinus, heading north again, devises a way to turn back the massed might of the tribes; and, Rome triumphant, Boudicca returns home (in this version) to drink poison from the cup of Roman glass that was Prasutagus' gift, her Song of a Queen's Victories still unmade. A stirring, quietly eloquent miniature for young people just dipping their toes in these dark and turbulent waters.
Pub Date: March 1st, 1979
Publisher: T.Y. Crowell
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1979


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