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Mar 2009
Black Ships before Troy - Rosemary Sutcliffe, illus. Alan Lee - Francis Lincoln, 2000
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I put this one on my Amazon wish-list because it was a Rosemary Sutcliffe that was new to me. I was expecting an authoritative re-telling of the Homeric epic in Sutcliffe's wonderfully vivid prose - what I hadn't spotted was that it is in fact a "childrens'" book with illustrations by Alan Lee, the well-known Tolkien illustrator and one of the art directors of the Lord of the Rings movies. Fortunately Sutcliffe is far too good a writer to dumb down for children, and Lee's illustrations perfectly complement the story with their rich evocation of the ancient Greek world. The result is a minor classic and the best version of the Iliad that you are ever likely to read.
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Feb 2008
Lady in Waiting - Rosemary Sutcliffe - Heywood Books, 1989
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Quick, name all the things you can remember about Sir Walter Raleigh (without clicking the link). If your knowledge of history is as patchy as mine your list will probably be something along the lines of: favourite of Queen Elizabeth, explorer who went to America, introduced tobacco and potatoes to England, curried favour by laying his cloak over a puddle. Which only goes to show the power of myth over reality, for none of them is strictly true. Yes, he was a favourite of the Queen, but also earned her ire by marrying her lady-in-waiting Bess Throckmorton which led to his imprisonment and exile for five years. When he was in favour, the Queen refused to let him go on any expeditions, and those that he did succeed in arranging, like the colony on Roanoke Island and the quest for El Dorado, were failures (he also never set foot on the American mainland). He probably made smoking popular at court, but both the potato and tobacco were already known in England through trade with the Spanish. And the cloak story is probably a myth, invented by Thomas Fuller and popularised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Kenilworth (this is disputed and a cloak does feature in Raleigh's coat of arms, though in my view it could just as easily signify his love of travel). Rosemary Sutcliffe, one of our best historical novelists, was clearly aware of the myths, which is why none of them appear in this book.
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