Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The Eagle, by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle is at its best as a historical adventure novel, and for the most part, that's what it is. As vast as we often think humanity's knowledge is, there are far more unknowns than knowns, especially when it comes to history. In the case of The Eagle, one unknown is what happened to the Roman Ninth Legion, in the year AD 117, that caused it to disappear in northern Britain, and why its standard, called a Roman Eagle, was found far away from its last known position. Sutcliff writes a convincing portrayal of what may have been, fascinating in her use of realistic details and characterizations - characterizations that are different from how we might behave today, but not all that different as to be unrecognizable. While sometimes slow-paced when Sutcliff fills in background information, The Eagle is contemplative, engaging, and contains enough action to keep things exciting until the very end.

This is the story about the son of a Roman who was part of that Ninth Legion. Marcus Aquila is a centurion when we first meet him, stationed at a fort in Britain, hoping that someday he would be able to discover answers to his father's disappearance. After the requisite background information, the book settles into interesting action sequences as the fort is under attack by tribesmen from Britain. Marcus proves his mettle as a leader of his troops, but things do not happen predictably. A plot point early on was different than I expected, but it turns out to be important not just in changing Marcus's life, but in solving the mystery of the missing Ninth Legion.

Where the book slows down is after these initial action sequences, in which it becomes for a period episodic. We meet key characters, such as Esca, a British slave whose scenes with Marcus almost turn the way of a romance - and not a very well written one at that. Several chapters go the way of mushy sentimentalism, the kind evoked by Charles Dickens at his treacly-sweetest. This is when we meet Cub, the wolf cub who Esca captures and gifts to Marcus, as well as Cottia, the thirteen-year-old girl who lives next door to Marcus's uncle's home, and who is also an object of Marcus's affections. Sutcliff does not quite take any daring routes with either of the relationships, particularly with Esca, but perhaps Brokeback Mountain in the British wilds was not her intention. Fortunately Sutcliff leaves behind her sentimentality, which nearly derails the novel, when she jumps into the heart of her story.

It is in the adventurous aspects where The Eagle shines. These are men up against insurmountable odds - resourceful, cunning men. What happens is believable and because of that the story is at times tense and exciting. Sutcliff's use of details brings this time and place to life. I also enjoyed her imagining of Marcus's philosophy in what he has to do. There are many moral dilemmas he comes across, and Marcus makes compelling cases for the choices he makes. This is important in humanizing the tribes that he and Esca are up against, rather than making them faceless enemies. All in all, the novel's conclusion is made all the more satisfying by the journey taken to get there.

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