Defense against the Dark Arts: Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill

Otfried Preussler, Krabat and the Sorcerer’s Mill (1971)

KrabatMy second German Literature month pick was a classic fantasy from the splendid-as-always New York Review Children’s Collection. I found it a fascinating and highly skillful variation on the themes of traditional folklore, playing with motifs of power, entrapment, love, sacrifice, and freedom.

Krabat is an urchin plucked out of a miserable life to become a miller’s apprentice. At first he’s delighted with his new home — he has to work hard but gets plenty to eat, and finds new friends among the journeymen — but soon he begins to learn disquieting things about his master and the mill. Who is the mysterious client who comes on the night of every new moon, and what is he grinding? Why are there unmarked graves in a nearby field? What does it mean for him to swear eternal service to his strange master? As Krabat starts to unravel some disquieting answers, he starts to wonder whether there can be a happier end to the story for him than for his unfortunate predecessors.

Though it’s enacted within a fairy-tale world of transformation and magic, Krabat’s dilemma is also a very familiar one. We can all become trapped in delusive dreams of power and selfish comfort, only to find that the end of such a path is spiritual death. Preussler tells his fabulous story quite plainly, letting events and images speak for themselves, but it’s all the more powerful for that. A compelling, chilling, and ultimately redemptive tale, perfect for long winter nights.


In Brief: Fabulous Fall Releases

All right, I’m a little late in the game since December is almost upon us, but I couldn’t let the year end without recommending some of the new releases I’ve read in the last few months. Whether you’re in the mood for a fast-paced tale of wolves and adventure for young readers, a genre-bending fantasy romp, a historical novel that will immerse you in the ancient world, or a diary chronicling a literary life within both the theater and academia, I hope you’ll find something to beguile you during the long winter nights to come.

WolfWilderThe Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell
A wolf wilder is the opposite of an animal tamer: someone who takes in wolves that have been living in captivity and fits them for life in the wild again. In this brief novel set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, young Feo’s world is turned upside down when angry soldiers command her mother to stop “wilding” the wolves that are hunting down the Tsar’s game. I loved the parts of the book that dealt with Feo and the wolves, but was not so enamored with the rather muddled chase sequences and the improbable, violent resolution. I’ll definitely be looking for more by Rundell, though; I like her way of turning a phrase and her perceptive eye on the natural world.
August 25, 2015 from Simon and Schuster
Find The Wolf Wilder at Powell’s City of Books

sorcerer_front mech.inddSorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
I was not as enchanted by this Regency-era fantasy as many other reviewers, but I did enjoy it on the whole. It’s extremely difficult to do something original in this genre by now without undue strain, but Cho’s contribution does bring something new to the party with the titular sorcerer, a former slave who’s been vaulted by circumstance into the highest magical post of the realm. Even more fun is the apprentice who forces himself upon him, a mixed-race orphan who’s trying to escape from a life of drudgery and unfold her magical powers (which as a mere female she’s supposed to keep strictly under wraps). In spite of the appealing verve and energy of the writing, there were some derivative echoes of Temeraire and Strange & Norrell, and times when the author’s narrative skills didn’t keep pace with her ideas. I hope that as she matures as a writer we may find the sequels an improvement.
• September 1, 2015 from Ace
Sorcerer to the Crown at Powell’s City of Books

SecretChord copyThe Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
An acclaimed historical novelist gives us yet another beautifully told story drawn from history and legend, this one based around the Biblical figure of King David. She grounds and humanizes the myth in vividly imagined portraits of the people who surrounded David, making her central character the prophet Natan. As Natan strives to understand and reconcile his own perceptions and memories of David’s conflicted nature, other voices also come to life, most memorably the women whose lives were touched and sometimes broken by David’s powerful divine mission. As these fell away in the latter part of the book, I found that it lost focus somewhat, but I was still absorbed in the rich, complex portrayal of a man with a destiny that was sometimes greater than he could bear.
• October 6, 2015 from Viking
The Secret Chord at Powell’s City of Books


