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Hot Historical Fiction Part 1: Gladiators, Roman Soldiers and Slaves

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Who says that all historical fiction is dull and boring? If done correctly, historical fiction is not dull at all. It's time travel in a book. Who hasn't imagined being transported back through time to experience what life was like during a different period in history? I particuarly love reading stories that are completely out of my realm of knowledge and experience and have a sense of the romantic about it—novels about war, warriors and (ahem) gladiators tend to fit that bill.

One of the more well known authors of this type of historical fiction is Rosemary Sutcliff, a British author who primarily wrote stories set during Roman-occupied Britain circa 1st-5th centuries. Despite being set almost 2000 years ago, her books are still filled with ideas that we can all relate to today: belonging, honor, family, loyalty and pride. More interesting for us, her books are also filled with plenty of bloody battles, dirty fights, searing betrayal and love.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

In 2nd century Britain, a young Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila arrives at a remote fort. Ten years earlier, his father led the Ninth Legion into Northern Britain and vanished without a trace. Now Marcus is leading his own legion but when he is injured in battle he begins to hear rumors of a Northern pagan tribe worshipping a bronze Roman eagle. Eager to discover what happened to his father and restore the family's honor, Marcus and his British slave Esca, must travel into the wild, barbarious regions above Hadrian's Wall to uncover the truth.

Based on a true story of a Roman legion that disappeared on an expedition through Northern Britain in 117 A.D., it has also just been made into the film The Eagle (in theaters 2/11/11) starring Channing Tatum as Marcus and Jamie Bell as Esca. I've actually seen the film and can say that it is an action packed and faithful adaption of the book.

The novel is part of an interconnected series chronicling the Aquila family through the Roman Empire and into Britain as they inherit an emerald seal ring with a dolphin insignia (in order they are): The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset, Dawn Wind, Sword Song and The Shield Ring. A film similar to the plot of The Lantern Bearers is King Arthur (2004) starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightly (it also happens to be a particular favorite of mine to watch over and over again.)

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

Now if you want a little bit more romance with your history, this novel about a (ex-)gladiator will do the trick. Phaedrus, an enslaved gladiator in 1st century Britain gains his freedom from the arena when he kills his best friend during a fight. With no family or home he spends his newly free life getting drunk until he gets an interesting offer: two men ask him to impersonate their long, lost tribal leader, the young Prince Midir, who was robbed of his kingship 12 years before during a brutal attack by the followers of the ruthless Queen Liadhan. If he succeeds as Midir, Phaedrus will reestablish himself as the King and the tribe's rule of the land. In this world of susperstition, ancient ritual, loyalty and rivalry he just might find what has been missing in his life: love, companionship and a purpose beyond the arena. 

This is my favorite Sutcliff novel. It combines action, history and a great premise: what would it be like to take over someone's life? Phaedrus has always dreamed of a life outside the arena but this new situation could more of a careful what wish for than fulfillment of a dream. Then there's the added danger of what happens if he is caught in his lie, especially by the young woman Midir is supposed to marry and Midir's childhood friend. There is physical and emotional danger around every corner.

There are gladiator movies available, the best being the Russell Crowe film Gladiator (2003) which starts out in Roman Britain and tells the story of a Roman general forced into slavery. There's also the 1960 film Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas and my favorite, the two new Starz series: Spartacus: Blood and Sand (see picture) and Spartacus: Gods of the Arena—all of which recount the story of a gladiator who uses his skills from the arena to take on his Roman masters.

Viking Warrior By Judson Roberts

In book one of the Strongbow Saga, we are introduced to Halfdan, who despite being the son of a Viking chieftain and a captured Celtic princess, is still a slave in his father's village in 9th century Denmark. He spends most days with a bow and arrow hunting down animals in the nearby wood only dreaming of being a warrior. When his father is killed in battle his mother makes a deadly bargain to get him recognized as the chief's son. Halfdan forges his new destiny as a warrior and in doing so he begins learn of glory, honor, brotherhood and the meaning of true evil.

Halfdan is a great character at the beginning of an epic journey that eventually takes him to Frankia (modern day France) where he learns what it means to be a Viking and meets a young noble woman. The author fills the book with his extensive knowledge of 9th century Viking history and culture but the story never seems to slow down because of it. There are two other books in the series that are just as good, if not better: Dragons from the Sea and The Road to Vengenace.

There are no good Viking films but I did enjoy The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas as a disgraced Arab nobleman, during the 10th century, who travels to Scandinavia. There's also Beowulf (2007) and Beowulf and Grendel (2005) both are decent retellings of the epic Norse poem Beowulf about a 6th century Viking warrior who must fight a deadly monster.

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Northlanders

Viking fans should also check out the Northlanders graphic novel series by Brian Wood. It's recommended for mature audiences because of all the swearing, nudity, and bloodshed. It's also a REALLY well-written series. Each volume stands alone as its own unique story, so you don't have to read them in sequence. I just finished Volume 4: The Plague Widow which isn't in our system yet but will be added ASAP ...

Correction

I feel horrible that I spelled Rosemary Sutcliff's name - there is no "e" at the end - Thanks Andrea for pointing it out to me.

Rosemary Sutcliff spelling and more

It was a delight to be alerted to this column referring to Rosemary Sutcliff - I declare an interest as a close family member who had the good fortune to grow up with her in my life. Than you. I was delighted also to find your readers' vigilant about spelling Rosemary Sutcliff without an E. hank you. Mind you, your were originally in 'good' company, as you can see at the rosemarysutcliff.com blog , if you go to the 'Sutcliff not Sutcliffe' category. Fellow culprits include Th Times newspaper and her own publisher at different times!

great for reading to kids, too

I LOVED reading Sutcliff's books to my children when they were about 10 and 12. The Sutcliff books introduce children to good language, extensive vocabulary, excellent story telling and pacing, and also serve to excite their historical imagination. What was it like to live in Britain while Roman rule was in effect? For a parent who is herself interested in historical imagination, Sutcliff's books were so welcome! So nice to see that they are widely appreciated, and thanks for the movie suggestions too.

Ben Kane

You might also draw attention to the excellent novels of Ben Kane?

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