The Mark of the Horse Lord, by Rosemary Sutcliff

October 12, 2011 at 16:05 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , , , )


This is a strong contender for Rosemary Sutcliff’s best work. Red Phaedrus is one of her typical male leads, a lone wolf character with a tragic past and a stirring quest ahead of him. Her blend of Roman Britain and the Pictish wilds is up to her usual standards, and is vividly imagined.  The relationship between the two key characters, Phaedrus and Midir, is where this story finds a life of its own, and departs the fringe Roman life already depicted in The Silver Branch and Eagle of the Ninth. Sutcliff always writes best when she is writing angry and sarcastic men, and as she forces these two together in the opening chapters of the book she creates the most reluctant of heroes, and the gruffest of all her characters (Aquila included).

“Hold on! Hold up, lad! If you go down now I swear I’ll get the Mercuries with the hot irons to you!”

-The Mark of the Horse Lord

As in Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff chooses to give her readers an even closer and more intimate glimpse at the tribes arrayed against Rome at the Empire’s zenith. The book would not be complete without a look at her famous “little dark people”, but here they are given a generously open stage, and both sympathy and flesh for the fleeting bones sketched out in other books. Echoes of Aquila will again be apparent in Phaedrus’ relationships with men and particularly the women he encounters. This is also one of Sutcliff’s more thematically sound books, in which she introduces subtler foreshadows and weaknesses, recurrent motifs and substantial structure to both the characters and the plot. This makes it one of her more darkly brooding stories and one of her more adult books, but also one of her best.



  1. David said,

    One of my friends has said this is her favorite Sutcliff novel, perhaps equal with The Eagle of the Ninth, but I have yet to get my hands on it. Sutcliff novels are so hard to find these days (though at least the Roman Britain trilogy has been re-released due to the movie The Eagle coming out). At any rate, I may be able to borrow this one from the library. When I do, I will surely look forward to it.

    • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

      I have honestly despaired of finding Sutcliff anywhere except eBay. Not this very week I managed to find a first edition copy of The Mark of the Horse Lord for a very reasonable fee. I have a marked weakness for older hardback books, and I must confess a little disappointment with some of the newer pieces of cover art for the reissues. I’m also very fond of Charles Keeping’s art (although I think most of his prints have been retained in the newer paperback editions).

  2. David said,

    It is a truly excellent novel. I found it at a local used bookstore, believe it or not, and finished it recently. The relationships are always what keep me fascinated in Sutcliff stories, and here the strange bond between Phaedrus and Midir is one of the most fascinating, even though they don’t have many scenes together. The ending is quite a surprise as well — I won’t spoil it here, lest a prospective reader read this — that manages to be a fitting, dramatic ending, while still letting me ponder whether or not the right choice was made.

    Another Sutcliff I just finished is her shorter work “Flame-Colored Taffeta.” Have you any plans to review that one?

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