CelticTempA Celtic Temperament: Robertson Davies as Diarist, edited by Jennifer Surridge and Ramsay Derry
And for something completely different, here’s the latest posthumous publication from one of my all time favorite novelists and essayists, the Canadian literary magus Robertson Davies. Davies was a voluminous diarist who kept multiple journals of his private and working life, and to publish them all would be a massive task (an online version is in the works). In this volume the editors have selected and interleaved about half of his output for the years 1959 to 1963. This was an important period of his life that included both a major failure — his play “Love and Libel” flopped in New York — and a significant new step — his appointment as Master of the new Massey College of the University of Toronto, and his involvement in its founding and construction. As opposed to the retrospective view of a memoirist or autobiographer, the diarist doesn’t know what is coming next in his story, and this gives it an immediacy that is very engaging. Though I was personally more interested in the theater portions of the diary than in the details of college funding and furnishing, I still read it from cover to cover with great appreciation for this glimpse into the life of one of the most intellectually stimulating writers I know.
• October 6, 2015 from McClelland and Stewart

An advance reading copy of The Secret Chord and a finished copy of A Celtic Temperament were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.

New Reprint Review: Heather, Oak, and Olive

Rosemary Sutcliff, Heather, Oak, and Olive: Three Stories (1971)

HeatherOakOlive_72_largeThis slim collection of stories by Rosemary Sutcliff takes us to three different historical settings — tribal Wales, Roman Britain, and ancient Greece — with the author’s characteristically vivid sense of place and time. In each story, a pair of young people forges bonds of loyalty and friendship that go against custom and circumstance.

I enjoyed all the stories, but the third one, “A Crown of Wild Olive,” was the one that stood out for me. This tale of an Athenian boy and a Spartan boy competing in the Olympic games was subtle and gracefully written, and gave a true sense of what such an experience might have been like. The ending brought the stories to a close in a poignant and thoughtful way.

Sensitive line drawings throughout by Victor Ambrus complement the text beautifully. The cover and typography are also nicely done. This is a small delight for fans of Rosemary Sutcliff and historical fiction, and I’m glad it’s been brought back into print.

The publisher, Paul Dry Books, is one that I had not come across before, and I’m intrigued by its eclectic, intelligent list. Heather, Oak, and Olive is the latest entry in the “Nautilus” series of reprints of forgotten classics for young people. Definitely worth a look, if you’re interested in discovering treasures from the past that go beyond the everyday bestsellers.


The Wolves Chronicles, Part Two

Joan Aiken, The Stolen Lake (1981)
Joan Aiken, Dangerous Games (1998)

StolenLakeFor my next installment of a series of posts considering Joan Aiken’s “Wolves Chronicles” (for lack of a better name, the series begun with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and mostly featuring Dido Twite as the protagonist), I’m departing slightly from my general intention of reading the series in order of publication. Instead, I’m grouping together the two books that Aiken herself published out of chronological order. After The Cuckoo Tree (1971), which concluded a five-book sequence written within a single decade, Aiken waited another decade before publishing the next book in the series. And rather than picking up the story where she had left off, with Dido’s reunion with her friend Simon in England, she went back to an adventure that happened while Dido was en route from Nantucket to England on the HMS Thrush.

And what an adventure it is! The alternative history of the first few books in the series, with their marauding packs of English wolves and dastardly Hanoverians plotting to overthrow good King James III, appears almost plausible in comparison to Aiken’s radical revisioning of history and legend in The Stolen Lake. In place of South America we have Roman Britain, colonized by an unlikely alliance of Welsh and Roman settlers in the sixth century (and somehow, some Spanish has gotten mixed in there too, as shown by name combinations like Manuel Jones and Davie Gomez). The queen of New Cumbria has summoned Captain Hughes of the Thrush to her aid, and Dido is reluctantly dragged along. There Dido makes some appalling discoveries regarding the strange absence of young girls in the land, and the peculiar preoccupations of the queen, who is awaiting the return of her husband from a very long sleep…

Aiken’s wild imagination is abundantly on display in this book, and there’s definitely not a dull moment. While I enjoyed it overall, I found it somewhat less satisfying than the earlier books. The weirdness of Welsh settlers wearing togas amid Incan ruins is certainly original, but doesn’t quite gel into any meaningful cross-cultural satire, and the return-of-the-king plot ends up somewhat buried in the mishmash of different elements. The exuberant storytelling pulls us along, but at the end we may scratch our heads and think, “What was that?” The highlight, for me, was the series of brief stories told to Dido by the mysteriously appearing and disappearing minstrel Bran. Open-ended, ambiguous, and disconcerting, they raise the narrative above the ranks of mere page-turners.

