With his historical novel, Centurion's Daughter, author and illustrator Justin Swanton takes the reader to the decline of Rome the great, and the rise of the Frankish Empire.
Seventeen-year-old Aemelia and her Frankish mother have lived in Reims all their lives. After her mother's death, Aemelia travels to Roman Gaul searching for her Roman father, Centurion Tarunculus, a man she has never seen and only knows through family lore. As Aemelia reaches Gaul, she sees a crowd making fun of a man giving a patriotic discourse about Rome's greatness. After inquiring about the whereabouts of Tarunculus, she is shocked to discover that the town's eccentric is, indeed, her father. Their first encounter is very heartbreaking to Aemelia because she is rejected by her only living relative. Since Taranculus has no knowledge of her, he thinks she is an impostor or a beggar and dismisses her. Despite this brusque first encounter, Aemelia finds herself a home and a family with him at Gaul.
The first two chapters were slow to my liking. However, the author cleverly used conversations between Aemelia, her father, and other characters to reveal crucial information about her life in Reims. After these get-to-know-me-better chapters, the reader will be totally engaged following Aemelia and her father through their daily routine in town.
It was interesting how the author created tension in the story by means of personality conflicts between Aemelia and her father. Aemelia is shy, prudent, obedient, and a devout Catholic. By contrast, her father is egocentric, dominant, bellicose, and agnostic; his only goal is restoring Rome's greatness. Their disparity in temperament will keep the reader captivated until the story's surprising end.
As the story unfolds, Aemelia's ability to speak, read, and write in Frankish and Latin is revealed to be a double-edged sword of critical importance. On the one hand, as news spreads that the Franks are about to attack Gaul, an ambitious member of the ruling class uses Aemelia's bilingual skills to arrange a secret meeting with Chlodovech, leader of the Salian Franks. The agreement they reach will have a pivotal effect on the Battle of Soissons, where Lord Syagrius is defeated, leading to the rise of the Franks over the Romans. On the other hand, once Gaul is conquered, Aemelia's ability will secure her family a steady income.
Because I do not have much experience reviewing historical novels, I found it extremely useful that the book included a glossary with brief explanations of the historical figures in the novel. It helped me to sort out the fictional and reality-inspired characters, as well as to verify the accuracy of facts mentioned in this page-turner of a story.
Including a foreign language in a book is challenging for an author since its use has to be limited so as not disrupt the narrative's momentum. Mr. Swanton skillfully utilizes the language only in those scenes were it is crucial to keep the story's authenticity. In those days, Latin was the language of the Church and the Roman Empire. Frankish was the dialect of the West Germanic tribes. Readers with a knowledge of Dutch or German will be able to fully understand it. Readers who cannot speak those languages will identify themselves with the Romans of Gaul who did not speak Frankish. If that was the intention of the author, kudos to him.
The story has all the elements of a great novel about Rome: betrayal, intrigue, clashes of the political and social classes and even a power struggle among the aristocracy, slavery, conquest, and an amazing battle. The few illustrations in the book help the reader to understand some crucial scenes. The elements of Catholicism depicted in the story offer a glimpse at the Church's importance during those times and its influence on politics and daily affairs. The author also mentions, through his characters' conversations, key saints whose diplomacy aided in the unification of the Germanic tribes and the beginning of a new era.
I highly recommend Centurion's Daughter to readers who fancy novels about ancient Rome.