John Henry Clay’s first novel is set in Roman Britain, in the run up to the ‘barbarian conspiracy’ of AD 367. The titular Lion and Lamb are the patrician heads of two rival families, although the narrative follows members of just one of those families and, in particular, a young brother and sister – Paul and Amanda – who, for most of the novel, are separated.
On the run from a terrible crime, Paul is effectively pressed into the Roman army and finds himself stationed, incognito, on Hadrian’s Wall. His sister, meanwhile, struggles to cope with a more glamorous cousin, a dying mother, and a suitor who belongs to the rival dynasty.
Clay certainly seems to know his stuff when it comes to Romano-British mores and the minutiae of the Roman military – as we might expect of a professional historian. The novel starts fairly haltingly, and the author’s habit of switching between Paul’s harsh life in the North and Amanda’s domestic problems in Gloucestershire feels at times as if it is impeding the thrust of the narrative. But things gradually shift into gear as the barbarian uprising gets underway, and then we are into a fluid, enjoyable and engrossing read.
An essence of Cornwell
There were moments when I thought I could sense the influence of Bernard Cornwell in the background. The Lion and the Lamb never quite achieves the dramatic verve and vitality of Cornwell at his best, but it is written in a clean, clear, readable style, and though the uneasy combination of historical epic and domestic melodrama doesn’t always gel, the smooth prose carries the reader along. And there are some wonderful quotations from ancient literature at the start of each chapter.
Most of the novel’s flaws are probably due to the fact that this is the author’s first. The book takes a while really to get going and the characters lack a certain depth, but these are the faults of inexperience, rather than ineptitude. The novel ends in such a way that a sequel or two seem inevitable. An immediate enemy attack has been defeated, the main characters are happily paired off, but the story as such is not over. Any sequel would be able to pick up more or less where The Lion and the Lamb left off, and would therefore be spared the long build up of the opening instalment.
The start of things to come
What you undoubtedly get from this novel is a fairly detailed vision of life in Roman Britain, with all its hierarchical obsessions, religious diversity and political infighting. By the end, I felt that Clay had begun to find his pace. I doubt very much that his first novel will be his last.