South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon
by G.J. Berger
While fond of historical fiction, the Roman era is one I’m not typically drawn to, a concern pushed to the side by the blurb for G.J. Berger’s South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, and I decided to take the plunge. With each page I found myself drawn all the more to the adolescent Lavena’s triumphs and struggles in a transitional era that would test every bit of her enthusiasm, training and even question her survival.
Set in Iberia in between the second and third Punic wars, South of Burnt Rocks opens in an era when Rome is attempting to recover resources following Carthaginian assaults that occurred simultaneous to the first of the Macedonian wars. The Village on the Cliff, populated by Iberian Celts, holds a treaty with the Roman praetor Piso, whereby the tribe lives under a levied peace. However, he is recalled to the capital and replaced by a more forceful magistrate who revokes the treaty and plans to resume the monstrous Roman sweep of barbari lands in search of ever more loot: young slaves and their plentiful precious metals.
It is in this setting we meet Lavena, who opens the novel when, as an eleven-year-old future warrior woman, she witnesses a superfluous and ghastly murder committed by a Roman soldier. In short order we bear witness to the truism of various political opinion when Piso’s governorship is discussed amongst a gathering of tribal elders, including her father Sinorix, their leader.
Her father shook his head and grinned. “Piso won’t even let us raid the other tribes for practice like we did before the treaty.”
One of the other old men said, “That’s why we made our treaties…Piso helps us all live in peace, respects us, has for a long time….”
Her father said, “His men show us less respect than they show their dogs. Roman praetors always leave after they’ve taken what they want from us.”
The narrative moves forward in large part through Lavena’s point of view and as such, readers won’t find Berger lacing the novel with names of historical battles, sieges or dates, as the girl would not likely have referenced them in the way history later would. As readers, we rely on what she knows and learns, and Berger presents this in an engaging and gripping manner that holds us close to their thought processes as well as ensuing action, and provides hints as to some of the tribe’s contact with others.
No river could be longer or wider than her river. Alexandros said the mountains were named after the Greek god, Pyrene. Lavena did not believe that either. Everyone she knew called them Burnt Rocks and that’s how they looked from a distance.
Sinorix contemplates a transition that gives us further insight into what they know of their history.
“Maybe we’ll cross the Burnt Rocks, maybe we’ll go west of the moon and across the big water to the land we came from, to our brothers and sisters in the cold country.”
Lavena prepares, knowing the newer Roman army will soon advance, and she is anxious to prove herself up to the task of helping defeat them. We witness, too, her move into adulthood and become familiar with the role women play in this society, a larger and more central place than Roman women maintain in theirs. It is easy to admire their cunning, will and courage, especially when even at a 2,000 year remove, Berger truly brings home to us just how ruthless and cruel their aggressors are willing to be. His portrayal of the Keltoi brings them to life in such a manner that we seem to be at their side, smarting at the setbacks they suffer, mourning their losses, encouraging their gains.
Also admirable are the differences Berger is able to overcome when telling Lavena’s tale. Much has been made of male authors speaking for female characters (and vice versa); add to this a grownup taking on the voice of an adolescent and as mentioned, that of an individual who would have lived over two millennia before. Combined with the dialogue and relating of events as they occur, readers might wonder that perhaps Berger recorded Lavena’s story as she herself related it to him. We become so engaged in the life of her tribe when they are at peace as well as when the battering rams begin to do their work, that there is no question of whether we will follow her, in the wake of her people’s destruction, as she escapes and seeks to engage other tribes to form a defensive consortium.
Berger also gives us an insider’s view to a Roman legion in the form of Marcus, who is tasked with locating a missing scouting group that includes his own brother. We see the decay up close, as well as the corruption of power, though from the perspective of one not in a position to make any high-level changes. The third-person narration transitions occur smoothly and as Marcus and Lavena’s paths grow closer together, the thrill is palpable as Berger’s expert ability to keep us at rapt attention merges with the alternating views of each character. Depending on events as they occur, we may agree or disagree, admire or despise, feel disgust or sympathy for Marcus, as his creator shows us the many sides to even a Roman soldier. The path he winds through the story leads to an ending that surprised me a bit, and the contemplations I had of Marcus pointed again to the author’s caveat that even Romans aren’t all exactly who we think they were.
While Lavena’s objectives take her often frighteningly close to the army as their campaign carries them through Iberia, she also remains true to her spiritual legacy, and Berger magnificently portrays her communion with nature and the departed to whom she speaks, often asking for guidance. Her progression is fast paced and the detail examined from her eyes—surroundings, perceptive recognition of others’ responses to her and events, clues as to the presence of outsiders, for example—is multiple layered without being weighty. Berger has crafted his narrative to near perfection: not a single word is wasted and the world that was, is brought to life for us to witness. The sounds, sights, smells and sense of Roman Spain as well as the events carrying Lavena through the story are so present that we feel as if we are there with her.
South of Burnt Rocks is an extremely satisfying read, one that engages the audience, stirring us to probe further into an era many of us remember only in bits from school-age history classes. To that end, the author’s notes succinctly fill in many gaps and it is evident the research done for the novel is extensive and painstakingly thorough. Our view to history is a bit more privileged than that of Lavena, who learns she must come to grips with her own family’s role in that succession and what it means for her, as well as for those who come to know of her courageous stand against tyranny.
A copy of South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.
In north central Spain outside the town of Soria sits an archeological dig being restored by the government. The site is the ancient city of Numancia. It was the place of the last stand by the locals against the Roman invaders. By then Lavena would have been an old woman, and Numancia might make for my third novel in a trilogy. At that site I visited reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo I’m looking at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.
When G. J. was eight, his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.
G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea, often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along. The result is this and two other novels-to-be wherein the places, the history, even some of the Burnt Rocks characters do and did exist.
When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.
G. J. lives in San Diego with his favorite grammarian and English professor. They visit their two sons and grandson as often as the kids will have them.