I’ve put off writing this book review for more than a week. Red-Robed Priestess is the fourth and final book in Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve Chronicles, her version of the life of Mary Magdalene, and writing the review means, for me, the story is really, truly over. And I don’t want it to be, because the Maeve Chronicles are among the best books I’ve ever read. The series is the ultimate heroine’s journey, a mixture of history, mythology, and magical realism, and as a reader, I wanted the journey to continue. I was not ready to go home, for the journey to end.
Yet going home is exactly what happens in Red-Robed Priestess , the story of Mary (Maeve) Magdalene’s search for the daughter who was snatched from her arms at birth. Her search takes her back to the Holy Isles of Mona, where her story began four books ago. Traveling with her are her daughter Sarah, who is the daughter of Jesus, and Sarah’s friends Bele and Alyssa, pirates whom Maeve freed from jail in a daring escape in Book Three of the Maeve Chronicles.
Together the four women travel to Mona and Iceni country, where Maeve’s firstborn daughter was fostered out as an infant. Along the way, Maeve encounters a man whom she thinks is Jesus’s ghost. A night of passion follows, and Maeve is now forever entwined with none other than Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the man sent from Rome to put down the Celtic uprising being led by the Iceni Warrior Queen Boudica, the daughter Maeve lost so many years before.
What follows is written so powerfully I had a knot in my stomach as I read it, yet I could not put the book down. I know the story of Boudica; she is one of my heroines. But knowing her story, knowing what the Roman Empire did to the Iceni and the other Celtic tribes, meant I knew how the story of Boudica would and must end.
I wanted Cunningham to have the power to change history. I wanted the story to end with the Druids still firmly ensconced in the Holy Isles and the Celtic tribes in possession of their land. I wanted Rome defeated. But, history is history. For Cunningham to have changed the ending, to have Boudica succeed in routing out the Romans, would have cheapened the story, made it somehow absurd.
So, I settled for her weaving the mythology of Mary Magdalene into the little we know as historical fact about the final battle between Rome and the Celtic tribes. She does this so seamlessly I had to keep reminding myself this book was fiction, that very little is known about Mary Magdalene’s life, that her being the mother of Boudica, the wife of Jesus, and the mother of his only child, is all the creation of Cunninham’s incredibly fertile imagination.
While the four books of the Maeve Chronicles can stand on their own, I strongly suggest reading them in order. Magdalene Rising, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to Maeve and to Esus, a young man she first sees in a vision and later falls in love with when both are students at the Druid School on Mona. To go through the trials and horrors both Maeve and Esus live through in this first book establishes a firm grasp on the personalities and motivation for these characters. Esus–Jesus–has flaws. Maeve makes no excuses for being a whore. Cunningham portrays them as human, not gods or goddesses-to-be.
What Maeve finds on her return to the Holy Isles in Book Four would not have held nearly the power it did for me had I not experienced her exile from Mona, her life as a slave, a whore and a priestess of Isis in Rome, her experiencing the passion of Christ, and her battles with Paul of Tarsus in the books between those that take part in the Holy Isles. As I said earlier, this is a heroine’s journey, and like so many great journeys, the final destination often is the starting point of the journey. To read the books out of order is to break that circle, to jump into the marathon at its midpoint.
Red-Robed Priestess is a beautiful conclusion to the mythology of Mary Magdalene. I want to believe this is how Mary lived her life after the death of Jesus. I want this story to be real, to be true.
And, since we really know no differently, perhaps it is.