Norman Spinrad,
The Druid King
(Little Brown, 2003)

Norman Spinrad is better known for his prolific science-fiction novels such as The Solarians, Greenhouse Summer, Deus X, Journal of the Plague Years and The Iron Dream, but with The Druid King, he delves deep into the realm of historical fiction.

This novel is purely historic in nature, except for a few artistic interpretations of rather vague factoids. In 54 B.C.E., the Roman military led by the flamboyant but wise Julius Caesar plunges across the Alps and deep into Gaul. The druids looked to one man to unite the tribes and save their way of life: Vercingetorix.

Vercingetorix was an Arvernian prince and the son of Celtillus, who was put to death by his fellow Celtic tribesmen for attempting to reinstate kingship in Gaul. (He, of course, wanted the crown.) Ironically, Vercingetorix had served in Caesar's armies as a youth, as part of the Gallic contingent sent there to show loyalty of the tribes. Vercingetorix served his time in Rome's army, then returned to take over the rulership of his tribe. He proved that he learned much from Rome. He had become a well-known, respected leader and warrior.

While unrest simmered in Rome, Caesar attempted to conquer Britannia. With Caesar occupied, the various Celtic tribes on the mainland, led by the Carnutes, rebelled. The druids gathered and declared Vercingetorix King of the united Gaul tribes -- a move that did not sit well with Caesar, who abandoned Britannia and focused his sights on Gaul. He returned to the mainland with the might of Rome to crush the rebellion and capture the new king.

In The Druid King, Spinrad captured the intensity and struggle of a people desperate to hold on to a fading way of life. He effectively demonstrates the very complex Celtic social structure and the role of the druid within Celtic society. He also successfully captured the tragedy and pain of the failure of Vercingetorix to stop Rome, which signals the subsequent demise of Celtic Europe. One of the more interesting and little-known aspects of this time period that Spinrad delves into is the involvement of the Germanic Teutons in the eventual fall of the Celts. If it were not for Caesar bribing them to assist in the attack on the Gauls, things may have turned out differently.

This is a marvelous historical novel for anyone fascinated by ancient European, Celtic or Roman history. There are elements of romance, intrigue and betrayal throughout. Spinrad paints such a vivid portrait of this time period that you do not need to be a student of ancient European history to understand and enjoy the book. This may very well be his best novel to date -- and is one of the better historical novels out there today. The Druid King holds up against comparison to the historical novels of such writers as Stephen Lawhead and Bernard Cornwell.

The only problem I found, from a purely historical perspective, is the cover art. It depicts Vercingetorix riding before the Roman legions with what certainly looks like a Braveheart-style Scottish Highlander longsword. Sword designs of this nature did not appear in history until around 1225 C.E. or so, more than 1,200 years after Vercingetorix was taken to Rome and beheaded. I guess the marketing moguls decided to attempt a tie-in to Braveheart, which is not necessary. The story of Vercingetorix is a dramatic one that stands on its own.

Note: The Druid King was made into the feature film Druids (originally titled Vercingetorix, la Legende du Druide Roi in France) starring Christopher Lambert. Spinrad co-wrote the screenplay.

- Rambles
written by Michael Lohr
published 18 September 2004

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