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The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)

by Rosemary Sutcliff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3531056,628 (4.02)32
Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the now blind displaced King of the Scots, former gladiator and slave Phaedrus impersonates the Horse Lord to regain from the Picts the control of the Scottish kingdom.

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An ex-gladiator in prison for brawling is offered a way out by impersonating the rightful king of the Dalriad, deposed by his aunt.

More high adventure beyond the Roman Wall from Rosemary Sutcliffe. Once again her sense of place and landscape stands out as much as the story and characters. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Jun 27, 2020 |
I read The Mark of the Horse Lord four years ago, and while I did love several aspects of this book, I cannot recommend or even like it because of major content issues. Until now, years later, I have never sought to write a review of it - and though I've always considered writing a review of the content, I've avoided doing so on purpose, because it's a difficult task. But I'm finally reviewing The Mark of the Horse Lord, solely to warn interested readers of the content it contains - especially my friends who will feel the same way as I do about the content and other issues.

Ever since I've read The Mark of the Horse Lord, I've been extremely conflicted about how to feel or think about the book, and what to rate it on Goodreads, and what my opinion should be. The story and characters were wonderful in parts, and I did enjoy the book very much apart from the content. But the content was severe enough to cancel out any enjoyment, as much as I wish I could love the book.

I'm planning to reread this book someday, but I will do so very warily, carefully, and thoughtfully, and at a time when I can handle extreme violence again - I'm too sensitive right now. Perhaps once I reread The Mark of the Horse Lord, I'll be able to better form an opinion on it. I've always been very confused about how many stars I should rate it, and since joining Goodreads a few months after reading the book, I've changed my rating between the full range of available stars, lower and lower as the enjoyable reading experience wore off and the content issues became more obvious and concerning, over the years. I almost cleared my rating when writing this review, but I finally decided to lower my rating to one star. I don't give out one-star ratings often, but I've decided that it's deserving in this case, because the content is so severe - at least for me. I did enjoy the book, but the content cancelled that out, for me personally.

Despite my formerly conflicted opinion, I have no doubt of my opinion on most of the content, and I was definitely not okay with many things the book includes. The content is still clear to me in my mind, and I've finally decided to list it here.

Regardless of what I think overall, I don't recommend The Mark of the Horse Lord to anyone because of content, and I especially don't recommend it to anyone who is avoids any kind of content or is sensitive to it, like I am. It is definitely a young adult or adult book, written for an older audience than most of Rosemary Sutcliff's books - many of which I love unreservedly, unlike this one.

I must note that the reason the content bothers me, in this and other books, is because of my faith. Rosemary Sutcliff did not share my faith, and she was writing from a secular perspective. From the perspective of her worldview, the content wasn't as much of an issue. So I have much less of a problem with her writing it than I would with an author who shared my beliefs. But I still have a problem with reading this sort of content myself. Also, I would argue that the biggest content issue in the book - an event in the last chapter, which I discussed below - is severe and harmful and wrong no matter what the author's and reader's views are.

Another note: I'm writing this review from the perspective of a die-hard Rosemary Sutcliff fan - she's one of my top five favorite authors. I love her juvenile fiction and young adult books, and I've read 20 of her works so far. (However, as my reaction to this book shows, it's harder for me to enjoy her books for older readers, and I may not read another because of content.) Miss Sutcliff is tied for the honor of my favorite historical fiction author, and I respect her very much and love her writing. So I'm objecting to this book as someone who enjoys her works, not criticizing her as a non-fan. The fact that I am a fan of her works is all the more reason why I'm disappointed with this one. If I merely disliked the book on its own, without being familiar with the author, it wouldn't matter to me so much.

