“Red-Robed Priestess” by Elizabeth Cunningham was one of last year’s BEA finds. Even though it’s the fourth book in a series, I decided to give it a try, because I found the premise intriguing.
Basically, The Maeve Chronicles are a lot like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon stories, except the main character is Mary Magdalene, and she’s a sex priestess who has a kid with Jesus. Doesn’t it sound delightfully sacrilegious?
In this volume, Mary Magdalene (Maeve) is an old woman, and Jesus is already dead, but still talks to her sometimes. Maeve has had an interesting life and is ready to settle down, but one thing still haunts her. When she was young, her father raped her, and she had a daughter. The daughter was stolen from her and sent away to be fostered by a neighboring tribe, and she never saw her again. With the aid of her other daughter Sarah and her lady pirate friends, Maeve embarks on a quest to find her long-lost child and set things right. Of course, it gets a bit more complicated. That long-lost daughter is totally the rebel queen Boudica, which can’t end well. Meanwhile, Maeve becomes romantically entangled with a Roman governor, as she’s having visions about having to warn him that something terrible is about to happen.
If you’re at all familiar with the story of Boudica, you already know that the book is going to have a lot of violent and depressing scenes where innocent people (including children) have terrible things done to them. Not having heard of Boudica’s story before, I was completely blindsided by this. I expected the story to be a lot lighter and happier. At the same time, I was satisfied with the way that Cunningham managed to pull off the ending–even though history comes to pass, she manages to end with a message of hope and resurrection, and a continuation of the cycle of life.
I like the idea of using an older protagonist to tell the story. Stereotypically, you don’t expect a woman in her sixties to be riding into battles, shapeshifting into birds, or fucking Roman generals. Maeve is a badass, and even though her years have made her wise, she’s still very much an active player in the story. At the same time, she feels a great burden after having seen so many people that she loved die.
One of Maeve’s central struggles in this novel is spiritual in nature. She was raised a druid, but betrayed them when she stole a human sacrifice (Jesus, btw) as a young initiate. While she still is a priestess and shape-shifter who worships nature goddesses, she also finds herself enthralled by the philosophy of Jesus’ central message of peace and of loving one’s enemies. She loves both her general and her family, and is torn by her role in the war. She’s confused by her relationship, because she’s been a slave to the Romans, and she watched them crucify Jesus–rightfully, she should hate them. Meanwhile, we see Boudica as a foil as she throws her entire being into a war of revenge over violence committed against her family.
This book is an interesting choice for fans of both fantasy and historical fiction. Even though it’s the fourth book in a series, you can understand it without having read the previous books. I’m planning on eventually going back and reading the earlier novels at some point, because Maeve’s story was compelling, and I’d like to see the author’s take on Jesus’ life and death.