Friday, October 15, 2010

The Eagle of the Ninth

by Rosemary Sutcliff
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993 (originally published in 1954).

Thirty years previous the Ninth Hispana, a legion in the Roman army in Britain in the 2nd century AD, went to the north country and disappeared. Now, Marcus Aquila, a Cohort Centurion, requests Britain as his first assignment because his father was among that legion and he would like the opportunity to solve the mystery of their disappearance. Perhaps he can even recover the Eagle, the symbol of the legion and the lack of which has meant the Ninth never reformed. But an injury leaves Marcus with little choice but to leave the legion, unsure that his purpose in coming can ever be fulfilled.

I've said before that I tend to be more analytical with stories that I'm not fully immersed in. Well, with this book I was analyzing throughout, but as I think about it more, I wonder if it's like the chicken and the egg problem - what came first, my analyzing keeping me from getting thoroughly immersed or my lack of immersion causing me to keep my interest by analysis? You see, I went into this book ripe for analyzing on so many fronts: What makes Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction so compelling to her fans? Will her influence on future authors like Megan Whalen Turner be apparent? How will the ring show up? Why is this classified as children's literature? After reading, I don't know the answers to all these questions, but they were what I was wondering as I read. This historical fiction is the first in a series, and set in a time I was unfamiliar with - the Roman occupation of Britain around 130 AD. Sutcliff's writing is full of rich descriptions and slowly unfolds her plot. The dialog between characters seemed a little stilted to me, and I wasn't sure if it was because she was trying to suit the time period with a touch of old-fashioned speech or because of the time she was writing in (1950s - and there was a reference to "making love" in the old-fashioned sense that made me laugh). Because of descriptive writing and lack of a fast-paced beginning, the age of the characters, and the exploration of what motivates Marcus to look for the Eagle, I am still shaking my head over its characterization as a children's book. I have a hard time coming up with a young audience for this book (not that this would be the first time that I'm wrong). Though there is no language or sex or even much violence to put parents off, I would more likely recommend it to teens or adults that enjoy historical fiction with a rich sense of place.

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