In AD 410, Aquila is a Roman soldier, born and stationed in Britain – a Britain which has been irrevocably influenced by its tumultous relationship with its Roman conquerors, and which is being ravaged by invading Saxons. When the Romans retreat from Britain, Aquila is forced to choose between his loyalties: between his family, especially his beloved sister Flavia, and the influence of Rome, which he sees as the last bastion of light in a darkening world. In Ambrosius Aurelianus, who leads the fight against the Saxons, he sees his worlds combine into something worth fighting for.
This book was an easy enough read in many ways – after all, it’s usually classified as YA, although I’m sure many of the YA readers I know would balk at this book – it is very different from the usual dystopian fare. Yet it does share a similar world-view with dystopia: it depicts a world that is falling into pieces, and the struggles the main character faces to try to keep those pieces together. It is made more difficult because this is a somber book. It is slow, although it covers a good 20+ years of Aquila’s life and features several battle scenes. It is an introspective, intellectual sort of book, made even more so by the main character.
Aquila is dour and in many ways unlikable. This makes sense – he goes through a lot – but it is wearing to be with him for long. For a book that was very focused on his inner thoughts and feelings, I found it difficult to identify with him. The way he is unable to connect with his wife and son is more off-putting than pitiable – even at the end, when he is supposed to have a connection with them, it is almost too little, too late.
The historical context of this book was something I adored, as the history I usually study is around this time (a little bit before, actually, but in the grand scheme of things…) Little references to things made me smile, such as a reference to Emperor Allectus a few centuries before – who in the wider context of Roman history is viewed as an usurper, but in the Romano-British heart of these characters was a legitimate usurper. (Apparently one of Sutcliff’s earlier books is about Allectus – I might have to read that one).
Overall, I’m giving it three stars – it was decent, but didn’t thrill me. However, I did enjoy the ending. Thematically it worked well, but most of all it redeemed Aquila’s character somewhat and allowed him to shake off the demons which had tortured him for so long.
Another thing I enjoyed was the character Artos – who is clearly meant to be Arthur (the Romano-British “real” Arthur, not the French chivalric-epic Arthur of the Le Morte D’Arthur). I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to read the sequels featuring Artos – I’m reading Green’s retelling of the Arthurian legends with my Junior High English class right now, and I might be tired of Arthur by the time we’re done. Besides, nothing can beat White’s The Once and Future King – right?