Threatened by a tide of invaders, the last of the Roman Auxiliaries are to leave Britain forever. But Aquila, a young legionnaire, chooses to stay behind, in order to join the fight to save his native land. (from Goodreads)
This is actually the fourth book in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman historical fiction series, but I didn’t realize that until after I had already read it (after first reading The Eagle of the Ninth). Since they’re only loosely connected by plot and family, and since the plot doesn’t continue on from one book to another, I didn’t lose anything by reading it out of order. It did make for a weird deja vu kind of thing when I finally got around to reading book #2, though!
Okay, moving on. Sheesh.
The Lantern Bearers has some really interesting characters and themes, and it’s probably the darkest 1950’s children’s book I’ve ever read. Not that it’s gloomy or gory, but that the issues it deals with aren’t normally things that you see in children’s books.
The protagonist, Aquila, is unusual in that he starts off pretty normal but because of the things he goes through, including his home getting pillaged, his sister being stolen and himself becoming enslaved by the Saxons, he rapidly turns into a stone wall. He doesn’t feel much except hatred for the Saxons and fear for his sister, and he spends much of the book trying to work through what happened to him. It’s not until near the end that he acknowledges that he does care about his wife and his kid, but it takes a while to get there.
Normally I think that having an emotionally and psychologically damaged protagonist would keep me at a distance from that character’s story, that I couldn’t relate to them. However, I understood that Aquila had problems, that he wouldn’t get over them right-quick, and that his lack of emotions was just a defense mechanism to keep himself from having a breakdown. I actually really admired him, and when he found happiness with his family at the end I was happy, too.
Plus he was never whiny, nor did he belabor on and on about the hardships he had gone through. If he did talk about the past, it was obviously painful for him and he only did it after meeting someone who would understand him, like the nice bee-keeping monk he meets about halfway through the story. He wanted revenge for his family, but he went about getting it through joining a warlord (Constantine’s son, actually), not going off on his own like, I don’t know, Batman. He was smart about it, and though there’s never a straight-out “I’m killing you because you killed my family” confrontation, he does manage to keep the Saxons from invading Britain further and he does get his revenge– kinda. You’ll have to read it to see what happens, because I’m not telling you.
The other characters were almost off the radar re:my interest, but Aquila’s sister had an interesting side-story. I’m not sure if I should talk about it because it’s probably a spoiler and it’s much more powerful if you find out about her for yourself– but it’s another unusual aspect of this book that I appreciated.
So there’s a lot of interesting things in The Lantern Bearers, and I almost think that if I had read this as a kid I wouldn’t have picked up on all of them. And I think that would have been unfortunate, because there’s so many layers to this story that only understanding two or three of them seems like a disservice. But! I do think it’s an excellent book for kids; it’d totally get them thinking about what conquerers do besides loot and fight.
So, basically: this book is awesome, and sensitive, and surprising, and wonderful. Even if you don’t read the rest of Ms Sutcliff’s books, read this one. It’s worth it!
Read: September 2009