Review of The Ruin by John Sawney

The Ruin by John SawneyThe Ruin by John Sawney

Reviewed by Séamus Sweeney

  • Paperback: 358 pages
  • Publisher: Fireship Press (25 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1611792576
  • ISBN-13: 978-1611792577

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The exact date of transition between Roman Britain and post-Roman Britain has proven controversial, as different levels of disengagement occurred at different times in different places, and the documentary evidence that exists is open to interpretation. This uncertainty is reflected in the post-Roman period, replete with characters who inhabit the shadowlands between legend or history; Vortigern, Amborisius Aurelianus, Hengist and Horsa, these are typical figures of the time. Even the spellings of their names vary wildly, symbolising their uncertain status and the different cultures that praised or damned them. This morass for the academic historian has always been fertile ground for the mythmaker and the novelist; this is the time of the Arthurian mythos, and it is also one which allows the historical novelist a certain leeway.

John Sawney’s The Ruin is an exciting, accessible tale of fifth century Britannia. He has chosen as his protagonist Eiteol, newly installed magistrate of Glevon,  a gigantic illiterate whose sole qualification for the post is that his father held the position. Eiteol is supposed to be a mere adornment, a figurehead for the real power held by his bishop brother. Eiteol’s cluelessness and lack of knowledge about high politics are clever devices for Sawney to engage the reader in this world.

One of Eiteol’s new duties – in fact the only one even a little more than ceremonial, and that not much – is to attend the Consilium in Lundenium, presided over by the dictator Vertigern, who adopts the Consilium as a threadbare cloak of Romanish legitimacy. At this he, along with the reader, learns a little more about the political background, and we are also introduced to the bloody violence of the time, with a Jutish thane and the bodyguards who had accompanied him butchered over a misunderstanding. This sets the tone of a work in which a gritty, visceral violence is never far away.

Eiteol – and some other consiliars – accompany Vertigern to a secret meeting with the Jutes, led by Vertigern’s father-in-law Hengest. Nearly all the consiliars are massacred, except for Eiteol and Vertigern himself. The illiterate, self-deprecating, consistently mocked and underestimated Eiteol rescues the dictator, and they embark on a desperate journey of survival through a land racked by violent upheaval and religious factionalism.

At its best, John Sawney’s novel reminded me of the work of Alfred Duggan, particularly Winter Quarters. This is not history-from-below, but history from a few steps below the top. The befuddled main character allows both a subtle vehicle for explication (and a convincing one, for at any time in history how many of the population have been intimately fascinated with high politics?) and a distancing from the strangeness and savagery of the action. We can see ourselves like  Eiteol, simultaneously unaware of the tides of power politics and savagely at their mercy.

Sawney’s book  wears its research lightly, but the depiction of post Roman Britannia is all the more convincing. Of course, in such an undocumented period, with some main characters who may or may not have actually existed, there is a lot of leeway. However the focus is rightfully on plot and characterisation. Towards the end, there is a sudden outburst of explication which seems out of place (perhaps better left to an Afterword)

Characterisation is almost always impressive. Eiteol is a likeable, imperfect character that allows the reader some empathy at least with a time twenty-first century readers of liberal sympathies may not find all that empathetic. One of the recurrent themes is Vertigern’s strange charisma; Eiteol knows full well that Vertigern is a monstrous, murderous figure, and occasionally considers abandoning him, but keeps on. Vertigern reminded me at times of Giles Smith’s portrait of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland – undoubtedly vicious, but at the start at least with enough strange charm to keep the protagonist engaged despite their better judgement.

While no character is unambiguously good,  Bishop Germanus, who represents the authority of the Roman Church, is an outright psychopath, nakedly using his religious authority for political ends. While for some readers this may chime exactly with what they think of religion, this felt to me a somewhat anachronistic approach with our contemporary views projected onto the past. Occasionally this motif grated slightly, and there was the aforementioned explosion of exposition later in the book, but overall  The Ruin is a highly enjoyable story which engages the reader from beginning to end.

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