Tag: Rosemary Sutcliff


Review – Sword at Sunset

Posted 15 July, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Sword at Sunset by Rosemary SutcliffSword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff

Originally posted 24th February, 2011

I didn’t think I was going to like Sword at Sunset as much as I typically like Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, even though it was surely combining two of my favourite things — Sutcliff’s writing and realism, and Arthurian myth. It began slowly, I think, and it was a surprising change of tone for Sutcliff — her books are mainly written for children (of any age!), but this book had decidedly adult themes, with the incest and more explicit references to sexuality than I’d expected. It’s also unusual for her in that it’s written in first person, and narrated by Arthur himself.

It also, to my surprise, had a couple of LGBT themes — a gay couple among Arthur’s men, to begin with, and then the relationship between himself and Bedwyr. There’s no Lancelot here, and Bedwyr takes that place in many ways, but with more of a shown relationship than I’ve ever found typical between Arthur and Lancelot. It brought tears to my eyes several times, especially this moment: “I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms around his shoulders.”

There’s nothing explicit about them, at all, but their bond has a profoundness about it, even after hurt and betrayal, that defies easy categorisation.

The relationship between Arthur and Guinevere is also an interesting one, and again one that makes no shortcuts using the existing myth, but builds up something believable alone. His relationship with her, the odd barriers between them, and the attempts to reach each other, and their love that isn’t quite enough to bridge that gap… It’s all believable.

The whole book takes some pains to be believable, emotionally, and historically. The themes, characters, etc, all seem to have some explanations for how the story could develop later… Bedwyr somewhat in the place that Lancelot takes later, Medraut almost exactly as he will be later, the moment in which Arthur realises how the badge he chooses for battle will be translated into that text which talks about him carrying the image of the Virgin Mary… And they’re all aware of how the stories will be magnified, too. It’s an interesting way to put it.

Oh, and I forgot to mention it when I first wrote this review, but I was fascinated by Gwalchmai, despite his relatively minor role. It’s odd: he isn’t related to Arthur (one of the constants of the Arthurian tradition more generally), and though he is a fighter, his main role is that of surgeon. He’s also disabled. I don’t think I’ve seen a portrayal of Gawain/Gwalchmai quite like this anywhere else.

It took me a while to get into Sword at Sunset, but it was worth trusting Rosemary Sutcliff and going with it.

Rating: 5/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 2 February, 2016 by Nikki in General / 6 Comments

This week’s theme from The Broke and Bookish is about past and future settings, so I decided to pick out ten historical/alternate history settings which I’ve loved. I’m pretty eclectic and a good story can get me interested in just about any period, so this might be a rather mixed list…

Cover of Farthing, by Jo Walton Cover of Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates by Kerry Greenwood Cover of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro Cover of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke Cover of Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

  1. Farthing, Jo Walton. This alternate history is set post-WWII, and asks, what if we compromised with Nazi Germany? What happens then? What societal creep, what slow insidious curtailing of freedom? It’s a heartbreaking trilogy, full of characters to love and hate, and I think Jo does a great job evoking that version of Britain.
  2. The Phryne Fisher books by Kerry Greenwood. I never thought of Australia as a setting I’d like to read about, but I am greatly enjoying this whole series, and the era. I have ghostwritten a book with a flapper heroine, so that might help with my fascination with Phryne and her Melbourne.
  3. Arthurian Britain, in all kinds of books. Or post-Arthurian, in the case of The Buried Giant. It’s quite a wide field, really; some people have a Romanised Arthur, some a very Saxon Arthur. There’s some great stuff which contextualises Arthur in various historical periods — Bernard Cornwell being a good example of an anti-Saxon, post-Roman Arthur.
  4. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke. The way the magic is integrated into the early nineteenth century and its history works perfectly for me. It’s a long book, but so rich in detail and care that I don’t mind a second of it.
  5. Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan. That whole series, really — and some other books featuring the exploits of women in that sort of period, like Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency fantasies. Finding a bigger place for women in history? A+++.
  6. The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff. Whatever inaccuracies there might be in Sutcliff’s work, it feels right. I’ve always loved her Roman/post-Roman Britain books, and pretty much everything she writes has a fantastic sense of time and place. The Eagle of the Ninth I’ve always loved especially, because it takes a historical mystery and examines it, tries to explain it through fiction.
  7. The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, Gillian Bradshaw. Along with Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium and the sequel, this book opened my eyes to the possibility of historical fiction set in Constantinople. This wasn’t a period of history I knew well or thought much about, but now I’d happily pick up more books set there.
  8. Dissolution, C.J. Sansom. And other medieval/renaissance detective stories, like the Cadfael books, too. But this one felt especially rooted in the time period, shaped by the politics and issues of the time.
  9. Outlaw, Angus Donald. Okay, that book itself wasn’t one of my favourites, but that whole period dealing with Robin Hood? Like the Arthurian stories, I love it when writers choose to make Robin Hood feel as real as possible.
  10. Greek/Roman settings. That encompasses Rosemary Sutcliff’s work in some ways, and Jo Walton’s Thessaly books too. It’s just a great period of time with all kinds of things going on, where you can introduce mythic elements or figures that have become legendary now, at the same time as peopling the streets of Rome or Pompeii with ancient people.

