Manda Scott's "Boudica" series is nothing if not remarkably consistent. The third novel of a planned four-volume series, "Dreaming the Hound," possesses all the hallmarks of Scott's earlier novels, "Dreaming the Eagle" and "Dreaming the Bull." For the most part, this is a positive.
Scott has pulled off a magnificent achievement between her selection of a protagonist and her mastery of Roman-era Britain. We first met Breaca as a twelve-year old girl as she killed her first warrior. At the opening of "Hound," Breaca has grown into "the Boudica," the mightiest warrior of the varied Celtic tribes of England who is destined to lead the unified tribes against the legions of imperial Rome. Not much is exactly known about the Boudica, but Scott has created a fully three dimensional character whose emotions are even more powerful than her sword arm.
Scott has also recreated a mystical Britain where the local tribesmen live connected to spirits and ancestors the way the reader can only marvel at and the Romans can only fear. The Celtic warriors of Scott's imagination are tied tightly to dreams, and Dreamers are perhaps the most important figures of all -- even though the warriors get all the hatred and glory from Rome. It's not always easy to follow what is happening when the spirits get going in Scott's novels, but it's always interesting reading.
At the outset of "Hound," the Romans are firmly entrenched in the east of Britain, and the Celtic tribes control the west. But the Boudica must rally the remaining eastern tribes to her banner if she has any hope of kicking out the Romans, so she must journey into the wolves' den. Raising an army under Roman noses is a difficult task, particularly when Roman law prevents any tribesman from owning a blade more lethal than a butterknife. But the Boudica goes about it with her own brand of mysticism, daring, and determination.
Scott peppers "Hound" with several intriguing sub-plots, and the most interesting of these is the struggle for identity of the Boudica's brother Ban/Valerius, who was raised a Celt then spent years butchering Celts in Rome's service, and is now back with the islanders. Can he shed his Roman identity? Can he live with a foot in both camps?
As fans of Scott's earlier novels know, this is not a feel-good series. While there are occasional moments of levity, this is a rather heavy series -- deep emotions are felt deeply, horrific burdens are carried for years, and betrayal is the order of the day. Even positive emotions, such as the joy of redemption, are weighed down by soul-crippling guilt. Scott describes these emotions vividly, almost overly so, and there are many passages that will have you rubbing your forehead in sympathy with the characters.
The worst thing that can be said of Scott's "Dreaming" series is that the books are rather plodding. If you were the kind of reader who wishes Tolkien included a few more chapters about Tom Bombadil or went deeper into the dwarven genealogies, then you'll probably find Scott's books fast-paced thrillers. If, instead, you're more into Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden (and I suspect there are more of you than there are in the former camp), then you're likely to find the "Dreaming" novels slow going. Ultimately, I think they are worth the investment, as Scott writes very well . . . but it's also fair to say that these are not "lean and mean" novels, too.
Not for the squeamish ("Hound" culminates with a brutal torture of the Boudica and her family at the hands of a corrupt Roman -- one of the few historical events we actually know about, so there's no spoiler there), "Dreaming the Hound" is a wonderful exploration of pre-Roman Britain. Melancholy, dark, and sometimes downright scary (and occasionally more than a mite slow), but wonderful nevertheless.