The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

A review of the historical fiction novel The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff.

I’m really torn on this one.

The prose, as always with Rosemary Sutcliff, was beautiful and fabulous, so rich and thick you could spread it on scones. The detailed descriptions of the scenery are lovely, but more than that is the depth of emotion always present in the prose that makes reading anything by Sutcliff such an immersive experience. Pausing for a break is kind of like coming up for air after being underwater; she draws you into her world, and the words get right inside your head.

Having said that, I wasn’t as sold on the characters as I wanted to be. Phaedrus is fairly interesting, but his main quality seems to be that his time in the arena gifted him with a flair of showmanship which sometimes comes in handy during his rule. That’s pretty much it, and I think I would probably be rather hard-pressed to write a decent study of his character, because apart from that showmanship, there’s not a whole lot to him. Murna, again, didn’t resonate as strongly as I wanted her to – she had some great moments, but at other times it was rather hard to see where she was coming from and what her motivations were. She seemed to go from hating Phaedrus to loving him without any real catalyst, and either the nuances of their relationship was too subtle for me to pick up on, or it was missing several key elements.

Mild spoilers ahead!

The whole plot is about Phaedrus wresting the rule of the Dalriads away from Liadhan’s matriarchal rule back to a patriarchal kingship, and in a few places that felt rather uncomfortable. Liadhan only had about two appearances, both of them very short, and that was rather disappointing – she’s meant to be the antagonist, but we never really see her, and so we only have other people’s word for it that she needs to be displaced. It comes across as a bit too much like “she’s evil because she’s a Queen; women need to sit by the fire and spin.” There’s not a whole lot of difference between her usurping the throne and Phaedrus usurping the throne, and Sutcliff’s portrayal of her is very unsympathetic, but also very sketchy, so it’s hard to have any kind of feeling for her. It made me think of Rowena in The Lantern Bearers; she has a relatively small part, but it’s still important, and Sutcliff makes sure that we see her and fear her, and her scene is very vivid and very powerful. Whereas here, Liadhan is sold incredibly short, and her scenes lack all kinds of magic, and it feels like she’s written that way because she’s a female attempting to seize power in a man’s world and being punished for it. Similarly, for all Murna’s moments of strength, fighting alongside Phaedrus, and making calculated political moves, she still ends up being put firmly back by the hearthside when she falls pregnant.

I really wanted to like this book, because I love Rosemary Sutcliff so much. But this isn’t one of her strongest works, and it won’t end up on my favourites shelf.

A.S. Olivier is a freelance editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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