Sword at Sunset follows straight on from The Lantern Bearers, but this time it focuses on Artos– or as legend calls him, Arthur. We’ve all heard of that particular guy: the king with his knights in shining armour, a Round Table, the Lady in the Lake, the Sword in the Stone, battles, magic, dragons, Merlin and the Holy Grail. If you want to hear about that (not so likely) hero, go watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail (even if you don’t want to hear about that hero, watch it anyway). But Sword at Sunset presents a completely different, more realistic Arthur (I’ll call him Artos from now on): a warrior king who tries to fight off the barbarian hordes with his group called ‘the Companions’. It is ever-so-slightly similar to the myth, but it’s different in a lot of ways.
Wowowowowowowowow this book was awesome. I expected it to be awesome, seeing as it’s Rosemary Sutcliff, but I didn’t realise it would be as good as The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles! I only know the basic facts of the Arthur legend, and if you’re a Arthur nerd then I guess more of it would be similar, but I could see some of the legend, but WAY more realistically put. There was no magic or anything, just raw emotions and lots of battles. The book covers (I’m guessing) 30 years or so, and we see lots of characters come and go. You’re sad to see them go, but you know that this is just life. It’s not a book how modern writing dictates it: the ‘stasis’, the trigger, the events, the climax (or more than one), the resolution. It’s a broad, huge spectrum of everything. There’s life, death, tragedy, joy, love, blood, tears and courage. Every single twist and turn you really feel. When characters die or get injured, you really feel sad. The way it’s written (in first person) is very different and instead of saying ‘Oh no, someone’s died. I’m very sad and I’m going to go sulk’ they just show you the facts, plain and simple. That makes it more emotional, and exactly like how people tell you things. It’s like the character is telling you personally, and you just sit there, staring at the words, contemplating. But you have to get over it, because before long there’s another battle and more death. It just shows how brutal life can be sometimes.
The entire book has a dark misty atmosphere to it. With every word, you can really imagine yourself in the story. You are IN 5th century Britain. The entire real world just disappears and you suddenly become a fly-on-the-wall to Artos’ life. (Well, it’s told in his perspective, but it’s not like we become the character when we read their story in first person or anything.) It seems like he is (as well as being a fly-on-the-wall) telling you his entire life story and all his darkest secrets. A huge and life-changing event happens early on in the book and it haunts Artos forever, casting a shadow over his life. I don’t know if it happens in the Arthur legend though! But Artos says he’s only told one or two people about the secret, and at the time of the event, it takes you a while to realise the scale of it. Unless you experience it (which I HAVEN’T!!!!!) you cannot even realise how much it would affect someone. Then later in the book it comes back to haunt him, and then he really gets confused. You are just holding your breath to see what he does and how he handles it. He is a completely human character: he doesn’t make all the best decisions, and he DOES feel lots of emotions. But then he has to balance being a fearless battle leader and a loving, married man.
Now I’ll talk about the Companions: Artos’ closest warriors who fight with him through everything. They seem so good and loyal, but at one point in the book (minor spoilers) some of Artos’ army of warriors leave, after some crazy events, and you question the loyalty of the Companions. With so many people leaving, will they stay true? (Spoilers over) The three main Companions are Bedwyr, Cei and Flavian (Aquila’s son– you gotta love him). I think they’re the main three– that’s how I read it anyway. Throughout everything they are there, and each one has his own little thing that makes him unique. Each of them has their own personalities too, they’re not just a generic blob of Artos’ friends. They’re all their own people and they make their own choices and mistakes. I must admit I liked Bedwyr and Flavian more than Cei though 🙂 Well, (MAJOR SPOILERS) I was shocked Artos sent Bedwyr away, and I found that quite annoying. (Spoilers over)
Guenhumara was another interesting character. She is Guinevere (I think Guenhumara, or Ganhumara, or something is her real name) and so Artos’ wife. The thing is, she’s a strong and independent woman, and their marriage is, in a word, interesting. It’s not a super-happy perfect thing, and it wasn’t in the past. Men married women not for love, but for their money. I really wanted Guenhumara and Artos to love each other, but that’s the way. She had a lot to offer in the way of a dowry, and it would be unlikely they love each other if Guenhumara knew why she was being married. There were tiny moments of love, but they went away. I guess it would be hard, being a battle leader running up and down the country and everything.
As well as the Companions, there were other tribes they came across. They all had their own customs and take on the whole barbarian invasion thing. The ‘Little Dark People’ featured heavily in the book, and they were very interesting, because you do doubt their loyalty. They aren’t just going to submit to Artos and follow his orders, they are still fierce Celts and they will do what they like. That’s what makes the book exciting– you never know what they’re going to do. There’s always a voice at the back of your head going ‘what if they rebel or something?’
And the battles scenes were really good. You could feel the blood and sweat and hear the screams of the dying. It was totally real, and showing snapshots of individual characters or groups gave the battle a more human side. It’s all well and good showing the cavalry sweeping down and massacring the Saxons, but with Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing you empathise and sympathise for all the characters. It’s so brutal, this whole war thing, and she shows it. She also shows the aftermath of the battle, and that’s when everything hits you. The warriors that are left alive have to bury the dead and tend to the injured. It’s poignant (I love using that word!). It was also a very interesting apect of the story to have a friend of Artos the Bear, the famed battle commander, who doesn’t actually fight. You’d think all his friends were soldiers, but one of them is a healer and he is such a good character: he’s got all the sides of a realistic personality and sometimes what he does is good, but sometimes bad. The whole story just shows how quickly harsh decisions must be made, and they don’t turn out well all the time.
I also loved the use of animals in the book. It was nice to see Artos actually having a horse that had a NAME. In lots of books, they’d just mention a random horse, and it would remain just that. But Artos has different horses over the years and we love every single one. He also has a dog called Cabal, and he was a strong character, although he never spoke (obviously). I don’t usually like animals, but since Artos’ army is so reliant on their cavalry to defeated the non-mounted Saxons, it’s inevitable there would be lots of horses and other animals. If there wasn’t it would mean it was a bad book! And having animal characters with names and personalities, just shows that animals are just as important as people. In fact, without the horses, Artos and his Companions would have died a long time ago.
In summary, this book was awesome and I was so sad when it was done. I got that feeling of ‘I’ve-just-finished-an-amazing-book-what-can-I-do-with-my-life’. It was complete and utter shock at how brilliant it was. After I finished I just lay there, mouth open, wondering how Rosemary Sutcliff wrote so well. HOW IS IT POSSIBLE? This book firmly goes on my ‘favourite books ever’ shelf on Goodreads, and it will remain in my memory forever, just like The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles. I’m now planning to read them again (in December, as it seems last year I read them just before Christmas and it would be cool to get some sort of tradition going. I don’t have enough traditions in my life!). And I think you know what rating I’ll give it…
Your amazed blogger, Jaz