Obviously my plan to do regular updates as I read the Aeneid didn’t happen, I’ve not had much time with which to blog recently, and trying to motivate myself to write about a book which frankly I found a little boring was even harder than it sounded. Instead, I’m just going to revert to my original aim of writing a post to cover the whole book, much as I did last year.
As I mentioned back in October, rather than trying to read a set number of books in 2014, instead I’m going to focus on reading cultural mythologies. While I’ve still not finalised my reading order, January and February are going to be Greco-Roman!
Back to the Lost Legion again. Except this time, although the book is a sequel to the Eagle of the Ninth, it takes place 200 years later, during a series of rebellions by the Romano-Britons against the empire.
The Silver Branch definitely isn’t as good as its prequel. It’s a little convoluted and hard to follow in places, but on the whole it’s still a really good children’s story, that has all the strengths I mentioned in my previous review.
Like Eagle, the Silver Branch is a story of family honour and loyalty to the eternal Rome, though the form this vision takes has changed drastically in the past two centuries. No longer are the army inherently strong and noble (though the beginnings of this were seen at the end of Eagle) Nor is the authority of the Empire still ordered and perfect. The empire has declined, and Britain is going down with it, and that is the world The Silver Branch takes place in.
Part of the reason I didn’t like it as much as the first book is that I knew nothing of the history, and since the preface states that most of what is told is based in truth, I was as much concerned with working out the history as I was with the story itself. Which is never a good way to read a book. In any case, despite my glowing recommendation for The Eagle of the Ninth, I’ll temper it back a bit for the sequel. If you happen to buy the combined copy of the first three books in the series, then there’s no reason not to read the second (I’ll maybe get back to you on the third), but I wouldn’t go so far as to say you should hunt it out.
Guess why I read this? Go on. Guess. To be fair, I have been meaning to read this for a long time (ever since the film version came out in 2011 in fact, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since Christmas), but it was after reading The Shadowy Horses and not getting a resolution on the search for the legion that made me finally pick up Rosemary Sutcliff’s take on the mystery of the Ninth Legion.
For a children’s story, The Eagle of the Ninth is a really good story. I feel bad using that qualifier, because it implies that most children’s stories are bad, which is blatantly not true. I think what I mean is that there is clearly a lot of research gone into it, and it has a no holds barred depiction of the Roman occupation of Britain that doesn’t shy away from violence where necessary. I think this is best exhibited in the fact that the main character is referred to several times as a follower of Mithras, when most fiction aimed at adults wouldn’t touch on that.
I did know what I was getting with the story, as as I said, I have already seen the film (which is definitely worth watching, despite the interesting linguistic choice of having the Pictish characters speaking Gaelic!), and any cuts made between the two are fairly insubstantial, (aside from the climax, which swaps a covert flight for a full on battle, as per usual!) though it was nice that the whole time I was picturing Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell as the two main characters the whole time I was reading.
I can’t think of anything really to complain about this book, or any detractions to level against it at all, which is in itself, fairly high praise. It’s short, it’s incredibly well written, there’s no reason for you not to read it!
I really wasn’t expecting to like this, but, in spite of myself, I did. My girlfriend’s gran, who knows the author and is even mentioned in passing, leant it to me a couple of summers ago, and it’s sat on my bookshelf ever since. Finally caving in (I needed something a bit lighter after HHhH!), once I got over my initial lack of enthusiasm, it turned out to be quite enjoyable.
The central plot of the book revolves around an archaeological dig in search of the semi-legendary Ninth Legion, part of the Roman army that disappears from the historical record after reports of them marching into the north of Britain). However, rather than being sited somewhere up in the Scottish Highlands, the dig (and the book itself) takes places just outside the town of Eyemouth just north of the border. Mostly this is irrelevant for the story, apart from being a further fuel for the cynicism cast by respected academia on the slightly loopy old man funding the dig, but it does present a problem. The first few chapters of the book felt like the author (who isn’t a local) was shouting “Look at all this local cultural and geographical research I’ve done. Appreciate it!” Once the plot starts to pick up however, this becomes less of a problem, and there are a number of sequences later in the book that are quite good explanations of the local history. I was also a bit disappointed that there was no true resolution to the mystery of the Legion, but I suppose I can’t necessarily complain about that.
The bare bones of the plot are fairly generic. Girl falls in love with boy who is mysterious while trying to ignore her ex, who is inconveniently around. Mysterious old man with family issues. Vaguely supernatural young child with a heart of gold and family issues. The old woman full of wonderful local knowledge but with a secret and a heart condition. In spite of this, somehow the combination turns out to be surprisingly compelling. You do begin to feel interested in the characters, even though you’ve read them in tens of different combinations already.
Does the interest come from the fact that it’s based around the timeless mystery of the Lost Legion? Or from the fact it’s set in a place I know fairly well? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good, or well written story.