This is a riveting story of a gladiator who takes on the role of the deposed king of the Dalriada (early Scots) in order to lead their rebellion. Brutal from the start, and ending in a very ambivalent triumph, this is not a book for young children; indeed I doubt that it's really for children at all. Well painted characters and a gripping plot, with an unusual love story, set in a convincingly painted alien culture.
It is sometimes asked whether Sutcliff's books, with their strong themes, are suitable for children. I read this as a child of about 10 or 11; perhaps twice, unusual for me. Not merely the overwhelming force of the narrative but actual phrases from the text have stayed with me, word for word, for nearly half a century. Nothing in the story upset or puzzled me; Sutcliff was always adept at handling strong emotion and matters of love and death in ways that a bright child can understand without compromising their innocence of outlook. Each child will take from it what they can handle.
Yes, the plot has ambiguities and the characters are subtle, complex and flawed; surely that is not a bad thing? The topic of culture-shock as the Roman protagonist leaves the empire and crosses into Celtic Scotland is very nicely done. Both Roman Britain and the barbarian culture outside the Wall are portrayed richly and even-handedly.
Readers should know that the background is well-based in history. The Dalriada Scots crossed from Ireland bringing with them the Gaelic language, and came to dominate the whole country, their language and culture in time being adopted by the original Pictish population. Sutcliff bases a lot of her description of them on material from the contemporary Irish/Ulster legends, which deal with, among other subjects, the invasion of Scotland by the Dal Riada. Interested readers shouldn't miss The Hound Of Ulster (Red Fox Classics), Sutcliff's powerful and evocative retelling of the Ulster Cycle.
This is an amazing book! I read it in translation at the library when I was a teenager, then lost sight of it, and only found the original title recently.
It's the very harsh tale set in Roman Britain, that has a freed gladiator involved in a conspiracy by the Dalriada (the 'horse people') to impersonate their deposed and blinded heir Midir in a bid for kingship against the ursupatory rule of their queen.
I loved the characters Sutcliff creates - Phaedrus himself, the queen's daughter Murna, androgynous Conroy who becomes the hero's rival-friend, and the true heir Midir, obsessed with vengeance.
The plot is action-packed and manages to bring history to life extremely well. It's also quite brutal, and not really a children's book at all. However, characterisation is not neglected and makes us care about the protagonists.
There's a touch of matriarchical versus patriarchical rule to the story, which made me a bit ambivalent about who to cheer for, but overall, it's an excellent read. It's a book I hadn't got out of my head in 25 years, and on reading it again it was as enjoyable as the first time.
The Mark Of The Horse Lord is perhaps Rosemary Sutcliff's darkest novel. I should begin by saying this book is NOT suitable for young children. Don't make the mistake of buying this book for your 12 year old because The Eagle Of The Ninth was a great children's novel. This one is VERY different. It tells the tale of Phaedrus, a young gladiator who wins his freedom and is enlisted to play the Lord of the Dalriads because he is a dead ringer for cruelly mutilated real one. What follows is a breathless and often brutal adventure in which Phaedrus struggles to save the tribe and also wrestles with his own identity. There is very little in this book which is uplifting, but nevertheless it is easy to admire a master storyteller at the top of her game. If you don't mind being left depressed, it is highly recommended.
It's very much a good yarn, with elements such as two strangers who look very very alike (aka Prisoner of Zenda or A Tale of Two Cities), and lots of excitement and action. But there is a depth of emotion to the story; it draws you in to its world and makes you care deeply about the characters.