Reviewed by Amy Anderson
By L.A. Racines
Xulon Press, 2015 Softcover,
358 pages (including glossary and maps), $19.49
HUMAN MIGRATION is a hot topic right now. The international response to the Syrian refugee crisis has raised all kinds of questions, both in the Church and outside of it: with so many people driven from their homes and countries, where will they all go? Do those who are safe and secure have an obligation to help, even to share their own land and resources? And what happens when the needs of the displaced conflict with those of the settled residents into whose territory they flee?
L.A. Racines’ historical novel, A Shield in the Shadows, is a timely reminder that these questions are nothing new. Set in the 5th century BCE, the story revolves around Marius, a Roman officer, and Theona, a Gothic Christian whose village is destroyed by marauding Huns. As Marius and his troops prepare to defend their territories from the barbarian invasion led by Radagaisus the Goth, Theona and her father join that same invasion in the hope of finding a new home.
Theona quickly finds herself caught up in a difficult journey to an unknown end. As she wanders further and further from her homeland, she struggles with the conflict between her Christian faith and the pagan loyalties of the Gothic leaders, the suffering experienced and meted out by her fellow travellers, and the complications of romance in a world where bride-napping is a time-honoured means of betrothal. Her faith is tested as she comes to terms with her own vulnerability and learns that not everyone can be trusted. Unexpected betrayal leads to a chance encounter with Marius that has long-term consequences for her and her people.
A Shield in the Shadows provides a sympathetic portrayal of the struggles experienced on both sides of human migration. Radagaisus’ followers, numbering nearly 100,000, are not invading out of a simple lust for violence and destruction. Rather, troubles in their own lands have made them desperate enough to risk starvation, injury, and death in the attempt to find a safe place to settle. Many of them ultimately hope to shelter under the protection of the Roman empire, not destroy it. However, the Romans’ rejection and fear of the barbarian tribes become increasingly understandable as the invasion takes a nasty turn. Throughout the story, Racines refuses to oversimplify the realities of human migration, portraying with honestly and clarity the mixed motives behind the invasion and the terrible consequences of this historic encounter between cultures.
The greatest strength of A Shield in the Shadows is Racines’ commitment to historicity. Her careful research is evident as she recounts in compelling detail Radagaisus’ bold attempt to assault the seemingly unassailable Roman Empire and the Roman efforts to stave him off. She demonstrates deep awareness of the tensions within the Roman and barbarian cultures, bringing out not only Gothic/Roman and pagan/Christian conflicts, but also those between various barbarian tribes, the factions within the Roman Empire, and different branches of Christianity. The narrative frequently lingers on details of diet, dress, and architecture, carefully mapping Theona and Marius’ adventures onto the historical landscape and culture of ancient Gaul, Germania and Italy. This passion for historical detail brings the story alive, lending it an air of authenticity.
At times, however, Racines’ love of detail leads her astray. The description of places and events occasionally slips into a degree of particularity that may delight history buffs but fails to serve the story. Similarly, some of the minor subplots serve little narrative purpose. For instance, the restlessness of landowners on the fringes of the empire, though useful in setting the historical scene, receives more attention than its importance merits. Another plot thread relating to Marius’ godfather receives significant attention early in the book and is briefly revived near the end but fails to bear any fruit. Unless Racines is planning a sequel that builds on these loose ends, they could have been significantly shortened or left out altogether with no loss to the story.
On the other hand, in spite of their centrality to the plot, many of the story’s romantic developments feel hurried or abrupt. Passages such as the account of Theona’s feelings for a fellow traveller and a crucial declaration of love would have benefitted from slightly more subtle and attentive treatment. Similarly, various discussions of the gospel throughout the story provided clear statements of faith but could have been more effectively integrated into the remainder of the narrative.
In spite of these weaknesses, A Shield in the Shadows was an entertaining and thought-provoking account of an oft-neglected historic period. Racines’ commitment to historical accuracy will make the book a delight to those with an interest in the era. That same commitment also gives A Shield in the Shadows its unavoidably bittersweet tone: the historic outcome of the barbarian invasion dramatically underscores the truth that no great gain comes without great cost. This message is deeply poignant today. As we face rapidly growing numbers of migrants and refugees willing to risk starvation, injury and death in their search for a better, safer life, A Shield in the Shadows raises crucial questions about the barriers we build, the people we shut out, and the cost both of extending and, more importantly, refusing refuge to those in need. TAP