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Gripping and haunting
on 15 July 2011
As the last legions are withdrawn and the darkness of barbarism falls over Roman-Celtic Britain a brave band of warriors fight to be the lantern bearers of civilisation, and a young soldier struggles to survive his own psychic wounds.
Almost unbearably harrowing at the start and emotionally devastating by the end, this novel is even better than 'The Eagle of the Ninth' but immeasurably darker and sadder.
Any scene Sutcliff writes, she sees it and makes you see it. 'The wind caught the crest of the blaze and bent it over in a wave; and Aquila's shadow streamed out from him across the parapet and into the night like a ragged cloak.' 'The hut was full of sunlight that slanted in through the doorway and quivered like golden water on the lime-washed wall beside him.' 'There was a swelling of thunder in his ears, and the wild, high song of the hunting-horn as the great arrow-head of wild riders hurtled down upon the battle. At the shining point of the arrow-head, Artos swept by, his great white horse turned for a flashing moment to silver by the burst of sunlight that came scudding down the valley to meet him, the silver mane streaming over his bridle arm, and the sods flying like birds from the great round hooves.'
A disproportionate number of the best books in English over the past century have been ostensibly written for children rather than adults. It isn't surprising: there's more pressure to tell a tale well rather than be self-indulgent, and more license to be interesting rather than dreary. Still it's somewhat mysterious how a book as good and mature in theme as this comes to be classed as one thing rather than the other. I suppose it's something to be celebrated, as children deserve the best, and it will mean the book is read. Anyway, Rosemary Sutcliff was simply one of our great writers.