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Another Pile of Books

Deerskin -  Robin McKinley
Rape and child abuse in a fairytale setting.  With lots of hounds.  I quite enjoyed this while I was reading it - it's a compelling story, and not *that* badly written.  But looking back on it afterwards, it left a bad taste, and I find myself remembering the inconsistencies more clearly than the plot which pulled me along as I was reading it.  

And I really like hounds and can tolerate rape in fiction.  If you aren't keen on hounds and find fictional rape hard to read, I think you'll like this even less than I did. 

The Fall of Rome - Bryan Ward-Perkins
Very readable account (factual, not fiction) of the end of the Roman Empire, emphasizing the arguments for a fairly catastrophic economic impact on living standards and trade.  Also entertainingly emphatic about things that cannot be deduced from post-holes.

Has a very sweet conclusion where he says, essentially,  that he isn't deliberately blaming anyone for the fall of Rome, but that he does think that a 'crisis' happened to Rome and we shouldn't pretend it didn't, as it could happen to us.  Well said Bryan!  :-D

The People of the Sea - David Thomson
I have a feeling someone on Livejournal recommended this, but I can't remember who it was now.   It's lovely: a personal account of the seal-legends of the isles of Scotland and the West coast of Ireland, written down, rather lyrically, in the 1950's.   It even has a section in the back of seal-songs - and by that, I mean not just songs about seals, but songs sung by seals.   I loved it.  I'm not sure how much of it is fiction and how much is an attempt to accurately transcribe myth, but I don't really care.  As a whole item, it is quite wonderful. 

Gullstruck Island - Frances Hardinge
A nicely original fantasy set on a small volcanic island with a very distinct feel,  two clearly distinguished cultures and societies (but be warned!  One of those cultures enamels *their own teeth!* OW!!!  The religion / myth system focusses around the volcanoes and is marvellously mythic in feel.   
 
There is a very likeable heroine, a compelling plot, and I can't say anything about the heroine's sister without giving away a twist, but I was darkly amused by what eventually emerged about her. 

I liked Frances Hardinge's Fly By Night, but I think this one has got that little extra something that makes a book memorable years on, that Fly By Night didn't quite have. 

Bloodline - the Celtic Kings of Roman Britain - Miles Russell
The central argument of this book is that the relatively few written sources about the invasion of Britain by Rome have been misinterpreted, and that there was a family of Celtic royalty who were close allies of Rome, were probably fostered as children in Rome, and ruled Roman Britain, first as subordinate kings, then as Romanised administrators.   He makes a carefully-argued case that would probably sound more convincing if he hadn't called his book 'Bloodline' which makes it sound awfully Da Vinci Code.  
 
He also thinks the role of the Druids has been grossly overstated and that they had little influence outside of Anglesey.   The evidence for Druidism seems to be pretty scanty and reported mostly by people who would have little reason to be accurate or helpful, so he might be right, but I rather like Druids, so I have arbitrarily decided he's wrong on that one. 
 
Song for A Dark Queen - Rosemary Sutcliff
First, chronologically speaking, in my big pile of Roman-setting Sutcliffs : the tragic, doomed story of Boudicca.   I'd read this before several times, but I re-read it recently.   It's very dark, especially for a children's book - she doesn't pull her punches, everything in Cassius Dio's not-really-very-contemporary-but-best-we've-got account is there: the rapes, the casual violence of the Romans, the torture and sacrifice of Roman women by Boudicca's forces.  

Boudicca is horrifying in this, but the writing is fabulous, and for me, it really works.  Even though Boudicca ends up doing horrifying things, I felt that I ended up caring for the character and feeling a sort of understanding for her.  

The Silver Branch - Rosemary Sutcliff
This is set in the 290's and told from the viewpoint of Flavius, a decurion, and Justin, a surgeon - two descendants of Marcus Flavius Aquila, the protagonist of 'Eagle of the Ninth'.   The 'little emperor' Carausius has set up as ruler of Britain with the aim of making it into a small stand-alone empire, but he's murdered by his nasty treasurer Allectus before he has the chance to really get going.   Allectus is a definite Baddy - he's even allied with Saxons, which is pretty much always a really bad sign in Sutcliff, so it's down to our heroes to do everything possible to make it feasible for Constantius Caesar to come sweeping in and mop him up. 

I can't quite pin down why this book doesn't work for me.   I really thought I had not read it, but then realised as I went along that I must have done - I remembered all the nice little incidental details about the farm on the Downs and Portus Adurni (Portchester) But I'd forgotten the plot and characters, and I think the reason is that there are just too many people - all of them with just one main distinguishing feature - and we never really get to know any of them well enough to actually care about them.   And the plot doesn't quite make sense, somehow. 

Frontier Wolf - Rosemary Sutcliff
This one is set about 45 years after the Silver Branch, also features a descendant of Marcus Flavius Aquila -  and in total contrast, is absolutely brilliant.    I'd say it's her best book, only then I'd have to fight the me that would argue for 'Sword at Sunset' and the other me who has just read 'the Lantern Bearers' and thinks it's AMAZING. 
 