One more important note: It's been a while since I read The Mark of the Horse Lord , and I'm writing this solely from memory. I don't have a copy of the book on hand to refer to. However, a lot of the instances of content remain vivid in my mind, even if at least one is a bit vague after almost four years. I'm sure there are definitely smaller instances of content that I've failed to remember entirely, but I'm fairly confident that I've managed to cover all the severe and huge ones. Some of the content that I listed did not bother me, but I included it because it may bother other people. I've left out more minor instances of content intentionally. In this review, I seek to cover only the most important things. It's an incomplete summary of select content, and only the most concerning content is included.

I will say that the sexual content and romance was very clean and chaste, for the most part - nothing inappropriate. I actually enjoyed the romantic relationship in Mark of the Horse Lord more than anything else in the book. However, it's a young adult book, and there is a kiss or two, and some other mild things I'll mention below.

But I was pretty horrified and concerned, or in some cases just disappointed, by some of the other content the book contains. There are MAJOR SPOILERS involved in sharing and reading these warnings. I've marked the biggest ones in spoiler tags, below. Read at your own risk, still - but if you care about content, it's better to know these things than to go in blind, without spoilers. I always appreciate being informed beforehand with things like this, rather than read a book without knowing what's in it. It's impossible to know what content a book contains unless someone says so, but it's very important for sensitive readers to be informed.


Content Summary:

- The protagonist begins the book as a slave and a gladiator. The first chapter or two is about how he wins his freedom by winning a fight to the death in the arena. It's a duel against his best friend, and he is forced to kill his best friend. It was pretty horrifying, especially because of that spoiler. I don't recall how graphic the description was, but it was very, very violent, and as with the rest of the book, there was description of blood and killing.

- The protagonist is required to enter into an arranged marriage. I actually liked this part of the book, and I had no problem with it content-wise. The author handled the romance and the relationship in a very clean, chaste, subtle and sensitive way, and I never felt like she implied things I didn't want to know about. There was at least one brief, barely described kiss between a married couple. I remember one clearly, but I don't remember if there was another, very occasional kiss or two - if there was, it only happened a couple of times. Of course it's heartbreaking to me that the characters were forced into an unwanted arranged marriage - especially the girl, who feared it and was unwilling, but was forced into it for political reasons. And the fact that she would have been forced into marriage with someone else, if that hadn't happened, is sad too. But I liked that although the main couple started out fearing, mistrusting, and almost hating each other, they came to love and understand each other, and to have a healthy, loving, caring, and supportive marriage built on mutual love and trust. However, it's very, very subtly implied that after the main couple comes to a better understanding of each other, and comes to love each other, they have consummated their marriage and begun to act like husband and wife, whether or not they did before. As far as I remember, it is impossible to figure out whether or not they've consummated their marriage before that point, and I've always assumed they didn't, until then, based on what I read. The most we ever see is that the girl lies down next the male protagonist when he is wounded - but nothing happens there, and they're fully clothed, etc. Also, the wife becomes pregnant later in the book. The husband doesn't know what's wrong, at first, when he finds her throwing up. Again, unlike the other things I'm listing here, I had no problem with any of this content-wise, as an adult reader in my very late teens - though I'd feel differently with a younger teenager. There was no objectionable or inappropriate sexual or romantic content involved in any of this.

- What I did have an issue with was the fact that the main character forcibly kissed the girl without permission, on the day of their wedding. (It was a Celtic wedding, with no kiss in the ceremony.) She kissed him back, and it's implied that means she was probably attracted to him too, but I still had a big problem with it, cause she obviously wouldn't have wanted him to kiss her, based on the context of the surrounding events and their relationship. Kissing him in return didn't justify it, in my mind. On a related note, the protagonist is shown flirting with a barmaid (or some such girl) early in the book. I don't remember how she responded. I can't remember if he kissed her without asking, or not, and if so, this was the only instance of a kiss between an unmarried man and woman. But whether or not there was, it was the same spirit - from what I remember, the interaction was to show that he was the type of guy who would flirt with a girl even if she didn't like it. I won't go into details, but my big takeaway from this aspect of the book was that the protagonist had a terrible view of women and didn't respect them enough, especially at first. That's not all right, and it bothered me greatly. I did not like this aspect of his character, even if it fit with who he was as a person, with both good and bad qualities. But I was very glad that that was only true of him at the beginning of the book, before he underwent a lot of growth and change.

