I borrowed Sword at Sunset from my local library in my youth and thought it wonderful. Many years later I found it in paperback and settled down with much anticipation to read it. I put it down after half a chapter, unable to read further because of the densely packed lines, poor paper and blurry print. It was a sore disappointment.
This was for a different reason. I was overwhelmed by the artistry and mastery of the writing. I was caught and entranced, swept into a lost time and a tale which would take me beyond myself and my world.
In that first chapter I knew I was in the company of a man with many strengths and many failings. His destiny would forge him into a hero, a shining beacon for his people. He would lead a doomed dream of defiance and hopeless hope. I gulped and started to read the rest of the book. I could barely put it down.
Rosemary Sutcliff has rewritten the epic of Arthur for the modern age. She chose to place the novel in a time when a character such as Arthur may have lived, the century after the Romans left Britain when the scent and semblance of their power still lingered in towns and palaces and in the hearts and minds of a few.
Artos, the protagonist of Sword at Sunset, was one of the men who held fast to the dream of Rome.
Taking the novel out of the fanciful medieval setting enabled Sutcliff to bridge the gap between the man and the hero. She was able to blend the epic with an intimately personal novel about a man whose dedication to a noble cause could only come at a terrible personal price.
The plot of the novel is superb, the characters fascinating and beautifully realised. I don’t know how she was able to pack so much punch into every line. Her descriptions of the country are wonderful, her insights into the hearts and minds of her characters humane and clear-sighted. She maintains a light but firm grip on a lengthy narrative which spans twenty years and a thousand miles. Her descriptions of love, friendship and the terrors of battle are breathtaking.
I know of no other novel which captivates me so much that I believe I am walking in the world it describes. It is a masterpiece.