Alexios Flavius Aquila has had a pretty easy life as the nephew of the Dux Brittaniorum - until he totally mucks up on his first command and evacuates a fort that he should have held.   In disgrace, he's sent to a backwoods fort North of Hadrian's wall, held by an irregular company known as the Frontier Wolves - there to rot and probably be eaten by Picts or something.   Of course, he manages to overcome his early bad judgement and consequent huge worries about Doing Everything Wrong and makes a triumphant success of things.  He does this despite having a disastrously bad boss. who comes to a dramatically bad end in a way that will gratify anyone who has ever had an idiot boss who makes stupid decisions. 

My copy of this is disintegrating due to insane numbers of re-reads.  I must get another one. 
 
The Lantern Bearers - Rosemary Sutcliff
I read this, long, long ago, and because my local library at the time had a copy, I didn't  buy it.  Then the library copy disappeared and I forgot about it.  This was a major mistake, because it's really, REALLY good.  And incredibly, tragically sad.
 
Yet another descendant of Marcus Flavius Aquila - this time called just Aquila - is one of the last Roman soldiers in Britain  (this makes the date just a little fuzzy, because although the official date when the last legions left Britain is 410, in the first chapter, an appeal for help against the invading Saxons is sent to Aëtius in Gaul, and I think Aëtius is a bit later than 410.)  At any rate, Aquila is in the last unit ordered out of Britain, and he decides to desert and go back to his family, who still live at Marcus Aquila's old farm in the Downs.  He gets there just in time to see the place burned to the ground and be taken away as a thrall.   It doesn't get much less grim after that. But the writing is brilliant.  And Vortigern, my favorite unsuccessful duplicitous disastrous leader, is in it, and his daughter Rowena, the 'golden witch in a crimson gown'.  And lots of people who then appear again in Sword at Sunset. 

Poor Aquila.  And his poor wife and son, too - he turns out a bit of a nightmare dad, Aquila, but you can sort of see why. 

Also includes the vital advice: Never trust a man with long sleeves.  Indeed. *nods*. 
Sword at Sunset -  Rosemary Sutcliff
A direct sequel to The Lantern Bearers, Aquila also appears in this - which is of course the story of Artos  the Bear, aka King Arthur.    Unlike most of Sutcliff's books, this is an adult book, so there is a bit more sex than usual (and quite a lot of angst about not having sex too).   

Re-reading this, the only thing that jarred just a little was the !EVIL! role given to Ygerna (playing the Morgawse role as Medraut's mother and Artos's sister).   We don't really get to see Ygerna actually doing anything evil (other than seducing Artos) and I found myself asking just why Artos is so convinced that she is such a nightmare.  I suppose that's part of the point of Ygerna, but still, it niggled.  

The romance between Guenhumara, Artos's wife, and Bedwyr rings completely true though.  Poor things.   But on the whole: WOW.  What a book. 
The Shining Company - Rosemary Sutcliff
This is a retelling of the story of Y Gododdin - the poem that commemorates a force of warriors who around 600AD rode South against the Saxons, and were wiped out.

 As such, you do kind of know where the story is going to end, but it's beautifully told, anyway.    I think I felt it was perhaps just a little slow - compared with some of her other works, this is quite a small story, though she does a good job of introducing characters and giving them a backstory.   

I have another modern retelling of Y Gododdin around somewhere, called Men Came to Catraeth -  will have to re-read that and compare. 

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
16th Jul, 2011 00:09 (UTC)
Looks as if Miles Russell has swallowed Geoffrey of Monmouth whole - what does he say about Geoffrey's kings of Britain in Roman times? There was a book published by one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal in the 1990s which treated King Lucius as historical, so Mr Russell isn't necessarily alone.
bunn
16th Jul, 2011 16:03 (UTC)
So far as I recall, he focusses mostly on Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and the archaeology. I don't remember him mentioning Geoffrey.

*checks* no reference to Geoffrey or Lucius in the index.

His candidate for the founder of the British royal dynasty is Tasciovanus.
parrot_knight
16th Jul, 2011 16:07 (UTC)
Interesting, very interesting - my expectations are confounded.
clarienne
16th Jul, 2011 08:30 (UTC)
Wow - I've never read any Rosemary Sutcliffe, but it sounds like I'd better start.
bunn
16th Jul, 2011 15:58 (UTC)
I really think you might like her - she was a professional miniaturist as well as an author, and her writing has a very visual feel to it, very atmospheric, and that lovely fluid writing style that people just don't seem to have any more

The book she wrote first, in 1953 was 'Eagle of the Ninth' which is the one I've not reviewed above as I feel I have been blathering on about it non-stop for most of this year already. :-D
endlessrarities
17th Jul, 2011 15:39 (UTC)
I read Warrior Scarlet, Sun Horse, Moon Horse and Eagle of the Ninth as a child. I should really have read a lot more...
bunn
17th Jul, 2011 15:50 (UTC)
Sun Horse Moon Horse is on my to do list. I've got Warrior Scarlet but haven't re-read it recently.

Forgot to mention above, Dawn Wind, which is set about a hundred years after the death of Artos at the end of Sword at Sunset, and gives us a sad and tragic picture of a much-decayed post-Roman Britain with economy in ruins and population lamenting that I think Ward-Perkins would probably approve of!
endlessrarities
17th Jul, 2011 15:57 (UTC)
I moved from historical fiction into fantasy into SF and now I'm back into historical fiction again.

I guess that's why I missed out on much of RS's ouvre.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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