Susan Squires is a puzzler to try and shoebox. Her first novel was a grabber. Danegeld dealt with a period in Britain's history, generally ignored (last one I can recall was Johanna Lynsay in her Medieval Trilogy and that was a long time
ago!). It was grimly realistic, provoking - possibly too grim and too provoking for more timid readers. But there was a rare, fresh voice in the work that was so rich in history often sadly neglected in today's lighter romance market. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE fast paced, whimsical romances, but feel there is room - and need - for both styles. Variety is what keeps the market fresh. The trend is to get the history of out historicals for this slows the pace of the romance. I love romance, but I also love history, the pageantry, the drama, so Danegeld was something I was glad to see published. In her second, Sacrament, Squires gave us a thinking woman's vampire tale. Not dwelling on the vampire aspect of it, she provoked (I often wonder if provoke is not Squires middle name) you into looking at good and evil - not of the vampire, but of the desires of individuals, those acted upon and those repressed, and the choices those desire can drive one to make. Many bemoaned this was not a traditional (aka stereotypical) vampire tale, to which Squires quite blithely thanked you and agreed. Her third work, Body Electric, pushed the boundaries and was a brilliantly conceive bit of Michael Crichton techno thriller. Sometimes you might not like what Squires is doing in her books, but she never fails to provoke you.
All three works were of strong merit, well researched, and with interesting characters, even too a walk on the wild side...but she just missed bull's-eye.
Squires comes full circle, returning to that dark period in British History - and WOW - her fourth novel, Danelaw hits the target...in fact she blows it away. This is not a sequel to Danegeld, so do not buy it with that impression.
Danelaw stands on it on and it is Squires' best work. Rich in period lore of the British Isles and the Dane invaders during the period of Alfred, Squires delivers a powerful tale of Epona "Pony" the last of her kind, the woman who speaks to horses and lives below the great chalk horse on the Downs. She little knows she is a priestess to the Cult of Epona, the Scots Horse Goddess of War, but the fame of Epona was spread far and wide. Called 'Mare' (MAH-ray) by the Irish of Dalriada, she was the bringer of dreams good and bad. The English word nightmare is derived from her Irish name. The Goddess was even adopted by the conquering Romans whose cavalry called upon her to aid them before a charge. She was the only Celtic deity enshrined and worshipped in Rome, where they saw her as the Triple Goddess Eponae. To the Saxon Alfred, the man who would unite Britain after the Roman withdrawal, reclaim Danelaw (nearly a 1/3 of England) from the Danes, Epona was called Horsa, but whatever the name, he saw the power and potential of using Pony to achieve his destiny.
Her mother had taught Pony that she must bear a girl child to continue the line from the dawn of time, the keeper of the faith of Epona. Only, she warns Pony not to care for a man else he destroy her through her heart. Pony is a smart lass, though often naive, and sees her role a simple one...to fulfil her destiny to produce the next girl child to live under the chalk horse on the Downs, to continue the line. Though naive, she realised when Alfred appears on her doorstep that he means to use her, but in her shrewdness, she uses him. This is a fine man, a man to give her the girl child to continue the line, a man she will not care for so she will not die of a broken heart. Alfred beds her, getting his "seal" of approval from the Goddess Epona, with the intent of using that to rally the Saxons to push the Danes from Britain. When he leaves, Pony is secure her heart is safe.
Only, the Viking plunders come to Pony's door and Pony's finds there is more to fulfilling a prophecy than conceiving a child, for she is now the pawn of Valgar, the Dane leader. She expects horrid barbarians who would take her prison and try to steal her herd of magickal horses. Instead, she finds a man of wisdom, of fire, of strength. He is fair to the Saxons he conquerors, he is a man who would give his life to save a single man at the risk of losing a battle.
And he knows the way of the Horse.
Squires gives us a rousing Saga of one woman set on filling her destiny, caught between the clash of Saxon and Viking cultures in England and two equally determined men, each bent on making a kingdom in England. Her characters are vivid, well drawn, the research very impressive. I have dealt with history for decades, even wrote a triple essay on Epona being the mother-face of the triple goddess, linking her with Elphame and the Cailleach. Squires impressed me with her dealing with the period and the lore of Epona.
I simply could not put this book down. Squires, you did a magnificent job!!
Take a well-earned bow.
WISE Writers and Readers Book of the Month Selection 2003