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Thursday, September 15, 2011

cover of 'Mark of the Horse Lord'

Red Phaedrus the gladiator was born a slave and unacknowledged bastard son of a Roman merchant in the household, son of a northern slave woman; when his owner died he was sold, and then sold again to be a gladiator. Phaedrus survives four years as a gladiator (no small feat), and when Governor Sylvanus Varus celebrates his appointment in Corstopitum with an elaborate four days of games, Phaedrus draws the lot of dueling to the death with his one friend among the group. He nearly loses, but when he survives he wins his freedom-- which, it turns out, he doesn't really know what to do with. Fortunately (or, perhaps unfortunately), his red hair and northern face catches the eye of a merchant who has a particular use for him.

Phaedrus decides to go along with their plan-- which is that he should impersonate the exiled Prince Midir (who he looks very like) and return with them to reclaim the throne from the usurper, Queen Liadhan, a cruel ruler who "made sure" of the young Prince Midir when she took control-- not by killing him, but by blinding him, because a blind man cannot be a Horse Lord. Phaedrus accepts because he feels he has nothing better to do, and he misses the purpose and solidarity of being among the gladiators, so he feels he can be useful-- even though it may be difficult. Phaedrus receives the forehead tattoos and other marks that Midir has (the titular mark), and he spends weeks learning everything he can from Midir about his past and the people he will meet, whom he must recognize and remember if he is to convince them.

At first, Phaedrus makes a few mistakes and it seems like he will almost be caught out-- and there is a tense moment when he first meets Conory, Midir's closest childhood friend. But after facing off against Liadhan, and starting the battle skirmishes in earnest, Phaedrus grows more and more into the role he has been thrust into-- until, at the very end, he becomes the Horse Lord that his people need him to be.

The book seemed a little slow going for a quite a while to me; in fact, I think it wasn't until an interesting female character showed up-- Murna, Liadhan's daughter, whom he must marry to solidify his claim to the throne. They have a rather interesting courtship, and he doesn't know for quite a while that she and Midir had a bit of history, when she was much younger than Midir and he callously killed a pet otter that she loved.

At one point, Conory takes Phaedrus aside and basically tells him that he knows he is not Midir, but that it's okay-- and his expression of how he knew is wonderful; he tells Phaedrus that "the balance of the sword was off," but that only someone very close to the real Midir could recognize it. Also, the moment between Murna and Phaedrus when he finally finds out ("remembers") what he (Midir) had done to her, and takes the blame, and apologizes for it-- she seems to understand that this is a different man that the cold-hearted youth who killed an innocent pet for spite, and hints at this without outright saying it by calling him "my gladiator" instead of by his false name.

This was a very interesting read, and I found myself transported to another place and time-- and one that was fascinating. I will probably keep an eye out for more Rosemary Sutcliff books in the future.

Title:The Mark of the Horse Lord
Author:Rosemary Sutcliff
Date published:1965
Genre:Historical Fiction
Number of pages:245
Notes:loan from Catey


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