Edition reviewed: Xlibris, 2000, 0-7388-3416-5
Lord of Silver is set in Roman Britain and its neighbouring kingdoms in 366/367, against the background of the 'Barbarian Conspiracy'. All the main characters are fictional. The name of the central character, Austalis, is recorded on a tile now in the Museum of London, but nothing is known of the individual concerned. Some historical figures appear as secondary characters, including the theologian Pelagius and the Roman army officer Magnus Maximus (later a rebel Emperor, known in later Welsh tradition as Macsen Wledig and a key part of the background to Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy.
Austalis is a young warrior of the British tribal kingdom of Gododdin, which bordered the Roman province of Britain at the east end of Hadrian's Wall. His father Notfried was a Frisian who served in the Roman Army, and Austalis is eager to see the great Empire his father told him so much about. Entering Roman Britain through one of the forts on Hadrian's Wall, he travels to the provincial capital Londinium (modern London), seeking variety, an education and a religion. Austalis finds Roman Britain exciting and cosmopolitan, full of strange and marvellous sights and people. Two of its exotic religions, Mithraism and Christianity, offer to accept him, and when the rich and beautiful Lady Marcella agrees to marry him it seems to Austalis that he has found all he desires. But his dreams are dashed at the last minute, leaving Austalis to plot a terrible revenge.
The great strength of Lord of Silver, for me, is its historical detail. Readers who are familiar with Roman Britain will be delighted to recognise names, sites and objects known from historical and archaeological records. Marcella's villa, now known as Lullingstone Roman Villa (more information and some links on Wikipedia), is lovingly described, as is the Temple of Mithras in London, Vercovicium fort on Hadrian's Wall (now known as Housesteads) and the Temple of Nodens at Lydney in Gloucestershire. I recognised the "Murder House" at Housesteads in the novel, and the mausoleum at Lullingstone - and I'm not an expert on Roman Britain. I expect there are a great many more that I didn't recognise. If you enjoy walking around ruins and trying to imagine how they worked in real life, Lord of Silver would be a great handbook to take with you. Another delightful feature of the novel was its use of isolated names from the archaeological record, people who aren't even a footnote in history. The main character himself, Austalis, is known only from a message written on a Roman roof tile. His father Notfried (Hnaudifridus), commander of an auxiliary troop, is known from an altar at Housesteads Roman fort. Senecianus and Silvianus are known from a curse tablet deposited at the Lydney temple, in which Silvianus curses Senecianus for the loss of a valuable ring. If the inscription on the silver Venus ring found at nearby Silchester, which reads "Senecianus, may you live in God" refers to the same Senecianus, this might even be the ring in question. Nothing further is known about these two individuals, the ring or the quarrel between them. In Lord of Silver, Alan Fisk gives them a fleeting life as minor characters.
As well as his travels in Roman Britain, Austalis journeys to the tribal kingdoms involved in the Barbarian Conspiracy, including his homeland of Gododdin, the lands of the mysterious Attacotti (here identified as the inhabitants of the Hebrides and speaking a language related to Basque), the Irish settlers in what is now Wales, and the Germanic kingdoms of continental Europe such as the Frisians, Saxons and Angli. These tribes and kingdoms are also carefully described, from their style of dress and buildings to their customs and social structures. As a result, Lord of Silver offers a detailed picture of life both inside and outside the Roman Empire in the late fourth century.
Although the romance between Austalis and Marcella, and its impact on Austalis' subsequent actions, drives the whole plot, the emotional portrayal is surprisingly low-key, leaving many gaps about the characters' feelings and motivations for the reader to fill in. Austalis describes Marcella as the only woman he ever loved, and I suppose the reader has to take his word for it, yet his actions seem to me to have at least as much to do with hurt pride. Marcella's side of the relationship is hardly shown at all. Similarly, the Barbarian Conspiracy itself is organised with astonishing, and to me rather unsatisfying, ease. And although Austalis is afraid that he is watched by Roman spies, the only ones he encounters seem to be on his side. I would have liked to see a little more excitement, action and danger, and a few more twists and turns in the plot.
The novel is written in straightforward modern English, with the occasional phrase in Latin or German to hint at the linguistic diversity of the Empire. A map would have been useful to follow Austalis' complicated journeys, especially outside Britain. The author includes a short but useful historical note acknowledging some of the historical sources behind the novel.
Detailed fictional survey of the religious and social landscape of late Roman Britain and its neighbouring tribal kingdoms.