- The protagonist is the offspring of an illegitimate relationship. His father was the owner of his mother, a slave, and the protagonist was also a slave. After his father's death, he was sold into the arena to be a gladiator and fight to the death. He's understandably bitter about all this, and bitter toward his father. This may bother some readers, though I didn't have a huge problem with it, at least since it wasn't prominent. It was mentioned, but only briefly.

- The sidekick character (the third most important one, after the main couple), a young man whom the protagonist becomes best friends with, is probably gay. It's very subtly implied based on the somewhat flamboyant way he acts and dresses, and nothing is ever stated or conclusive - but I felt like I was correct in assuming that without being told. I actually didn't have too much of a problem with this, but I know some readers will. Most readers will not have a problem with this at all, and will see it as a positive thing, and others won't notice it at all - but I'm just seeking to objectively inform those who are interested. I actually really loved, liked, enjoyed, and cared about this character, regardless of that. Also, another character who was close to this character may have been gay as well, though it was impossible to tell. I just suspected based on the barest hints that they were a couple at one point. It's very subtle, and impossible to know for sure - much less obvious even than the first character being gay. The context of their lives and experiences also made sense with that assumption.

- The single biggest content issue in the book: The protagonist ***giant spoiler*** commits suicide on the last page of the book. This was portrayed as an honorable, glorious, thing, with a justified purpose, since he was sacrificing himself to save his people. It evoked a lot of emotion in me as the reader, since it was powerfully written, and since I had come to care about the main character so much. This event was doubly alarming to me because of the way it was portrayed - as a good and honorable thing - and because the way it was written made me feel that it was, even though at the same time, I knew that, according to my beliefs, the opposite was true. I personally do not believe this action is ever morally justified, though I also do not think it's unforgivable - but nothing is. This was my single biggest issue with the book. It was very, very concerning to me. I do not believe this should ever be glorified or portrayed in a positive light. It's a horrible thing. No matter who the reader is, or what their beliefs are, it's harmful for every person to read about. As much as I respect Sutcliff, I cannot agree with her choice to write about this issue in this way. I don't think it's justified even for a secular author. This action is never, ever okay, for a character and in real life. It's not just fiction, and it's extremely harmful. And portraying it in fiction as a positive thing is dangerous.

- Pagan Celtic/Druidic beliefs, religion, and practices are referenced and portrayed, such as detailed portrayal of rituals and sacrifices. I won't discuss all of them, and this is one thing for which I don't remember all the details. But it's important to mention, because certain readers are sensitive to this and affected by it.

- There was one major instance of content with regard to the previous point. A very violent sacrifice took place in a ritual ceremony of the book. It involved killing a horse in a very violent and bloody way. As part of the same ceremony, there was a duel to the death between two people. I don't remember the details, but I do remember that this duel and the resulting death was basically a ritual human sacrifice............ I'll leave it at that. Unlike the other major instances of content, this one is very hazy in my memory, instead of clear. I only remember that it took place, and that it was bothersome to me in both inclusion of extreme violence and in the pagan religious/spiritual content.

- Another one that didn't bother me too much, but might bother other readers - it's subtly implied that several young adult main characters were abused their entire lives by the female villain - who is very evil and frightening, for this reason above all others. The abused main characters were this villain's daughter and two nephews. Abuse is normally a trigger topic for me, but I was mostly fine with it in this book. The author handled it subtly and sensitively, even though it was still alarming and uncomfortable.

