Stonehenge is a historical fiction surrounding the building of Stonehenge - the stone monument constructed around 2000 B.C. for purposes not totally understood but thought to be a temple to the sun god and for astronomical observation. Bernard Cornwell creates a village in conflict led by three sons fighting to rule their people as a warrior, a sorcerer and a builder and lead according to the desires of Slaol, the son god and Lahanna, the moon goddess. The eldest son, Lengar slaughters his father in a bid to exalt himself. The middle son (Camaban) has been rejected by his father and the village because he was born with a club foot. Camaban's mother pleads with her husband to spare his son's life, so the second boy is cast into the forest to fend for himself, living by the old temple and listening to the gods. The youngest son (Saban) is the hope for his father, to succeed him as chief but Saban identifies more with his builder-uncle Galeth than his warrior-father.
Through various twists and turns the village of Ratharryn is led by sorcerer-priest, Camaban who, through his conversations with Slaol, assigns Saban to build the temple which will marry Slaol to Lahanna. This is a story that is gritty, earthly, violent, gruesome, hopeful and hopeless. Children and beautiful women are sacrificed easily and regularly to the gods in hopes of good crops or good health. Imperfections are taken as signs of the god's displeasure so children who are blind, deaf, etc are saved until a sacrifice is needed. Wives are taken, then taken away and then taken back. A cloud's movement, a rustling of the trees, a bird flying over are all thought to be ways the gods communicate.
This was a hard story to read, as a woman and as a mother. [Although after reading another Cornwell book - the Last Kingdom - I don't think he understands women very well. I see little difference between his female and male characters ]Power rested to the men's hands and even then it was tenuous. The power stopped ultimately with the priests and in their wishes laid the future. Paganism was a hard faith. There was little hope and no assurances. The gods and spirits could bless you in the morning, curse you in the afternoon and kill you by evening. And blood was required, preferably the blood of the innocent - children. There was so much sacrificing that the stones were soaked red. Near the end of the construction of the temple it was decided by Camaban, the sorcerer-priest-chief, that Slaol demanded a great sacrifice to initiate his temple. Camaban decided the best sacrifice would be to slaughter all the slaves who were captured (to construct the temple) over the past seven years. Saban understood from Haraag (the previous priest of the new temple who had died) that the new temple was to be without blood sacrifice (Haragg's daughter was sacrificed to Slaol and since then Haraag has turned his back on blood sacrifices). Saban rebels against his brother:
There is no need to kill any slaves, " he [Saban] protested.When I read those words I was cut to the quick. What a contrast to the true Son of the true God who requires obedience, not sacrifice, who stood in the place of the sacrifice with his own body, his own blood. There must be blood and Christ said it must be His own. Without Christ there is such fear. The world is unknown and unknowable. There are no assurances, no confidence and little hope. What hope there is could be broken with the passing breeze or rains that may or may not come. In Christ we no our hope is sure.
"I decide the need!" Camaban screamd. He drew back the bloody sword....
Camaban stared at him and Saban thought the sword must swing forward for there was a terrible madness in his brother's fire-glossed eyes, but then, quite suddenly, Camaban began to cry. "There has to be blood!" he sobbed. "None of you understands! Even Haragg did not understand! There has to be blood."
"The temple is soaked in blood,"Saban said. "Why does it need more?"
"There must be blood. If there's no blood the god won't come. He won't come!" Camaban screamed this. Men watched him with appalled faces for he was now writhing as if his belly were gripped with pain. "I don't want there to be death," he cried, "but the gods want it. We must give them blood or they will give us nothing! Nothing! And none of you understands it!"