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The Mark of the Horse Lord

by Rosemary Sutcliff
289 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jenny

A rich, stirring story of the salvation of a people by their leader, but rife with paganism.

Plot

When the life-long slave and gladiator Phaedrus gets his wooden foil, his freedom from the arena, he does not know what to do with himself. When he meets a blind tribal prince who looks just like him and is faced with the proposition to avenge the young man on his usurping mother, the queen, Phaedrus finds himself far north of Rome’s jurisdiction, learning the steps of the Horse Lord of the Dalriads and fighting tooth and nail for the life of the tribe.

Morality

There is a strong sense of right and wrong as is maintained in most cultures, though unchristian. Phaedrus and Midir are driven to avenge the tribe against the queen.

Spiritual Content

There is a lot of un-Christian spiritual content in this. Several gods, though never seen or spoken to directly, are at the centre of the struggle in the tribesmen’s minds. The gods are prayed to frequently, there are sacrifices to them, and the like. At one point a man produces a piece of bread and makes Phaedrus see a plover’s feather instead.

Violence

There is a lot of violence in this book. While none of it is as graphic as, say, Sutcliff’s writing could be in her book Frontier Wolf, there are plenty of battles, fist-fights, and the like. She does not write it graphically, but it will make the book unsuitable for children below its intended age range.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Wine and mead — an alcoholic drink — are consumed, and there is an instance in which the main character gets very drunk and lands himself in jail because of it. He is also drugged to make him look deathly ill.

Sexual Content

Phaedrus marries and his wife becomes pregnant, but that is all the book addresses. None of it will make a person blush.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

The queen is once described as being like a big spider who eats her mates.

Conclusion

Though full of the particular brand of paganism known among the northern tribes of Britain, which is very unlike the Roman pantheon, this is a wonderfully stirring story of one man earning the kingship by right of dignity and prowess, and his ultimate sacrifice to save the people who have become his own. Rich with the customs of the northern tribes, abundant in the description of the wilds of Scotland, this is another one of Sutcliff’s finest.

Fun Score: 4.5
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: 13+

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