- This is a very, very violent book. Battles, blood, death, and killing are described and sometimes graphic. I won't go into all the violence, but let that suffice. If you're sensitive to extreme violence, I strongly recommend you don't read this book. (The violence is about on level another of Sutcliff's books, Frontier Wolf, even though this one is much worse with regard to other content. Both books are much, much more violent than Sutcliff's other Roman Britain books.)

- The language was too mild and insignificant to mention or remember, but it was about the same as Sutcliff's other books. Even though I don't remember details for this specific book, I can be very sure that the characters swear by gods or other things and spiritual figures of their respective pagan religions. This is typical of Sutcliff's pagan characters. There's usually no swearing equivalent to modern swear words.


Again, The Mark of the Horse Lord has a lot of content that will be concerning to readers who care about that sort of thing. I cannot recommend it to anyone, and especially not to those who are affected by any kind of content. Unless this content doesn't bother you at all, I would warn you away from reading this book. I definitely caution anyone who is below adult age - though it may be okay for some mature older teens, depending on what they're used to. For reference, I have not yet given it to my youngest brother, who is in high school, and I would not be comfortable allowing him to read it, since he's not very mature. I'll probably give it to him when he graduates high school, but not before - since I'll no longer have the task of protecting him from content at that point, even if I wish to. However, most families aren't as careful about content as mine is, and that's fine. I read this book shortly after I turned 18, and I don't regret it - but I was still concerned by the content.

If you're looking for a Roman Britain book or a Rosemary Sutcliff book without this level of content, I recommend reading Eagle of the Ninth and several of its sequels. Eagle of the Ninth, , The Shield Ring, and most of the other Dolphin Ring series sequels are much cleaner, apart from mild violence, and suitable for a teenage audience as well as for adults. Frontier Wolf is shockingly violent, graphic, and bloody, but has no other content. However, another Sutcliff book that I absolutely cannot recommend, that I warn people away from, and that I will never read myself - because of content even worse in some ways than Mark of the Horse Lord - is Sword at Sunset.

One last note - I did not set out to review the story, characters, themes, etc. of Mark of the Horse Lord. These aspects of the book were usually very good and well-written - though sometimes problematic - and I enjoyed them, for the most part. However, as I touched on above, some of the events, characters, and themes were concerning to me, and could be harmful for some readers, in addition to the content above. I will warn that there were issues with the themes and some other things that I didn't discuss above, except in some cases that I went into very briefly.

Though I've avoided reviewing The Mark of the Horse Lord for a long time, I've decided it's important to make this content information available to individuals who need to know, including my friends. That's my sole purpose in writing this review. I hope this review will be helpful for people who are seeking content information about The Mark of the Horse Lord. ( )
  Aerelien | Mar 23, 2020 |
More on the Celtic than the Roman side of the Romano-British books of Rosmary Sutcliff, this is the best of them that I have read this year, with a strong moving core that pushes pass the co-incidence of appearance that involves Phaedrus with the Dalriadains, to create a cohesive and telling narrative. There is a really great chariot battle scene! ( )
1 vote quondame | Sep 12, 2019 |
jeugdsentiment! ( )
1 vote kathelijne | Mar 19, 2018 |
Rosemary Sutcliff is at the top of her form, in this story of adventure on the northern frontier of the Roman empire in the fourth century. An interesting story of Romans trying to substitute one of their own for a chieftain of the Scotti, there's betrayal, and noble self sacrifice. Even adults find this one interesting. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Jun 15, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rosemary Sutcliffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Keeping, CharlesIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wolf, RuthTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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.
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Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the now blind displaced King of the Scots, former gladiator and slave Phaedrus impersonates the Horse Lord to regain from the Picts the control of the Scottish kingdom.

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Phaedrus is a Roman gladiator who has won his freedom. By chance, he is also the exact double of Midir, the Horse Lord, lost King of the Dalriad tribe. To rid the Dalriads of the usurping Queen Liadhan, Phaedrus agrees to a daring pretence -- he will impersonate Midir and become the Horse Lord.
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