DangerousGamesA full seventeen years later, after writing about Dido’s return to England and some of her further adventures, Aiken decided to go back and chronicle another episode from her sea voyage in Dangerous Games (Limbo Lodge in the UK). Here, we have an even more exotic location in the vaguely Indonesian island of Aratu, where Dido and co. are sent to find an English aristocrat who has been looking for games to help heal ailing King Jamie. I found this the weakest installment so far; besides the far-fetched premise, it has an unfocused story that wanders all over the place amid a cast of unconvincing pidgin-speaking natives with mysterious superpowers. The title seems to promise a kind of gaming showdown, but that never materializes; in spite of the “dangers” of Aratu there’s a strange lack of conflict and character development. This is one episode that even rabid fans of Dido could skip, in my opinion.

After this interlude in foreign climes, I’m definitely ready to go back to England with Dido and Pa. I find that Aiken’s imaginative world works best when it’s founded in her own culture and language, upon which she can ring changes like nobody else.

Read for the RIP X Challenge hosted by The Estella Society


Shiny New Books


The fall issue of Shiny New Books came out this week, and as usual there are so many tempting titles to explore…it’s going to keep me busy for some time. In the blowing my own horn department, I had two pieces included:

Suspense with Style: The Novels of Mary Stewart is in the BookBuzz section. I wanted to call attention to the new Chicago Review Press editions of Stewart’s suspense novels, but that wasn’t allowed in the Reprints section (UK editions only in there). I enjoyed pulling together some of my earlier posts about this favorite author and adding a teaser for her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?

My review of Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories celebrates the new UK edition from Virago Children’s Classics. Now readers on both sides of the pond can enjoy these delightfully funny and magical stories.

MadamTalk  SerialGarden


I do hope you’ll check them out, and sample other shiny new delights as well.

In Brief: New Releases for Young Readers

GoodbyeStranger  Marvels  HiredGirl


This fall, three of today’s brightest names in writing for children and young adults have new titles out. Even if you haven’t read their previous award-winning works, and whatever your age, these are all worth a look.

Goodbye, Stranger by Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me; Liar and Spy)
With its mature themes of social media abuse and sexual teasing, along with fluctuating viewpoints and jumps in time, Stead’s latest may be a challenging read for the middle-school age group it’s aimed at. But it’s a challenge that could be well worth taking, as at the heart of this story are genuine, relatable, questioning young characters who in their varying ways are searching for the meaning of selfhood. They make mistakes, sometimes serious ones, but find the courage to try again and re-forge broken relationships. Some of the solutions seemed a bit pat to me, but the quietly eloquent writing carried me along and the hopeful, sweet ending made me smile.
August 4, 2015 from Wendy Lamb

The Marvels by Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret; Wonderstruck)
Author-illustrator Selznick starts his story with (mostly) wordless pictures — nearly 400 pages of them, creating a historical-theatrical extravaganza that intrigued me greatly. I wasn’t as enamored of the second, narrative part of the book, which seems to go initially in a completely different direction before returning to the image-story with a twist of perspective. Ironically enough, the “real story” rang less true to me than the fantasy, too heavy with Meaningful Issues and forced connections that didn’t feel genuine. An interesting experiment that fell somewhat flat.
September 15, 2015 from Scholastic

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz (A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, Splendors and Glooms)
This was far and away my favorite of the three, a historical novel in diary form written by a fourteen-year-old Joan, a farm girl in 1911 Pennsylvania who hopes for a better life. As articulated by Schlitz, Joan’s voice is alternately funny, fierce, and vulnerable, as she bravely — but very naively — makes her way from an oppressive family to employment that has its own risks and challenges. The unusual exploration of clashing minority religions (Joan is Catholic; her employers are Jewish) is sensitively done, and the historical setting is fully and convincingly realized. Many facets of history and culture are seamlessly integrated, from the chapter titles taken from real works of art that Joan might have seen, to the origins of the Baltimore school founded by progressive Jews where Schlitz works today as a librarian. A pleasure from beginning to end.
September 8, 2015 from Candlewick

Advance reading copies were received from the publishers for review consideration. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.


More Women in Translation: Two by Astrid Lindgren

To celebrate Women in Translation Month, today I’m highlighting a piece I did earlier this summer for Shiny New Books, in which I reviewed two classics by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren that are now available in lovely new editions from the New York Review Children’s Collection. Lindgren is one of the world’s most-translated authors, but many of her books are hard to find in English. These two show her range and versatility in writing for children, and are definitely worth seeking out.

SeacrowIf you’ve been lucky enough to spend summers as a child in a special place, you know that they carry a most particular magic. The long days of precious freedom, the siren call of wind and wave, the friends and neighbors one sees at no other time or place, caught out of the everyday world into a golden realm of potential. . . it’s an experience you can never forget.

