In Rosemary Sutcliff’s books the history of Britain comes alive through sensuous descriptions of luscious forests and ragged mountains, and characters so deeply imagined that linger in your mind after the book has ended, like childhood friends untouched by time and the drudgery of life.
Her books are not popcorn historical fiction novels with anachronistic characters dressed in the costumes of the time but keeping the ideas and sensibilities of their XX/XXI century authors. The people Rosemary Sutcliff’s creates are imbued with the beliefs of their own time. And so it is that Marcus, the young centurion protagonist of The Eagle of the Ninth, pay tribute to Luth, the sun god, while the pagan tribes of Northern Britain worship gods that take animal shape in the night of the horn moon and believe the golden eagle the Roman legions carry in their standard is the Roman god.
At the beginning of The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus, following in the steps of his father (supposed dead when his legion disappeared ten years past in northern Britain) has given his oath to Mithras and taken command of his first cohort in the southern part of the island.
Marcus dreams of a legion of his own and of an early retirement to a farm in the Etruscan hills that once belonged to his family. But fate has it that, in his first battle, he’s seriously injured and forced to leave the army.
During his long and painful recovery, Marcus hears rumors that the Roman eagle from his father lost legion is being worshipped by one of the pagan tribes up in the north.
Eager to restore his father’s honor and steal the eagle that could be used as a rally symbol against the hated Roman invaders should a revolt ever break anew among the dark barbarians, Marcus and his British freed slave, Ecca, travel north. All through the summer, they crisscross the wild regions beyond the wall that keeps the untamed tribes from the Roman world in search of the eagle.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s takes her time in creating her characters and their world. As a result The Eagle of the Ninth is not the fast paced adventure you find in an action movie, but a well crafted and realistic tale that is, at the end, much more satisfying.
In my mind, a masterpiece.