The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
Illustrations by Felix Miall
Published in 1965; 2017 Edition by The Folio Society
Genre: Historical fiction, children’s literature
Disclaimer: This review will be different from the norm in that it is split into two parts: a standard, albeit shorter, book review and a specific review of this Folio Society edition. I am endorsing this product through my own volition and belief in its high quality.
Part I: The Story
“In the long cavern of the changing-room, the light of the fat-oil lamps cast jumping shadows on the walls; skeleton shadows of the spear-stacked arms-racks, giant shadows of the men who crowded the benches or moved about still busy with their weapons and gear; here and there the stallion shadow of a plume-crested helmet.”
The above sentence describes a scene that could most likely have been taken from a historical account of a gladiator’s life. The Mark of the Horse Lord, by Rosemary Sutcliff, follows one such gladiator from gaining his freedom to becoming a central figure in a conspiracy to reclaim a tribal throne in Northern Scotland. Filled with swordplay, interesting characters, and intricate descriptions that cause the reader to become immersed in this ancient world, The Mark of the Horse Lord is entertaining in its character driven storytelling.
Phaedrus is the protagonist of the novel; he was born into slavery and was eventually sold to fight in the arena as a gladiator. He fights successfully for four years before earning his wooden foil: a symbol of his freedom. After being arrested for getting into a fight with a Roman wine merchant, he is recruited in a plot to take on the identity of a vanquished prince in an attempt to reclaim the throne taken by a queen from another tribe. Phaedrus meets the prince, named Midir, who was blinded and thus unable to take over as king by right. Midir was believed to be dead by his tribe for the last seven years, but as a new king will be chosen soon, it is decided that now is the time to strike. Phaedrus agrees to take part in the conspiracy and spends a month learning all about Midir, his former friends and subjects, and the customs of the tribe in order to present himself as a convincing prince. He is shown to the tribe and seems to have fooled those who were unaware, except for Conory, Midir’s childhood best friend. Phaedrus is unsure if Conory knows that he is an impostor, and this tension underlies their interactions. Phaedrus must also keep his identity hidden from Murna, the Queen’s daughter, who he is forced to marry to bring credibility to his rule.
The warring tribes in The Mark of the Horse Lord are separated by their worship in gods, which feeds into the way they look at rights of succession. The Caledones believe in a Mother goddess, so the king becomes whomever is married to the queen, keeping the bloodline on the female side. The Dal Riada believe in a masculine god and follow their succession through the male’s bloodline. This causes part of the rift between clans and is what allows Liadhan, the Queen from the Caledones, to rule over Dal Riada and its people. Despite the protagonist being male and the story following the masculine-centric right of rule, one of the most interesting characters is Murna. She is of both clans, but doesn’t feel allegiance toward her mother because of the paranoid and temperamental issues between them. Murna is intelligent, strong, and a skilled fighter, all of which imprint her qualities on Phaedrus. The story follows a rather formulaic pattern with an ending that ties things up nicely and echoes the sentiments of the book.
Part II: The Book Itself
As with any illustrated edition worth its salt, this version of The Mark of the Horse Lord contributes to the story, rather than drawing attention away from it. Miall’s drawings are filled with shadows that create depth and evoke emotion despite being confined to the limited palette of black and white. The illustrations highlight important scenes in the novel, and there is a nice bit of foreshadowing in the brooch drawn on the title page above; a symbol and item that plays a large part in the end of the book. There are only 10 illustrations in the book, but many span more than one page, or only take of part of a page with the text formatted around it, which creates a unifying effect with the written words.
Here are some specifications taken from The Folio Society web page:
- Bound in buckam, printed and blocked with a design by the artist
- Set in Minion
- 288 pages
- Frontispiece and 10 integrated black & white illustrations
- 1 map
- Plain slipcase
- 9¼” x 6½”
Sutcliff writes with an amazing capacity for detail, creating descriptions of the landscapes and minutia of Phaedrus’s world that help to paint a vivid picture of the action and story going on. I had never heard of this book before browsing through the books that were on sale this summer on The Folio Society’s webstore. I really enjoyed the read, and was a little surprised to see that it is categorized as a story for children due to the amount of violent content and the rather bleak ending. This is another high quality edition from The Folio Society, as has come to be expected, and I find it sits in its place nicely with the other books from their catalog.
Verdict: 3 kingly conspiracy stories out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of historical fiction, those who enjoy reading about the period of Roman occupation in England and the surrounding countries, Anglophiles, fans of vengeance, those who don’t shy away from reading violent stories to children, and people who like The Folio Society.
Not recommended for: Those who dislike historical fiction, those who don’t like vengeance, people worried about reading violent stories to children, or people that dislike the word “horse.”