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The Lantern Bearers
Rosemary Sutcliff
Farrar, Straus, & Giroux/Sunburst, 280 pages

The Lantern Bearers
Rosemary Sutcliff

At 14, Rosemary Sutcliff attended the Bideford Art School where she specialized in the painting of miniatures. In 1950, she published her first children's book and some years later she was awarded the Carnegie Medal for The Lantern Bearers. She was given the OBE in 1975 for her services to children's literature.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

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I think every dedicated reader has childhood memories of discovering an author so wonderful that you couldn't wait to devour everything they had ever written. For me, Rosemary Sutcliff was such an author. I can still vividly recapture the magic of reading her books. It was a real pleasure to return to The Lantern Bearers, which I first read when I was about thirteen, and find the magic still intact.

The Lantern Bearers, published in 1959 and reprinted several times since, is set in the seventh century A.D., at the close of the Roman period in Britain. When the last Roman troops are recalled to Italy, Aquila, the young commander of a troop of cavalry, discovers that his love of his native Britain is stronger than his loyalty to the distant empire. He deserts, and returns home. But the Saxon threat is looming. Soon after his return, Aquila's home is overrun by Saxon raiders. His father is killed and his sister Flavia is kidnapped, and he himself is captured and made a thrall in a Saxon household. Three years later, he and Flavia meet again in a Saxon camp, and Aquila discovers that she has married a Saxon and has had a child. Though she helps Aquila to escape, he cannot forgive her for what he sees as a profoundly dishonorable surrender to the enemy.

Bitter at Flavia's betrayal and consumed with hatred for the Saxons, Aquila travels north to offer his service to Ambrosius, a Celtic prince who is the last inheritor of the mantle of Roman authority in Britain. Over the fifteen years that follow he takes part in the long battle to throw the Saxon invaders back into the sea -- years of suffering and sacrifice but also of love and friendship, in the course of which Aquila learns to relinquish his bitterness, and to better understand his sister's choice. In the end, the decisive victory is won, and Ambrosius is crowned High King of Britain. It is not merely a triumph of Briton over Saxon, but a last defiant lifting of the light of Romano-Celtic civilization against the encroaching barbarian dark.

The Lantern Bearers is a wonderful book. Sutcliff's style, pacing, and characterization are head and shoulders above much of what passes for young adult fiction these days. She possesses a unique gift for description, evoking an atmosphere and a sense of place so intense that the reader can almost see the world in which her characters move. She has a matchless ability to establish historical context without a surfeit of the "let's learn a history lesson now" exposition that mars many historical novels. Her books are never less than meticulously researched, but her recreation of the past is so effortless and so real that one has no sense of an academic exercise, but rather of a world as close and immediate as everyday.

The Lantern Bearers isn't truly a fantasy novel, but it does touch upon one of the great fantasy themes: Arthur, future High King of Britain, whom Aquila first encounters as a child in Ambrosius's camp, and who later leads one of the decisive charges in the final battle against the Saxons. The Arthurian theme was one of Sutcliff's favorites: she produced several young adult books on the subject, as well as a beautiful adult novel, Sword at Sunset, to my mind one of the best ever written in this genre. But the character Sutcliff presents is rooted as much in history as in myth. Her Arthur is not just the tragic king of Le Morte d'Arthur, or the heroic/magical figure of traditional Arthurian fantasy, but a man who might actually have existed, heir to both the memory of Rome and the last great flowering of Celtic power in Britain.

In the course of her career, Sutcliff wrote nearly forty books. Many of them are still in print, testifying to her enduring popularity. It is richly merited: she is, quite simply, one of the best.

Copyright © 1997 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. For an excerpt of her Avon Eos novel, The Arm of the Stone, visit her Web site.


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