This is really a YA book, but the writing and sentiments are very adult. Although it’s the third in a trilogy, it works just as well as a standalone book. Set in the Dark Ages. Aquila is a British born soldier for the Roman Army who deserts when the Romans leave the British shores for good.
“Why should a deserter take the trouble to light Rutupiae Beacon?” Aquila demanded, and his voice sounded rough in is own ears.
“Maybe in farewell, maybe in defiance. Maybe to hold back the dark for one more night.”
Heading back to his family home, he barely has any time with his beloved sister and father when the Saxons invade and take everything. He watched his father killed and his sister carried off, before he is captured as a slave. The Lantern Bearers tells his story of his escape from slavery and subsequent search for revenge. He joins up with Ambrosius, the so-called Prince of Britain to fight the Saxons.
So Aquila took his father’s service upon him. It wasn’t as good as love; it wasn’t as good as hate; but it was something to put into the emptiness within him; better than nothing at all.
I loved this book as a teenager, and loved it even more now. It would be hard not to feel for Aquila and to sympathise for his cause. The quality of Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing lifts what could be a good story to being something of pure delight, littered throughout with quotes that I would read and read again, just to enjoy one more time.
The wind blustered in from the sea, setting the horses’ manes streaming sideways, and the gulls wheeled mewing against the blue-and-grey tumble of the sky; and Aquila, riding a little aside from the rest as usual, caught for a moment from the wind and the gulls and the wet sand and the living, leaping power of the young red mare under him, something of the joy of simply being alive that he had taken for granted in the old days.
Aquila is always alone, it becomes part of who he is, even when he eventually takes a wife.
But tonight, because Rome had fallen and Felix was dead, because of Valerius’s shame, the empty hut seemed horribly lonely, and there was a small aching need in him for somebody to notice, even if they were not glad, that he had come home.
There is a beauty and a poignancy to this story and it is one that I would recommend to any teen or adult with an interest in the period. One of the fabulous things about Sutcliff’s writing is the simple way she explain complex issues – her skill at writing for a younger audience. One thing’s for sure, I’ll re-read this again before too long. 5/5