Cover of The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff Cover of The Bearkeeper's Daughter, by Gillian Bradshaw Cover of Dissolution by C.J. Sansom Cover of Outlaw by Angus Donald Cover of The Just City by Jo Walton

So yeah, quite a mixed bag. Looking forward to seeing what other people have this week!

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Review – The Hollow Hills

Posted 14 November, 2015 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Hollow Hills by Mary StewartThe Hollow Hills, Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books are certainly very different to her romance/mystery ones. It’s much more the world of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset than the sort of world her heroines inhabit in the modern stories: one of uncertain magic and prophecy, of blood and hatred and death. And it comes out much less positive about female characters. There are few prominent ones, and even mentions of women tend to be dark portents and shadows on the future Merlin foresees. But I do love the Welsh background, the Welsh names, the way that the different races of Britain are all represented here and are all Arthur’s subjects.

It’s doubly difficult to read this with any sense of suspense, though. First, Merlin knows what’s going to happen, at least broadly, and secondly, it’s the Arthurian legend. You can do surprising things with it, but Stewart sticks fairly close to the sources, which leaves very little room for surprising anyone who knows the source texts well. She plays the tropes relatively straight, too, and telegraphs all the usual causes of strife in Camelot well in advance. Arthur isn’t even acclaimed as king yet until the very end of the book, and already there’s foreshadowing for various betrayals. I really must look up Bedwyr’s involvement with Gwenhwyfar more — several modern tellings align him with her, and I can’t remember what might spark that.

Still, Stewart’s writing is good, and the sense of atmosphere she brings to the more far-flung settings for her romance/mystery stories is equally strong here, in the cold and damp corners of Britain. Her writing in this book reminds me a lot of Sutcliff, which can only be a compliment.

I do hope she’s more subtle with Morgause, Morgian and Gwenhwyfar, when they appear properly, though.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Song for a Dark Queen

Posted 3 July, 2015 by Nikki in Reviews / 5 Comments

Cover of Song for a Dark Queen by Rosemary SutcliffSong for a Dark Queen, Rosemary Sutcliff
Review from 10th November, 2011

I found, in a corner of my university library I’d never seen before, a couple of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books I hadn’t read. This was one of them — the story of Boudicca, as told by her harper, interspersed with extracts from the letters of a Roman soldier to his mother. I think this is maybe the most female-centric of Sutcliff’s books that I can think of, and yet it’s told in the voice of a man, so there’s that. As with all Sutcliff’s books, it was readable and well-paced, and well-researched: there’s a poetry to it, too. The end made me choke up a little, even.

I don’t know why I didn’t like it more. I think there was just something eroticised about Boudicca’s war-making, something discomforting — which is appropriate, in a way, for a dark queen… But why does her power come most when she’s eroticised and her children violated?

In that sense, too, I found it more violent than most of Sutcliff’s work — more adult, I guess. There’s references to rape, seemingly on both sides, and there’s a lot of blood and guts.

I rarely give advice to parents in my reviews, but this time I feel it’s warranted. I wouldn’t go so far as to say prevent your children from reading it, but I do think you should read this one first and assess whether your child would be alright with reading it. It discomforts me, as an adult woman; as a child, I don’t know whether the references would have gone over my head or not, but I think I would have caught the horror of it anyway.

Rating: 3/5

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 7 April, 2015 by in General / 21 Comments

This week’s theme from The Broke and the Bookish is top ten characters you want to check in on after the story is done. This is an awesome one — there are so many characters I wonder about!

  1. Anyone from The Goblin Emperor (Katherine Addison). Don’t make me choose (obviously I’d choose Maia and his wife if I had to). I know she’s not going to write a sequel (as such), so I feel free to wonder about aaaaall of the characters. And I love them all, and even those who aren’t nice… I want to know how things end up.
  2. Faramir from The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien). Total literary crush, ’nuff said. Plus, he’s with Eowyn, so you get a twofer there.
  3. Treebeard from The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s Middle-earth becomes our Europe, after all. What happens to the Ents? Where are they hiding?
  4. Caspian from Prince Caspian/Voyage of the Dawn Treader (C.S. Lewis). All of the books could’ve been about Caspian and Lucy having adventures and I’d have been happy.
  5. The Marquis de Carabas from Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman). He’s so awesome, and we know so little about him. Need to knooooowwww.
  6. Vetch from A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula Le Guin). He was so faithful to Ged, and yet we don’t really know what happened to him.
  7. Esca from The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff). We get a little bit of an idea what’s going to happen, but I want to know eveeerything.
  8. Mori from Among Others (Jo Walton). I know a certain amount of this is autobiographical, and I know Jo a little. But I want to know about Mori, where she goes, what she does. It could be anything.
  9. Peter Carmichael from the Small Change trilogy (Jo Walton). We don’t end the trilogy with him in a good place. At all. I want to see him heal. Or not. I want to see what happens to him and to society.
  10. Con from Sunshine (Robin McKinley). I love the vampire lore in this book, love the awkward alliance/bond that forms between Con and Sunshine. Give me moooore.

