Monday, 3 February 2014

The Beltane Choice reviewed by Simon Stirling

Nancy Jardine's historical novel gets off to a cracking start.

Nara, a beautiful Celtic woman, scrambles up a tree to escape a wounded and enraged boar.  The beast is then slain and Nara rescued by Lorcan, a handsome warrior of a rival tribe. 

Lorcan is only there because he's on a revenge mission, and his natural instinct is to take Nara, there and then.  Nara, too, feels her passions rising, despite herself.  But the moment Lorcan discovers that Nara is still a virgin, he desists.  There is something here he doesn't understand.  And so he takes the headstrong Nara captive. 

Nara struggles with her humiliating status as a prisoner and her conflicting emotions while Lorcan forces her to return with him to his father's settlement.  Lorcan, meanwhile, is desperate to know Nara's secret - she is evidently a princess, but why is she seemingly an outcast, unwanted by her own father, and why is she still a virgin?  His fascination with this mysterious woman grows, as does his desire for her, as he realises that she might play a key role in his plan to unite the British tribes against the looming menace of the Roman army.

The Beltane Choice is set in North Britain in the first century AD - the world of the Brigantes people of the Pennines and the neighbouring Selgovae of what are now the Scottish Borders.  Nancy Jardine does a fine job of immersing us in that strange and distant world.  It is no easy task to render this period convincingly, but the author pulls it off with notable success.  She achieves this partly by restricting the focus of the narrative - or, at least, the first half of it - to the emotional turmoil which characterises the growing relationship of Nara and Lorcan, and by keeping the enemy (the advancing Roman army) out of sight.  We see everything through the eyes of the Britons, the rival tribes and their leaders, who must somehow join forces if they are to combat the empire's military machine, and the two noble lovers themselves.

The first half of the novel is preoccupied with the mystery that is Nara, and Lorcan's struggle to understand her peculiar standing in her father's tribe.  For Nara, the problem is slightly different: it has been prophesied that she will choose a partner to join with at Beltane, the great Celtic festival at the start of May, and that from their coupling will come a youthful hero.  From their first encounter, it is clear that Nara and Lorcan are drawn to each other by a powerful sexual attraction, but inter-tribal politics threatens to tear them apart.  The "Beltane choice" turns out to be more problematic than Nara ever imagined.

The narrative begins to open out when Nara is ensconced in the hut of Lorcan's father, the ailing chieftain of Garragill.  We know by now that Nara and Lorcan are made for each other, but the outcome is thrown into doubt when Nara becomes a pawn in the negotiations between tribal leaders.  Her own father throws a pretty big spanner into the works, while Lorcan's diplomatic gifts see him repeatedly removed from his settlement, seeking to meld the various tribes into a unified front.

Of course, Nara's "choice" has already been made, but the author skilfully transforms the suspense from the mysterious nature of Nara's secret, which occupies the first half of the novel, into the tension surrounding the politicking, the rival claimants for Nara's hand, and the question of whether or not she and her beloved Lorcan will ever be able to consummate their burning passion.

My only criticism would concern pacing.  To begin with, Nancy Jardine takes her time, allowing us to become familiar and, indeed, intimate with Nara and Lorcan, detailing their mixed emotions and withholding Nara's backstory, until the reader is thoroughly engrossed in their predicament.  The same lack of narrative urgency succeeds in painting a convincing picture of life in Celtic Britain and weaving the political strands which threaten to sacrifice Nara and Lorcan's mutual attraction to the needs and jealousies of the tribal leaders.

The narrative is shocked into a new direction, however, in the final chapters, when the Roman army launches its assault, and suddenly events are flying past.  Only two or three Roman soldiers are directly featured in the action - and that is a desultory affair - apart from which a great deal happens in the last chapter or two.  After the sedate accumulation of detail of the earlier chapters, and the intensity of the "will-they-won't-they" question which dominates so much of the novel, the hectic nature of the final pages feels like a race to get to the end.

But even so, there is much to enjoy and admire in The Beltane Choice - in particular, the compelling love story set against the backdrop of a tribal past, the conflicts of emotion, sexual tension and crude politics, and the rich atmosphere of time and place.  Readers can easily lose themselves in this novel, not least of all because Jardine does such a good job of embedding Nara and Lorcan, and their mutual desire, in the mind that the reader really feels the suspense of their every enforced separation, and that suspense keeps us reading.

Most of all, I would say that The Beltane Choice is one of the most convincing evocations of Celtic Britain that I have ever come across, and the central romance stands out against that background with great passion and immediacy.

Nancy Jardine is an ex-teacher, part-time author, part-time official grandchildminder, who lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, UK. She loves the thrill of seeing words appear on a page which turn into a published book. Her writing encompasses some historically-based non-fiction projects, as well as fiction.
She writes ancestral mysteries; contemporary romance mysteries; and historical romantic adventures. She has been published by The Wild Rose Press and Crooked Cat Publishing.
THE BELTANE CHOICE is available in paperback or Kindle edition.

Simon Andrew Stirling is a trained actor turned professional dramatist who now writes historical nonfiction and lectures in Film Studies and Screenwriting.  He occasionally updates his blog at
If you would like Simon to review your novel, please click on the Submissions tab above.


  1. Great interview. I have this on my kindle waiting to be read. I am really looking forward to it.

  2. I am more and more being drawn to this time period in my reading. Your review has enticed me towards yet another book to place on my TBR list.

  3. Another definite TBR. Great review.

  4. It's refreshing to hear a reviewer talk about measured pacing with approval, and acknowledge that there is such a thing as too fast a gallop. So often, reviewers criticize a book for a slow start - and I must admit, when that happens I'm tempted to take a look at the book! I find myself thinking, "Maybe that means there's actually some character development before the car chase!" That seems to be the case here. I have this on my Kindle, also, and look forward to reading it.

  5. I thought I'd left a thank you this morning, Simon, but as I don't see it- here's another. Your review is much appreciated.