A young Roman decurion, unwilling to leave Britain with the last of the Legions, lights the beacon of Rutupiae one last time. It is an act of desperate defiance, a symbol of the struggle of the light of late-Roman civilisation against the dark of the Saxon invaders surging in on every spring tide. Years later, celebrating the fragile peace wrought by a victory against the Saxon alliance, the same man looks out through the branches of a tree in the courtyard and sees the stars of Orion’s belt caught as though “fragile, triumphant blossom all along the boughs” of a damson tree.
Between these two images of light are years of darkness for Aquila: his family massacred, his enslavement and escape, his revenge overturned, battles with fickle allies against an outnumbering enemy, a political marriage. But also a loyal comradeship with the other warriors allied to the cause of Ambrosius, heroism in battle, the warming of love in his marriage, especially after the birth of his son, the undemanding help of a Christian monk, and the unexpected reconciliation with his lost sister.
While even younger readers could well enjoy this book at some level, a certain maturity is needed to appreciate the character and decisions of Aquila. Since I’m going to spend most of the time praising the book, I would point out first aspects which might benefit from some explanation at least to younger readers. Aquila takes Ness for his wife for political reasons and with little grace. Although they later come to love each other it is first a marriage of convenience and both know it. Even when a measure of love is achieved between them, and Ness has a son, Aquila asks incredulously: “Is it mine?” After a battle, Ambrosius’ soldiers are heard killing off Saxon stragglers painfully. This is regretted but not condemned by our point-of-reference characters. Finally, when Aquila helps a wounded Saxon to escape, he expects censure or worse for his actions. The world we now live in with humanitarian conventions governing even times of war is very different from Britain of the 4th century AD.
I have rarely enjoyed a book so much as I enjoyed this climax to the loose-knit trilogy which started with Marcus Flavius Aquila in The Eagle of the Ninth and which finishes here with his several-times grandson, Aquila. There is little connection in the conventional sense between the books in the trilogy: they are not simple continuations of the same story with the same characters. Yet there is a common thread: the mixture of people and cultures that was Roman Britain, in its earlier days, in its decay, and after its end.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.