Romans and Druids and Ghosts – oh my! Celtic Fire takes place in 117 A.D. Britannia. While the south of England is settled, the Roman conquerors are still fighting the blue-faced Celts along what would later become Hadrian’s Wall. Against this backdrop Joy Nash weaves a seemingly impossible romance between a Roman commander and a Celtic queen.
Lucius Aquila is a Roman commander in Assyria when he is visited by a specter in the shape his brother Aulus. The specter cannot speak, but is nonetheless quite eloquent in his urging of Lucius to go North, to Britannia where Aulus commands a frontier fort. Lucius later receives word that Aulus was killed just at the time the specter first appeared. He gets himself assigned as his brother’s temporary replacement, hoping to learn who killed Aulus, and to put his ghost to rest.
Aulus was killed by Madog, a Druid priest, in a ritual sacrifice. Though Rhiannon is queen of this tribe, she wields very little real power; Madog and Edmyg, the warrior to whom Rhiannon is promised, direct the fortunes of the tribe. She is a healer, and as Aulus lay dying, she felt his soul reach out and connect with hers; a connection which will also be felt with Lucius.
As Lucius nears his new command, his troops are attacked by the Celts. The Romans escape, in the process taking a wounded Rhiannon captive as slave. Not knowing who she is, but powerfully attracted to her beauty and fire, Lucius keeps her for himself, and they each come to learn that it is possible to love the enemy.
There are many interwoven relationships here, and all of them very well done. Rhiannon forms a bond with Marcus, Lucius’s estranged ten-year-old son, and proves the catalyst for a closer relationship between father and son. Owein, young brother to Rhiannon and a budding Seer, finds himself taken more fully under Madog’s influence without Rhiannon’s tempering presence, and his descent into the Druid’s dark magic is harrowing to read.
The relationship between Lucius and Aulus’s ghost is most interesting. Though he doesn’t speak and no one save Lucius sees him, Aulus is a strong presence in this book. Their exchanges are funny and touching and eventually wrenching. For, the closer Lucius gets to solving the murder, the more Aulus deteriorates. His “body” takes on the bruising and cuts and tattered clothing that preceded his death, until it breaks Lucius’s heart to even look upon him, and he becomes desperate to relieve Aulus’s spirit.
Lucius is a kind man, and a fair one. He doesn’t press his attentions upon Rhiannon, though he is powerfully drawn to her, rather waiting for her to accept him. Aulus disappears whenever Rhiannon is around, something Lucius uses to his advantage to keep track of Rhiannon, and as an escape from Aulus, who is his constant companion. He makes himself vulnerable to her, telling her of his brother’s ghost and his own pain.
Lucius is an altogether admirable character, but I didn’t like Rhiannon nearly as much. Even after she fell in love with Lucius, she didn’t tell him who she was, she didn’t tell him about his brother’s death, she didn’t tell him that she knew why Aulus’s spirit couldn’t rest, she didn’t tell him about the mutinous plot being hatched in his garrison – she didn’t tell him anything. I know she was torn between her love for her tribe and her love of Lucius, but I couldn’t help wishing that she could have brought herself to talk to Lucius a bit more.
Aside from the problems with Rhiannon, I enjoyed this book very much – much more than I expected to. Ms. Nash has some e-book writing credits to her name, but this is her first mainstream published novel. It is a promising debut. For those of you who are longing for a new setting and time period in your historical reading, I can recommend Celtic Fire. It is definitely not the same ol’ same ol’.