I wonder how weird my choices are compared to everyone else’s… Drop by and let me know!

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My Cup of Tea

Posted 15 February, 2015 by in General / 23 Comments

I think this would be a nice one to go viral: a post in which we celebrate the tropes we love instead of griping about the ones we don’t (which are, no doubt, someone else’s favourites). So thanks to Kaja from Of Dragons and Hearts, here is a post about tropes which are, so to speak, my cup of tea.*

  • The loveable rogue. Locke Lamora, I am looking at you right now, but also looking further back into my reading past: Jimmy the Hand, Crowley from Good Omens, Gaiman’s Marquis de Carabas… And perhaps best of all, though not from books: Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
  • The paladin. Joscelin Verreuil. Captain America.
  • The second son. Faramir. Arutha. Verity Farseer. Josua from The Dragonbone Chair. I don’t know what it is, but I tend to prefer the younger brother.
  • Heists. You have a really clever plan, you say? Morally dubious, you say? As long as it’s fiction, I’m along for the ride.
  • Superheroes. Uh. I’m not sure this even needed to be said. But not just guys like Steve Rogers, who have been altered for it, but the people who make themselves into heroes, too, like Hawkeye.
  • Moral ambiguity. Nobody’s perfect, and while a character who is a total bastard just isn’t fun for me, it’s nice when a character isn’t a total angel.
  • Guilty conscience. Perhaps especially when it’s not really that person’s fault. Like, say Steve Rogers blames himself for Bucky’s death — it’s not really his fault, he’s in no way a bad guy, but the fact that he can believe this makes him that bit more human and believable.
  • Dragons/elves/aliens are nothing like humans. Capricious, commanding, nothing like the regal/wise/enlightened creatures we expect? Interesting!
  • Friends like brothers. “I’m with you till the end of the line.” Gaaah. Gaaaaaah. Or Marcus and Esca, Locke and Jean, Fitz and Nighteyes, Dean and Castiel…
  • Secretly in love. Shut up, I am not a ginormous softie. I’m not!

*I may be British, but I don’t actually like tea. Chamomile tea or fruit teas, maybe. Mostly not.

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 20 May, 2014 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

I haven’t done the Top Ten Tuesday thing for a while, a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, but I like this topic — top ten books about friendship.

  1. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin. The friendship between Ged and Vetch, the quiet solid thereness of it… you know for sure that Vetch would never let you down if he could help it.
  2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. I actually thought of this because they’ve got it in their list, but it’s still true. Frodo and Sam, Legolas and Gimli… even, in a way, Frodo and Gollum, because Frodo manages to reach out with pity and sympathy to Smeagol.
  3. The Prize in the Game,Jo Walton. Ferdia and Darag. “Your name in my heart,” indeed. (Okay, there’s romantic aspects to that, but I think first and foremost they’re friends.)
  4. The Grey King, Susan Cooper. Bran and Will. The way they fit together, understand each other better than anyone else, and the way they still hurt each other because neither of them is perfect.
  5. Captain Marvel, Kelly Sue DeConnick. Carol and Steve! Carol and Jessica! Carol and Monica!
  6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker. Steve and Bucky. Just, Steve and Bucky. I know this is a movie quote but, “I’m with you till the end of the line.”
  7. The Summer Tree, Guy Gavriel Kay. Paul and Kevin, primarily, although all the bonds between the group are great. Kim and Jennifer, particularly. Just the way there are these deep loves that come entirely out of friendship. Guy Gavriel Kay is also pretty good at this in other books, too, like Tigana.
  8. The Universe Versus Alex Woods, Gavin Extence. Alex and Mr. Peterson. So unlikely, and yet Extence made me believe in it.
  9. Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff. Arthur and Bedwyr. Ouch, ouch. “I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms around his shoulders.”
  10. Good Omens, Neil Gaiman. Crowley and Aziraphale. Because of course.

I am a little bothered by the fact that almost all of those are male friendships. It’s partly a function of the books I’ve loved since I was a kid, before I was really choosy in any way about what I read, but still. Rec me your books with female friendship!

