Friday, February 21, 2014

Rosemary Sutcliffe. Blood Feud (1976)

     Rosemary Sutcliffe. Blood Feud (1976) Sutcliffe has made a name for herself as writer of juvenile historical fiction, but the only concession to the target age group is the absence of “adult content.” Otherwise, the history is accurate, which means bloody and brutal. She does soften the brutality a bit, and uses the usual tropes of male banding etc, but her stories ring true.
     Jensyn Englishman is recalling how he came to be a physician in Constantinople. He was bought as thrall by Thormod, a Viking. He helps his master fight off would-be assassins, is freed, and they become blood-brothers. They set out on a journey to Constantinople (as it would become) in pursuit of two brothers who have killed Thormod’s father after he has mistakenly killed theirs. They join the army led by Emperor Basil against the Bulgars, and then become members of the newly-formed Varangian Guard. More fighting leads to Thormod’s death at the hands of Anders, the younger brother, which makes the blood feud personal for Jensyn. But he has been wounded, and is turned out to fend for himself. Earlier, he had saved a girl, Alexia, from one of Basil’s cheetahs that had escaped from its handlers during a hunt. He also rescued a nearly-born fawn by performing a Caesarian section on the dying mother, Alexia’s pet. He goes to the farm to ask for a job (he was a good cattleman as youngster), and eventually meets Alexia’s father, a physician. That leads to his becoming a healer. When Anders arrives seeking help, Jensyn tries to heal him, but fails: a wound given Anders by Thormod much earlier has festered within him for years, and finally kills him. (The symbolism is plain to an adult reader, but may slip by a younger one.) The blood feud is finished. Jensyn can rest easy; the shadow of the blood feud no longer darkens his life, and he can marry Alexia and inherit her father’s practice.
     Character and plot are simple, as you can see, so what makes Sutcliffe’s book compelling? It’s in part the language: she uses archaic Anglo-Saxon words, and makes up a few of her own in the Anglo-Saxon manner. The sentences are simple, and often have a subtle rhythm that recalls Anglo-Saxon verse. But it’s also the virtues valued by the characters. They have simple notions of honour, loyalty, courage, and fate, which makes their actions easily understood. There’s enough detail in the physical action to satisfy the young male without encouraging the thirst for gore. Drinking, rough jokes, work, and pride in good workmanship round out the image of the ideal man that informs the story. Wrapped in this well-told tale of friendship, courage, and loyalty is the notion that physical courage and fighting skill aren’t enough to make a man a man: honour, understood as the virtues that inform his choices, completes him. *** (2011)

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