‘The Lantern Bearers’ by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Lantern Bearers focuses on a youth called Aquila, and the course of his life in the years following the Roman departure from Britain.  He suffers great loss, becomes a thrall – or slave – of invaders, and eventually finds a home and ideology he can live with.  Though this is in a series, and I have not read the others, The Lantern Bearers focuses on the life of Aquila and it pretty self-contained.

Maybe I’ve just been spoilt by Bernard Cornwell, but coming to another Post Romano-British historical themed novel that deals with a humbler central character than the most important Artos/Arthur wasn’t that surprising or enjoyable.  I have to give it a bit of credit, since it’s a smaller and YA-targeted book and obviously had some content restrictions that Cornwell wouldn’t have had.  While I liked some of the characters, Aquila is always so detached from his own emotions that it feels that there are several layers between the audience and the action.  The story is told subjectively from Aquila’s perspective, but glosses over a lot of the actions and moments that might have given a reader insight into his character or journey.

A lot of the interesting parts of the story, it feels are told through summaries at the start and end of chapters.  While the attention to historical detail was enjoyable, the story and reading process became harder work the further into the book I got.  When I began finding sentences that were longer than most paragraphs and characters’ speeches lacking one or the other of their quotation marks, I began to wonder if it was the author’s work or perhaps simply the printing and edition I had in my hands.  Is there a different version out there, that is readable?  Where punctuation or slight editorial differences make the whole thing readable?

At times, I half wondered if Aquila wasn’t supposed to be bisexual or asexual.  He forms fast friendships with men and trusts them easily, though he is suspicious of being invited into a well-fed older man’s chambers and being offered wine.  It isn’t until fatherhood that he connects with his wife, and even then she barely features in the story.  He seems to distrust all women, and does not like the idea of marriage.

I really liked the start of the book, I loved the attention to historical detail and the feel of the world, and was crushed when I found myself groaning and moaning under the progressive effort of reading.  The plotline was tidy and cleaned up in a neat way, but it seemed a little too neat and tidy.  I don’t think I’d recommend it to others, and I feel a bit miffed that so many other people seem to have enjoyed this book so much.  I’m not going to write off Sutcliff, and I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to find the wonderment that everyone else feels for The Lantern Bearers, but for the moment I’ll just cast my eyes longingly across the room at other books.

Other reviews:

Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog and Booklust have positive views on it to counterbalance my own

There’s a tag full of reviews and short articles at the fanblog Rosemary Sutcliff WordPress

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