"Frontier Wolf" is part of a series by Rosemary Sutcliff about a family that lives in Britain from Roman times to the Middle Ages. "The Eagle of the N...more"Frontier Wolf" is part of a series by Rosemary Sutcliff about a family that lives in Britain from Roman times to the Middle Ages. "The Eagle of the Ninth" (1954), the first volume in the series, is the most famous of Sutcliff's novels, but "The Eagle of the Ninth" was written during her early years as a writer, while "Frontier Wolf" was penned during the years when she had reached her full flowering as a historical novelist.
The plotline is simple: Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila, in the arrogance of his youth, leads his soldiers into disaster. As punishment, Alexios is sent to the frontier above Hadrian's Wall and placed in charge of a fort full of "the scum and the scrapings of the Empire," as one character puts it. The unrespectable Frontier Scouts - or Frontier Wolves, as they are nicknamed - have a reputation for killing off commanders whom they dislike.
Then a crisis arises. Alexios's life now depends on the loyalty of his men . . . and his men's lives depend on his loyalty to them.
"Alexios, walking beside Phoenix, remembered the still summer night when he had come that way, following the old Chief to his Death Place, the Clansmen sniping this way and that along the firmer ground between the winding waterways and sky-reflecting pools. The flaming torches and the mourning throb of the drums, and the lingering late northern sunset casting its golden cloud-streamers across the sky. He supposed they were on the same track now. He must suppose it; must trust to the men with the lime-daubs between their shoulders. 'When they join the Family, they bring their loyalties with them,' Gavros had said, but he felt how it might be with him, new loyalties pulling against old, if he knew the secret and sacred ways and was being asked to betray them to men of other tribes who did not."
Into this simple tale, Sutcliff pours in everything that makes her great as an author: Careful attention to detail when describing Roman military society, British native society, and the world of nature. The ability to sum up a character's personality through a few well-chosen words. A gift for understatement that heightens rather than diminishes drama. A lyrical tongue. She caps all this off with an ending that is surprising, yet wholly satisfying.(less)