“Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff
“If we break faith with thee, may the green earth gape and swallow us, may the grey seas break in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall and crush us out of life for ever.”
This historical adventure novel is pure Sutcliff: a young Roman commander making up for a disaster early in his career, a lonely British frontier fort, and a first half of thoughtful character drama followed by a second half of a long, thrilling chase through wet Scottish hills and valleys. These elements make Frontier Wolf feel like a companion piece to The Eagle of the Ninth, and fortunately the core narrative is different enough to make the similarities complementary rather than repetitive.
Alexios and his band of “half-wild” auxiliaries called the Frontier Wolves are an engaging group, with Romans, Greeks, Germans, Celts,pagans, Christians, veterans, and green recruits all mixing, clashing, and bonding in the tense atmosphere and rain-soaked landscape. There’s a coming-of-age strand to the plot, as young Alexios tries to overcome his past of privilege and failure to be a worthy leader of the rowdiest, roughest bunch of soldiers in the empire. There’s also a political strand, as the conflicts between Rome and the various Celtic tribes prove rather tricky to navigate, especially when the Roman fort itself is split by various ethnic, cultural, and philosophical divisions. The disaster that kicks the climax into gear is scarily realistic in how an impossible-to-predict event ignites very predictable tensions, and creates a scenario where even doing what you know is right won’t avoid deadly conflict. There’s also a lesson in changing one’s view of victory and defeat, as sometimes it’s simply more important to save the lives of the soldiers under one’s command rather than to maintain a certain flag over a particular spot of dirt.
Frontier Wolf was my “comfort” read for 2018, in the sense that I always come to a Sutcliff historical novel with a sense of delighted familiarity, even on a first reading, knowing that I will be able to immerse myself in a satisfying,richly-written tale. I will definitely revisit this one.