I met Tanya some years ago when we were both shortlisted for the Highland Book Award, and I have been a huge fan of her heroines ever since. Then I met Siki, a warrior in Apache. And later, Charley in Buffalo Soldier (which won the Carnegie Medal in 2015).
So it is no surprise to meet Cassia, “strong, tall, fierce”, the daughter of the slave of a Roman general, Titus Cornelius Festus, who lives in luxury just outside Londinium.
I asked Tanya for some wise words about Cassia. She says, “I remember coming across a little footnote in a history book about a number of infant burials at the site of a Roman villa in England and there seemed to be a suggestion that they were slave children, deliberately killed. “
Why is Cassia allowed to live when her sisters have been murdered on the day they were born? For no other reason than that her master is suffering from the effects of a sexual disease. When his son is born on the same day as Cassia, he has this thought. What if he keeps Cassia innocent and disease-free for his son and heir?
Unfortunately, the son is sickly and dies just before his fifteenth birthday. Titus decides to have Cassia for himself. Bathed, robed and bejewelled, Cassia is presented like a succulent dish for Lucius to feast upon. But it is she who takes the first bite - her master’s ear.
Then she runs for her life. She dare not even stop to collect her young brother, Rufus.
This is the magnificent opening to Beyond the Wall.
How will Cassia survive on the run in Roman occupied Britannia? How will she go back to free Rufus? Clever Cassia works out this problem swiftly. She has already met Marcus, a solitary and lonely Roman. Later, she seeks him out, saying, ‘I need a Roman.’
Who is this mysterious Marcus? Can Cassia trust him? Why does he offer to help Cassia? Does he know who she is?
As Cassia and Marcus escape to the lands unoccupied by the Romans north of Hadrian’s Wall, Cassia finds her true home. Marcus is yet to find his. Just as the reader feels the quest must end, another begins, one even more dangerous than the last. These events are set against a time called the Great Conspiracy (AD 367) when slaves rose against their Roman masters.
Beyond the Wall is told in the third person by a mysterious shaman, which adds another satisfying layer to the mystery. This shaman reminds us: “There are two players in this tale: Cassia and her Roman.” I love the last three words. They create huge intimacy with the reader. We know that Marcus and Cassia are important to each other. Now we have the chance to learn his story, to see life from a Roman point of view – and it is as compelling as Cassia’s. He, too, has been brutalised – “his soul fragmented” by his father, Primus. “Piece by piece, the boy was rebuilt in his father’s image... he was a true and perfect son of Rome by the time he met Cassia.”
In Britannia, Marcus sees his own people through fresh eyes. He is torn between family love and loathing. In this dizzying and daring journey together, Marcus and Cassia come to terms with their own lives and their love for each other against the background of an ugly Roman occupation – violent and visceral on every page.
A wonderful novel for older teens with a clever and mysterious conclusion.
Pauline Francis www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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