Not sure how else to word that, this book popped back into my head just the other day and all the details I remember are odd. I would've read this around the mid-2000s, but I would guess it wasn't new when I read it - maybe from the 90s? I remember it being intended for a middle grade or young adult audience, despite being fairly dark and gruesome and explicit. I'm also 99% sure it had a sequel, but I either never read it or remember nothing from it.

I think, but am not totally sure, that the author was female. It had a very Pern/Valdemar/etc.-era vibe to me, but I don't think it was by Lackey or McCaffrey.

What I do recall is that the plot revolved around three children, a sister and two brothers. They're very close with each other but complete misfits at school - the girl in particular is heavy and tall, and gets a lot of "What's the weather like up there?" type jokes. (I think at least one using that exact phrasing.) The girl was the oldest, and I believe a teenager - I think the two boys were preteens or young teens.

One day, the three children somehow get sucked into the past and become embroiled in the lives of a Celtic or vaguely Celt-like (or perhaps vaguely Roman?) tribe that's in the middle of a war while trying to get back to their time. The book ends with them finding another portal, but cuts off before showing whether they actually made it home.

They are initially taken prisoner, and at one point are horrified to see decapitated heads attached to the bridle of one of the men's horses. It's said to be one of the heads of their enemies.

The specific detail I most recall is the following:

  • once in the past, the girl finds out she has some sort of natural talent for illusory magic; because women are treated very badly in this time, she uses it to project the image of herself as a male warrior. This drives conflict, with another warrior suspecting her and trying to expose her, and her little brother worried for her safety and also confused by his sister's growing passion for war and battle.

  • At one point, it seems they'll definitely be caught: after showing great prowess in battle the sister gets chosen for the honor of becoming a full-fledged warrior, which is some sort of ceremony that involves stripping naked and having one's genitals scarred or marked in some way that will definitely show the illusion magic to be false. The brother rushes around in an attempt to interrupt the ceremony and ultimately fails to prevent it - but is surprised when the ceremony goes through and the men don't suspect anything at all.

  • Later, the sister explains to the brother that this was her own doing - she's found a way to push the illusory magic beyond its previous limits, and has turned the warrior's body she projected into her actual, physical form.

  • This leaves the brother grateful for his sister's safety and impressed by her magic prowess, but also distressed; he begins to wonder who she considers her true family to be now, and whether she'll even want to go back to their own time at all.

(I suspect if the book were written today, this character would perhaps be portrayed as transgender - the character was always referred to as female as far as I remember, but I also recall a lot of "wanting to live as a man" as an underlying motivation, beyond even just a fear of how women would be treated. I don't know if the portrayal here was intended as an intentional metaphor, or whether such comparisons were on the author's radar at all.)

The two brothers also learned skills of their own in the past, I believe also relating to magic? I don't recall quite as well what they involved, though, except that I believe one had a wizened old woman who worked as the tribe's healer for his mentor during this. I also believe this world was intended as "a real time in the past, but with magic", rather than a fantasy world that happened to have similarities to Earth cultures.

The back of the book had a blurb for the sequel as well - apparently the plot of the second book would be that the portal failed to take them home, and instead brought them to yet another strange world, where they'd have to rise to prominence again. I don't know any more detail than that.

1 Answer 1


As per Fantasy book, 2 teenagers transported to alt universe, trained as warriors, partial shape shifting from girl to boy to hide identity, this is probably Warriors of Alavana by N.M. Browne.

A mist envelops a school group in the year 2000 and, on the other side, Dan and Ursula find themselves in what looks like the year 75 AD. They come to understand that they have been called through time to battle for the Combrogi, a Celtic tribe nearly wiped out by the bloodthirsty Romans. While becoming Combrogi warriors, Dan and Ursula realize that they have strengths and powers never imagined and they learn to depend on each other and their tribesmen as they battle for the future of Britain.

From the question:

  • The girls was wearing a baggy hoody, didn't wear makeup and had an angular face I think, when the two were discovered she passed herself off as a boy The world they ended up in was medieval in terms of technology, but no stranger to magic. I don't think magic was all over the place though. The two ended up being trained as warriors
  • There's a specific scene where the trainees have to walk across a stage or a room as a final initiation or test to become true warriors, and they have to do it naked. The girl manages to partially shapeshift and actually become a man in all the relevant ways so she's not found out (I vaguely recall some surprise from the characters here, she had never done it before and up until that point had only managed some sort of illusions which tricked the sight)
  • At the end of the book I think they worked out how to transfer between worlds (possibly involving lightning?) but I think something may have gone wrong and only one of them managed to leave

This review mentions Ursula's height:

Be warned, this brilliant and thrilling novel is VERY violent. If you have the kind of child who finds gore distressing, they could be in for a few nightmares. But let's hope not, for this time-travel tale into a parallel past, in which the Romans (or Ravens) are the baddies and the wild Cetlic Combrogii the goodies is fantastically vivid and exciting. NM Browne's two teenaged heroes could not be more different, but you come to care passionately about them. Dan is super-cool - great at sports, clever, popular. Ursula is a hulking, overweight 6ft sulker whom nobody at school likes. When they're transported back in time, however, both find themselves with strange powers. Dan turns Berserker, capable of killing ten men in so many seconds (Browne describes this marvellously, so that you feel his fierce joy, then his terrified remorse.) Ursula can do magic. But first, they are captured by the Combrogii, whose princess/Druidess has brought them "through the Veil" to help a dying tribe. They have to train, fight, survive and change out of all recognition - and even then, only the legend of the lost legion of the Ninth (which Rosemary Sutcliffe also used for her best-selling novel)can save them.

Three people in my family, ranging from my husband to my 9 year old daughter have been absolutely hooked by the fusion of real Celtic/Roman in Britain history, myth of Macsen and Browne's insight into the way modern teenagers think and feel. The contrast between the twenty-first century and pre-Christian Britain made very funny, but it's the passionate conviction that thrills. There's also a sequel, Warriors Of Camlann, which is also excellent, using the myth of King Arthur.

There have been two sequels, Warriors of Camlann (about King Arthur) and Warriors of Ethandun (Vikings and King Alfred the Great).

Found by searching the site for [story-identification] Celtic.

  • 2
    FWIW, my intent was to find my own question at scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/80175/… about children transported back to Celtic mythology because I remembered people offered several similar answers.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:25
  • Huh, how strange... the answer you linked says the book was published in 2011, which feels far too late for when I remember reading it, but every other single detail matches perfectly.
    – Lamprey
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:27
  • @Lamprey: Goodreads says 2000.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:28
  • regardless, with those details this is definitely the one. Thanks so much for finding this, I'll accept it in a little bit.
    – Lamprey
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:28
  • Oh, that would make perfect sense, thank you! That matches much more with what I remember, maybe there was a 2011 reprint or something.
    – Lamprey
    Commented Apr 2, 2020 at 19:29

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