The final Rosemary Sutcliff children’s book Sword Song, a Viking novel, was in handwritten manuscript form on her desk when she died. I recall transcribing it from her elphin-scrawl handwriting at my own desk in our attic. I was pleased that in The Times newspaper, in August 1997, Sarah Johnson called the opening of Sword Song a ‘stunner’: ‘beat that Melvin Burgess!’ she wrote.
She found the story ‘meandering’; but I love that meandering, as it meanders in and out of the Dublin slave market, for example. Johnson strongly disliked Enid Blyton; she urged readers to ‘go for good writing’ like Rosemary’s.
Another of Blyton’s traits I dislike is her laziness. I don’t believe she ever researched anything – unlike her contemporary Rosemary Sutcliff, whose posthumously published Dark Ages saga Sword Song is packed with precisely described Viking sea battles and sacrifices in a linguistic smorgasbord of thongs, thralls and fiery-bearded men.
I was never a Sutcliff fan as a child, tiring too quickly of the sun glinting off the halberds of people with names that sound like Haggis Bogtrotterson, but the opening of Sword Song is a stunner: a 16-year-old boy is exiled from his settlement for the manslaughter of a monk who had kicked his dog. Beat that, Melvin Burgess.
Regrettably, the story quavers thereafter, meandering around the coast of Britain as young Bjarni sells his fighting skills to one fiery-beardy after another, but the dense historical detail and rich colours are all still there.
Source: The Times, August 23, 1997