The Mark of the Horse Lord

Written by Rosemary Sutcliff
Review by Ann Turnbull

This is a well-constructed story with a pleasing sense of inevitability. It’s set in and around Hadrian’s Wall at the time of the Roman occupation, but the story harks back to ancient myth.

Phaedrus, born a slave and trained as a gladiator, is set free at the age of 21 and falls in with a group of men who put an extraordinary proposition to him. One of the men could be Phaedrus’s double, except that he is horribly maimed. This man, Midir, is the Horse Lord – the king of the Dalriads – and he wants Phaedrus to impersonate him and lead his people into war with the warrior queen of the Caledones. What follows is the story of how Phaedrus embraces his destiny.

For me, the most striking feature of this story is the beauty of Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing, especially her description of the natural world. The story arc is strong, and there is a powerful moment when both the reader and Phaedrus sense what is coming. Generally, however, the characters are not fully developed. This is a world of comradeship, courage, fate and heroic dialogue, where prophecies always come true. It doesn’t lend itself to depth of character, but it is compelling – and as an imaginative reconstruction of history it convinced me.

The narrative occasionally feels slow, and I felt there was too much description – lovely as it is. But there’s no denying the power of the writing, and I think bookish children of around 12 or 13 plus would enjoy this story.