Written by Doreen Owens Malek, The Lion and the Lark is a historical novel that takes place in 44 B.C. and focuses on the conquest of the isle of Britain by the military forces of Rome.
Right after the assassination of Julius Ceasar, the various Celtic tribes of the North instigate a successive wave of rebellion to break free from the Roman yoke. In the wake of such resistance, Octavian along with Mark Antony dispatch General Scipio and tribune Claudius Leonatus to Britain to quell the natives and further the Roman agenda.
In a political maneuver, it is decided that Claudius will enter into matrimony with Bronwen, the stunning princess of the Iceni tribe. And thus begins a journey of emotional upheaval and personal growth whose consequences nobody could have ever foreseen.
Malek is a writer with a keen eye for historical detail and, apart from a couple of inaccuracies, the novel is infused with the spirit of the ancient era. With colourful descriptions varying from ancient customs, clothes, food and cultural mentalities to the landscape of both Rome and Britain, the reader is transported back in a time and place where people were no less genuine, flawed, complex or humane than we are today.
With both sides intent on serving their own interests by attempting to outwit and outfight each other, the enemy suddenly ceases being a faceless monster and becomes a breathing person of flesh and blood. By marrying Claudius, Bronwen works as a spy for her tribe while the Romans consider her nothing more than a hostage in case the Iceni renege on their bargain.
Claudius, however, drawn to his wife’s beauty and vulnerability, proves to be much more than the brutal conqueror Bronwen had initially thought of, for beneath his national identity he’s a man of honour, capable of profound emotion and passion. Something which throws a spanner in Bronwen’s plans as she gradually realizes that things are not as clear-cut as they were supposed to be.
Deeply traumatized by her mother’s rape and death at the hands of the Romans, she initially refuses to peer beneath her husband’s exterior but Claudius’s gentle and respectful treatment of her is the catalyst that turns their marriage from a political agreement to a genuine bond of love and sensuality.
In a parallel fashion, the reader follows the progress of another couple as well, that of Brettix, the mighty warrior of the Iceni and brother to Bronwen, and Lucia, the young daughter of General Scipio. Captured as a slave on the battlefield during an uprising against the Romans, Brettix arranges with the slave trader to be sold as a horse trainer to Lucia so as to observe the comings and goings of the General and collect all the information he can get regarding the Romans.
But just like with his sister, things don’t go according to plan for Brettix either and he ends up getting much more than he had hoped for. Initially thinking of Lucia as a means to serve his cause, the more he spends time with her, the more attached he becomes for, although, spoiled, Lucia proves herself a woman of strong will and caring disposition. And what starts out as a self-serving deal soon develops into something deeper and much more meaningful, even though completely unexpected.
An important theme of the novel is that of moral ambiguity with various characters remarking how similar in some aspects the two cultures are, therefore highlighting the hypocrisy of the colonial perspective. Boundaries become blurred, and people respond with a sort of pathos and personal code that renders it impossible to strictly characterize them as either good or bad.
That is best evident with Claudius and Bronwen as when things escalate and the treaty between the two parties is considered null and void, both become victims of a tremendous inner conflict, torn between duty and love until they get to enjoy their happy ending after their much anguished tribulation.
The Lion and the Lark is a beautiful and moving novel that sweeps the reader into a world where the individual rises from the collective as a powerful and intricate force, preconceptions crumble, right and wrong becomes an elusive matter and the human factor takes central stage.