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The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

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parthianbow
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The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

Post by parthianbow » Wed March 2nd, 2011, 11:42 am

The Silver Branch is the second novel in the loosely linked Roman Britain trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was published in 1957, just a few years after the tremendous success of The Eagle of the Ninth, the first book. Like all of Sutcliff’s work, The Silver Branch was written for children, but thanks to its rich prose and compelling story, also holds considerable appeal for adults. Sutcliff died in 1992, and while she has been far from forgotten, her name has this year come into the limelight once more. The Eagle is currently showing in movie complexes all over America, no doubt winning over a huge new audience for her wonderfully written books.

I for one have no need of being won over. It’s thirty years or more since I first became acquainted with Rosemary Sutcliff, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The Roman Britain trilogy is partly responsible for helping me to change professions too ― from that of a veterinarian to a writer of military historical fiction, namely about the Romans. As a mark of my respect for Sutcliff, the title of my second book, The Silver Eagle, actually pays homage to the first two volumes of her trilogy.

And so to The Silver Branch, which is set in the last decade of the third century AD, more than a hundred and fifty years after the dramatic events of The Eagle of the Ninth. By this time, the Empire was considerably weaker than it had been in the glory days that ran from approximately AD 100-200. It was now commonplace for two, or even three, emperors to share power. One such was Carausius, a man with humble origins who’d risen through the ranks to become the commander of the fleet that protected the English Channel from Saxon raiders. Threatened by Carausius’ success, the Emperor Maximian ordered his execution. Hearing of this, Carausius seized power in late AD 286 or early AD 287, declaring himself emperor of Britain and northern Gaul.

Several years later, but with the same dramatic backdrop, The Silver Branch begins. The book has two central characters, both of whom are army officers. The first is Tiberius Lucius Justinianus, or Justin, a shy young military surgeon who has been posted to Britain. The second is Centurion Marcelus Flavius Aquila, a confident scion of the same family as the main protagonist of The Eagle of the Ninth. As it turns out, the two are distantly related cousins. Finding that they have much in common, they quickly become firm friends. Meeting the emperor Carausius on the road one wintry day, they are both taken by his down to earth manner and brave visions for the future. He describes to them a time when, despite the troubles surrounding Rome, the province of Britain will be strong enough to stand on its own.

Soon after, a chance encounter on a hunting trip by the coast changes both men’s lives forever. They spot Allectus, Carausius’ Finance Minister, talking to a Saxon raider. Capturing the Saxon, they transport him back to their fort and request a meeting with the emperor. By the time they talk to Carausius, the Saxon has been poisoned to death. It is then the two junior officers’ word against that of Allectus, the second most powerful man in Britain. Rather than death, Carausius offers them exile, and the pair are sent to serve in a fort on Hadrian’s Wall.

From there, events begin to take on a life of their own. Carausius is overthrown and slain by Allectus, who is in league with the treacherous Saxons. As supporters of Carausius, the two cousins have to flee for their lives. A journey south takes them to Calleva (modern day Silchester) as well as the Aquila family farm and the coastal town of Portus Adurni (Portchester). Their plans to flee to Gaul change when they are asked to help fight the evil Allectus from within Britain. The last third of the book brings the story to a spectacular conclusion, culminating with the cousins’ involvement in the large scale invasion of the island by Constantius, Maximian’s co-ruler.

The Silver Branch has a much larger list of characters than The Eagle of the Ninth, and this adds to its appeal. As well as Justin and Flavius, we have the genial Carausius, the cold, calculating Allectus, Evicatos, the brooding warrior, and Cullen, the faithful King’s Hound. Last but not least, there is the fierce old matriarch, Great-Aunt Honoria. Every one of these protagonists is simply but splendidly drawn, and their presence successfully enlarges the tale for the reader. Rich images from the first book also reappear: the Aquila signet ring with the carved green dolphin at its heart and the eagle standard that Marcus retrieved in Scotland.

Themes of comradeship and loyalty ― to family and friends, as well as to ideals ― are central to the plotline, and appeal to us all. As always, Sutcliff’s descriptions of the time are vivid and for the most part, extremely authentic. It is this rare ability to draw us completely into ancient times that makes The Silver Branch and her other works such a joy to read. Be sure to read The Eagle of the Ninth first, however!

