Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Forest House (1993)
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Genre: Fantasy (Historical)
Eilan has always dreamed of little else but to take the sacred vows to the Goddess and join the sisterhood of mysterious blue-robed priestesses that live behind the walls of the Forest House. Gaius, half Briton and half Roman, is determined to reach the upper ranks of the Roman army, with or without the aid of his well-connected father. Tensions are already high between the native savages and the conquering Romans in Britannia, and it is fortunate that Gaius is dressed as a Briton when Eilan's Druidic family takes him in after a grave accident. As Eilan nurses Gaius back to health, he reconnects to his British heritage and their feelings for each other grow. Eilan and Gaius pledge their love to each other at the festival of Beltane, with plans for Gaius to ask for Eilan's hand once he is secured in a more stable post within the Roman army. Both families forbid such a disastrous marriage, and after years of misinformation and military conflicts, Eilan, now a priestess apprenticed to the High Priestess, and Gaius, a rising star in the Roman army, reunite at the fourth anniversary of their first festival of Beltane. Nine months later, a son Gawen is born. SPOILER: Will Eilan and Gaius be able to forsake their callings, renounce their families, and turn their backs on their peoples in order to be together as a family? Or, amid the clarion call of war, will Eilan and Gaius decide that the best thing to unite Britannia will be to raise a son who can claim a Senator and the High Priestess as parents, bridging the two worlds of Romans and Britons?
Geographical Setting: Britannia (Britain), Roman Empire
Time Period: Roman invasion of Britain, 1st century
Series: Written second in the series Avalon, but a prequel to the Mists of Avalon
Although somewhat intimidating in its scope (needing a five page list of characters and places in the front matter), Bradley's world of Britannia is enthralling,vivid, and compelling once immersed. The level of detail involved, even in the most trivial of scenes, is exceptional and serves to help the reader visualize everything the characters are going through. A strong appeal element for some readers will be the strong female characters in the story; the cast of characters is comprised mainly of women, and all of them are powerful and self-possessed. The characters themselves, particularly Eilan and Gaius, are drawn sympathetically but complexly, with much space devoted to their inner thoughts; even the moderate and minor characters are fully realized and dynamic. As the book seems to alternate between Eilan's life and Gaius' life, some of these chapters may drag depending on the reader's tastes; for example, there are a few chapters solely devoted to military skirmishes. However, the moderate pacing of the story is necessary to fill out the story, and readers will not be bored with the intricate and multiple storylines; Bradley's literary style and poetic descriptions also serve to quicken the pace and lighten the tone of the story.
Read-alikes: Readers will certainly enjoy the rest of the Avalon series, which, in terms of time period, follow with The Lady of Avalon and the tremendously popular The Mists of Avalon, which tells the Arthurian legend from a woman's point of view. Readers interested in learning more about the legendary warrior queen Boudica, referred to in The Forest House, will appreciate Manda Scott's Dreaming the Eagle, which details Boudica's life before she became a legend by leading her people against the invading Romans. Dreaming the Eagle is the first in the series Boudica, and the most popular of the series. For a somewhat more contemporary tale of a strong woman in Ireland, try Morgan Llywelyn's Grania:She-King of the Irish Seas, which tells the tale of Grania, a female pirate in the age of Elizabeth I. Readers who enjoyed the themes of sisterhood the focus on strong female characters in The Forest House should enjoy Juliet Marillier's Daughter of the Forest, the first of her Sevenwaters trilogy; this novel follows a young woman who must free her seven brothers from a spell cast by their evil stepmother during the time of the 10th century. Readers looking for more historical fantasy, specifically that dealing with Arthurian legend, will love Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, which begins the four-part Arthurian Saga Series. Although focusing more on the historical than the magical aspects of the story, The Crystal Cave follows a young Merlin into adulthood, while the subsequent books focus on a young Arthur, Arthur as king, and his downfall.
