YA/Adult Historical Fiction; originally published 1980
Premise: Twenty-three year old Alexios failed his last command miserably, but he’s determined to prove himself when he’s given a second chance: a new post commanding the feisty legionnaires on the edge of the Roman Empire—the men known as “The Frontier Wolves.”
About: Apparently Rosemary Sutcliff is quite famous in Britain for her legions (hah, pun intended) of fiction about Roman Britain. This particular book was recently re-marketed as YA fiction (in 2008), but it could also be really appealing to adults. I think Sutcliff actually wrote it as adult historical fiction that also appealed to youth. But Alexios’s age—and the lack of sexual content—make it appropriate to young adults and even children who are good readers.
My Thoughts and Feels: One Goodreads reviewer mentioned “understatement” as one of Sutcliff’s best tools in this book, and I agree, especially in relation to the characters. Compared to the flawed, loud and lovable characters of much modern fiction, these characters seem simple and quiet. There’s nothing particularly special about them—they are understated. But when they fight, you cheer; and when they die, you ache. Alexios is a good, old-fashioned hero. He accepts his mistakes, learns and pushes on until he overcomes his next challenge, and his next, and his next. I love his character. As a whole, the others fade into the background, usually with one or two telling characteristics to tell them apart.
Usually, when I’m unimpressed with the cast of characters, I knock a star or two off the rating. But I’m going to go unprecedented with this book and give it five stars anyhow, because the setting was enough of a character to keep me enthralled. I absolutely fell in love with AD 300s Britain.
Also surprising is the very slow plot in this book. I forget exactly where the plot actually began, but it was somewhere near the halfway point. Thankfully, the commander had enough work at the fort that I hardly noticed the plot lack until later. (It reminded me a lot of Lady Knight Keladry’s command at Fort Haven, in the Protector of the Small Quartet by Tamora Pierce.) So I decided not to take off a star.
Overall: So there you have it: a book that manages, with little to no character development and a plot lag of epic proportions, to five-star impress me. Just a good, old-fashioned hero on a good, old-fashioned quest (of sorts). No girls, no dramatics, no contrivances, no voice, no modernism, no head-games or trickery. Just Alexios, his honest mistakes and his hard-earned successes.
I already checked out another Sutcliff book that turned out to be a part of the same series. I didn’t know that Frontier Wolf was part of a series, even after I finished it, because it flowed so nicely as a standalone. But I’m definitely going to read more. And I have my eye on another of her adult fiction titles as well…
Recommended: Yes, absolutely! To fans of historical fiction and British history that isn’t epic or boring. I would also recommend this to parents who want to get their teens interested in historical fiction.