Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliff

February 25, 2011 at 13:20 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )


Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the finest novelists ever to approach historical fiction, and on its own merits this is a marvellous book. Her departure from children’s literature in Sword at Sunset is marked, though the more graphic and adult depictions in this book are tasteful and sensitively portrayed. Nonetheless, a certain charm is missing, especially when she touches on characters already explored in the excellent prequel, The Lantern Bearers. It feels, in fact, as though an unknown author has touched and somewhat sullied things that are precious. No more than the progression of Aquila and Ambrosius and the rest of them out from heady youth and into a much grittier and harsher world, but it snags at the reader nonetheless.

With that said, this is after all a Rosemary Sutcliff novel. The love triangle between Arthur and Guinevere and the head of his company is marginally portrayed, with Sutcliff’s preference for concentrating on her male protagonists to the exclusion of everyone else, quite alive and well. The little dark people are described in greater detail and more vivid colour than any time since The Mark of the Horse Lord, and she manages superbly to write a hefty novel (at least twice as long as her usual works) that remains interesting and exciting without dwelling unduly on the mundane subject of war campaigns and bloody clashes on the field of battle. Not her best work, and not by a long shot; but an excellent story nonetheless.



  1. David said,

    Interesting comments. My favorite Sutcliff novel is The Lantern Bearers, but I’d be hard pressed to argue that Sword at Sunset is not her personal masterpiece, as well as a masterpiece of historical fiction in general. Not perfect, no, but utterly magnificent. I shall have to reread it and see if I can sense the loss of charm you mention, because I didn’t notice it myself. Well, there is less humor in the book (as I remember), if that’s what you mean. It is darker, harder, and sadder. I thought she handled the later lives of Aquila and Ambrosius in an extraordinarily touching and fitting manner. True, because Artos is gone from them so often we do not get to see as much of them as we would like; I especially wanted to see more of Aquila, as I’d gotten very attached to him by the end of Lantern Bearers. But Ambrosius’ end…I felt it was perfect, wonderful, and heartbreaking all at once.

    I’m glad there are still many more of her books for me to yet read, The Mark of the Horse Lord among them. Have you visited the Rosemary Sutcliff blog here on WordPress? It’s run by her godson, Anthony Lawton, who regularly posts on anything related to her books or the recent movie adaptation, “The Eagle.”

  2. J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

    I think I’d be the first to admit that my fondness for The Lantern Bearers (also easily my favourite of her books) affected my reading of this book. Aquila was such a vivid character, and he cast a long shadow over Sword at Sunset. Ambrosius’ death was certainly a watershed moment, and very elegantly portrayed.

    Ygerna was a very different character than Cottia or Ness, or even Liadhan, and seemed like the sort of character someone like Bernard Cornwell might write: sensually evil, and utterly broken inside. She wasn’t a Sutcliff character at all, and while it was thrilling to see her branching out and changing her flavour so drastically, it wasn’t quite comfortable.

    As I said, for any other author this would be an instant masterpiece; but I tend to hold Rosemary Sutcliff to a higher standard. This book was missing a Phaedrus, an Aquila, a Carausius, an Esca, a Conory. Apart from a few shining moments of her usual magic, it was harder to find a character to be genuinely awed by. It was lengthier, but a little hollower.

    I hadn’t seen that blog yet; thanks for pointing it out!

    • David said,

      Good points there, I think I see what you mean, and I do agree about that. The book did seem to lack a character who could be the firm moral conscience, which I liked about her other books. Artos himself, while magnificent, was too tolerant of vice and Medraut, and too resigned to his perceived fate. I’d have liked a wiser character to be around more often, I suppose. Bedwyr could have been that, but his role as the Lancelot figure undercut it. I also didn’t like Gwenhyfar (sp?) much, though she was a very complex and interesting character (but then, Guinevere often suffers in medieval portrayals of her, too). Anyway, yes, I can agree about that. I was still left in awe over Sutcliff’s skill with the epic tale, but Sword at Sunset failed to surpass Lantern Bearers in my heart. Mostly, it solidified Ambrosius as perhaps my favorite literary character ever.

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