Day 805: Blood & Sand

Cover for Blood & SandRosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer of historical novels from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. She is best known for children’s literature, and most of the books I’ve read by her are set in Britain during or shortly after the Roman occupation. She also wrote a series of Arthurian novels, placing Arthur in the time just after the Roman withdrawal, which is a much more likely time period for him than the Middle Ages, if he existed at all.

Blood & Sand is for adults, however. It is based upon the life of Thomas Keith, an actual Scottish soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, who was captured in Egypt while fighting for Britain. Keith converted to Islam and went on to become the governor of Medina.

Blood & Sand is full of adventure and fighting, but it also depicts a sincere conversion to Islam and a love for the desert. It has beautiful descriptions of the desert landscape. Several times I was reminded of the line in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, where Prince Feisal describes Lawrence as “another of these desert-loving English.”

Thomas takes the name Ibrahim and makes a good friend of Tussun, the younger son of the Viceroy of Egypt. Part of his decision to convert is because of the opportunities for advancement with the Sultan’s army, and he becomes involved in trying to free the holy cities of Arabia from a group of religious zealots called the Wahabis. Some of the issues in the latter part of the book have echoes for us in modern times, showing us that these kinds of battles have been going on for hundreds of years.

link to NetgalleyI mildly enjoyed this novel. The characters are concerned with issues such as honor and are not terribly well rounded. The descriptions of Thomas’ life in Egypt and Medina and the customs of his new people were more interesting to me than the action scenes. There is a small bit of romance in the novel as Thomas marries a girl to protect her and ends up loving her, but it is not very important to the novel, and she herself is not fleshed out. The writing is at times, especially in the descriptive sections, quite beautiful, however.

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Day 202: The Lantern Bearers

Cover for The Lantern BearersIf you are historical fiction lover and are not familiar with Rosemary Sutcliff, I recommend that you try one of her books. She is best known for her novels about the Roman occupation of Britain and the interaction between the Romans and the various British peoples. Although many of her books are classified as children’s literature, the ones I have read are just as suitable for adults. My review today is of a Sutcliff book I read most recently, which unfortunately is the third book of her acclaimed Eagle of the Ninth trilogy, The Lantern Bearers. Although she wrote a series of eight books about the Aquila family, three are usually grouped together and sometimes can be purchased as one book. The other two are The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.

The Lantern Bearers is about the desertion of Britain by the Romans and its subsequent inundation by marauding Saxons. Aquila is a soldier with the last battalion on Britain. He is recalled to his regiment to withdraw from Britain and leave his father and sister behind in the home they have occupied for generations.

Aquila finds that his heart is with Britain, so he deserts his regiment and returns home. However, the day after he arrives, his home is attacked by the Saxons, his father is killed, and he and his sister are enslaved.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the story eventually focuses on the rise of the British ruler Ambrosius and his adopted son Artos, from whom we get the stories of King Arthur.

I think these books are fascinating, although of the three in the trilogy, my favorite is The Eagle of the Ninth (which, by the way, was recently made into a very good movie that no one apparently went to see; I recommend it). If I had any criticism of this book, which is carefully researched, well written, and full of action, I would say that sometimes it seems as if Sutcliff thinks the Roman occupation of Britain was completely positive. I doubt if the Britains felt that way when they were conquered. However, even though her heroes are often Romans, her ideas are more nuanced than that.

If you decide to read this trilogy, I suggest you start with The Eagle of the Ninth, although the books are far enough separated in time to be read as stand-alones.