Such a place and such an experience is evoked in Astrid Lindgren’s Seacrow Island, reissued in May by the New York Review Children’s Collection. The Swedish author is best known for writing the instant worldwide classic Pippi Longstocking, but in her own country she published over forty children’s books, as well as plays and screenplays, and was a respected children’s book editor, animal rights activist, and humanitarian. In Scandinavia, Seacrow Island is one of her most popular works (it was actually first written as a television series), but has been out of print in English since 1971.

That it’s now back is cause for celebration, because this is an absolute gem. Set in the Stockholm archipelago where Lindgren spent her own summers, it follows the adventures of a family that rents a tumbledown cabin sight unseen and fills it with their love and warmth, winning our hearts completely along the way. The father and head of the family is the well-meaning but disaster-prone Melker (a writer); then there’s nineteen-year-old daughter Malin, eminently sensible and kind in her role as surrogate mother to her young siblings, but becoming dangerously attractive to young men; robust Johan and Niklas, at twelve and thirteen, looking for and finding all kinds of adventure; and sensitive seven-year-old Pelle, who has a very special connection to animals great and small. . .

Check out the full review at Shiny New Books.

mio_my_sonThough it’s full of the magic of summer, Seacrow Island is a realistic book, without the fantasy elements that permeate much of Lindgren’s other writing. An example of her work in this mode is Mio, My Son, also reprinted by the New York Review Children’s Collection in May, and also an overlooked treasure.

Karl Anders Nilsson, an unwanted foster child in Stockholm, learns through a mysterious message that he is really the long-lost son of the King of Farawayland. He travels “by day and by night” to rejoin his father and become the beloved prince Mio. But all is not well in Farawayland. With his new friend Pompoo and his beautiful flying horse Miramis, Mio must fight evil Sir Kato, who has snatched other children away and imprisoned them in his desolate Outer Land.

It’s a familiar fairy tale theme, and Lindgren brings the best qualities of the literary fairy tale into play: images of beauty and delight as well as darkness and danger; the impossible quest of the small and weak to conquer the strong and mighty; a sustaining faith in the power of love. The language is poetic and evocative, but not overly lofty; the first-person narration by Mio speaks directly to the child reader of around his age, between seven and ten. . .

Check out the full review at Shiny New Books.

The Wolves Chronicles, Part One

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
Joan Aiken, Black Hearts in Battersea (1964)
Joan Aiken, Nightbirds on Nantucket (1966)
Joan Aiken, The Whispering Mountain (1968)
Joan Aiken, The Cuckoo Tree (1971)

PicMonkey Wolves1-5I don’t remember what it was that inspired me to do a reread of Joan Aiken’s twelve “Wolves Chronicles” (and a first read of the later volumes, which I never got around to) — probably it was one of Calmgrove‘s wonderfully detailed and informative reviews. At any rate, once I started I realized that twelve books is a large chunk to take in all at once, so I decided to split up the series. Upon a closer look, I noticed that the first five books were published in quick succession, within a single decade from 1962 to 1971, after which there would be a ten-year gap before the next installment. I decided to read these five first, in publication order rather than according to internal chronology (some of the later books fill in gaps in the earlier story).

One of my very first reviews on this blog was of the first volume, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I’ll just add that the 2012 e-book edition I picked up for this re-read includes an enlightening new introduction by Joan’s daughter, Lizza Aiken, as well as the original illustrations by Pat Marriott, which are splendid. Marriott had a longtime partnership with Aiken that unfortunately has been ignored in later editions of the books, and this is the first time I’ve seen her pictures in context. I also love the original cover illustrations, shown above on the first UK editions from Jonathan Cape. I covet these now.

Wolves was a sort of warm-up, with Aiken getting into a style and era in her first published novel. It’s the second volume, Black Hearts in Battersea, which introduces the “Hanoverian” motif that becomes a distinguishing feature of the series. The idea is that the Stuarts have remained on the British throne — the current king is James III — while the Georgian line has been reduced to the status of pretenders and usurpers. They are always hatching up dastardly plots, each more ridiculous than the last, to be foiled by the loyal subjects of the king. In this volume the main character is the worthy young orphan Simon (a supporting cast member from Wolves), who comes to London to attend art school and finds himself in a nest of Hanoverians. Confronted by a dizzying succession of disguises, missing heirs, abductions, thefts and assassinations, he must use his calm good sense to navigate through it all. I find that in this book Aiken’s ability to balance the sinister and the absurd really shines through. Quite chilling scenes of danger and mystery are leavened with large doses of humor, as when the queen’s oversized tapestry proves to be an important life-saving device — several times, no less. Although the whole thing is definitely over the top, the silliness has a ballast of seriousness underneath.

