Review: The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie

[TW: rape, homphobia]

I finally finished this book, all 1011 pages of it, and now I’m going to tell you about it and put it aside so I can get to all the other books I’ve accumulated since I started reading it. (I swear, my books reproduce when I’m not watching them).

I first heard of this book via a review in a SageWoman issue for the sequel Lady of the Light. At the time I read the review, I was intrigued by the book, but I really wanted to read its predecessor, and at the time was a little suspicious of the Amazon Marketplace. Now I am still suspicious of the Amazon Marketplace, but I decided to take a chance and order this book for one cent plus shipping from a seller I’d purchased from before.

The Light Bearer is a historical fiction novel (and Donna Gillespie’s first novel) that tells the story of Auriane, the daughter of the famed chieftain Baldemar, leader of the Chattian people in Eastern Germany. We follow her life as she grows from child to fierce warrior who defends her people not only from other proud Germanic tribes, but from their Roman masters as well. Meanwhile, in Rome, Marcus Arrius Julianus finds himself suddenly thrust from live as a slave to life as a senator’s son (apparently the people his father left him with lost him) who is then forced to adapt to a life of politicking and intrigue.

The bulk of the novel follows these two characters as they kick ass and take names and philosophize respectively. The first part of the book mainly focuses on Auriane and fighting among the tribes, where we see her struggle with the notion that she has been “cursed” from birth, as well as her attempts to avoid joining the group of sorceress-priestesses and embrace the path of the warrior. Marcus, on the other hand, has to deal with Emperor Nero, powerful political enemies (I mean, besides the Emperor) and (eventually)  Emperor Domitian, you know, Roman politics, at least as deadly as war among the Germanic tribes.

Also, romance eventually ensues.

The best way I can describe this book is to describe it as Spartacus: Blood and Sand if the majority of the show was set in Thrace instead of Capua and Spartacus isn’t captured until about two thirds of the way into the series. Also, there’s far less T&A….and endearing characters.

Seriously, Spartacus: Blood and Sand revels in its sex and violence, has probably made students of Roman history cry, and is as hammy as fuck, but the characters do kind of grow on you (also Lucy Lawless is perfect).

Anyways, that is basically what reading this book is like, if that doesn’t sound very exciting, you probably won’t like this book.

To be fair, there are some epic moments and Auriane is a warrior who actually does warrior things, like kicking major ass, and Marcus is the sort of badass whose greatest weapon is his words, but I still found the book to be kind of slow and had a tendency to ramble on about things that didn’t advance the plot in any way, and for a book of this length, I need it to keep me engaged, I don’t need it to ramble.

There’s also a lot of repetition: Auriane is cursed, Auriane wants vengeance, Geisar is a scheming schemer,  everybody likes Marcus, Nero is a madman, Domitian is a paranoid child in a man’s body who just wants Marcus Arrius Julianus to tell him he’s awesome and he’s doing a good job. Yes, yes, book, we figured out all those things pages ago, you can stop now. I know this is a first novel and everything, but all this repetition gets really, really annoying really quickly, and might I remind you, this sucker is just over 1000 pages. Also, the book has this annoying habit of flipping to a minor character’s perspective for a brief moment before returning to one of the mains. (Usually the text is like “X thought Julianus was great.” At first, i liked the writing (despite all the philosophizing), but after a while the novelty wore off and I was just not that engaged.

I suppose the one thing I really didn’t like about this book (besides the pacing and the repetition) was that everything just seemed too….perfect, particularly on Marcus’ end. Marcus always seems to have a plan, Marcus always has things perfectly calculated so that people do what he wants when he wants them to do it. Even when Marcus’ plans go horribly awry, they still work out, I guess because Marcus is a main character and main characters have Plot Armor.

I also found it annoying how the Chattians constantly made references to “demons” (instead of, say, trolls or wights) and the Romans kept referring to Greek deities. The Chattian pantheon apparently only consists of Woden, Fria/Eastre (who is Frigga, Freyja and Ostara), Hel–sorry, I mean Helle–and occasionally Tiwaz. I can understand conflating Frigga and Freyja,  but Fria just winds up being a Great Goddess….and the rite of the “Blessed One” at Easter Eastre is a thinly disguised attempt at making the Heathen Chattians seem more Christian during what is supposed to be pre-Christian times. I’m left wondering just what kind of research Gillespie did for this novel (it was written in 1994).

As for potentially triggery things, we have rape (two “on screen” rapes, over with quickly) people accusing other people of doing inappropriate things to children, and a few homophobic remarks, although, let’s be honest, these things are par for the course for the time and place, and they weren’t gratuitous, I still found that they were more FOR THE DRAMA than anything, especially when Auriane seems to recover from it and it’s barely mentioned until close to the end of the novel (when her rapist taunts her about it). Some descriptions of female characters struck me as very creepy and male gaze-y, which is probably appropriate because they happen at times when the perspective shifts to a male character, but still, if this had been written by a male author, I’d definitely be side-eying the book.

