‘She bit clean through the mas­ter’s ear’

Emily Bearn ad­mires this tale of a feisty slave girl on the run in Ro­man Bri­tain

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

Fic­tion for young adults is now so dom­i­nated by nov­els set in the dystopian fu­ture that the past can feel over­looked. Thank good­ness for Tanya Land­man, then, whose books have gal­loped us through sev­eral cen­turies. The Goldsmith’s Daugh­ter was set dur­ing the Aztec civil­i­sa­tion of South Amer­ica; Buf­falo Sol­dier (win­ner of the 2015 Carnegie Medal) took place in the af­ter­math of the Amer­i­can Civil War; Hell and High Water was about a pup­pet showman in 18th-cen­tury Devon.

Her lat­est, Be­yond the Wall, takes us to Ro­man Bri­tain and the story of Cas­sia, a slave girl in the house­hold of a las­civ­i­ous Ro­man, Ti­tus Cor­nelius Fes­tus. Cas­sia is raised to be a con­cu­bine for Ti­tus’s sickly son Lu­cius but she has other plans. When Ti­tus tries to rape her, she shows her in­de­pen­dent streak: “The mas­ter’s blow sent a wild wolfish rage cours­ing through her veins… the lower half of his ear was sev­ered from his head. She had bit­ten clean through it.” She then flees

north, be­yond Hadrian’s Wall, fall­ing on the mercy of a Ro­man herb trader. All the while, she is pro­pelled by fear of Ti­tus’s ret­ri­bu­tion: “She had seen slaves burned with fire­brands, their skin bub­bling like a roasted boar.”

Land­man says that the story was in­spired by her re­search into the Great Con­spir­acy of AD367, dur­ing which slaves in Ro­man Bri­tain rose against their mas­ters. But her skill is that of the nov­el­ist, rather than the his­to­rian. As with Rose­mary Sut­cliff ’s clas­sic chil­dren’s novel The Ea­gle of the Ninth, Land­man is par­tic­u­larly good on the do­mes­tic nitty-gritty of Ro­man Bri­tain. Dates and time­lines are swiftly dis­pensed (“This was Bri­tan­nia… occupied by en­emy forces these last 300 years”) but, when it comes to the hue of a mo­saic or what’s in a cook­ing pot, her eye never blinks and the pace of her story never slack­ens.

“I have played fast and loose with strict his­tor­i­cal ac­cu­racy,” she ex­plains in an af­ter­word. And, like any of the best his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists, she gets away with it.

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