Illustration by Pat Marriott from The Cuckoo Tree

Most important in this regard is Simon’s befriending of the lonely, neglected child Dido Twite, who defies her family to help him. Simon finds a home and a family at the end of the book, but Dido is seemingly lost at sea, a rather melancholy conclusion. Happily, in Nightbirds on Nantucket, we learn that Dido has been saved by a passing whaler. She wants to return home as soon as possible, but is enlisted to first help the captain’s timid daughter, whom he is delivering to an aunt on Nantucket. Complications necessarily ensue, with more Hanoverian plots, imposters, cruel caregivers, and unusually-pigmented marine mammals. The silliness threatens to get a bit out of hand here, but it’s nice to see Dido come into her own and become a stronger and more self-determining character.

This is where most versions of the sequence move on to another book about Dido, but the next one actually published was The Whispering Mountain. Somewhat tangential to the series, without a Hanoverian plot or a Twite in sight, I find that it fits quite nicely here. It introduces two characters who become important in the next book — the Prince of Wales, and (off-stage) Captain Hughes, whose son, Owen Hughes, is unhappily languishing in Wales with his gruff grandfather while the Captain’s whereabouts are unknown. (From the previous book we know that his ship, the Thrush, was lately in Nantucket.) Owen becomes embroiled in a plot to steal a marvelous golden harp that his grandfather has in his museum. Wicked Lord Malyn wants it to add to his collection of golden objects, and will stop at nothing to get it. Meanwhile, under the mountain there are secrets to be found, and a people to be rescued. In this book Aiken gets to show off her verbal dexterity, with the Prince speaking with a broad Scottish accent, Owen’s friends melodious Welsh, the villainous thugs a thieves’ cant of their own, and the exotic Seljuk of Rum a pastiche of Orientalisms. It would be interesting to analyze the book to see how much of it is actually standard English — and how little it really matters. The word-music takes on a life and energy of its own, and carries us along as surely as the tones of the magical harp. This wonderful and lesser-known book should take its rightful place in Aiken’s most popular series.

Moving on to the next volume, The Cuckoo Tree, we re-join Dido, who is trying to help the injured Captain Hughes to deliver an important dispatch to London before the Prince is crowned as King Richard IV. Sidelined by a carriage accident, she ends up in a remote hamlet full of smugglers, witches, and double-dealing Hanoverians. This book contains the most sinister villains so far, two truly evil witches who cannot fail to give you a shiver. But Dido, resourceful and persistent as ever, finds new friends in unexpected places, and endears herself to the reader as well. Though she’s only been the main character in two books so far, it’s here that she becomes the center of the series.

It’s not possible for me to fully convey the atmosphere of these books in my poor summaries, which can only indicate a few of the incidents and themes that Aiken works so playfully into her vivacious stories. Representatives of sober reality they are not, but if you like a literary confection with a nineteenth century flavor, they are great fun. I enjoyed my five-book foray into Wolves territory, and am looking forward to the next installment. And I’m picking up some of Aiken’s adult novels to read in honor of Austen in August — stay tuned!


Old Friends and New Fancies: An Old-Fashioned Girl

Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869-70)


An Old-Fashioned Girl is really two books. The first few chapters appeared as a serial in a magazine, and form an episodic narrative centered around a materially poor but morally upright girl who is on a visit to some wealthy friends. Polly, the “old-fashioned girl,” loves the Shaws but is baffled by how they can be so discontented and naughty when they have so much to be grateful for. Under her gentle influence, they begin to see the error of their ways.

The second, longer section is headed “Six Years Later” and (by popular demand, it seems) follows the young people as they grow up and make their way in the world. Polly, determined to support herself and help her family, is teaching music in Boston, a completely honorable undertaking which nevertheless in her day meant putting herself outside the bounds of polite society. Her friend Fanny, is restless and dissatisfied, unwilling to pursue any purpose in her life beyond the social round and the marriage market. Fanny’s brother Tom is enjoying himself but learning little in college, while Polly’s brother Will earnestly works toward a future as a minister. The rest of the novel chronicles some of their trials and triumphs, along with a dash of romance.

