Monday, May 20, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

How I love a good old-fashioned Roman adventure drama. I don’t pick up books set in Rome very often – what’s left after Colleen McCullough and Lindsey Davis? – but whenever I do, I enjoy the read. And my current choice, particularly so.

The Eagle of the Ninth is a classic piece of historical fiction, written in 1954, by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was aimed at older children or perhaps young adults before there was a young adult genre. I think Rosemary Sutcliff was primarily known as a children’s author. I’ve had the book on my shelf for a few years now, so I’ll be triple-dipping my challenges: historical fiction, TBR pile challenge, and Back to the Classics Challenge (a classic adventure.)

In this emotionally satisfying tale, young Marcus Aquila, a Roman centurion, takes command of his first cohort in a posting to the frontier in Britain. He asked for the post because Britain is where his father had disappeared many years earlier while leading an entire legion. The Ninth Hispana had marched off into the mists and never returned. Many rumors sprang up over the years, but no one knew what really happened. Marcus dreamed of somehow discovering the truth. He wanted to restore the honor of the lost legion.

Unfortunately, although Marcus is a fine soldier and inspiring leader, he’s severely wounded in the first battle his cohort faces. The life he anticipated is effectively over.

Marcus is packed off to the home of an elderly uncle, a soldier who had retired in Britain. He’s made welcome there and he makes a slow recovery. One day, his uncle takes him to witness some games, and two important things happen. First, he meets Cottia, the young niece of his uncle’s neighbors. Cottia is quite a bit younger than Marcus, but not so much younger that it will always matter. Second, he watches a young gladiator lose a battle and, without quite knowing why, he sways the crowd to grant the young fighter mercy. Afterward, Marcus purchases the gladiator, Esca, to be his body-slave.

Just about the time that Marcus is well enough to fret about what he will do with the rest of his life, an old friend of his uncle’s, another legate, passes through on the way to Rome. He is carrying a rumor. A bare hint of a rumor. The eagle of the Ninth (meaning the eagle-shaped piece of statuary that the standard-bearer for the legion carried, the symbol of the Roman legion) had been spotted somewhere up in the north, in the barbarian country, in one of the Holy places. It was thought perhaps the barbarians might one day use it to rally their warriors to rebel against Rome.

If only there was a man who could sneak in to the Northern lands and find out if the rumor were even true. And if it was true, take back the eagle. If the legate had such a man under his command, he would certainly send him, even though the dangers are terrible and the chance of success is negligible.

Of course, Marcus volunteers.

Marcus and Esca set off. It’s no cinematic car chase, although some scenes are quietly thrilling. But it is a steady adventure. With the odds against them, they persevere. They demonstrate all the traditional "Roman" values. For some reason, I’m able to cast aside my cynical self and just enjoy watching Marcus and Esca being noble, strong, and buddy-buddy. Their enemies are all good guys too. They are able to see each other’s viewpoints and respect them, even if they don’t entirely understand them. Marcus knows he can’t make the "wild people" understand his loyalty to Rome, but they will understand that he must keep faith with his father. So, he explains that he has come to take back his father’s eagle. It’s a personal quest, not a military one. In very many ways, he is telling the truth. The journey transforms Marcus too. Early on, Marcus is someone who cannot understand why anyone would not want what Rome has to offer. Why would the barbarians reject Roman civilization? After spending time in the north, he seems to better appreciate the way of life they want to preserve.

So, there is more going on in the story than the simple retrieving of the eagle and restoring of the good name of the Ninth Legion—or not. Does he succeed? It is a pretty tall order.

I highly recommend this book. It’s short and, it’s, well, classic.

The only problem is, this is the first book in a trilogy. I thought I was trimming my TBR pile, but rather than clearing one book off of it, I now have to add two more to it!