Red Flags: Some sexual themes, war imagery
Lady of Avalon (1997)
Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley
Genre: Fantasy (Historical)
In the 1st-5th centuries, when Christianity is still coming into its own, Avalon coexists in the earthly realm of Britannia. Caillean, the Lady of Avalon, brings her deceased sister's son Gawen to Avalon for training as a Druid and also makes an agreement with the Faerie Queen to train her daughter Sienna as a Priestess while the Faerie Queen trains Gawen in the ways of the Faerie world. Gawen spends a time with the Christians, and when the time comes for him to take his vows as a Druid, he is torn between the two faiths. He instead makes his way to Rome to find his biological father and enlists in the military. But he misses Sienna and Avalon too much, and before he can vow to be true to Rome, he flees back to Avalon to take his vows as a Druid, fulfilling prophecy by becoming the Pendragon, and takes Sienna for his Queen. SPOILER: But the Romans come looking for Gawen, and while he battles them on his land, the Christians attempt to destroy the sacred area of Avalon. Although Gawen is killed, Sienna is pregnant with his child, and in order to keep Avalon safe from warfare, Caillean moves the land to exist between the Faerie world and Britannia, hidden by mists. Several generations later, Dierna is now the Lady of Avalon, and through a vision sees the savior of Avalon, reincarnated as Carausius, a Roman warrior. She meddles with the earthly world to help him know his destiny, and uses the young priestess Teleri as a pawn in order to keep him connected with Avalon. But it is Dierna who must bear his child, and Teleri instead falls in love with Carausius' accountant Allectus, who kills Carausius. Dierna puts a curse on Allectus, and although he is suffers his own death, Dierna swears to stop meddling in the earthly world. After many more generations, Ana has become the Lady of Avalon, and after two of her daughters die, she sends for her third daughter, Viviane, who she had cast out of Avalon several years before. While Viviane reluctantly agrees to train as an Avalon priestess, she and her mother are too much alike to get along. But Viviane has learned that she herself is very powerful. Even without much training, she sees visions of Saxon armies gaining control of Britannia. She and Ana decide it is time to allow Avalon to meddle in the politics of Britannia once more, as they try to get the armies of Britannia to settle their differences so that they can defeat the Saxons together. With the help of Taliesin, a powerful Druid, Viviane becomes one of the few priestesses to ever harness the power of the sacred Grail, even while Ana refuses to permit her to take vows until Ana gives birth to Igraine. However, in another attempt to unify Britannia, Viviane sacrifices her virginity to Prince Vortimer, who is killed in battle by the Saxons. Upon her return to Avalon, both she and her mother are pregnant, but while Viviane loses her child, Ana dies giving birth to Morgause. Viviane is the obvious choice for the next Lady of Avalon, but she refuses since it would require unification of the Lady and the Arch Druid Taliesin, whom she believed to be her father. Taliesin takes the dangerous but necessary initiative to call upon the power of the Merlin, which would require his death. But the spirit of the Merlin is not content to exist without a body, and so Taliesin lives not only as himself, but also as the Merlin. Viviane agrees to become Lady of Avalon with the Merlin by her side, with the hope that they can together find and train the King who will unite all of Britannia.
Geographical Setting: Avalon and Britannia
Time Period: 1st-5th centuries AD
Series: Avalon (book 3, prequel to The Mists of Avalon)
Although Bradley set up much of Avalon and Britannia in The Mists of Avalon, the stories in Lady of Avalon actually take place beforehand, and Bradley spends the first third of the book describing Avalon as it was before it was closed off in mists, and Britannia before Christianity had really taken hold. Because there are actually three stories told within the context of one novel, Bradley must introduce the reader to the changes that have taken place over time at the beginning of each new tale. The book moves slowly, focusing much more on characters than on action. Bradley even introduces a puzzle aspect, asking the reader to try to determine which new character is the reincarnate from the first tale. This novel focuses partly on Goddess worship, giving preference to the female point of view, and as with The Mists of Avalon, has a feminist tone. However, she does not degrade men but instead acknowledges the importance of their roles in Avalon and Britannia. Avalon and Britannia are equally important settings, the politics of each affecting the other. Bradley puts a great deal of emphasis on rituals among the Priestesses and Druids in early British history, and the concept of ritual itself could be considered a character element. Although she does occasionally introduce humor and romance, Bradley instead instills a mood that varies from being bright, hopeful and positive to being sad and depressing, only to come back to hope again.
Lady of Avalon is actually a prequel, and readers who are new to the Avalon series should read Bradley's book that started it all, The Mists of Avalon. In this four part novel, Bradley retells the Arthurian story through the eyes of his pagan half-sister Morgaine and his Christian wife Guinevere. Bradley acctually collaborated with Diane L. Paxson on much of the Avalon series. Readers who really like the Bradley's feminist tone to the Arthurian legend might like to try The White Raven, also by Paxson. This is a retelling of the Tristan and Iseult story, another part of the Arthurian legend, from a female cousin's point of view. However, Lady of Avalon also combines Christian history with Celtic legend and Druid lore. Readers interested more in this combination might like to read I Am of Irelaunde: A Novel of Patrick and Osian by Juilene Osborne-McKnight, a retelling of the story of Saint Patrick and his encounter with Osian, who introduces him to the world of Druids and fairies, testing his faith. Although the history of Avalon is the forefront of Bradley's novel, romance is an essential part of making the world believable. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, a romantic retelling of the Celtic "swans" myth about the sister of six brothers turned into swans, who must weave magical shirts to break the spell. Reincarnation and generational impact is also an integral part of Lady of Avalon. Although taking place in Greece instead of Britain, readers who like the generational impact in historical settings might like to try the Troy Game series by Sara Douglass. Start with Hades' Daughter, the first in the series about the Mistress of the Labyrinth who is scorned in Troy only to have her long-descended granddaughter many generations later cause havoc in revenge.
Red Flags: Christianity is not portrayed kindly, and there are strong sequences of magic, sexual rituals, and descriptive battle scenes.