Written by William Dietrich
Published by HarperCollins
Review by Joanna L. Oates
William Dietrich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, historian, naturalist, and historical novelist, and his latest book, Hadrian’s Wall, is set toward the end of the 1000 years of Roman reign. The Roman emperor Hadrian had a vast wall built across the Roman British empire to separate the civilized Romans from the uncivilized barbarians, the Celts, and when Dietrich’s story takes place, it is 300 years later and the Celts are ready to overthrow the Romans and remove the wall that divides their territory. This is a story of Roman civilization versus Celtic barbarism, but Dietrich notes that perhaps both cultures are equally civilized and barbaric.
A young aristocratic Roman woman, Valeria, leaves the comforts of Rome to join her intended, Marcus Flavius, as he takes charge of the troops near Hadrian’s Wall, a strategic area at the end of the Roman Empire that must constantly be under vigilant Roman guard lest the Celts decide to try to overthrow Roman rule. Valeria is an unusually modern-thinking woman for the 4th century C.E. She defies her own Roman culture in her need for excitement and adventure. She rides horses when women did not do so, and she is always scheming for herself or for those she cares about. She comes to realize that the soldier Galba has become embittered because Marcus displaced him as the head of the army, and she takes it upon herself to save her husband and her friends. Instead of saving them, she is captured by the Celts. When Valeria finds freedoms with the Celts she had never had as a Roman lady, she begins to wonder where her loyalties lay. She falls in love with the handsome, fearless chieftain Arden, and in the end, after a vicious battle between the Romans and the Celts, she finds that her loyalties lay where her heart is.
I was fascinated by Dietrich’s knowledge about this era of history. I learned much about the Roman Empire and how it was run by rulers from Rome who often knew nothing about the provinces they controlled. I found the Celtics to be a fascinating, mystical people connected to the earth and their surroundings and who did not seem to be lacking despite their crude technology. As a work of history, I thoroughly enjoyed Hadrian’s Wall, but I found the character Valeria similar to heroines found in Harlequin romances: young, beautiful, feisty to the point of being brash, yet that is exactly what the men find endearing about her. She seems to be a male fantasy because every male character in the story is in love with her, or at least wildly attracted to her. Valeria’s impetuousness does not seem true to historical fashion, however. No matter how wonderful Dietrich’s writing, I remain unconvinced that a woman of Valeria’s high social station would have conducted herself in such a display of impetuousness. Though women were strong then as women are strong now, Valeria’s strength comes from impatience, not intelligence. In fact, she often makes mistakes she would not have made if she had taken time to think things through. Dietrich seems to make apologies for Valeria because of her youth. The male characters are also mainly one-dimensional. Galba is the evil mastermind behind the war between the Romans and the Celts that finally erupts, Arden is the earthy hero. Marcus Flavius is perhaps the only sympathetic character in the novel. Marcus struggles with his place as the head of the army since he did not earn his position. He is unsure with himself, unsure about what is expected of him in that military world, unsure about his feelings for the wife he had only met once before marriage. He is the most multi-dimensional character in the novel.
William Dietrich’s talents show in his ability to bring details of Roman England to life for 21st century readers. For the fascinating study of a fascinating period in history I give the novel four quills. For characterization, particularly the characterization of Valeria, I give the novel two quills. All in all, I give Hadrian’s Wall three quills. For future novels, I would like to see Dietrich craft believable characters that add depth to his engrossing historical work, not detract from it.
Joanna L. Oates is a Master’s candidate in medieval European history at UCLA in Los Angeles, California. She has taught high school history for the past five years. She is an avid reader of historical fiction.