I’ve written about the Roman Britain Trilogy before, reviewing both The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch. If you go back and read those reviews, you’ll see that I have nothing but praise for the writing of Rosemary Sutcliff even when her plotting let me down. I can’t think of any other writer whose work I’ve read recently who has similar power to evoke sense of place. I’ve never been to the regions Sutcliff writes about, but I can feel like I’ve been there because of her ability to engage with colors and smells and sounds to create a living tapestry of the senses. Writing in the ’50s, she had the insight of someone from the Roman Britain period and that’s why, whatever my issues with The Silver Branch, the second in the trilogy, I think Sutcliff was a truly great author.
You’ll be pleased to know that The Lantern Bearers is a much more assured piece of work than The Silver Branch. I tend to think that Sutcliff wasn’t totally in love with her story the second time around and that showed. This time, however, she’s clearly attached to the period and the characters. I loved The Eagle of the Ninth because it was a rip-roaring adventure tale with all the trappings of fine literature. The Lantern Bearers is a much more sophisticated offering and Sutcliff’s gifts are in full flower.
The action picks up some 150 years after the conclusion of The Silver Branch and the time of the Roman occupation of Britain has come to an end. Young cavalryman Aquila is ordered, along with the rest of the Eagles, to return to Italy to bolster the Roman defenses against another barbarian incursion. Aquila, born and bred in the Down Country of Britain, is less than thrilled with this turn of events and, in an act of defiance, goes “wilfull missing” when it’s time to ship off. He is of Britain, he says, and will not go.
It wouldn’t be much of a story if Aquila just went back to the family farm and settled down, so things go wrong very quickly. British shores have been attacked again and again by Saxon raiders and before we get too far along in the story a group of murderous Saxons sacks the farm and Aquila is enslaved. He spends years in Jutland (modern-day Denmark) plotting his revenge, and when the Saxons who hold him move to Britain to take advantage of its agricultural bounties, he manages his escape.
What follows is a tale that spans twenty years, as Aquila joins with the remaining Romanized British forces and rises through the ranks of the rag-tag army to an honored position. He marries. He has a child. That child grows up. It’s a vast recounting with lots of moving parts and Sutcliff manages all of it with aplomb. This is particularly notable because The Silver Branch attempted something similar but failed, rendering up what read like disjointed vignettes as opposed to fully fledged novel. The Lantern Bearers is a novel in every positive sense.
It continues to surprise me that this is the sort of thing that was once considered children’s fiction. Today’s young-adult market is filled with, quite frankly, a lot of garbage. The books publishers foist on kids are devoid of style or substance, designed merely to fill up pages and serve ancillary marketing. One need look no further than the Twilight series for a perfect example of that. Sutcliff refused to talk down to her audience and the result is stuff like The Lantern Bearers, which contains all the elements of adult fiction. We’re talking about a novel that talks about weighty things such as murder, rape, slavery, revenge, fatherhood… harsh medicine for today’s teenager, raised on pablum.
Sutcliff also assumes that the reader will meet her halfway on the historical aspects of the tale, as well. A helpful glossary of place-names is situated in the back of the book and we’re provided with a map of critical locations. It’s possible to simply read The Lantern Bearers without making reference to any of this, but the experience is enriched by matching up ancient events with modern locales. This isn’t fantasy, with a bunch of made-up kingdoms, but history retold in fictional format, featuring real-life figures from the past and actual events. If reading is supposed to better the reader, then what’s not to like about fiction that educates as well as entertains? Nothing at all, from my perspective.
If there’s any major complaint I have with The Lantern Bearers, it’s one carried over from The Silver Branch: this is sad, sad storytelling. The Eagle of the Ninth had a somewhat bittersweet ending, but it was too busy thrilling the reader to be truly somber. It was also set at the height of Roman power in Britain. In the second two books, that power is fading away and an age of barbarism is looming ever closer. It’s impossible to put that across without being something of a downer and Sutcliff doesn’t even try to sugarcoat it.
The Lantern Bearers even talks about what it means to grow old and have the trappings of your youth fade away. Like I said before, this is heavy-duty material quite unlike anything you’d get today. I don’t doubt that contemporary readers will enjoy Sutcliff’s fiction once they acclimate themselves to the demands it makes on them, but they’re not going to find easy answers or pat resolutions to the problems the characters face. Sutcliff’s books are as real as she could make them, and that means confronting issues of mortality and morality, sometimes in the same breath.
The ties between The Lantern Bearers and the books that came before it are looser than they were between The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch and it’s possible to read this one without having read the others. I do think that these are referred to as a trilogy for a reason: they are about the slow passing of empire, and to fully grasp that, we must see it happen by stages. As relatively weak as I found The Silver Branch, it was a necessary step in the process and sets the stage for the final act.
The Lantern Bearers is not a cheerful book and you will come away feeling down, but it is a good book and that’s what we all claim we want to read. So hurry up and read the first two so you can get to the final chapter. You won’t be disappointed.