Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Review: The Eagle by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle (formerly published as The Eagle of the Ninth)
By: Rosemary Sutcliff
Publisher: Square Fish
ISBN: 978-0-312-56434-6

About the book:

The Ninth Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain - and they were never seen again. Thousands of men disappeared and their eagle standard was lost. It's a mystery that's never been solved, until now...

Marcus has to find out what happened to his father, who led the legion. So he sets out into the unknown, on a quest so dangerous that nobody expects him to return.


*Disclaimer: I realize this is a crazy-long review, but I love this book, and I can't seem to contain my enthusiasm for it. So if you'll indulge me, let the book love commence... :)

Marcus Flavius Aquila is a young Centurion with a bright and limitless future in the Roman Army before him, sent to the frontier of Britain to command his first Cohort. Service to Rome and pride in the army is in Marcus's blood, for his father had proudly served with the Ninth Legion. However, a shadow hangs over that legion's reputation, and the honor of every man who served in her ranks - for ten years prior, they marched north and disappeared. When an uprising threatens Marcus's command, he wins glory for his Cohort at the expense of his career - critically wounded in the battle, he's honorably discharged and sent to convalesce at his uncle's estate. Bereft of purpose and with no hope of reclaiming the family honor hrough active military service, Marcus flounders until he witnesses the fear-tinged bravery of a slave forced to fight in the local arena. Marcus purchases the slave, called Esca, for his manservant, and the moment of shared understanding in the arena becomes the basis of a most unorthodox friendship.

When rumors of the Ninth's lost Eagle standard begin to circulate, Marcus determines that as the ill-fated commander's son, the Eagle is his to retrieve. Accompanied by Esca, the two venture into the wilds north of Hadrian's Wall, an untamed land haunted by rumors swirling around the ghostly disappearance of the Ninth's four thousand-plus men. With only each other to rely on, Marcus and Esca find the rigors of their quest will test and refine the bonds of their friendship until their trust and reliance on each other transcends their beginnings as master and slave. When Marcus learns the truth of the Ninth's disappearance, will comradeship and honor be enough to withstand the blow to Marcus's hopes to be the instrument of the Ninth's restoration? Or will Marcus choose to relinquish his old dreams for a new future, formed on the foundation of friendships with unlikely allies and a bond of honor and loyalty that surpasses the dictates of Roman life?

Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 novel is an extraordinary tale of bravery, loyalty, friendship, and honor in Roman Britain. Marcus, the privileged son of Rome, was never meant to be friends with Esca, the enslaved son of a clan chieftain. This is an old-fashioned adventure story in the best sense of that term, a jewel in the genre the likes of which I've not come across in years. Sutcliff's inspiration for The Eagle is based on the legend that the Ninth was essentially wiped out in 117 A.D. (this theory has been disputed), and the discovery of a wingless Eagle Standard in a excavation some 1800 years later. While there is no definitive proof connecting one with the other, they formed the genesis of the idea for Marcus and Esca's adventure, and the resulting novel is a well-researched, fascinating thesis rolled in an adventure yarn that posits a plausible solution to one of history's great mysteries.

Sutcliff's realization of life in Roman Britain is superbly realized. She possesses a masterful grasp of ancient history, skillfully elucidating the customs, mannerisms, and traditions of the time long since lost to memory. The land itself is perhaps her greatest triumph, as in The Eagle Britain is as much a character as the people who inhabit the settlements and wilderness. When Marcus first arrives, thoughts of assimilating in the frontier are as foreign to him as the people he encounters. But through his friendships with Esca and Cottia, his uncle's neighbor, he soon discovers that this wild land produces people whose love of freedom and honor equal his own passion for Rome. Sutcliff's richly descriptive prose intoxicate the reader with the pull of the land, even as the heavy mists and wild forests prove as much of a factor in Marcus and Esca's quest for the Eagle as the tribes they encounter.

The Eagle is a compelling saga, saturated with the noble qualitites of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. But perhaps, more than anything, the appeal of this novel can be summed up in the word "choices." Ultimately, life for Marcus and Esca is not determined by what happens to them, by victories won or wounds endured, but by how they respond. As Marcus admonishes Esca at the conclusion, they each carry pain, and whether physical or psychological, "the only thing we can do about it...is to learn to carry the scars lightly." While The Eagle may not be the type of story modern readers are used to, thanks to Sutcliff's liesurely pacing and minutely descriptive narrative, I cannot recommend it highly enough as a worthwhile journey. Sutcliff's ability to recreate and immerse readers in 2nd century Britain is an unparalleled success. This is one of the finest examples of historical fiction that I've ever read, replete with action, first-class world-crafting, and fascinating, true-to-life characters that leap living and breathing from the page, so fully formed you cannot help but become wholly invested in their lives.


For those of you who may be wondering, I did see the recent film version of The Eagle, and I can't recommend it highly enough! It's a remarkably faithful adaptation of the novel. Sadly I let my film review languish so long in my drafts folder that I decided I'd better wait for the DVD release (which I've  heard rumored is planned for June).


Lori Benton said...

Great review! I'm so glad you liked it, Ruth. Sutcliffe has been a favorite of mine for a long time, though it must be ten years since I read any of her work. I haven't yet read all her books, but every one I have read has been very good, to great. I saw the movie too. It was much better than I was expecting, all in all.

You've inspired me to read more of Sutcliffe. I have another Roman Britain book of hers here I hope I have time to read before the library demands it back. The Capricorn Bracelet.

I'm also immersed in Deeanne Gist's Maid to Match, and liking it better than any of her books I've read so far.

And I just got my copy of Higg's Mine is the Night.

Unknown said...

@Lori - Thank you! I cannot believe I had never even heard of Sutcliff until news broke about the film version of The Eagle. Her novels are the type of thing I just DEVOURED as a teenager! I'm definitely interested in reading more of her Roman Britain books!

Sounds like you're in for some good reading right now, too. :)

Amanda Stanley said...

RUTH! I can’t even put into words how amazing your review is!! There are few reviews I enjoy the way I enjoy yours and I am always impressed, and greatly appreciate, by how well written they are. Anyone can say they loved a book and they highly recommend it, but you back those statements up, making a potential reader VERY interested , if not convinced that they simply must read it! I hope to read this someday but am excited for the movie, since you said its faithful to the book AND Channing is quite a sight to behold ;)

I especially loved the last paragraph of your review when you were talking about how the way we "respond" to situations determining our life – I’m glad that message is coming through in the book and the way you described it is so profound. And, if I may say so, you dropped quite a few “money lines” in this review ;) Any author would be blessed to have a quote from you on their book! Thank you again for all the heart you put into your reviews (it inspires me to write better ones myself!) and thank you for letting me know you posted this :)


Unknown said...

@Amanda - Thank you so much, my friend! Your words mean a lot! :) I really enjoyed this book and just couldn't stop writing about it. I do so hope you'll get to delve into the book soon, I would love to know your thoughts! A bit different from what we usually discuss *g*, but a worthwhile and fascinating change of pace, I think! :)

Lori Benton said...

Sutcliff's Bronze Age Britain story, Warrior Scarlet, is one that stands out in my memory. How many Bronze Age books are out there, I wonder? Hers is the only one I've ever read.

Unknown said...

@Lori - That's a good point...I have no idea. Of course I've never really sought out Bronze Age books, either...but Sutcliff has me VERY curious. :)