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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

The Vanished World Of Roman Britain

Frontier Wolf - Rosemary Sutcliff

Set in the fourth century AD, Frontier Wolf is the story of Alexios, a young, well-connected centurion, dismissed from his first command in Germany for a decision to abandon his besieged fort - he lost many men in the retreat and though he couldn't have known it, the relief force was only hours away.

As punishment, Alexios is shunted off to Britain to take charge of the Frontier Wolves, a unit of the Roman army based north of Hadrian's Wall and largely made up of indigenous tribesmen. Twelve months after his posting the brutality of a visiting Roman dignitary provokes a huge rebellion by the local Celtic tribes who are joined by Picts and Irish raiders. Alexios finds himself facing the same grim choice that confronted him in Germany: should he hold on and be gradually overwhelmed, or should he abandon his position and retreat across enemy-held territory?

It's not the kind of children's book that gets written nowadays. There are no female characters, the writing is dense, and the setting presupposes considerable historical knowledge. Nevertheless, there's much that is fine about this novel. In particular, as always with Sutcliff, the natural world is keenly observed:

"A puddling of snow still lingered in the hollows; and far off, the higher hills of the Frontier country were still maned and crested with white; but nearer moors showed the sodden darkness of last year's heather, and the wind that always harped along the Wall had gone round to the west, and the green plover were calling."

What really makes this book reading, however, is the insight it provides into the vanished world of Roman Britain. Yes, Sutcliff is not always historically reliable, sometimes allowing herself flights of fancy, as in The Eagle Of The Ninth, but she's a novelist first and a historian second. Nevertheless, she's wonderful at creating empathy, and the conflicts of loyalty with which her characters struggle are as vivid and intense as in any contemporary thriller.