(as previously published on http://www.commandposts.com)
Ben Kane
Bestselling author of Roman military fiction.
Spartacus - UK release 19 Jan. 2012. US release June 2012.

http://www.benkane.net
Twitter: @benkaneauthor

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Ludmilla
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Post by Ludmilla » Wed March 2nd, 2011, 2:13 pm

Sometimes odd often unimportant things stick in my brain after I read a book. With this one, I got a kick out of the name for Honoria's faithful servant, Volumnia, whose heart is as big as her size.

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Post by annis » Wed March 2nd, 2011, 7:22 pm

Rosemary Sutcliff excels in wonderful secondary characters, and they’re particularly noticeable in Silver Branch. Someone (maybe John Rowe Townsend) commented that because her main protagonists were often representatives of the very best type of imperial servant, exemplars of the Roman virtues of pietas, gravitas and dignitas, but rather stolid by nature, Sutcliff indulged her passion for colour with her accompanying cast.

My favourites are Carausius’ eccentric little court fool, Cullen, and Great-Aunt Honoria, who reminds me very much of a headmistress I once had who was the classic dragon with a heart of gold. Schools and hospitals used to be run by women of this ilk, but they seem to be a dying breed in these politically correct times.

Carausius is a fascinating figure, and there is debate about whether he was a self-serving opportunist, or a would-be saviour. Rosemary Sutcliff clearly saw him as an Arthurian prototype, a perhaps flawed hero, but a strong man with the potential to hold Britain together as a united country, protected from the chaos of the disintegrating Roman Empire.

There’s a poignant and prescient moment where Carausius speaks to Justin and Flavius:

‘“If I can make this one province strong enough to stand alone when Rome goes down, then something may be saved from the darkness. If not, then Dubris light and Limanis light and Rutupiae light will go out. The lights will go out everywhere.” He stepped back, dragging aside the hanging folds of the curtain, and stood framed in their darkness against the firelight and lamplight behind him, his head yet turned to the grey and silver of the starry night.’

This image of the lights going out is picked up to compelling effect in Lantern Bearers (which is no doubt the subject of Ben’s next review :) )
Last edited by annis on Thu March 3rd, 2011, 8:56 am, edited 10 times in total.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Wed March 2nd, 2011, 10:18 pm

I enjoyed this whole series many years ago. Maybe it's time for a re-read.

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Michy
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Post by Michy » Wed March 2nd, 2011, 11:35 pm

I've never heard of this author or these books, but they definitely sound like something I'd enjoy. Thanks for the recommendation.

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Post by Sharz » Thu March 3rd, 2011, 5:10 am

Good review. I read the trilogy last month and loved it. I immediately began acquiring every Sutcliff book I could find (priced within reason, that is). I really hope that the movie triggers a bit more interest in her and more of her OOP are republished.

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Post by annis » Thu March 3rd, 2011, 8:52 am

For anyone wondering what the "silver branch" is, it's an irish musical percussive instrument, traditionally a silver tree branch with gold apples that sounded like bells attached to it, and often associated with bards and druids. (Apples have a particular significance in Celtic mythology - an apple tree stands at the entrance of the Otherworld). In the novel it belongs to the Emperor's Irish "Hound"/court jester, Cullen. Sutcliff describes it as "shining drops distilled out of the emptiness".

Image

In this very cool illustration by Roman Pisarev from the Folio Society edition of The Silver Branch, Flavius and Justin present their ‘tatterdemalion’ Lost Legion, gathered together after the death of Carausius, to Constantius’ astonished Praetorian Prefect, Asklepiodotus. Among the ‘reckless, disreputable crew’ is ‘little Cullen, with his Silver Branch in the girdle of his tattered motley, holding the wingless Eagle proudly upright, but standing himself on one leg like a heron, which somewhat spoiled the effect’ “.

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parthianbow
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Post by parthianbow » Thu March 3rd, 2011, 1:02 pm

A nice reply, Annis. I thought of mentioning the silver branch, and then forgot to, so thanks for doing it. A great illustration too.

And what made you think I'd now write a review of The Lantern Bearers? :p (It'll go up on Command Posts today or tomorrow, and I'll repost it here after that. What a wonderful book it is! Better, he whispers, than The Eagle of the Ninth.)
Ben Kane
Bestselling author of Roman military fiction.
Spartacus - UK release 19 Jan. 2012. US release June 2012.

http://www.benkane.net
Twitter: @benkaneauthor

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