San Francisco writer Donna Gillespie has come up with a stirring scenario for her debut historical novel THE LIGHT BEARER.
She distills the conflict between "civilized" Rome in the first century A.D. and the pagan "barbarian" tribes crowding its borders into the life of a Germanic warrior woman with a foot in both cultures. Fighting for the survival of her people against the invading Romans, Gillespie's heroine becomes, at various times, tribal "battle maiden", and holy woman, a gladiator in the Colosseum of Rome, and a player in a secret plot against a tyrannical emperor. Gillespie's grasp of the daily social, religious and political lives of Germanic tribes and urban Romans alike, and her understanding of the way human deeds are woven by time into myth, keep THE LIGHT BEARER rooted in historical plausibility.
Gillespie's heroine, Auriane, is certainly the stuff from which legends are made. Daughter of Baldemar, the beloved warrior chieftain of the Chattian tribe, Auriane is named for the AURR, the "sacred earth" of her homeland. It is prophesied at her birth that she will save her people, but that she will also kill her own father. The shame of this prophecy drives Auriane to forgo the domestic pleasures of hearth and home to fight alongside Baldemar and his warriors in their endless campaigns against the encroaching Roman legions.
Auriane learns the principles of swordfighting, Roman military strategy, and the rudiments of Latin speech from the cynical Roman, Decius, a captured legionnaire who is now a thrall (tenant farmer) on her father's property.
When Baldemar dies, in part through the treachery of a rival chieftain, Auriane dedicates her life to seeking vengeance against her father's murderer, the only way to cleanse her people of despair and dishonor. It's a vow she is destined to pursue even after she is captured by the Romans and sold as a slave into a gladiatorial school in Rome.
In contrast to the pagan mysticism of the Germania scenes is the parallel story of a young Roman, Marcus Arrius Julianus. Abducted and enslaved as a boy, then reclaimed by his aristocratic father, Marcus is a philosopher destined to be 'the bane of rulers', and a purveyor of banned books in the repressive age of Nero. It's clear the unlettered natural woman and the compassionate philosopher are destined for each other, despite their many differences.
Once the story shifts permanently to Rome, the narrative hits its stride,with Auriane struggling to survive her many gladiatorial combats while Marcus launches a dangerous, delicate plot to assassinate the despotic, unpredictable Emperor Domitian. Gillespie shows how Domitian uses games and superstar gladiators to mollify a hostile populace "allowed no hand in governing", whose religion has become "mummified."
Marcus tries to convince Auriane that her lust for tribal blood-vengeance is no more "sacred" than blood-lust in the arena. It takes Auriane a long time finally to decide between the feminine "world of the spirits" and the masculine "world of war".
But Gillespie keeps the reader engaged, whether portraying the hierarchy in the Roman gladiatorial schools or the pagan festivals of Eastre--complete with colored and hidden eggs, resurrections and cross symbolism--that will later be transformed into the Christian Easter. At its best, THE LIGHT BEARER taps into one of the most popular themes in historical fiction today, the unsung woman who takes a hand in the shaping of history.