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Reading Gwyneth Jones put me in mind of Rosemary Sutcliff, and as I'm off to Argyll on holiday soon I thought I would re-read The Mark of the Horse Lord, which is set in Argyll. Unlike most of Sutcliff's novels set in Roman Britain, Phaedrus, the protagonist of The Mark of the Horse Lord, isn't a Roman soldier; instead, he's a half-British ex-gladiator, son of a Greek wine merchant and a slave woman, who lived his whole life as a slave until being freed after winning a fight in the arena. By coincidence, he discovers that he is the exact double of Midir, the exiled prince of the Dalriad tribe, and is persuaded to impersonate Midir and travel beyond the northern boundary of the Empire to lead a rebellion and win back the kingdom of the Dalriads from Queen Liadhan, who has seized the throne and imposed the old matrilineal rule of the Earth-Mother in place of the patrilineal worship of the Sun-God. The plot is not dissimilar to The Prisoner of Zenda, really, as Phaedrus tries to take over another man's life and relationships and learn how to be a king.

This isn't my favorite Sutcliff; Phaedrus is a less sympathetic protagonist than the various members of the family in the Dolphin Ring saga, hardened by the years in the arena as he is, although he does become more sympathetic as the story goes on. I also don't find the society of the Dalriads, beyond the frontiers of the Empire, as interesting as the Roman society depicted in the books set inside the Empire, and, revisiting it now, I also feel that the conflict between the matrilineal and patrilineal societies is probably more nuanced than the book really suggests, and I wish we had got to see Liadhan's point of view as well as Phaedrus's.
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Rosemary Sutcliff's Dawn Wind is full of the tropes of YA postapocalyptic fiction. It opens with the 14-year-old protagonist waking up to the realisation that everyone he ever knew is dead and he is all alone in the world; later, he and a girl he meets eke out a living in the burnt-out and deserted ruins of their home city, foraging for food and having to avoid lawless bands of armed men. So far, so standard; but the difference here is that the book begins in around 680AD, and is historical fiction, not science fiction, and the world that has ended is the last relic of Romanised Britain, crushed by the Saxons in the battle that takes place just before the story begins. Somehow this was the book Station Eleven most reminded me of, and made me want to re-read. It's also a hopeful book, as Owain serves out the years first as thrall and then as trusted retainer to a Saxon family and sees the beginnings of co-operation between Saxons and the British remaining in Wales; the "dawn wind" of the title beginning to blow after the dark century when the remains of the Roman civilisation were slowly destroyed by the invaders.

Dawn Wind isn't my favourite Sutcliff; that will always be Frontier Wolf, and more generally I much prefer the novels set in Roman Britain. The Saxon Britain of Dawn Wind is a much poorer place, a land of isolated farms in clearings in the woods, each settlement much more cut off from its neighbours than the Roman towns, as the roads crumble away and groups of bandits roam the land. It's a sad book; there's a real sense of how much has been irrecoverably lost. In the light of Recent Events, I got a bit teary at this bit:

For the space of two men's lives at least, we have stood alone, we in Britain, cut off from all that Rome once stood for, from all that we thought worth dying for. And today we have joined hands with those days of the Long Wandering [...] - a light clasp yet, and easily broken, but surely it will strengthen. [...] Not the dawn as yet, [...] but I think the dawn wind stirring.

Actually, I got a bit teary at quite a few bits. It's not an easy read, but I found it very rewarding this time round; I think it's probably one of Sutcliff's less well-known books, and that's a shame, as it deserves a wider audience.


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