Roma Mater is an... odd novel.  Like Emperor and in the same vein as The Sarantine Mosaic, this is a novel about a lesser known period of Roman history, the mid 4th century CE.  Unlike those, this spends much of its time in the fictional, fantastical created elements of its world, rather than the real and historical aspects; the Andersons seem to want to use the history as a way to work around much of the world-building, or perhaps to give us familiar points of reference (Caesar, for instance) that we can hang the fictional, Anderson-created elements of the novel on.

Roma Mater starts strongly, and gets progressively weaker as characterisations get fuzzy, plot disintegrates, external elements disappear from the scene and increasingly the novel becomes about Ys and her relationship with her gods.  The plot of the novel starts as Gratillonius' mission to Ys, to bring them on side for Magnus Maximus' (temporarily successful) bid for a role as Augustus of the West launched from Britain; but over the course of the novel we see his loyalty to Rome essentially vanish (whilst there are flimsy justifications of some of his actions as Rome-centric, his strongest actions on Maximus' behalf is in fact completely off-stage.  The other plot, of the religious conflict - between Mithras, the traditional trinity of Ys' pagan deities, and Christendom - and the mysticism underlying it, is equally strangely handled; we alternate between Ys' traditional deities fading and dying, and being resurgent and angry, or simply taking over everything, completely extant (which never seems to actually affect Gratillonius' beliefs in Mithras, oddly).  Both plots manage to work at odds with each other in that regard; not waxing and waning in concord, but just seeming to be confusingly attempting to bring the two parts together. There's also a very brief Irish plot - Niall maqq Echach attempts to raid Gaul, Gratillonius uses the magic of Ys to prevent it, Niall survives though his son dies, and then... Niall curses Gratillonius and vanishes completely.

The characters are equally uninteresting, with one possible exception.  Roma Mater has a set of characters who each have one characteristic; they're differentiated well, but they're still very two-dimensional, and this is especially problematic with the Nine, who are supposed to be intelligent, powerful and independent women and yet those we see most seem to be perfectly happy to defer to Gratillonius and think that he is far more wise than them.  That Dahilis' one characteristic is being utterly in love with Gratillonius makes that even worse - the women are so focussed on Gratillonius, whereas he's got aims beyond the women despite his love for Dahilis, is deeply problematic.  Gratillonius himself does go some way to saving Roma Mater's characterisation - his conflicting ties to Ys and to Rome, to Dahilis and Magnus Maximus, and to Mithras and the deities of Ys are thoughtfully set out, and his crises of faith and life are interesting and bring him to life as a believable and interesting person.  He is definitely a military man, and his memories inform his present character, as do his fellows; indeed, he's a well-constructed person to hang the narrative on, but unfortunately not enough to save the plot.

Roma Mater's style, on the other hand, is typical Poul Anderson: utterly brilliant.  The sections with the Scotti (Irish) are written in the style of an ollam's saga; it creates a sense of mythology, and of the strange, deity-infused world that the Andersons wants to create.  It's a lyrical, beautiful and powerful piece of writing, and also works incredibly well as a contrast with the sections following Gratillonius; those sections are in a drier, simpler and starker style.  Less related to the character and more straightforward, this style mainly serves to contrast the Ysan and Scotti sections, but they certainly do serve that purpose.

Overall, then, Roma Mater is a weak mess of a book for most of its length; the Scotti sections and character of Gratillonius do a lot to rescue the novel, but overall the Andersons really haven't risen to the heights Poul has achieved in the past with this novel.
Anderon clearly knows how to tell a good saga, and that's what this novel is - not a good story, but a good saga.  It isn't typical historical fantasy (or really historical fantasy at all...?) though there are superficial similarities (hey! Vikings!); it is, rather, a tale of Norse mythology in a style akin to that which they, themselves, might've used (orality and all) - though perhaps Anderson uses less poetic metaphor, and uses prose rather than metrical verse.

That isn't, of course, to say that there's no poetry in the book; nor vividness; rather, the prose carries the sense of poetry without having itself to be lines of metre, rather like the best translations of epic poetry (Beowulf, for instance).  He also uses the slightly archaic, stilted style that the better class of translation uses to remind the reader of the venerable age of what they have in front of them.  Anderson's understanding of the culture is pretty clear in his style; he uses metaphor sparingly but well, making them very vivid and choosing them wisely, and compound terms abound.  Anderson also uses the trick of skipping over bits of story whilst making reference to them, describing them as a different saga than that which he is telling - we get an outline, but only enough to whet the appetite of curiousity!

Anderson's characterisations are also excellent; despite being very stereotypically heroic-Norse, and (of course) tragically doomed, they're rounded figures with motivations and emotions that (whilst sometimes dramatically overblown) are very human in their nature and scope.  Equally, despite all being hewn from the same block of Norse stone, they're each individual and different characters with mannerisms and thoughts their own.

The plot is driven by both the actions of the characters themselves, and also the Norns - as with all Norse saga! Anderson handles the dual drives very well, making sure that the æsir and jötunn interfere indirectly and sparingly, in roundabout and subtle ways, despite the chessboard of the fates becoming more and more pronounced as the novel proceeds - although, of course, the motivations of the æsir is made clear only at the finish of the saga.  Thus a simple plot, drawing on multiple threads weaved together, creates a rich tapestry of events with a brutal, crushing crescendo (Viking death metal being, really, the only appropriate soundtrack to the climax...).

I really enjoyed the book, personally, and would recommend it especially to those who are interested in Norse mythology and history.

(Originally read 24/02/2010, reviewed on paper, now typed up)


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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