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Review – The Bearkeeper’s Daughter

Posted 12 March, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of The Bearkeeper's Daughter, by Gillian BradshawThe Bearkeeper’s Daughter, Gillian Bradshaw

I was really interested to read this, since it’s set in Constantinople, and I think in the same period as Guy Gavriel Kay’s Constantinople-analogue, Sarantium, in the Sarantine Mosaic books. Even in other fiction I’ve come across Theodora, both as a great and powerful woman and as a scheming whore. This version is a somewhat ambivalent one, seen through the eyes of her bastard son whom she cannot acknowledge but nonetheless loves and schemes for. I liked the way she was portrayed: her drives and ambitions made sense, came out of the real history we know Theodora had.

The story is more about her son, though, based on a rumour about Theodora from Procopius’ Secret History — a very Rosemary Sutcliff-like touch, to take a half-known story and expand it and develop it into something that could have been, like The Eagle of the Ninth. Her books are aimed more at adults, I think, but there’s still that same flavour to them from the ones I’ve read so far, and they touch on similar periods and topics.

I got really involved in this, gradually, drawn into the world of Constantinople and of the people Bradshaw gives us — I loved Narses and Anastasios, and though I didn’t think I would come to love her, Euphemia as well. Theodora, of course, and this version of Justinian, worked very well for me. There are some really powerful scenes, and while there’s a constraint and dryness to it in a way — it doesn’t step severely away from what we do know of the period — it still caught me up in a spell while I was reading.

When you read the blurb, it does sound as if it’s going to be somewhat sensational — bastard sons usually are a pretty dramatic complication, after all. But actually, it tries to steer a path between an interesting story and realism, and I really enjoyed watching that balancing act.

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 5 March, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What did you recently finish reading?
Volume two of Saga! I really love the comic timing this series has. I need to get my hands on volume 3 now.

Before that, I think it was Identically Different, which is a book on epigenetics, which I already enthused about at some length.

What are you currently reading?
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, still. I stalled on it because I was busy with work and then I get distracted by non-fiction, so, oops. I do want to get back to it, it’s atmospheric and interesting even though I’ve just realised I have no idea when it’s set. It has that sort of heavy gothic novel type atmosphere. Maybe a bit like the feel of some of Sarah Waters’ work, and Shirley Jackson.

The other thing I’m reading is The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, by Gillian Bradshaw. I really enjoy her historical fiction, there’s something very satisfying about it, and this one is set in Constantinople. It reminds me both of Rosemary Sutcliff’s work (though I think it helps that in my edition, it’s even set in the same font) and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic.

I’ve also read the first story in The Dragon Griaule, so presumably that’s up next. I’m intrigued by this version of dragon lore.

What do you think you’ll read next?
Well, the plan to read Retribution Falls (Chris Wooding) and Augustus (John Williams) came to nothing, so maybe those next? I do need to get working on reading stuff that I can’t drag back to Cardiff with me, so maybe Bear Daughter (Judith Berman).

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Review – Travel Light

Posted 3 January, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Travel Light, by Naomi MitchisonTravel Light, Naomi Mitchison

I came across this because of Amal El-Mohtar’s NPR review; the idea of a book in dialogue with Tolkien, by one of the women around him who he encouraged and listened to, definitely appealed: I think just recently I was asking if anyone’s written anything about Tolkien’s female students, about whom I know very little except that I’m sure I have been told they existed. (Time for a woman to write a biography of Tolkien? Move over, Humphrey Carpenter, Tom Shippey?)

And this book delivered. It is rather slight — it’s short, and on first glance, rather fable-like. Naomi Mitchison resisted any urge to insist on a moral, though: while there are religious people in the story, and Hella’s travelling light seems a virtue in her, there are good people who struggle with faith, good dragons who keep out of the gods’ way, and though for a while it looks as though there might be a moral about Christianity in there, then there’s also a bit of a wry look at the church in Constantinople, and it ends with some more Norse mythology. I don’t think she honestly ever pushes any moral except finding your way through life and being good to people and creatures, and in the meantime she has an intriguing wander through different cultures and traditions.

Mitchison is a lot less sure than Tolkien about the period and the people she wants to write about, I think. Tolkien talked about creating “a mythology for England”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Susan Cooper succeeds, but I don’t think Mitchison is as rooted in a place, an idea. Like her protagonist, she’s willing to wander. I wonder what a difference it’d have made to genre fiction now if Mitchison had a greater role, and Tolkien a lesser? Maybe we’d have less to worry about from the constant onslaught of medieval European fantasy.

It won’t scratch the same itch as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for sure. It’s a different sort of story — if you’re a fan of Le Guin, perhaps, it’s more like the stories of Earthsea. Or it’s like a more fantastical, more female Rosemary Sutcliff. Don’t read it for The Hobbit 2.0 — it’s something all its own.

Oh, and it can be quite amusing, too: Dragon Economics 101…

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