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Rosemary Sutcliff


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
This is a historical novel set in Britain in the fifth century. The Romans have left and Saxons have occupied much of the southern half of the country. The British have just fought their last great battle against the Saxons, close to Aquae Sulis (Bath), in which they have been decisively defeated. One of the few survivors is Owain, a fifteen-year-old boy who was wounded in the arm and struck unconscious, so that he missed most of the fighting. He finds the bodies of his father, a British nobleman, and his brother, and then sets off north for Viroconium (Worcester), where he hopes to rejoin whatever British forces still exist. As he leaves the battlefield he is accompanied by another survivor, a war hound, whom he names simply Dog.

Owain is starving and feverish because of his wound. He and Dog eventually find refuge with a farming couple in the Welsh marches, who nurse Owain back to health. Once recovered he sets out again for Viroconium, but finds it abandoned and already beginning to fall into ruin. He lives there alone for some time, supporting himself by hunting, until he meets a young beggar girl, Regina, who is also hiding amid the ruins, and they join forces.

A band of British marauders captures Regina but Owain rescues her and they start off southwards, with a vague plan of getting across to Gaul. On the journey Regina becomes gravely ill with pneumonia. The pair are forced to ask for help from a Saxon family. They have no need of a new thrall (slave) but a Saxon who is spending the night at the farm says he will pay a gold piece for them to look after Regina if Owain agrees to come with him as his thrall.

So Owain goes south with his new master, not knowing whether Regina will live or die. For the next eleven years he lives with the Saxons, eventually gaining his freedom and fighting in a war between Saxon kingdoms. After many adventures he leaves the farmstead of his former master, who by this time is dead, and sets off on a quest to find Regina.

The book works well both as a story about Owain and his growth to manhood and as a portrayal of the changing relation between the Saxons and the British, who are now established in Wales. The writing is vivid and Sutcliff has a fine ear for dialogue. It is always difficult in historical novels set in a remote period to find the right balance between modern vernacular and fustian, but Sutcliff's touch is sure and this makes it easy to believe in the characters.


%T Dawn Wind
%A Rosemary Sutcliff
%I Oxford University Press
%C London
%D 1861
%P 241pp
%K fiction
%O maps, woodcut illustrations

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