Also the homophobia is actually kind of ironic (and in the end I’m not sure how much of it is meant to be attempting to be historically accurate and how much is it the author just being plain homophobic) because you could cut the sexual tension between Marcus and Domitian with a knife. Seriously, by the end of the book I had this feeling that if they just fucked each other hard a lot of people wouldn’t have had to die (Domitian even admits to being aroused by Marcus–although the latter is being tortured at the time).

I mean, it would be kind of fucked up, but also kind of hot.

Overall, there were parts of this book that were great, but I’m really strongly leaning towards a “meh” to a “dislike” and I’m not sure if I really want to go back for the sequel.


3 thoughts on “Review: The Light Bearer by Donna Gillespie

  1. Forgive me, but I must answer some of the assumptions you’ve made here.
    Your interpretation of my book’s Eastre rite — that this was some sort of stealth attempt to promote Christianity — is the exact opposite of what I intended. What you call “veiled Christianity” was in fact my attempt to show that a festival Christians hold dear was shamelessly pilfered from pagan practice–my attempt to bring to light that the originators of these rites were never properly acknowledged, later persecuted, and buried from memory. My intention was to revive the truth in the same way others have tried to do so when they point out that Christian myth was lifted whole from the rites of Mithras, Dionysos, Isis and others. I intended to show the Christian religion should no way should be considered a “special” religion unrelated — and superior — to all others. This has always been a cause of mine, so it was upsetting to read your take of it here, prompting me to write.

    You mentioned “demons” and the spelling of Helle. Good catch. I’m still learning. In the 22 years since I wrote that book my understanding of northern paganism has grown. In latest edition of this book the demons are gone and Helle is spelled Hel, along with many other changes made in light of research carried out after that book was finished. Unfortunately there are so many copies out there already… I dearly wish I could correct these errors in every copy.

    Lastly, your assumptions concerning my personal beliefs about sexuality are just flat-out wrong. I’ll say no more. You did mention that you thought maybe I meant to reflect the times. That’s where you got it right.

    Sorry to intrude but some things must be answered.

    1. In light of this comment and the one below, I feel I should address how I review books and where I was going when I wrote this.

      I bought this book from the Amazon Marketplace, it wasn’t that the other edition wasn’t available, I just wasn’t sure I would like it so I bought the cheaper one. I try to go into a review as “blind” as possible, unless there’s a lot of hype about the book or I’ve read the author before, and this was the case with this book. It makes it easier for me to record my impressions, I’m not going to say I’m completely unbiased, but I do try to at least be somewhat impartial and honest about how I feel about a book.

      Regarding the rite of Eastre, this is absolutely not the impression I came away with. I think this is probably due to the scholarship I have access to (where there really isn’t that much data on Eostre and Christians weren’t really in a position to pillage much of any festival before Rome became Christian) and the sources you likely had access to when you wrote your novel. If that was what you were attempting to do, then I’m afraid it was lost on me. Admittedly, it was unfair of me to judge this book by those standards, but TBH, now that you’ve stated your intent in writing that scene, it still isn’t that apparent to me from the text alone, and I do think that when a reader comes to the exact opposite conclusion that the writer did when reading a scene, there’s a problem, and I don’t think that problem is because (to use Anne Rice’s words) the reader is “interrogating the text from the wrong perspective”. Intent doesn’t really mean much if that’s not the impression that the reader gets from a scene.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts and opinions of Gillespie’s novel, and I respectfully submit that this “review” is absurd, unfair, and does a huge disservice to potential readers and to the author.

    I’ve read this beautifully written historical fiction and found it literary, rich, and highly complex. I found no repetition whatsoever. The storytelling is beautifully paced and intricately interwoven. As far as “dramatic tension” between her characters, what the author portrays between these characters is presented as a philosophical /psychological struggle, and it’s extremely well done.

    As for the picky-picky things on research — this is a novel, though historical, nevertheless fictional. The author could have concocted her own alternate mythology for the Germans and it would still work — as a novel. I’m extremely impressed with the author’s response to your posting, especially her honesty and grace in defending your accusation of her homophobia which is so unfounded and meanspirited.

    With all due respect to your own literary taste and perception, I found your comparison of her novel to Blood and Sand completely unfounded. It saddened me to see the work of someone dedicated to fine writing so slighted.

    That said, your taking the time to comment and post your comments on her novel, when undoubtedly barraged with tons of other reading material, is appreciated and duly noted by myself, and many other, I’m sure, Gillespie’s loyal readers and fans.

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