Those of us who grew up with Rosemary Sutcliff as our lodestone, our baseline, our highest bar of excellence in the writing of the ancient world for children (and for adults) have long been looking for someone who might pick up her mantle: someone who could combine the glorious freedom and innocence of childhood with the magic of old Britain and the sense of battling against vast powers, but with a possibility of success.
Lots of authors have tried and some have come close, but Katy Moran's 'Bloodlines' is the first book I've read which carried me the same way the Silver Branch did, or Lantern Bearers ,
Set in the immediate post-Roman world (AD 630) of a Britain where the native Britains are being slowly pushed out by the Anglish, where warring kings vie for power... in this case, where Mercia is pushing into East Anglia, this is a novel of a lost boy, abandoned by his father, seeking his identity while at the same time, seeking not to lose the people he has come to love.
It's an easy enough narrative trope, but done here with a flair that many strive for and few achieve. Essa feels real the way Esca felt real in The Eagle of the Ninth. When his father Cai, the bard, leaves him behind in Wixna, in a village that will be right on the battle lines of the upcoming conflict, his sense of desperation and abandonment are plain without being mawkish. He has his hound, Fenrir, and his horse, and a sword left to him by his father, which has a history yet to be explained. In a pagan village, he is notionally Christian, but prays to the old gods as much as the new and when he begins to fly out of himself, to enter into the bodies of the hawk, the hound, the horse, he is harking back to the ways of Old Britain.
His journey takes him west almost to Wales and north towards Scotland before he returns to East Anglia, to the gathering army that waits for a king who has taken himself to a monastery and is refusing to fight. The magic, the battles, the sense of a boy on the brink of adolescence... all are brilliant, all are pure Sutcliff, but better, because this is written for a twentyfirst century audience and lacks the innate sexism of Sutcliff. The author studied history at university and so the sense of time and place, are both beautiful (I'm not sure they had stirrups then, but I stand to be corrected) - but so many academic historians are writing leaden prose, aimed at impressing other academic historians. This is so very much better than that. It lifts off the page. It sings. I can't think why it's taken me so long to find it, but I'm so very glad I did. Rosemary Sutcliff said she wrote for children of all ages from 8 to 80 - and this is the same. Anyone who love our past will love it. I'm heading for the sequel as soon as I can.
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