What do readers think is the best book by Rosemary Sutcliff, and why

Collecting views about Rosemary Sutcliff’s (1920-92) best book of all her historical fiction, and children’s and young adult literature.

I am trying to collect here in the comments (and via Twitter @rsutcliff) people’s views about which is Rosemary Sutcliff’s best book, and why….

List of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

19 thoughts on “What do readers think is the best book by Rosemary Sutcliff, and why”

  1. My favourite is Warrior Scarlet. I absolutely love it. You want Drem to do so well, and he does seem to be, but you also want him to be good to the girl who clearly feels for him, but he is so rotten to. Then, he fails. All seems lost and there really does seem to be no way back for Drem. The book filled me with emotion, made me care for the characters in a way many books don’t. I have bought this book for relations as I felt they needed these feeling too. Wonderful!


  2. Rosemary Sutcliff is such a great, magical writer that it’s difficult to pick one book out but the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy is still my favourite. I have read and reread it many times and love it.


  3. This is a bit like the questions in the old Victorian “confession books”; what is your favorite flower? After the rose of course…?
    For while all the books mentioned above are glorious, what is more “Sutcliff” than the Eagle of the Ninth? Somehow it goes beyond liking – if you have read it, it is, and it is part of you. And it contains all of those features which make up the ‘sum of parts’ that are an RS novel, plus the indefinable minstrel’s magic that makes it all alive. The hero, set apart from his peers both by his injury and his past; the landscape and the seasons as living entities in themselves; the friendship; the adventure; the scenes of slow tension and thrilling escape; the flashes of both humour and horror; the sense and quest for justice and fairness; the clash of two worlds and the places where the distance narrows to nothing between them; the relationship between man and dog, and to a lesser degree, man and horse [“Do you call those mossy objects ponies?”]; the slow romance; the understanding of a military world; the hopeful, ‘song of new beginnings’ ending; and Devon. Of course, Devon.
    And so, my two personal favorites are the two Civil War books – after the Eagle, of course…!


    1. Helen states very well how much she loves the Eagle and I can recall my delight at finding a copy with dust cover at an auction during my late twenties when I needed an old friend. So, congrats on your discerning summary. The Mark of the Horse Lord and Warrior Scarlet are very close seconds in my love.


    2. Wow, Helen, how excellently put! I can’t disagree with anything you said, it is perhaps her greatest work and has everything which makes her writing her writing. Definitely on of my favorites and I have spent many hours getting to know Marcus, Esca, and Cottia.


  4. “The Mark of the Horse Lord” – Sutcliff is at the height of her powers in this magnificent and moving expression of her favourite themes – the land as a potent entity in its own right, discovery of the self and one’s place in the world, love and comradeship, the struggle to maintain the light in dark times, and freely-given sacrifice for the greater good. This story lifts the hair at the back of my neck every time I read it.


  5. I would have to say The Shield Ring as well. The first book I read of hers was a picture book, The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup. The Shield Ring was my introduction to the type of story I wanted to write, and I read it fairly young, before I was 11. It has shaped the stories I write, the stories I want to read, and the story I want to live.


    1. I have fond memories of the writing of TMDP: Rosemary read the final manuscript to my son sat at her feet in her study…..he is now a story-teller in his own right, in music and theatre.


  6. One of Rosemary Sutcliff’s particular gifts is how good she is on the ways horses and dogs link humans to the natural world. Also, how some men find it easier to show tenderness through the medium of their animal companions. ( A fellow in my late father’s unit in post VE Day France adopted a stray dog as a way of preserving some of his sensibilities.) That said, I do have love for THe Mark of the Horse Lord and Warrior Scarlet for their focus on the isolation of those different from their society and the struggle to make a place of acceptance.


    1. Her own father might be a case in point – Uncle George as I knew him. Although it may not have always been that some men “found it easier” so much as society allowed them to?


  7. I have a real fondness for The Lantern Bearers – when I first read it, I was quite disturbed by how dark and unhappy Aquila’s story was, but when I reread it a few years later, I appreciated it so much – Aquila’s character growth, his emotions and actions seemed so realistic. I think maybe that was why I didn’t like it when I was younger, because it was uncomfortable in a way that eschewed traditional happy endings.

    Song For A Dark Queen as well – I simply love that, for the prose and the unflinching layered character portraits, and especially the portrayal of Boudicca as a nuanced, very dark, and yet very human and very female character.

    Also Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy – those are the versions of the stories that I accept as the default, true ones. The prose is beautiful and compelling, and the knights are so varied and colourful; so much more than the bland “do it for honour and glory” cutouts that one often sees. Gawain, especially, in that regard.

    I should stop or I’ll go on forever, but also The Witch’s Brat, just because.


  8. For me, it’s Knight’s Fee. The clash of cultures and the tugs of different loyalties, plus it’s a period that fascinates me. But there are many others that run it very close!

    I’m interested to see that you list Lady in Waiting as for children or young adults, but The Rider of the White Horse as adult. Was this Sutcliff’s own designation? I have always thought of them both as adult, but this may be simply because I first read them at about the same time.


  9. Best book is a relative term, but when I think of overall best Sutcliff book for me it has to be Sword at Sunset. There are a lot of Arthurian novels out there, and a lot of myth-like stories, but Sword at Sunset has become ‘the way it was’ for me, right from my first reading. It’s tied into what little history is known of that era, it ties in bits of the early myth, even bits of the Courtly Love stuff which I largely reject as representing the tropes of that time. It carries Sutcliff’s long look at the underdog, the disadvantaged, growth through pain, recovery through human connection that are themes of most of her books. It is satisfying on every level, and it fits into the Dolphin Ring cycle to boot.


  10. The Shield Ring! This book is my favorite book ever. I think that is largely because it is the first Sutcliff book I ever read and so I became attached to the characters and it was the first time I had been exposed to the deep emotional palette that is Sutcliff. My other favorites are Frontier Wolf, Eagle of the Ninth, and Shining Company, for their deep emotional paintings and exciting stories. What an author!


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