As usual in Alcott’s children’s books, there is an overtly didactic strain to the narrative, with small lectures about honesty, hard work, and selflessness. Although that did not bother me unduly, I found the characters to be less distinctive and nuanced than in Little Women, and Polly is a bit too much of a paragon to fully blossom into life. But there are some scenes of the type that Alcott does best, portraying the domestic details of family life with a wry sense of humor. She also gives us an unusual, sympathetic portrait of the life of a nineteenth-century working woman. I don’t think Alcott was unaware of the irony embedded in her title — her “old-fashioned girl” is actually the one who is least a slave to fashion and the most in tune with what she truly wants and needs. By remaining steadfastly “old-fashioned,” Polly heralds the new, forward-looking potential of women for self-determination and independence.

Along these lines, in the middle of the second part there’s a startling scene where Polly introduces Fanny to some of her friends, a community of happy, busy single women with vocations of various kinds. One of them is an artist working on a sculpture of the woman of the future, a figure she refuses to portray holding any of the conventional female symbolic attributes in her hands. At her feet, along with a needle, a pen, and other instruments of her power, the sculptor places a ballot box — quite a daring statement for the time.

Alas, after this the story devolves into a fairly conventional love quadrangle plot. There’s a reversal of fortune, which allows for a demonstration of how moral character is developed through poverty. Misunderstandings cause some tension and suffering, but reconciliation comes in the end. In a mischievous coda, after promising to match up everyone in sight, Alcott leaves one of her characters as a contented spinster — a hint at how she might have stretched the bounds of convention, if she hadn’t felt compelled to defer to her audience.

In the scene referred to above, Alcott also seems to have placed a self-portrait, an author who “wrote a popular book by mistake” and now is worn-out and ill, a slave to her own success. It’s endlessly fascinating and frustrating to contemplate what Alcott might have produced if she had been able to develop her talent more freely, bolstered by good health and financial security. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, she at least gives us some glimpses.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Children’s Classic 
Classics Club List #28 


New Reprint Review: The Mark of the Horse Lord

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)

MarkHorseLordI haven’t read much Rosemary Sutcliff, but I really need to change that. This new edition of The Mark of the Horse Lord from Chicago Review Press brings one of Sutcliff’s classic works of historical fiction back into print 50 years after its original publication, and it’s a stunner. Winner of the very first Phoenix Award, it’s a perfectly paced, thrilling, emotionally engaging foray into that time period that Sutcliff made her own: the Roman occupation of Britain. In this story of a gladiator from a frontier town who ends up as chief of the Dalriadain (better known to us as the Scots), both Roman and British culture are brought vividly, savagely to life.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because I want you to have the pleasure of having it unfold according to Sutcliff’s intentions; it is masterfully done. I will say that I wouldn’t have thought that I could pick up a book about a gladiator, a finely honed fighting machine, and be so instantly drawn into his drama and sympathize so fully with his quest. Phaedrus is a magnificent character, and in The Mark of the Horse Lord you will meet many others: Conory, his companion and rival; Murna, the woman who is a true match for him; Sinnoch, a wily horse trader. You will feel you have really inhabited the past with them, and touched the spirit of the northern tribes, which is at once foreign and familiar.

Sutcliff’s prose style is a joy to read, and beautifully creates an atmosphere and a mood without distracting from the drive of the narrative. Every word begs to be read and savored.

Phaedrus found himself riding at the head of a fiery cloud of horsemen that churned the glen trails to a puddled slush; and his ears were full of the soft rolling thunder of hooves and the exultant throat-cries of the riders.


It was Murna’s face looking up at him, gray-white and somehow ragged, as though in pulling off the bridal mask he had torn holes in something else, some inner defense that she was naked and terrified without.


“What has the Great Mother to do with gentle or ungentle? She does not do, she only is. She is the Lady of Life and Death.”

This is one of those books where age-related labels don’t really fit well at all. Published as a children’s book, it could indeed be read by a child and be an extraordinary and transformative reading experience. Its mature themes and violence make it more what we would call “YA” today (a label that didn’t exist 50 years ago). But it can, and should, be read by anyone who loves history, or thinking about what motivates human beings, or the British landscape and people, or great writing. It’s going on my shelf along with other favorites by Mary Renault, Naomi Mitchison, and Robert Graves, and I hope you will add it to yours as well.

Classics Club List #9
1985 Phoenix Award Winner